have we buckley’s of knowing where it came from?

Frederick Ludowyk

Buckley’s chance (or earlier his hope, show, etc.) means, of course, ‘no chance in the world’, or about the same chance a snowball would have of keeping its cool in hell. The phrase is commonly (both earlier and nowadays) shortened to Buckley’s. The following citations italicise its use:

1896 ‘Freemasonry and R.C.-ism ... are worked for all they are worth in Q’sland. ... Unless you are a “child” of either party your chances of promotion are ‘Buckley’s’ (Bulletin (Sydney) 25 Jan., p. 25); 1896 ‘Old man Parkes hasn’t “Buckley’s chance” for the Waverley seat’ (Bulletin (Sydney) 22 Feb., p. 13); 1897 ‘He has “Buckley’s show” of working the mine with them’ (Worker (Sydney) 30 Oct., p. 2); 1902 ‘It is wise to be contented/With an humble lot, you know,/Especially when it’s obvious/You haven’t Buckley’s show!’ (Truth (Sydney) 30 Mar., p. 1); 1903 ‘About the only chance Sir Teaman Lipton has of winning the American Cup is Buckley’s’ (Truth (Sydney) 22 Mar., p. 1); 1913 ‘ “I suppose you think I have Buckley’s chance of winning this case?”.... “No, I think you have about the same chance as a celluloid dog would have of chasing an asbestos cat through hell” ’ (Truth (Sydney) 6 July, p. 1); 1927 ‘Th’ ole man got th’ axe an’ tried ’is dam’dest ter cut th’ vine an’ settle it; but ’e didn’t ’ave Buckley’s’ (Bulletin (Sydney) 28 July, p. 24); 1940Buckley’s choice. A new tunic was being issued to a recruit. “We have two kinds, those too large and those too small. Which will you have?” ’ (Sentry Go: Fourth Garrison Battalion, Oct., p. 9); 1978 ‘What chance have we got if the Nips land? Bloody Buckley’s!’ (H.C. Baker, I was Listening: True Australian Yarns about Colourful Men and Women p. 171); 1997 ‘Dinner For Six was clouted for correspondence admitting that some ladies, because they were over-chubby or over-tall or over-50, have Buckley’s hope of attracting an admirer at one of their culinary soirees’ (Age (Melbourne) 15 June, p. 16).

In the citations from the 1890s, the phrase Buckley’s chance etc. is given within quotation marks—an indication that the writers concerned weren’t quite at home with it. From 1902 onwards, however, no quotation marks appear—the phrase has been accepted without cavil as a dinkum Aussieism, an unremarkable part of mainstream Australian language.

who is buckley? what is he?

In his book Australian Folklore, Bill Wannan discusses various Buckleys and concludes: ‘It would appear that until further research is undertaken there is Buckley’s chance of solving the problem of how this phrase first came to circulate’ (p. 97). Bill Wannan has a point: of the several Buckleys put forward as an eponym of the phrase, it is difficult to say with complete certitude that this is the Buckley and none other. But one Buckley, as we shall see, is chronologically more likely than the others.

It may be as well at this point to get rid of the canards. One of the most bizarre non sequiturs I have met is that the term derives from the Yindjibarndi verb bucklee, ‘to initiate an Aboriginal boy, especially by circumcision’. Hence The Australian National Dictionary gives the citation, ‘He went to give young Tommy ... the law before he’s circumcised—bucklee’d’ (F.B. Vickers, No Man is Himself (1969), p. 56). It was put to me quite seriously that since an Aboriginal boy reaching the age of initiation had no chance at all of escaping being ‘buckleed’, he had, as it were, ‘Buckley’s chance’. This is a furphy. The Yindjibarndi word bucklee is certainly not the etymon of Buckley.

Bill Wannan puts paid to another canard: ‘Many people think that [the phrase Buckley’s chance] refers to the murderer, Richard Buckley, involved in the shooting of Mr Berriman, a Glenferrie (Vic) bank manager. Although he eluded capture, for a considerable period, Buckley was regarded as having no chance of eluding the law indefinitely. The only flaw in this theory is that the phrase began circulating long before the Glenferrie murder took place’ (p. 97).

Slightly more plausible (at least the time-frame fits) is the story, recounted by Bill Wannan, that circa 1890 ‘a certain Mr Buckley’ took legal action against the Crown over land title in ‘the Bombala district of southern New South Wales’. Bill Wannan’s correspondent continues: ‘The difficulty of winning a law case against the Government is, of course, notorious, and Buckley, after much struggling and appealing, seemed to have very little hope of success—hence ‘Buckley’s chance’. This phrase became a byword in the district, and afterwards spread to other parts of Australia’ (p. 97). The trouble is that we have no evidence that the Bombala Buckley became an Australia-wide byword.

