Home Melbourne Stories William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with aborigines for 32 years

William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with aborigines for 32 years

William Beckley

William Buckley was an English convict who became famous for his escape and survival in the Australian wilderness. He escaped from the British settlement in Sorrento, Victoria, Australia in 1803 and lived with the Wathaurong Aboriginal people for over 30 years before he was rediscovered by European settlers in 1835. His story is a significant part of Australian history, and he is celebrated as a pioneer and early explorer of the country. His life story is more interesting than most novels written by mankind.

The Life Story of William Buckley

Early Life

The early European settlers in Australia faced formidable challenges, grappling with the harsh forces of nature as they endeavoured to eke out a living and adapt to the novel realities of their newfound land. However, the struggle for survival was a nuanced experience, with certain individuals standing apart, and William Buckley emerges as a distinctive figure in this narrative.

Born in Marton, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, Buckley’s journey began with an apprenticeship to a bricklayer. At the age of 19, he took a divergent path, enlisting in the King’s Foot Regiment and swiftly being reassigned to the King’s Own Regiment. His life took an unfortunate turn when he found himself convicted of possessing a stolen parcel of clothes, leading to a harsh sentence: transportation to New South Wales, 10,000km away from his motherland, for a period of 14 years.

Buckley steadfastly maintained his innocence, asserting that he had merely assisted a woman, a stranger to him, who had implored him to carry a piece of cloth within a parcel to a soldier’s wife in the garrison for tailoring. This twist of fate marked the inception of a compelling chapter in Buckley’s life, setting the stage for a narrative of resilience, survival, and an eventual connection with the indigenous people of Australia.

William Buckley Arrives at Sorrento as a convict

Buckley was one among the convicts aboard HMS Calcutta, which departed England in April 1803 bound for Port Phillip to establish a new settlement under Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins. The ship anchored near what would later become Sorrento in Victoria. The newly founded settlement, named Sullivan Bay, proved unsuitable due to a lack of fresh water and fertile soil for agriculture. Lieutenant-Colonel Collins, serving as Governor, was deemed unfit for the role. Consequently, a decision was reached to abandon the site in favor of relocating to Van Diemen’s Land.

The Great Escape

Upon learning of this development, Buckley and two fellow comrades resolved to seize the opportunity for escape. Under the cover of night on December 27, 1803, they fled the camp, ensuring they had essential provisions in tow. Their plan involved remaining concealed until the ship had set sail, after which they intended to navigate their way to Sydney. Unaware of the considerable distance, approximately 1000 kilometers, separating them from Sydney, they commandeered one of the ship’s boats and stealthily made their way into the bush.

Buckley and his two companions trekked as far as they could on that fateful day. Upon reaching their limit, they settled down, consuming the last of their provisions. Blissfully ignorant of the vast expanse that lay between them and Sydney, Buckley optimistically believed that by continuing in a northerly direction, he would eventually arrive in Sydney. However, dissent emerged within the trio, as the other two convicts, having endured enough, expressed a desire to return to the settlement. Consequently, they parted ways in the vicinity of present-day Melbourne, leaving Buckley determined to forge ahead on his solitary journey.


William Buckley sustained himself on seafood during the journey. While traveling northward, he chanced upon a black man with a large family of children. This individual extended kindness towards Buckley, from whom he gleaned enough language skills to articulate his needs. After spending a few days with this benevolent group, Buckley bid them farewell and resumed his solitary journey.

Many months passed as he wandered through the unpredictable landscape, oscillating between periods of starvation and moments of consuming food to repletion. The relentless experience of solitude began to take its toll on Buckley’s mental state. On several occasions, he encountered Aboriginal communities, occasionally sharing moments with them.

The reincarnation

One day, William Buckley caught the attention of a group of Aboriginal women who promptly informed their husbands. They had gathered to collect wattle gum, their favoured food item. Mistakenly believing Buckley to be a fellow Aboriginal who had previously died and been buried where they found Buckley.

