BANFIELD, Edmund James (1852-1923)


BANFIELD, Edmund James (1852-1923)
naturalist and journalist
was born at Liverpool, England, on 4 September 1852. He was brought to Australia by his father, who became proprietor of a newspaper at Ararat, Victoria. On this paper Banfield received his first training in journalism. He had experience with newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney, and in 1882 went to Townsville, Queensland, where he became sub-editor of the Townsville Bulletin. In 1884 he visited England, the voyage providing the material for a pamphlet, The Torres Strait Route from Queensland to England. In England he met his future wife and they were married at Townsville in 1886. Banfield remained on the staff of the Townsville Bulletin until 1897. He was a man full of nervous energy, and 15 years of hard work led to a breakdown in health. He obtained a lease of a large portion of Dunk Island off the coast of North Queensland and settled down with his wife to more than 25 years of a comparatively solitary life. A house was constructed, fruit-trees and vegetables were planted, he had goats and cattle which provided milk, butter and occasionally meat, and there were limitless fish in the surrounding seas. Most important of all were the immense possibilities of the nature study which made up so much of the charm of his books. In 1901 Banfield took the place, for nine months, of a former colleague at Townsville who was travelling abroad. Except for occasional short holidays in Australia, he spent the rest of his days on the island. In 1907 he wrote a tourists' guide for the Queensland government, Within the Barrier, and in 1908 appeared his Confessions of a Beachcomber which immediately gave him a place of his own among Australian writers. This was followed by My Tropic Isle in 1911, and Tropic Days in 1918. His Last Leaves from Dunk Island was published posthumously in 1925.
The title of Banfield's first serious book was misleading; he was no mere picker-up of unconsidered trifles. Its suggestion came from the fact that the breaking up of a wreck on the coast many miles away resulted in much debris from the vessel drifting in to the island. He worked hard on his plantation, and in its early days he found that work on a tropic island had its own difficulties. Once these were overcome he could get enough leisure to study the vegetable, bird and sea life of the island, and, before they were taken away and placed on a reservation, the aborigines. Visitors came too and were made welcome by Banfield and his wife. Banfield found health again for many years on his "Isle of Dreams—this unkempt, unrestrained garden where the centuries gaze upon perpetual summer". He became ill towards the end of May 1923 and died on 2 June. His wife survived him, but there were no children.
Banfield had the essential sanity that made such a life possible. He was kindly, humorous, industrious, mercurial in temperament, rapid in speech. Though not a scientist he was an excellent observer. He loved nature and had a hatred of the taking of wild life, and it is these qualities that give his books their more than transient value.
A. H. Chisholm, Introduction, Last Leaves from Dunk Island; May Guthrie in The Argus, Melbourne (early in 1935); The Queenslander, 16 June 1923.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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