The most popular eponym for the phrase would seem to be William Buckley (1780–1856), the British convict transported to Australia. He escaped from custody in 1803 and lived with the Wathawurung people near Geelong for thirty-two years, becoming so much a member of the tribe that when he was found by John Batman in 1835 he could no longer speak a word of English. He was known popularly as ‘the wild white man’: and this popular perception is caught in an engraving which depicts him as heavily bearded, with hair long and unkempt, dressed in skins, and carrying a club and spears. He received a pardon on condition that he acted as a liaison between settlers and local Aboriginal groups.


Buckley back in the bosom of white society

is he eponymous?

Wood engraving 1857 by Frederick Grosse

National Library of Australia

William Buckley certainly captured the Australian imagination. His name would have been far more familiar to Australians than that of the Bombala Buckley. But I have two serious problems about accepting William as the Buckley. First, he was ‘recaptured’ in 1835 and died in 1856—and yet we don’t begin to hear the phrase Buckley’s chance until the 1890s. It seems implausible to me that the phrase would have surfaced suddenly after so long a time. Secondly, and this is the greater worry, why should William Buckley be associated with the notion of having no chance at all? One would expect the opposite to be the case—Buckley’s chance coming to mean ‘having every chance in the world’. After all, he escaped from custody and lived a free man among the Wathawurung for thirty-two years, accepted by the Wathawurung as one of their own. His life after his ‘recapture’, his pardon notwithstanding, was hardly idyllic—he found himself trapped between two cultures and was unhappy and morose about it until his death.

A possible answer to this objection is that although Buckley was very much alive among the Wathawurung, everyone thought that he was dead. The phrase Buckley’s chance is also used in New Zealand and is first recorded in 1906. A correspondent to a New Zealand newspaper in 1934 makes the point: ‘A correspondent ... writes that Buckley was one of the earliest convicts ... to escape from Botany Bay and take to the bush. It was then thought impossible to do this and live. ... Any other convict who talked of escaping was invariably told that he would have “Buckley’s chance”—hence the saying’ (Press (Christchurch), 27 Jan. 1934, p. 15).

To me a more chronologically plausible eponym for the phrase would be Mars Buckley who in 1851, in partnership with Crumpton Nunn, set up a store in a small shack in Melbourne. The business flourished and became a fashionable store. It was known universally as Buckley’s, even though it had been bought out by Phillip Nunn in 1853. Tradition has it that this, from that fact that the store called Buckley was now the store belonging to Nunn, gave rise to the Melbournians’ pun Buckley’s is Nunn (none)—that is, ‘If you have Buckley’s, what you really have is none/nix/nought’. Tradition has it that floating around too was the Hobson’s choice Buckley’s or none. The Buckley/None pun is neatly caught in the following citation:

It’s no use passing bucks. We all have to get in on this act: the three levels of government, the manufacturers, importers and retailers and we, the people. Otherwise, Bob Carr and Pam Allan have got Nunn and Buckley’s chance of reducing waste to landfill by 60 per cent by the year 2000. 1998 Northern Beaches Weekender, 27 Nov., p. 2:


View in Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1864

National Library of Australia

In a letter to us at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in 1989, K.R. Groom hypothesised about how the name of the store, Buckley’s, acquired its current meaning:

When Mars Buckley and Crumpton Nunn set up business ... Victoria was represented at the Great Exhibition, London, 1851, by a solitary bag of flour. By 1860, one-third of the world’s gold was being supplied from the infant colony’s goldfields. ... But by 1890 the gold had begun to peter out. ... The great land speculations of the 1870s and ’80s suddenly collapsed, along with confidence in financial institutions. In March 1892 the Mercantile Bank closed. In January 1893 the Federal Bank failed, quickly followed by the Commercial Bank and, on Saturday, April 29, 1893, the National Bank of Victoria was forced to close its doors. The Victorian Premier of the day, [Sir James Brown] Patterson, imposed a five-day bank holiday in a brave attempt to stem the rush for withdrawals. Three banks ignored Patterson’s decree and opened for business as usual. ... There were frantic ‘mayday, mayday’ distress calls for the constabulary to control the crowds fighting to get their money from the banks. Through these scenes of chaos, [the] aged Mars Buckley ... squeezed into the Bank of Australasia (Australia and New Zealand Bank Ltd) accompanied by four assistants carrying four leather cases. Buckley withdrew 10,000 gold sovereigns, lugged them to his safety deposit box and locked them securely away, leaving ‘NO CHANCE AT ALL’ that the bank might fritter his fortune away amongst other anxious depositors.

There is a semantic shift in this hypothesis: it is the bank that had buckley’s chance in its current sense; Buckley himself had 10,000 sovereigns worth of very good chance indeed. However, the chronology suits foxy Mars Buckley better than it does that tenacious survivor William. Mars Buckley’s foray into the bank occurred on Monday 1 May, 1893. Three years later, in 1896, we have our first citation for the current sense of Buckley’s, a sense reinforced, no doubt, by the popular pun Buckley’s is none and by the popularly quoted Hobson’s choice Buckley’s or none, both terms Buckley’s and none being sensed as perfectly synonymous.