Aboriginal people held a belief that the deceased returned to life after death, transforming into a younger and healthier version of themselves.Aborigines mistook the Europeans for their deceased ancestor.  Additionally, they believed that upon resurrection, the revived individuals turned into white men. Assuming that Buckley was the embodied spirit of their deceased relative, they treated him with respect and honour. Buckley was carrying a spear that was left at the burial ground to mark its location. This confirmed their assumption that the dead relative has returned to life. Buckley made a concerted effort to adhere to their customs, ensuring not to give any cause for offense. In a gesture of acceptance, they even bestowed upon him a wife.

After living with them for around 6 months, Buckley happened to meet one of his companions with whom he escaped, living with another family of tribe on the seacoast, who then came and lived with him. But his reckless character with women made him fear would result in being murdered by enraged aborigines. He was asked to leave and Buckley never heard of him again. He soon lost all beckoning of time, but in about 2 years in the country he could express himself in aboriginal tongue pretty freely. He also mastered the art of spearing fish and hunting, which he claimed to do better than his fellow aborigines.

John Morgan’s ‘The Life and Adventures of William Buckley’

In 1852, “The Life and Adventures of William Buckley” by John Morgan was published, detailing Buckley’s nearly 32 years of life with the aborigines. The book sheds light on the life, customs, and traditions of aborigines who lived in and around Melbourne and Geelong.

The book sheds light on the aboriginal way of life. The aboriginal tribes used to have fierce fights between them, but they respected Buckley’s neutrality and always kept him away from harm’s way. Aborigines consumed a considerable variety of food, including kangaroo, possum, bandicoot, sugar squirrel, porcupine, or hedgehog. After obtaining their prey, they enclosed it entirely in a piece of bark and then roasted it. Removing the skin, they would again apply the body to the fire. The aborigines he was with were called the Wathaurong.

In the book, Buckley describes the natives as cannibals. According to Buckley’s account to the author, he had witnessed the tribesmen consuming small portions of the flesh of their enemies slain in battle. The aborigines engaged in this practice not out of any liking for human flesh but under the impression that by consuming the flesh of their adversaries, they would enhance their own warrior prowess. However, many of them found the idea disgusting. Instead of eating the flesh, they opted to rub their bodies with a small portion of the fat, considering it an equally efficient charm. Additionally, they partook in the consumption of the flesh of a deceased child to whom, when alive, they had been deeply attached. When a child passed away, they positioned the body upright in a hollow tree, allowing it to remain there until perfectly dry. Subsequently, the parents retrieved it and carried it with them.

As William Buckley shared with the author chronicling his biography, “Aborigines also suffer greatly from skin disorders. The promiscuous interaction between the sexes is a common aspect of their way of life, especially during certain festivals when such behaviors are even encouraged. There are specific times when women are formally left to the young men who have yet to take wives. Occasionally, a black fellow might entice away a woman; the husband may permit her to go with him, but upon her return, she faces a severe beating.”

A date with Destiny – Buckley’s Chance

On 29 May 1835, John Batman, who is known as the founder of Melbourne, in 23ton Schooner ‘Rebecca’ anchored near Indented Head east of Geelong. Indented Head is located between Portarlington and St Leonards, around 100km by road from Melbourne CBD. On 9th June 1835, Batman once again landed at Intended Head with an expedition party. Leaving the party at Intended Head, Batman left for Tasmania. John Wedge was given the charge of the team. It was here, on 6th July 1835, Buckley met the expedition party, the group of white men after 32 long years. Some of the paintings of those years show Buckley meeting John Batman at Intended Head, which cant be true as Batman was at Tasmania at that time.

It had been nearly 32 years since William Buckley departed European civilization for the Aboriginal way of life. Initially, he struggled to recall any English language and couldn’t even answer the question, “What is your name?” Instead, he pointed to the two letters ‘WB’ tattooed on his body. However, within a few days, he regained the ability to speak reasonably well.

