At two o'clock on Sunday afternoon the 6th July 1835, William Buckley walked into the camp site set up by John Batman's men on Indented Head at the mouth of Port Phillip Bay. Buckley was a large man, estimated to be about 6 feet 7 inches tall and was at the time clothed in animal skins. Though he could speak fluently in the language of the natives he had trouble at first remembering how to speak in English.
This event was recorded by an Irishman named Andrew (or William) Todd who went on to tell how Buckley was welcomed by the surprised campers and given clothing and food. After dinner it was learned that Buckley had been living with natives in that area for 32 years after having escaped from the settlement at Sorrento.
According to Rev. Robert Knopwood's journal six convicts escaped from Sorrento on the evening of 27 December 1803. The settlement was in the process of closing down at the time, "HMS Calcutta" had already sailed for Port Jackson in New South Wales and the "Ocean" was preparing to sail for Van Diemen's Land. The escaping convicts cut loose a boat from the "Ocean" and succeed in getting to shore where two were recaptured, one of whom (Charles Shaw) was shot and seriously wounded.
Their first intention was to head north to Sydney so they followed the bay to the mouth of the Yarra River where their scarce provisions ran out. They then tried heading inland for a way but before long the party separated. One of them (Daniel M'Allender) headed back to Sorrento and arrived in time to be taken on board the "Ocean." Buckley decided to return to the beach alone and continued to follow the bay round to the opposite head in the hope of seeing and signalling to the "Ocean," but by this time it had left.
Suffering much from hunger and thirst he was fortunate to find some friendly natives who fed and cared for him. After a month or two he left this group and headed inland where, not far from the Barwon River and in a state of exhaustion, he was found by some native women of the Wathaurung tribe who were gathering gum from mimosa trees. These women fetched their menfolk who led Buckley to their hut. Here he was given food and water. Much fuss was made by the natives over Buckley whom they believed to be a resurrected native chief.
After about six months Buckley says he met up with one of the other convicts who had escaped with him and who had been living with another group of natives. He joined Buckley's group for a time but his behaviour caused concern for the safety of both of them to the point where Buckley asked him to leave. He was thought to have later been killed by the natives.
Over time Buckley learned the language and customs of his hosts whilst remaining careful not to get involved in any controversies or disputes. He was treated with much affection by them and given an honoured place in their camp. During any fights with other groups he would be armed with a spear but would be concealed in bushes and would not take part. In doing this, even if discovered by the opposing parties, he was not attacked.
During his time with the natives a number of opportunities arose for him to be reunited with European settlers but he doubted if he would be accepted back and be able to make the transition. Before meeting with Batman's men he gave the matter a lot of thought and even then it was largely in order to warn them of a possible attack that he decided to enter their camp.
John Helder Wedge met Buckley and learned of his story at Indented Head. This led to him writing to Governor Arthur in Van Diemen's Land on 9 August 1835 to request a pardon for him. Governor Arthur, recognising that Buckley could play a significant role in maintaining friendly relations with the natives in the new settlement, granted a pardon. On hearing news of this Buckley is said to have been 'most deeply effected.'
On 15 September 1835, after several weeks at the camp on Indented Head, Buckley sailed for the site of Melbourne on board the "Mary Ann." For a time Buckley was employed by John Batman during which period he utilised his skill as a bricklayer to build a chimney for Batman's house on the banks of the Yarra River.
On the morning of 1 February 1836, the newly arrived Joseph Tice Gellibrand emerged from his hut to be welcomed by William Buckley and a parade of over a hundred natives. Gellibrand later appointed Buckley the Port Phillip Association's 'Superintendent of Native Tribes.' George Langhorne later wanted to employ him as an interpreter at his mission station on the Yarra River but Buckley declined. As the natives in the Melbourne area had been at war with the natives he had been with in the Geelong area, he feared for his safety.
On 5 March 1837 Buckley and a group of natives joined a detachment of the 4th or 'King’s Own' Regiment in their red uniforms in welcoming Governor Bourke on his visit to the new settlement. Buckley later spent time in the Geelong district working as an interpreter under Captain Foster Fyans.
Buckley sailed for Van Diemen's Land on 28 December 1837 on the "Yarra Yarra," landing at Hobart on 10 January 1838. He was soon after appointed as assistant store-keeper of the Hobart Town Immigrants' Home until its closure. He was then appointed gatekeeper of the Female Nursery. After ten years in this position he retired on a pension and eventually died in early 1856 at the age of 76 years.
He had married on 27 January 1840 at St. John's Church of England, New Town, Hobart, V.D.L. to Julia Eagers, the widow of an immigrant who had been killed by natives near the Murray River while overlanding from Sydney to Melbourne.
Of his early life little is known for sure as different reports vary on details. He is said to have been born about 1780 at Marton, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, and been raised largely by his maternal grandfather. In his teens he was apprenticed as a bricklayer to Robert Wyatt. He later joined the 2nd Cheshire Militia and then the 4th (The King's Own) Regiment of Foot at Horsham Barracks. He saw action against the French Republican forces in Flanders which resulted in an injury to his right hand.
After returning to England he became associated with several men of bad character in the Regiment who gradually led him into criminal activities. He was apprehended and tried at the Sussex Assizes at Lewes where he was convicted on 2 August 1802 of stealing cloth. Though initially sentenced to death, this was apparently commuted to transportation to Australia. He sailed in April 1803 on board "HMS Calcutta" and arrived at Port Phillip Bay in October 1803.
Full-text versions of two early biographies of William Buckley (by John Morgan and James Bonwick) are available online through the library catalogue of the State Library of Victoria.
Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes ( PPPG Member No. 52 )
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