Australia celebrates bicentenary of William Buckley

THE story of William Buckley is stranger than fiction. At 6ft 5ins (or 6ft 7ins, according to some records) he was a giant in his time, a one-time soldier, an escaped convict and a man who remarkably wrote his name in the history of colonial Australia.

William Buckley was born in Marton, near Macclesfield in 1780, to Eliza Buckley and was brought up by her parents John and Mary Buckley. He trained as a bricklayer and then joined the King’s Own Regiment of Foot, serving in Holland, but by the turn of the century he was in trouble...big trouble.

Legend has it that he began associating with men of bad character and as a result was tried at Chatham, accused of attempting to murder the Duke of Kent, though he himself always claimed that he stood trial for receiving stolen goods.

Whatever the truth, he was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years, though his incarceration in the colony was short-lived. In 1803, he escaped, with three other convicts, from Sorrento, Victoria. In a desperate attempt to reach Sydney they spent days wandering the Bush, in a circle around the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra River.

Buckley’s companions decided to give themselves up and return to a certain flogging, rather than remain at liberty without food and destined for certain death.

Buckley, however, pressed on...without weapons, food or water.

Eventually he was discovered by the Wathaurong natives and the ‘Wild White Man’ incredibly spent the next thirty-two years wandering extensively throughout the region, living much of the time with the local Aborigines. Most of his years on the run were spent around what is now Geelong, through the Otaway Ranges and along the coast.

It was an amazing story of cunning, bravery, endurance and survival, but it all came to an end in 1835.
As the land rush became a deluge, the aborigines were being swept aside and to avert bloodshed with the settlers, Buckley gave himself up, to try and broker a peace with those who came to be the founders of Melbourne.

It didn’t work and although King William IV granted him a pardon, the aborigine nation was doomed. In total, it crashed from a population of 15,000 in 1835 (the year Buckley turned himself in) to 850 by 1880, and within fifty years there was no full-blood Wathaurog people left.

With his free pardon in his pocket, Buckley acted as an interpreter between the founders and the settlers, but with acrimony and mis-trust on both sides he departed for Tasmania in 1837.

Here, with journalist John Morgan, he co-wrote ‘The Life and Adventures of William Buckley’and eventually received a pension of £30 per annum from the state government, for services rendered in the colony of Victoria.
He died on January 30th, 1856, aged seventy-six, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Hobart.

His extraordinary story, the stuff of legend, has never been forgotten in Australia, especially around Melbourne and Geelong, and in folklore Cheshire’s William Buckley ranks not far below the infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly.
Some places around the Geelong region carry his name, including Buckley Falls, on the Barawon River and a small settlement about 30km out of Geelong.

They even have a saying in Australia associated with Buckley, rather like our own Hobson’s choice: ‘You have two chances, Buckley’s or none!’

Now, to mark the bi-centenary of his escape and his remarkable life amongst the aborigines, a series of activities is being planned to take place during December 2003 and January 2004. The main celebration will be on January 26th, Australia Day, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is planning a major documentary. In addition, the Victoria state govenment has agreed to finance an extension of the ‘Buckley Trail’, a popular tourist attraction, which currently includes six sites.

There is also a Friends of William Buckley society and Suzy Keys who has been instrumental in helping preserve and develop the legend in Australia, says: ‘The story of the Wild White Man ranks among the great survivor tales of all time. William Buckley deserves to be given his rightful place in history.’

For more information on William Buckley and the Australian celebrations, visit:

Editor’s Note: It would be fascinating to discover if any descendants of William Buckley’s family survive in the Macclesfield area, or perhaps someone out there can tell us more about his young life and, intriguingly, whether he was associated with those who tried to murder the Duke of Kent?