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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Forbes, William Anderson (1839–1879)

by Cecil Hadgraft

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

William Anderson Forbes (1839-1879), bush balladist, was born on 13 August 1839 at Boharm, Banffshire, Scotland, son of Lewis William Forbes, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Young. He attended a parish school and entered King's College, Aberdeen, in 1854 but on 6 April 1855 the Senatus Academicus minuted: 'Thereafter it was agreed that William A. Forbes, Bursar of the 1st class—having been guilty of repeated contempt of the authority and discipline of the college in spite of repeated warning—should be debarred from attending this college next session—and that his friends should be recommended to remove him altogether'. Forbes is listed as attending Marischal College in 1854-58 but he did not qualify for a degree. His family interpreted his exclusion from Kings's College as 'a madcap piece of youthful folly; either snowballing or lampooning a professor—the tradition is not exact'.

Forbes is supposed to have run away to sea and to have travelled widely. His poem 'Fragment', includes a subscription: 'Composed on leaving Scotland, June 1862'. About 1884 his brother wrote that 'some twenty-two years ago … he stranded somehow on the shore of Queensland'. This would suggest that 1862 was the last time he saw Scotland. This elder brother, Archibald, a noted war correspondent, visited Queensland in 1883 and made inquiries into the life of William, but found nothing more than general reminiscences from old acquaintances: that William had worked on a northern cattle station, shepherded on the Burnett, mined on the Morinish field, farmed in the Mackay district, laboured on the roads near Roma and Mount Abundance and washed sheep for shearing in the Toowoomba area.

Other information may be gleaned from Voices From the Bush (Rockhampton, 1869) by Alexander Forbes. He was locally known and refers to himself as 'Alick the Poet'. His poems reveal that he was often homesick but often busy enough to forget that he had his troubles, which he mostly details with wry humour; and that he consoled himself with liquor and tobacco. He held definite views: he believed the miseries of the Queensland drought year of 1867, for example, were intensified by the selfishness of squatters who encouraged immigrants so that cheap labour would be plentiful; and he had the contemporary distaste for the Chinese. Some of the poems deal with life on the Morinish field north-west of Rockhampton, where gold had been discovered by the Smith brothers in 1866 and on which there were about five hundred miners in its heyday. A poem telling of the opening of a quartz crushing machine on 13 August 1868 suggests that Forbes had then been on the field for some time. These poems, rough and ready enough, give some insights into outback life: a miner killed in a caving shaft; a miner lost in the bush; and the evils of bush publicans. More than that, they show Forbes as anticipating, however crudely, the humorous descriptions of James Brunton Stephens, the mining sketches of Will Dyson, and the comic anecdotes of Banjo Paterson. He wrote no 'galloping rhymes' but he deserves his place as one who, like Adam Lindsay Gordon, wrote bush ballads years before the spate began in the mid-1880s.

At the end, Forbes was in the Warwick district. He fell ill, entered the local hospital and two days later died from obstruction of the bowel on 31 October 1879. He never married.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Forbes, Souvenirs of Some Continents (Lond, 1894)
  • H. Scott et al, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, vol 2 (Edinburgh, 1917).

Citation details

Cecil Hadgraft, 'Forbes, William Anderson (1839–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Alick the Poet
  • Forbes, Alexander

13 August 1839
Boharm, Banffshire, Scotland


31 October 1879
Warwick, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage