‘Buckley’s (chance): meaning and origin

The Australian-English phrase Buckley’s (chance) denotes a forlorn hope, no prospect whatever.

The texts containing the earliest occurrences of Buckley’s (chance) that I have found indicate that this phrase was already in usage, since the authors did not feel the need to explain its meaning to their readers; in fact, the first text is about altering Buckley, a sportsman’s surname, so as not to bring his team bad luck:
—These texts are:

1-: The column Chit Chat, published in Melbourne Punch (Melbourne, Victoria) of Thursday 22nd September 1887:

In our sporting columns, in the Fitzroy team appears the name of Bracken. It should have been Buckley. “Olympus” explains that he altered it because he didn’t want the Fitzroy men to have “Buckley’s chance.” Well, that’ll do. He can score his point this time—a thing we wouldn’t have dreamt of letting him do if he had played the “typographical error” business. In the Fitzroy team the asterisks (*) speak for themselves.

2-: Memoranda, by ‘Flaneur’, published in The Ballarat Star (Ballarat, Victoria) of Wednesday 26th October 1887:

Now that Algerian is beginning to smell a bit high, it is time to cast round and see what other horses have got a chance or no chance.
The Derby winner must obviously be well in it.
Oakleigh, on his Caulfield running, must be a long way in it.
Remus can’t be out of it, neither can Dunlop.
Silver Prince is declared to be the strongest string that New Zealand ever had going for it; but I can’t stand his architecture. This joker must run against me.
Trident is credited with a big show; but with 9st 8lb I think it is only a Buckley’s.

 

ORIGIN OF BUCKLEY’S (CHANCE)

 

In The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1945), Sidney John Baker (1912-1976) set forth the two most credible hypotheses as to the origin of the phrase:

Buckley’s chance. One chance in a million or no chance at all. Especially used in the phrases haven’t a Buckley’s or haven’t Buckley’s chance. Perhaps commemorating a convict named Buckley who escaped to the bush in 1803 and lived with the aborigines for thirty-two years. An argument against this theory is that the expression did not become current until about 1898 [1887, in fact]. It is suggested that it comes from a pun on the name of the Melbourne firm Buckley and Nunn, which would explain the currency of the Australian phrase, “There are just two chances, Buckley’s and none”, meaning that there are no chances at all.

 

BUCKLEY AND NUNN

 

One hypothesis is that the phrase refers to the Melbourne firm of Buckley and Nunn. In 1851, in partnership with Crumpton Nunn (1828-1891), Mars Buckley (1825?-1905) set up a drapery store in Bourke Street, Melbourne. The business prospered, which enabled Buckley and Nunn to rent, then buy, larger premises in Bourke Street.

According to this hypothesis, the phrase originated in a pun on the surname Nunn, which became the pronoun none in Buckley’s and none.

The earliest occurrences of Buckley’s and none that I have found are:

1-: From the football column Snap Shots, published in The Sportsman (Melbourne, Victoria) of Tuesday 13th June 1893:

Williamstown expect to beat Carlton. They have two chances—Buckley’s and None’s.

2-: From Some Shaky Seats, published in Table Talk (Melbourne, Victoria) of Thursday 4th October 1900:

Looking round the Victorian State Electorates it is observed that many seats are shaky and the results of the next General Election are uncertain.
[…]
Wangaratta is now represented by Bowser, proprietor of the local Chronicle. He is going to be opposed by a gentleman named Buckley, who, it is freely wagered, has the chance usually associated with his namesake. So it will probably be a case of Buckley—and None. Bowser has never set the local river on fire, but he is a fairly useful politician; and will be a hard man to shift.

However, Buckley’s and none, which originated in Melbourne, seems to postdate Buckley’s (chance) and to be an adaptation of it.

The following supports the theory that Buckley’s and none is a local (i.e., Melbournian) adaptation of Buckley’s, the standard version of the phrase—it is from Among the Federal Members, an account of the proceedings of the Federal Parliament, by ‘Ithuriel’, published in The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 23rd November 1901:

An indication of what prospect there is of getting the tariff through the House before Christmas was afforded yesterday. After members, in a repentant mood, had metaphorically fallen on each other’s neck and kissed each other, whilst their good resolutions were like the atmosphere fresh, when every member spoke briefly, concisely, and to the point, they managed to dispose of three not highly contentious items. If items of great importance are not to be slummed through in the small hours, when most of the members are asleep, there is only one chance of getting through the tariff before Christmas, and that is Buckley’s—or, according to the local adaptation of the phrase, it is Buckley and none.

