Australian Wild West Shows

22 Jan


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.

31 Responses to “Australian Wild West Shows”

  1. Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 24 January 2009 at 12:48 am #

    It was my Grandfather Thomas Peter LLOYD and his Son Ned Lloyd, that rode in a Buckjumping show, to raise money for the Priest to help build his church….
    In later years my Father Thomas Patrick LLOYD and his younger Brother Leo LLOYD, rode with McConvilles Rodeo, travelling around Victoria and N.S.W. they rode the feature horse “Swannee” many times and Melissa it was not Americanised wholly Australian, with men beautifully dressed in white riding breeches, black knee high POLISHED boots and white shirts.. I have many stories etc. LOLA Rowe

    • Tim Lee 27 September 2009 at 11:18 pm #

      Hello Ms Rowe.
      I am a journalist with the ABC’s Landline program and have compiled a story on the history of the Thorpe McConville Rodeo troupe. It mentions/shows your family members. I would love to hear more stories about the Lloyds and co.
      Best wishes

      • Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 1 October 2009 at 5:34 am #

        Tim. Sorry never answered your last note, only got back to the post today. Would love to talk about the my Father Thomas Patrick Lloyd, who rode with the McConville Shows/.
        Lola (nee LLOYD)

    • Fran Cleland 25 May 2012 at 3:34 pm #

      Lola my father in Law Gordon Celeland was one of Toms’best mates..they rode together in the shows you speak of.

      Fran Cleland

      • Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 6 June 2012 at 11:05 pm #

        Fran that is interesting comment about your Father in law, being my Dads best friend, I have not heard the name before and have photos with names attached but no Cleland, where did they ride together and any other info would be appreciated thanks Lola (nee LLOYD)

    • Deb 26 November 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Hi Lola,
      I’m a ring in, however only recently learnt that my grandfather rode with the McConvilles. It’s a long shot, however have you any record of an Alf or Arthur Murray amidst your info. I shall also be acquiring a copy of the book.
      Greatly appreciate any info.
      With thanks in advance.

      • Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 4 December 2012 at 4:01 pm #

        DEB. Great to have a reply, did you mean the “THORPE McCONVILLES WILD AUSTRALIA, book…There are a few photos of a Gentleman BEZ MURRAY, but NOT Arthur Murray, he rode after my Father in approx 1948/1950, My Son met him in Swan Hill, 12 mnths ago. Will be keen to hear more. Lola R. (nee LLOYD)

    • Tania 8 April 2016 at 10:58 pm #

      Hi Lola, I am the gran daughter of LEO LLOYD.

      • Justin Cleland 24 June 2019 at 2:08 pm #

        My husbands father. Was Gordon Cleland who rode in the same group, and was very good friends with them all his life

  2. Melissa Bellanta 24 January 2009 at 7:49 pm #

    Dear Lola: you should publish the stories somewhere! (Or have you already?) Would love to read them, as I am sure would many others.

    Many thanks for this – Melissa

  3. Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 25 January 2009 at 3:27 am #

    Melissa, Ray McConville along with other family members, have a great book published on the McConvilles and their riders who travelled and rode together as one big family….Ned Lloyd, the Son of Maggie Skillion (nee Kelly) and my Grandfather Thomas Peter LLoyd, rode in 1911 at the Crystal palace England. to honour the coronation of the King George V. Thorpe McConville, Ned LLOYd, Billy Jones, & Jack Morrissey,they were known as the glamour boys of the show, Ned Lloyd was billed as one of the best riders in Australia, after he retired it was my Father Tom and his Brother Leo who carried on the tradition, then Leo’s Son Ken and his Son Ned, followed the tradition, of rough riding. After leaving the show my Father joined the Victorian Police Force, training and breeding the horses for the Police Force. LOLA Rowe

  4. Melissa Bellanta 25 January 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    Wonderful. Thanks, Lola. I just found the book in the State Library of NSW’s catalogue:

    Thorpe McConville’s Wild Australia : History of a famous showman and the riders who rode with him.