The expedition team requested Buckley to stay with them until the ships returned from Tasmania. Shortly after joining the white settlers, a significant number of Indigenous people began to gather and formed a camp near the settlers. They invited Buckley to camp with them. The Indigenous people planned to attack the whites to acquire their possessions, urging Buckley to join them in the assault. Buckley negotiated with them, persuading them to delay the attack until the ships returned, promising a more fruitful outcome. The gratitude for the care he had received over the past 32 years gave way to European-style treachery. The Indigenous people initially agreed, but impatience grew over time. In response, Buckley threatened to shoot them. Sensing an opportunity, John Wedge saw Buckley as a potential interpreter and mediator between him and the Indigenous people. John Batman employed Buckley as an interpreter at a salary of £50, and he later became a government interpreter.

Historical Errors

It is not clear when the first meeting between William Buckley and Batman took place. William Barak, the last traditional elder of the Wurundjeri-willam clan who attended the government’s Yarra Mission School from 1837 to 1839, gave some accounts of what happened after Batman met Buckley.  After meeting Batman, Buckley told the blacks to look at Batman’s face and told them, “every white man that you see out in the bush, not to touch him; when you see an empty hut, not to touch the bread in it. Make camp outside and wait till man comes home and finds everything safe in house. They are good people, and if you kill one white man white fellow will shoot you down like kangaroo.”

William Buckley was fearful that he will be punished for being a runaway. So  surveyor John Helder Wedge put up an application to the Governor Arthur of Vandiemen’s land for a pardon which was granted immediately with conditions.

Some of the newspaper records of that time suggest Buckley acted as an intermediary between Batman’s party and the natives in signing the now infamous agreement between the two. But this contradicts other records which states Batman was helped by the aborigines he brought from NSW in making contact with Melbourne natives and so was the case with the treaty. The treaty was signed on 6 June 1835, whereas the first meeting between Buckley and Batman’s expedition team took place one month later in July 1835.

Buckley was considered as too dull. The only person in Batman’s team who saw some potential in Buckley was surveyor John Helder Wedge.

The Melbourne Treaty

 The agreement was between Messrs. Batman, Gellibrand, Swanston and Simpson, on  one side and the natives on the other were represented by Jagajaga, Cooloolook, Bungaree, Yanyan, Mowstrip and Mommamalla. The price was fixed at an annuity of two hundred a year in return for 750,000 acres of land. The group also handed out several blankets, mirrors, tomahawks, beads etc to the natives.

In 1836 Captain William Lonsdale came to Melbourne as Chief Agent of Government, Police Magistrate and Commandant for the Port Phillip region. Buckley was given the position of Constable. Buckley couldn’t cope with the pressures of the job and he was always looked restless and dissatisfied. Buckley was considered as a man of low intelligence and he was found to be less useful in mediating with the blacks and not much information came out of Buckley which the authorities could use to their advantage.

Another incident that happened in 1837, shook the small settler community. In 1837, Joseph Tice Gellibrand and George Brooks Legrew Hesse disappeared near Birregurra, on their way from Geelong to Melbourne. Great fears were expressed in Melbourne that they were murdered. Buckley was also a member of the search party dispatched. But the whites did not trust Buckley as they thought he is standing on two stools. Afterward he was given more freedom in his pursuit, but he could not do much as much animosity was already created between the blacks and the settlers, due to the cruel treatment of blacks in the hands of the settlers.

Buckley in Hobart

William Buckley left Melbourne on 21st December 1837 and reached Hobart early January 1838. Buckley was appointed as assistant storekeeper at the Hobart Town Immigrants Home and when that establishment was broken up he was transferred to the female nursery as gate keeper. At the immigrants’ home he became acquainted with a family consisting of a respectable mechanic, his wife and daughter. The mechanic was later killed by the natives and Buckley proposed to his widow and married her in March 1840, at the age of 60. In his old age received a pension from the Government. Buckley died at Hobart in 1856 at the age of 76. Some accounts say, a fall from a gig hastened his death. With this ended the weird yet colourful life of William Buckley the convict.

William Beckley