It seems, therefore, that it was only after the original phrase, Buckley’s (chance), had been established that Melbournians coined Buckley’s and none, a local variation with the addition of a pun on Nunn.

 

WLLIAM BUCKLEY

 

The other hypothesis is that the phrase Buckley’s (chance) refers to the British convict William Buckley (1780-1856), who escaped from custody at Port Phillip in 1803 and lived for thirty-two years with the Wathawurung Aboriginal people near Geelong. He was discovered in 1835 by the expedition led John Batman (1801-1839).

But, as Sidney John Baker admits in the above-quoted book, “an argument against this theory is that the expression did not become current until about 1898 [1887, in fact]”.

However, the story of William Buckley was widely known, and several accounts of it were published:

– In April 1848, a fiction about the life of Buckley, entitled Waroon the Strong, a Tale illustrative of the Times of Buckley, was serialised in The Geelong Advertiser (Geelong, Victoria).

– Buckley wrote to The Geelong Advertiser to complain about the inaccuracy of the tale and stated that a book telling his own story was forthcoming. This book was The life and adventures of William Buckley, thirty-two years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored country round Port Phillip, now the Province of Victoria (Hobart: Printed and published by Archibald MacDougall, 1852), ghosted by the journalist John Morgan.

– A second book on Buckley was William Buckley, the wild white man, and his Port Phillip black friends (Melbourne: George Nichols, 1856), by the historian and archivist James Bonwick (1817-1906).

Additionally, the earliest known attempt to explain the origin of the phrase attributes Buckley’s (chance) to William Buckley. The following is from The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 31st July 1912:

“BUCKLEY’S CHANCE.”

The explanation of the term “Buckley’s chance” was given in the reading of a paper, entitled, “Early Port Phillip and Victoria in the Sixties,” at a meeting of the Australian Historical Society last night. Captain J. H. Watson, who read the paper, said it appeared that when Batman’s party landed in Victoria in 1835, they were surprised to find among the natives a man whose features showed him to be of European extraction, but his skin was as black as the natives’. When, however, the letters “W.B.” were found tattooed on his arm, inquiries were made, resulting in the following discovery:—About 32 years previously, Captain Collins had attempted to found a colony in the south-eastern portion of Australia, but had failed. A number of the convicts escaped, but all except William Buckley had died or been shot. He and a companion had travelled along the coast for nearly a year. His companion, at last, decided to return, and was never heard of again. Buckley soon after fell in with a party of natives, and for over 30 years had lived with the tribe, not raising them to his level, but descending to theirs, and thus he alone of all the escapees had survived. Hence the term.

In Buckley’s, published in Ozwords (Oxford University Press in partnership with the Australian National Dictionary Centre) of April 2011, Bruce Moore writes the following about the paper read by Captain J. H. Watson:

In this interpretation of the idiom, it is the miraculousness and unlikelihood of the survival that is to the fore—as Baker puts it, ‘one chance in a million or no chance at all’. This helps to solve the second problem with attributing the origin to William Buckley, namely that rather than having ‘no chance’, he seems to have had an extremely ‘fortunate chance’, in that he survived his ordeal. From the early twentieth-century point of view of Captain Watson in the paper quoted, Buckley’s stay among the Aborigines was anything but a ‘fortunate chance’, and he sees it as a moral descent (‘not raising them to his level, but descending to theirs’). Buckley’s fate was therefore horrific, and to survive it was miraculous: no later nineteenth century or early twentieth century European would wish to undergo it. Moreover, while the expression appears very late, the story of William Buckley was one of the best known and most recounted of convict narratives.

And Bruce Moore concludes, about the hypothesis that the phrase Buckley’s (chance) refers to William Buckley:

It must be admitted that the time gap between Buckley’s life and the appearance of the phrase, and the lack of any mention of William Buckley in association with the phrase between 1895 [1887, in fact] and 1912, compel us to label this one as ‘origin uncertain’, although of all the explanations on offer it is certainly the most likely.