Young Buck of the 96th: a smuggler’s heir

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by Peter Conole and Diane Oldman

The Buck family supplied several officers to the WA Police, not to mention soldiers for both the ‘old country’ – Britain – and Australia. The family hailed from Norfolk on the east coast of England. During the 1700s and to some degree well into the Victorian era, parts of the county had a rather lawless and romantic reputation. Poaching was an issue and generated much court activity and folklore as did wrecking of merchant ships in order to make spurious insurance claims. A famous Hollywood film of the 1930s, Lloyds of London, gave a realistic picture of the practice.

Smuggling became the most serious law enforcement problem in the east coast counties. The British Government drew revenue from commerce, and ‘free traders’ of the ports resented it. Hence North Sea trade between the Netherlands and parts of England’s east coast benefitted smugglers. After pre-arranged payments, luggers floated tubs of merchandise by the score into numerous bays and inlets along the coast, leaving the locals to collect and divide things up for sale inland. The Government despatched revenue agents, constabulary and sometimes troops to try and restore order. smuggling era was punctuated by sporadic bloody fights on sea and land. Captured smugglers were often let off the hook when brought to trial – county folk tended to side with them as they benefitted from lower prices for some goods.

A village blacksmith named Robert Buck (1739-1809), the son of William Buck of Honingham, won fame for his skill as a smuggling dealer and middleman. He was known as ‘Moonshine’ Buck because he operated by night. The Reverend James Woodforde, the Parson of Weston Longville, kept a copious and entertaining diary covering the period 1771 to 1803. He recorded Buck as a reliable practitioner of the unlawful business and obtained low price tea, gin and brandy from his smuggler friends. Buck family members appear as guests at his splendid Christmas Eve parties well into the 1780s.

‘Moonshine’ Buck’s son Robert the Younger probably succeeded him as boss of the family firm at Honingham. He married Elizabeth Lydia Laws and one of their sons was Richard Buck, born in the village on January 26, 1820. In his late teens Richard decided to ‘go for a soldier’ and enlisted in the 96th Regiment of Foot at Norwich on October 5, 1839. He remained a private in rank, but still had a lively time as a redcoat.

Within a year of his enlistment, a detachment of one officer, one sergeant, two corporals and 23 privates of the 96th Regiment boarded the convict ship Hindostan on October 7, 1840 at Sheerness as convict guards bound for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). This must have seemed like high adventure to the 20-year old. This was Hindostan’s third voyage – one with 209 ‘unwilling’ male emigrants on board. The average sentence was 13 years with only one ‘lifer’ on the trip; half a dozen were convicted at Norwich Quarter Sessions – almost Richard’s home town! The passage was made in 104 days and arrived in Hobart Town on January 19, 1841. Richard was in Hobart for 61 days in that first quarter of 1841, six of them in the regimental hospital and one of them his 21st birthday.

Richard arrived in Port Arthur in April 1841 and remained there until he was posted to Adelaide, South Australia. He was not one of the 168 men of the 96th sent from VDL to New Zealand in early 1845 to quell the squabbles between settlers and the indigenous population over land rights. This would lead to the first of the Maori Wars 1845-47; five men of the 96th were killed. There by the grace of God went Richard Buck.

Richard arrived at Fremantle, the Port for the Swan River Colony, on the troopship Java on February 24, 1847. Whether he sailed directly from Hobart or first linked up with the detachment in Adelaide is not known. In no time at all he earned a Good Conduct badge with payment of 1d. per day in his wage packet and was about to embark on yet another adventure.

John Septimus Roe

The famous WA Surveyor General John Septimus Roe recruited Private Buck to be one of five men to accompany him on his last and most hazardous exploring expedition. The party left the Avon Valley in September 1848 and moved south through difficult country. They almost perished when traversing the salt lake country in November, running out of water in the process, but managed to reach the coast at modern Esperance. They then returned by a different route, arriving in Perth in February 1849. Neither men nor horses were in good shape but Richard had done well in the eyes of his superiors.

Richard received a conditional discharge from the army at Perth on April 27, 1849 approved by Commandant Frederick C Irwin. He then obtained employment of some kind as a free settler. The long-winded process of approval from London took until July 1, 1851 when he was officially released from the Army having purchased his discharge for the sum of four pounds. He married Mary Ann Gordon in Perth during May 1852, then joined the WA police as a Constable on August 16, 1852, serving in Perth or Rottnest Island, mirroring his Army service. He was suspended for drinking with another constable and a prisoner in June 1853. However he was restored to duty quickly, probably in July of the same year. Routine police duties were soon replaced by others involving more high adventure.

Robert Austin

In June 1854 Constable Buck volunteered to take part in the overland exploring expedition of Assistant Surveyor Robert Austin up towards Shark Bay. One objective of the enterprise was to try and find the mythical inland sea. Police Commissioner John Conroy participated in the early stages of the trek, which was a hazardous and demanding one. Future Commissioner George Phillips also took part, moving north to Shark Bay by sea with supplies for the land-based members when they finally reached the coast.

The expedition left Northam on July 10, 1854 and was one of the first to travel deep into the ‘desert heart’. Participants paid a high price for their endeavours. During August several horses died after eating poisonous plants and one man was killed in an accident. The party resumed the journey, partly on foot. Austin discovered and named Mount Magnet and reported finding gold ore deposits in the Murchison district. However heat, fatigue and chronic lack of water eventually brought them to a halt. By the time they reached a point 160 kilometres from the mouth of the Gascoyne River the situation had become so desperate men were drinking their own and the horse’s urine.

Austin made the prudent decision to fall back instead of trying to reach Shark Bay. The explorers returned to their last known waterhole and headed home, arriving at Port Gregory on November 25. Constable Richard Buck won high praise for his able and trustworthy performance and his skill in managing the surviving horses. Austin wrote that Richard by great care succeeded in bringing back even the weakest horse. The explorer recommended he be given a cash reward.

When all was over Robert Austin sent a further request to the Governor in July 1855, asking that the constable be compensated because he gave up smoking for the venture. Richard had refrained from bringing four pounds of tobacco on the journey so as to further lighten loads for the horses. The surveyor wanted this “most deserving man” to be given an extra 15 shillings to cover that minor additional self-sacrifice! The explorers remained friends and kept in touch with one another well into old age, as Austin’s published diaries, letters and commentaries reveal.

In passing it is only fair to mention that two other stalwart WA police officers went on the Austin expedition and emerged from their sufferings more or less intact. The first was Sergeant James Frazer, a former soldier who had been a temporary Staff Sergeant in the Enrolled Pensioner Force before taking up policing. The other was 18-year old Constable James Guerin, who later forged a very successful law enforcement career. He left WA in 1858 and moved to India where he entered the Imperial Civil Service and rose to the rank of Superintendent of Native Police in Calcutta.

Richard resigned from the WA Police in 1857 and accompaned by his wife Mary Ann and their four year-old son Richard George (by this time two of their children had died) left for South Australia. He became a Warder at Dry Creek Labour Prison, later known as Yatala. Tragedy then struck when Mary Ann died on September 1, 1857. Richard did not remain a widower for long – he married Mary O’Byrne at St Patrick’s Church in Adelaide on May 16, 1859. Over the next 16 years, four sons and five daughters would be born.

Moondyne Joe (Joseph Johns)

Richard Buck returned to Western Australia and rejoined the police as a Constable on November 12, 1862. He was based for the most part in Perth, although stints at Canning and Newcastle (Toodyay) are recorded. He arrested the outlaw Joseph Johns (‘Moondyne Joe’) in the Canning area in March 1865. During May 1867 he engaged in a more futile pursuit of the eccentric Johns, a relatively harmless petty criminal rather than a dangerous felon. He was not a brutal and murderous thug of the Ned Kelly variety. Constable Buck then helped escort Johns to Fremantle Prison when the man was finally apprehended in October after a third manhunt. Several decades later WA police officers were among those who arranged appropriate protection and treatment for the aging ‘Moondyne Joe’ when he slid into insanity.

Some two years later Richard was appointed police lock-up keeper at Newcastle. Trouble followed in January 1870 when a prisoner escaped from custody, but the constable was described as a vigilant officer and no action was taken against him. After years at junior rank Constable Buck moved back to Perth after being elevated to Lance Corporal in December 1873. Substantive promotions followed with lightning speed for the day: Corporal on the first day of 1874; Sergeant on September 16, 1874. The reasons for this rapid rise in rank were two-fold. Firstly, the middle-aged Richard Buck was something of a talisman in the Colony because of his varied and exciting life. Secondly, and this probably links into the previous point, Superintendent Matthew Skinner Smith had decided to appoint an official police coachman of suitable status.

Richard Buck, like other ‘old soldier’ police officers, was obviously held in very high esteem by Superintendent Smith, a former army captain and veteran of the Crimean War (1854-1856) and the China War of 1860. Matthew Smith will have been well aware of Richard’s long and – on balance – fine record of service. Hence those rapid promotions for the constable in middle age and the kindly bestowal of additional and privileged tasks.

Until he left the Police Force of the day it is clear that Sergeant Buck worked as a kind of aide-de-camp to the Superintendent, although his core function was to drive senior police and other dignitaries to official gatherings, meetings and public ceremonies in the police ‘wagonette’. He also expanded his role as coachman and made himself available for events attended by the Governor, the Commandant of the Colonial Defence Force and assorted other VIPs on numerous occasions.

However Sergeant Richard Buck and many other deserving officers fell victims to Government cost-cutting measures during 1878. He was marked for retrenchment on July 1, to be paid a gratuity of 155 pounds and four shillings. Superintendent Smith somehow managed to retain him for a little longer so that he could organise his affairs and resign instead. Richard was able to leave with his dignity intact and some extra money (a total of 161 pounds and nine shillings) on November 30, 1878.

Former Sergeant Buck and his wife and younger children visited England in 1881. Not long after his return he again received a fine offer of extended public employment. For several years the popular Buck held the position of official coachman on the staff of Sir Frederick Napier Broome, Governor of Western Australia from 1883 to 1889. Richard’s second wife had by now passed away. In 1889 he married for the third time, a widow named Sarah Roberts. The couple set up house in Adelaide Terrace, East Perth.

Towards the end of his life Richard Buck became seriously ill. Son Richard George Buck, by now an experienced WA policeman himself, moved him into his own family home in Beaufort Street in about 1903 to ensure he received proper care. Richard died there on February 4, 1905 in his 85th year.

This article first appeared as ‘Heirs of the Smuggler (Part One)’, Retired Police Officers Association of Western Australia Newsletter, Vol 4 (July-August, 2014), pp. 4 and 11. Further records of Richard Buck’s Army career prior to his service in Western Australia have become available, thus this version has been edited for its appearance on the website. Diane Oldman, 2020.