Adjudged Bankrupt

This is part of John Buckingham’s application for bankruptcy to the courts in 1898. He had run himself, his wife and young child into more than £1000 in debt – that is so massive that it is really crazy that he didn’t end up bankrupt way before he did. The reason I’m posting about this, however, is not to point and laugh at some poor guy’s financial mismanagement (we are ALL capable of that!) but to talk about why he was in so much debt in the late 1890s.

If you’ve had even a passing interest in Western Australian history, and perhaps even if you haven’t, you may have heard about the way the discovery of gold in 1885 in Halls Creek and subsequent huge discoveries in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie began the transformation of a struggling agricultural state into the booming mineral exporter we see today.

Just like today, however, there were huge risks for those who tried their luck on ‘the fields’. John Buckingham is just one example. I’ve only looked at his bankruptcy file but it seems he and some friends started a gold mining company (like so many did) which didn’t pay (like so many didn’t). They weren’t willing to work it themselves, so not only were they hoping for a huge return from the crush, they also had to pay wages. On top of this, while waiting for the mine to strike John and his family had to live.

The mine was near Mount Magnet and you can see in this list he was in serious debt to butches, storekeepers and hotelkeepers as well as his mine manager (for wages). He was using the credit he could promise from his mine to feed himself and his family. When the judge asked where he was living now, he replied that he and his family were “stopping with my father” – a sure sign that they’ve arrived at the very bottom, I’d have thought. We can only guess what his father – a prominent farmer and original settler of the colony – thought about his son’s situation.

In the transcript of the court session, the judge seemed to find a sick pleasure in striking out all of John’s assets – as they went through each one and John explains that each has been used to fund the debt in the first place and is waiting to pay rather than actually worth anything, the judge says “away goes that item” and I could just image him striking through each point with his scratchy ink pen until none are left and he says “assets zero”. A frightening experience for John, I would have thought.

Eventually, the courts adjudges John Buckingham as bankrupt and for his part, John agrees to find a job and begin paying £1/week towards his debts. He isn’t happy about it. In the transcript he complains that he might not be able to find work and that besides he has a family to support. The court doesn’t really care and sends him off to sort out his life.

I found this wonderful file while looking for information about John Buckingham’s father’s property that I’m currently working on and couldn’t help but get absorbed in the lovely handwritten transcript of the court session and all the lists of debt and people owed and notes about this debt and that creditor. The archives are just a lovely place to become lost in!

But, it made me think about all those people who rushed to the the fields at this time. How many of them now have files just like this one languishing in the SRO? How many of them ever managed to get themselves out of the debt? And what happened to them when the rushes were over and the economy turned down (as it is wont to do)? It also makes me think about this town and how it is built on the same sort of ‘rush’ although now we call it a ‘boom’ and how much people believe in their bones that it will continue and how wrong they are. History is supposed to teach you something about the present. Does it ever manage to do that?

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Comments
3 Responses to “Adjudged Bankrupt”
  1. kalgrl says:

    Do you know if they have this sort of record online? – Just interested from a personal point of view for family research

  2. kalgrl says:

    mmm I agree 🙂

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