Wild West Shows, roughriding and buckjumping contests enjoyed a great upsurge of popularity in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century. There were travelling outfits offering spectacles of steely riders and bucking horseflesh in the city and bush alike – Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia and Edward Irham (‘Bohemian’) Cole’s flashy company perhaps the most well-known examples.
Born in 1870, Lance Skuthorpe (originally ‘Skuthorp’) first made his name as a stunt rider in 1896, and acquired his own show in the early 1900s. In 1900, he organised a fundraiser for a local Catholic priest in Melbourne, in which Ned Kelly’s cousins, the Lloyd brothers, also starred. It was so successful that he set up Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia with his brother Dick (orignally Cyril). In 1906, he made a sensation riding a notorious horse known as Bobs in a Sydney show at Rawson Place. E. I. Cole also played Sydney and Melbourne: he leased a venue in Melbourne’s Bourke Street for a time, and otherwise had vast tents in which he set up in parks like the one next to Sydney’s Central Station for weeks on end. Apparently you could hear the shouting and gunfire all the way to Circular Quay in some of his Sydney performances.
Both Cole and Skuthorpe combined a passion for Australian bush lore with a gaudy showman’s persona. Cole was originally an American, and styled himself very deliberately as a combination of Australianness and Americanness for his shows. He was known as the ‘Australian Barnum’, wearing the six-gallon hat and the flowing locks of American Wild Westers (see the National Library Australia website here for a portrait). He was also an afficionado of Australian bushranging history, hoarding Kelly memorabilia and writing gazillions of plays about the deeds of bush outlaws. Lance Skuthorpe was bred in the Australian bush, and worked as a stockman before his move into showbiz. In the ring, however, he wore sapphires studding his shirt and specialised in his own Barnum-like shtick. Both Skuthorpe and Cole performed with the famous ‘Dr Carver’ during the 1890s in Australia, a period in which Carver was on tour from America with his own Wild West Show.
Debate still rages in horsy circles today about the ‘Australianness’ of Australia’s roughriding-show history. Some trash it as an American importation; others insist on its credentials as an authentic national tradition. I came across a discussion on something called the Eques Forum, which summed up this debate. In it, a true believer defended Lance Skuthorpe as an ‘Aussie through and through’ in spite of the fact that he wore American clothes in his shows. Sure, Skuthorpe might have gone in for ‘American razzamatazz’, but underneath it he was a bushman, possessed of nothing less than ‘the heart of the Australian idiom and character’ .
Really, it is false to set up a dichotomy between the Australian bush tradition and American razzamatazz. The roughriding show was always an intriguing combination of cultural factors in Australia – a hybrid which drew on local practices, bushranger lore, the traditions of British fairgrounds, circuses, and American Wild West Shows. A combined love of scruffy raffishness and slick flashiness was also entrenched as a recognisable form of rough masculinity in late nineteenth-century Australia. It was embodied by larrikins, for a start, as also by Ned Kelly, and before that, English highwaymen like Dick Turpin. So the whole idea that the roughriding tradition has to be either American or Australian, that cultural traditions have to be nationally pure like that, is simply an historical misnomer.
The above image is from 8 seconds, an Australian rodeo site.
Edward Irham Cole Papers. Mitchell Library, ML PXD 735.
Jack Pollard, The Roughrider: The Story of Lance Skuthorpe (Lansdowne: Melbourne, 1962).
Billy Moloney, Memoirs of an Abominable Showman (Adelaide: Rigby, 1968), p. 15 on E. I. Cole (how good is the title of this memoir?!)
S. J. Routh, ‘Skuthorp (Skuthorpe), Lancelot Albert (1870 – 1958 )‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.11 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 627-628.
See info. on the Lloyd brothers and their participation in buckjumping shows in this entry on Maggie Kelly on Ned Kelly’s World.