Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake, surveyor, stockman, drover and poet, was born on 26 March 1866 at Waterview Bay, Balmain, New South Wales, eldest son of Barcroft Capel Boake (b. Dublin, 1838), professional photographer, and his wife Florence Eva, née Clarke (1846-1879). His parents had married on 7 March 1865; three of their nine children died in infancy. He was an active child, fond of sport, but showed early signs of depression, forerunner to that melancholia which was to oppress him for much of his life and ultimately to cause his death.
Young Barcroft’s childhood was spent in Sydney, and for two years in Noumea, where he spent time with a friend of the family. When living in North Sydney, which was then mainly bush, he had to ride his pony to Milson’s Point before going to school across the harbour. Later he was to be described "a good horseman, and a first class bushman" and it was said "he looked infinitely better on a horse than off."
His father, though an agnostic, profoundly distrusted state schools and had the boy educated at private institutions. From 8 to 9 he attended a school run by the Misses Cook at Milson's Point. He spent the next two years with Allen Hughan and his wife, friends of the family, in Noumea, where he picked up some French. On his return he had two terms at Sydney Grammar School and then five years at the private school of Edward Blackmore in Hunter Street.
Barcroft had four younger sisters, Adelaide, Violet, Clare and Evie.
When he was thirteen Barcroft’s mother died in childbirth and his grandmother took over her role in the household. One of Adelaide’s children, Doris Kerr, later became a published author, writing under the pseudonym of Capel Boake.
Barcroft trained as a surveyor in Sydney before taking up a surveyor’s assistant position in 1886, based at Rocklands Farm, near Adaminaby in the Monaro district of New South Wales. He spent two happy years in this district, becoming friends with the McKeahnie family, and in particular their two daughters, Jean and May. Their brother Charlie, who features in some of Barcroft’s poems, was an excellent horseman and was said to be one of the men on whom Banjo Paterson based the Man from Snowy River . Barcroft’s experiences at this time, which were later to feature in his poems, included chasing brumbies in the Snowy Mountains and skiing at Kiandra.
In July 1886 he began as assistant surveyor to E. Commins near Adaminaby in the Monaro district, where he was to remain for two years. There at Rocklands station on the evening of 14 July 1888 his celebrated mock-hanging took place. For a prank he and a friend hanged themselves from a beam. The friend's performance was tentative, but Boake's was almost fatal. After two days he wrote a rueful account of it to his father. A more imaginative version was published in the Bulletin nearly four years later. At the end of his term he rode some three hundred miles (483 km) to Mullah station, near Trangie in the Narromine district, where he stayed as a stockman until mid-1889. Then he moved north and by June had crossed the Queensland border. His experiences as a drover began about this time, and in October he ended up with cattle at Burrenbilla, near Cunnamulla. There he spent some weeks waiting for his next job, and for the first time read in their entirety the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon. Some comments he made in letters are revealing enough: 'Gordon is the favourite—I may say only poet of the back-blocker; and I am sorry to say Emile Zola is his favourite prose writer … I am afraid after all the bushman is not a very fine animal; but at any rate, even in his most vicious moments, he is far above many of the so-called respectable dwellers in towns'. This attitude finds sharper expression: 'If I could only write it, there is a poem to be made out of the back-country. Some man will come yet who will be able to grasp the romance of Western Queensland … For there is a romance, though a grim one—a story of drought and flood, fever and famine, murder and suicide, courage and endurance … I wonder if a day will come when these men will rise up—when the wealthy man…shall see pass before him a band of men—all of whom died in his service, and whose unhallowed graves dot his run—the greater portion hollow, shrunken, burning with the pangs of thirst'. At the time Boake could not foresee that he was to be essentially that poet, commemorating in a bitter threnody the never-sleeping drover and in its two final stanzas condemning the absentee owner.
At the end of his term at Rocklands, Barcroft headed north to seek adventure and work as a stockman and a drover. He initially worked on a sheep station at Trangie (near Narromine) then headed north again, droving cattle on the main Queensland-Victoria stock route from the Diamantina and then working at Burrembilla Station, near Cunnamulla, in Western New South Wales.
On returning to Bathurst in 1890 he lost all his savings when his droving boss splurged his cheque in a drunken spree. He had little choice but to return to surveying in the Riverina where he began to write poetry based on his bush experiences. His work first appeared in the "Sydney Mail" in 1890, and in 1891 his first verses were published in the "Bulletin".
In December 1891, at the end of his term of engagement in the Riverina, he returned to Sydney where he was caught by the effects of the 1891-1893 financial depression. His last five months were the gloomiest. He returned home at the end of 1891 to find it a place of grief. His father was practically bankrupt, having lost the last of his money in Melbourne land speculations. Boake contributed his savings, some £50, to cover immediate household expenses. His father sums up the position: 'His grandma was invalided and confined to her bed and his eldest sister had found marriage a failure and was domiciled with me her husband being a helpless creature was dismissed from the Railway Dept., I myself was hopeless about everything and quite unfit to cope with the fiend melancholia that I plainly saw was oppressing him'. He mentions a blow that Boake received: 'About this time he received a letter from the country, and in reference to it said to one of his sisters: “I hear that my best girl is going to be married”.' A return to the outback might have saved Boake, but he seemed to have lost the capacity to make up his mind about anything. A few attempts to find work in the city proved futile and he sank into brooding inactivity. On 2 May 1892 he left the house. Eight days later his body was discovered in the scrub at Long Bay, Middle Harbour, hanging by his stockwhip from a bough.
Physically tough, emotionally sensitive, temperamentally unstable, financially inept, Boake may appear a predestined victim. This picture, however exaggerated, is closer to the record than one of him reasonedly rejecting materialistic civilization, finding God dead in Australia, and accordingly hanging himself. Modern drugs might have postponed Boake's suicide for years. His extant prose, neither extensive nor very effective, remains unpublished. Nearly all his published verse was collected and issued by A. G. Stephens in 1897, with a 'Memoir' by Stephens, a critical biography on which any later account of Boake's life is almost wholly dependent. The memoir, in its turn, was almost wholly dependent on an account written for Stephens by the poet's father, together with some letters from Boake himself. In a second edition in 1913 some poems were added, the notes were fewer, the first appearance of each poem was not given and Stephens's acknowledgment of his debt to Boake's father was omitted. Boake's reputation with the general reader rests on Where the Dead Men Lie (first printed in the Bulletin 19 December 1891 and signed 'Surcingle'). Critics have since pointed to other poems and have speculated on Boake's possible development had he lived longer. But his temperament does not afford any rosy prognosis; and it is at least arguable that he died when he had written his best poetry.
The story of Barcroft’s brief but interesting life is told in the form of a novel in Hugh Capel’s book, “Where the Dead Men Lie , The Story of Barcroft Boake, Bush Poet of the Monaro .” While the story cannot be entirely “true” historically, it is told in a way that seeks to be true to the spirit of what happened. The nature of Barcroft’s relationships with the McKeahnie girls is a key feature in this story.
In 1896 Barcroft’s father wrote a detailed Memoir about his son.