    Will enjoy taking a look sometime – Melissa

  5. Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 25 January 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Great Melissa, pleased you found the book, BUT, the relationships of the LLOYDS were in disaray, I did write to Ray McConville to correct that , he assured me if there was another printing it would be corrected..LOLA

  6. Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 26 January 2009 at 12:12 am #

    Melissa back again, been busy going through old files. March 1999. Jenny Hicks of NSW. wrote to me, re a book she was writing “GENERAL HISTORY OF ROUGH RIDING.” to be printed by Paul Harper Collins. She has a great history of that time in Australia… LOLA

  7. Melissa Bellanta 26 January 2009 at 4:19 am #

    Dear Lola: Found it!

    Jenny Hicks, Australian Cowboys: Roughriders and Rodeos (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 2000).

    Now that will be worth checking out. Thanks again – M

  8. Dan Smith 17 June 2009 at 11:52 am #

    Does anyone have any material on Billy Waite, as he too performer on buckjumpers at the festival of empire. I know he went on to the US after Crystal Palace, and he died there in 1941.
    I have some articles, as he got older he expanded out into bullwhip cracking and boomerangs with his wife Marion.
    I have exhausted the internet for information.

    Cheers Dan

    • Margaret Dufty 12 August 2009 at 11:16 pm #

      Hi Dan Smith,
      I have been researching Billy and Marion (my great Aunt)are we related? A recent contact Ted is also doing research who is compiling info to go in a book he is writting. with direct contact I will send you all I have including photos.Cheers Margaret

      • Dan Smith 1 November 2009 at 4:13 am #

        Margaret yes we are related, sorry did get a notificaion of this post.

        my contact is

  9. Melissa Bellanta 12 August 2009 at 11:44 pm #

    Thanks, Margaret…

  10. Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD) 1 October 2009 at 5:38 am #

    In McConvilles book I think you will find a photo of Billy WAITE..

  11. Tim Lee 8 October 2009 at 5:09 am #

    Dear Lola,
    Can you please give me a call sometime on 03 9626 1462(work)? My segment on Thorpe McConville’s troupe will screen within a few weeks.
    Best wishes,

    • Melissa Bellanta 8 October 2009 at 7:56 pm #

      Dear Tim: if you get time, please post here with the actual date of the program – will look forward to seeing it. – Melissa

    • Kate McConville 19 January 2011 at 5:19 pm #

      Hi Tim My name is David McConville my father Don often spoke of Thorpe . When and where was your film shown I would like to know more about the man

  12. Paddy Gallagher 29 November 2009 at 4:19 am #

    Billy Waite was always a very skilled whip cracker. I have seen a photo of his wife and him with a selection of whips in the old Sydnet Mail, I think it was taken about 1906.
    The Australian National Library in Canberra has all the Sydney Mail on microfiche and I would recommend it to anyone for research into Australian horses and riders.

  13. Melissa Bellanta 1 December 2009 at 1:15 am #

    Thanks, Paddy. Why does the Sydney Mail have so much material on horses and riders, do you think?

  14. Paddy Gallagher 26 December 2009 at 3:40 am #

    Sorry to be so long getting back to you.
    The Sydney Mail was a very horse-oriented weekly newspaper with details of all sorts of horse events and very good pictures.
    Banjo Paterson was one of their contributors.
    It was the favorite reading of our old bush horsemen.
    The Australasian published in Melbourne was similat but not quite as good.

  15. Lola Rowe (nee LLOYD 24 January 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Sorry Tim never got to see your piece on the Roughriders of Australia. Got misplaced along the way somewhere, only just received a message from Kate McConville…It was McConvilles that my Father and Uncle Tom & Leo LLOYD rode with. Lola R.

  16. Andrew Pincher 19 December 2012 at 1:15 am #

    Well well I coudnt believe I came from this family until recently.

  17. Tania 8 April 2016 at 10:56 pm #

    Hi I am the grand daughter of the youngest LLOYD brother LEO, we proudly have the WILD AUSTRALIA book all about the McConvilke troupe in our book case.

  18. Kathy Beattie 31 December 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Patrick McKenzie Mc Grath also know as Paddy McGrath was also a rider for Thorpe McConville. The horses that were well known at that time was “Swanee” and “Rocky Ned” I am one of the many nieces of Paddy who was loved by us all.


  1. On sentimental cowboys « The Vapour Trail - 28 January 2009

    […] Last post I wrote about Lance Skuthorpe (1870-1958), proprietor and presenter of an Australian rough-riding show called Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia in the early 1900s. What fascinates me after reading more about him is his combination of sentimentality with a tough masculinity. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: