Last update: 24th June, 2014
This chapter is a discussion piece for those who have read any of the books on the Wonnangatta murders. If you have not read any of the books in my reference list you will not fully understand this chapter.
I do not think I have met any two people who can fully agree on the reason for the murders, who committed the murders, or the real date of the murders, perhaps with the exemption of Keith Leydon and Michael Ray who co-authored the book “The Wonnangatta Mystery”. Over the years in verbal discussions much has been distorted by speculation, so I have tried herein to set out the known facts and in a chronological order.
Secondly by breaking down and analysing statements from the two murder inquests and using the actual known facts that are in writing, e.g. from police records and witness statements I have taken a different approach to try and determine a closer date of when the murders were committed. I know some will only part agree with me and some will not have a word of it, however I ask the reader to open their minds for a moment because I believe I provide some thought provoking information. I do not personally speculate on who the murder/s were.
I have been visiting the Wonnangatta Station for over thirty years, I also worked with the group of fellows that resurrected (re-built) Harry Smiths hut at Eaglevale, so I have had a strong interest in Harry Smith and the Wonnangatta murders. This interest started after a friend took me into Wonnangatta and on the way out through Licola I purchased a copy of Wallace Mortimer’s first book “The History of Wonnangatta Station”. For years I have had so many discussions about the murders and Harry Smith that I thought I would apply my methodical mind to the subject. The following is my personal attempt to bring it all together.
If anyone disagrees with anything herein or finds a mistake I would be pleased to hear because I am endeavouring to get it right.
The Wonnangatta Murders
List of events in date order:
|14th December 1917||John Bamford started at Wonnangatta.|
|15th December 1917||Two employee’s of Arthur Phillips, King and Jebb visit Barclay and Bamford at Wonnangatta to deliver a draught horse and stayed overnight. Keith Leydon suggests this horse with the use of a crop slashing machine may well have been used by Barclay and Bamford to cut the crops. As far as I know no one else has offered up any other purpose for the draught horse being delivered to Wonnangatta.|
|20th December 1917||Barclay and Bamford go to Talbotville to vote in referendum. Stay at Albert Stouts overnight. Barclay said crop will not be ready to cut until mid January. (Harry Smith saw them in Talbotville)|
|21st December 1917||10am Barclay and Bamford leave Talbotville to return to Wonnangatta.|
|28th December 1917||The Goold brothers on the 28th December 1917 descended down from the Howitt High Plains on a walk that had them passing through Wonnangatta Station. When near Dry River, about 5 miles from the station they heard two men and a dog barking, moving cattle, but did not physically sight them. The police presumed this to be Barclay and Bamford.When the Goolds arrived at the station there was no one there and they did not see any note on the door that they went to. The Goolds left their own note saying they were passing through and camped on the Wonnangatta River below Bryce’s.They moved on (without sighting anyone ) downstream over the next two days to Harry Smiths. The Goolds movements are confirmed by the notes in their own original diaries.|
|22nd January 1918||Harry Smith visits Wonnangatta with Barclay’s mail, stabled his horse. Here we assume Barclay and Bamfords horses and dog Baron were not there as Harry did not mention them. On going to the house he found a sign on the door “HOME TONIGHT”. Harry lets himself in. The door to the hall of the bedrooms is locked. During this visit nothing appeared out of place. Harry saw the crops had been cut. After two nights no one turned up so Harry left on the 24th.|
|14th February 1918||Harry returns to Wonnangatta. No one home. Note still on door. Mail from previous visit still unopened. Dog Baron there and very hungry. The horse Thelma that Bamford was riding is not there. As Harry only mentioned the horse Thelma was missing I presume Barclay’s horse was there. This must have been a very worrying and fearful night for Harry all alone (except for Baron) and wondering where Barclay was.|
|15th February 1918||Harry returns home and takes the dog Baron with him. Harry on his return crosses paths with William Riggall of Dargo who was travelling between his Benison Plains property and Dargo.|
The Benison Plains are situated just to the South West of the junction of Howitt High Plains and Moroka Roads known as Arbuckle Junction. To get to the Benison Plains Riggall could travel via Eaglevale and Happy Valley, then up McMillans track to Arbukle Junction. Alternatively he may have been able to go from Kingwill Bridge, up Billy Goats Bluff, but I doubt Billy Goats would have existed at the time.
Harry asks Riggall to send telegram from Dargo to Arthur Phillips, the station owner, alerting him that something is wrong at Wonnangatta and Barclay’s whereabouts were unknown.
Harry crossing paths with Riggall may just be a rumour that has developed over the years, one that cannot be confirmed but given the route Riggall may take it is quite feasible he would call in at Harry’s place.
|18th February 1918||Phillips supposedly receives telegram from Riggall.|
|21st February 1918||Phillips and Jack Jebb arrive at Wonnangatta., on arrival they cannot find anyone at the Station.|
|23rd February 1918||Phillips and Jebb arrive at Harry’s asking for help to find Barclay.|
|24th February 1918||Arthur Phillips, Jack Jebb and Harry Smith return to Wonnangatta Station. Search but find nothing. They stay overnight and resume searching the next day.|
|25th February 1918||Barclay’s body found in Conglomerate Creek. Police notified.|
(Barclay was 48 years and Harry around 59 years old.)
|28th February 1918||Smith accompanies Constable Hayes back to Wonnangatta and they remain there awaiting the arrival of Detective McKerral a few days later.|
|1st March 1918||McKerral and party set off from Mansfield.|
|2nd March 1918||McKerral arrives at Wonnangatta Station.During investigation Barclay’s shotgun is found in his bedroom and both barrels had been recently discharged and an empty cartridge was found in his room. There appears to be drag marks on the lino leading from Barclays room and out of the house. McKerral evaluates Barclay probably killed in his own bedroom.|
Barclay’s razor, hand gun and a good suit of clothes are missing. Nineteen cheque butts had been torn out of Barclay’s cheque book and never found, this is a mystery why it was done.
|7th November 1918||Bamford’s body found on Howitt high plains around 400 metres from Howitt Hut. Although the horse that Thelma Bamford was riding was found on the Howitt High Plains earlier in the year, the horses saddle and bridle had been stolen and never recovered. It was unlucky no one searching for Bamford did not find his body earlier when they found his horse. The searcher’s must have passed close by it several times and people probably stayed in the hut not knowing Bamford’s body was close by.|
What we know
- Barclay in a letter to his brother John ( just prior to his murder ) said “I wish you were with me I really need you brother”. Barclay also wrote to his good mate John “Jack” Bullock stating he had received a threatening letter and feared for his life. This may have been another personal issue altogether, and may have had nothing at all to do with Barclay’s demise and has only served to divert us from the real truth, or could it have everything to do with Jim’s murder.
- Before his death Barclay went to Mansfield to purchase a handgun, a Harrington Richardson. Barclay carried this gun loaded on his person at all times. So he was suspecting something. Whether his death eventuated from persons he feared or came from other persons of which he was not expecting is unknown.
- Hearsay says Barclay was terrified of “these three blokes”. Barclay would lock himself in the house and would not open the door until who was outside would identify themselves.
- Some years later Harry Smith told Andy Fischer that at the time, like Barclay, Harry himself was in fear for his life. At all times he was armed particularly at night. When alone in his hut he would keep two loaded guns either side of the locked door.Harry’s fear may have been after Barclay’s death, that being a friend of Barclay’s, the murderers may think he may know something and they may come after him.
- We also know the crops that Barclay was to cut were not going to be ready for cutting until mid January. Harry saw these crops cut when he visited on the 22nd January. So if we accept Barclay cut the crops in mid January he was alive on the 28th December, and his death was sometime after mid January 1918.
- We know the murderers were also thieves because they stole personal items, ie, a saddle and bridle, a suit of clothes, a razor, a hand gun, and these are just the items we know of.
- After Jim’s death Hearne and Fry managed the station for 12 months or more and never reported a drop in cattle numbers to the owners. When the owners Ritchie and Phillips sold Wonnangatta in 1919 they commented the number of cattle they had was about half of what they had expected and put it down to cattle being lost in a snowstorm and some cattle theft. Only half the cattle means a hell of a lot missing, perhaps far more went in theft than they ever realised.
General information and what we can perhaps conclude
Barclay’s murder was bad enough, then to murder Bamford as well at a completely separate location was brutal.
The evidence indicates that when the Goolds visited the homestead, Barclay or Bamfords note “ Home Tonight” was not on the door, the note appeared sometime after the Goolds visit and when Harry visited on the 22nd January. The Goolds had left their own note saying that they were in the area and had called by the homestead. By the time of Harry’s visit the Goold’s note had been removed, ie that is after the 28th December.
On the 22nd January Harry saw that the crop was cut. This was not going to be ready for cutting until around the 4th January at the earliest, but probably no later than the 11th January.
McKerral was supposedly in possession of facts leading to the assumption Bamford was alive on the 8th January. This would tie in with the timing for the crops cutting.
When Harry arrived on the 22nd January the door to the kitchen area was not locked, but the door to the bedroom area of the house was locked. Harry would have stabled his horse and we can presume both Barclay’s and Bamford’s horses and the dog Baron were away because Harry did not mention their presence at the murder inquest and if the horses were there but neither Barclay or Bamford, Harry would have raised the alarm then ( did the police ever discuss this with Harry ). At the time Harry would have just thought Barclay and Bamford were out somewhere together, which they may have been at the time, (perhaps even on Mt Howitt) so nothing there over concerned Harry. So it is quite possible Barclay was still alive at this time.
A Leader newspaper statement one year later on the 31st December 1918 claimed Harry reported when there on the 22nd January 1918 the dog Baron was hungry. Harry never said this (it is a confused mistake the newspaper made) . In his inquest statement Harry did not even mention seeing any dogs on this date. And to make another point Harry did not mention seeing Barclay or Bamford’s horses.
On the 14th February Harry returns to Wonnangatta. The horse Thelma that Bamford was riding is not there, so we presume Barclay’s horse was there. The dog Baron is there and starving, yet there is no one home. The note “home tonight” is still on the door. The mail from previous visit is unopened. The door to the bedrooms is locked. Harry stays the one night only.
Someone appears to have used Barclay’s shotgun. However, what we do know is that someone entered Barclay’s bedroom, stole his revolver and clothes so they would have known where the key to the locked door was kept, and they obviously replaced it to the same position so not to raise suspicion. Harry as a friend who stayed overnight obviously knew where the key was and this would have been how McKerral and all got access later on to the bedrooms. So whoever did the murders was probably familiar with the homestead and may have even stayed there.
Whoever killed Barclay either had been around to know Barclay’s movements and that he had hired Bamford ( otherwise it was for Bamford an unfortunate matter of chance ). There had to be a very good reason to kill Bamford as well. He may have known or seen the killers, or that cattle were missing from the station.
Bamford and Barclay may have been staying in Howitt Hut for a night or two whilst working up there repairing fencing. Barclay returned to the station and left Bamford at the hut to carry on some work. The murderer’s may have chance encountered Bamford at the hut on their way to Wonnangatta. Who knows, perhaps the murderer’s had intended to stay a night in the hut themselves. Having ran into Bamford it was necessary to silence him, ie leave no witnesses. If the murderers were travelling from Licola or Mansfield way they most probably would have come over Mt Howitt. If they had come from the North of Wonnangatta then they certainly went out of their way to ride up to the high plains for the sole purpose of disposing of Bamford. Whatever was going on they needed to silence both men so neither could speak.
Barclay at the time of his murder was afraid of someone. To murder Barclay and silence Bamford, (two murders) someone must have either developed a real hatred for Barclay, or had a very good reason to silence him. This could have been a crime of passion over a woman or over business dealings where the perpetrator/s believed Barclay had duded them , or Barclay may have known something incriminating of the killers and that Barclay may have informed Bamford so they decided to silence both just to be sure.
Whoever it was may have known of Harry and the approximate times of the month he visited the Station with the mail and wanted to avoid him. If this was so, perhaps the murder’s had some conscience and did not want to harm Harry, or they simply did not know of Harry and his visits to the Station. Either way how lucky was Harry because it could easily have been a triple murder.
There seems to be no record in the police investigation of anyone being at Wonnangatta to help in cutting of the crops. Did Barclay and Bamford do this themselves or were there other people there helping. If anyone was there to help Barclay surely Philips or Ritchie (the owners) would have known. Any help would have been paid by cheque as Barclay kept no cash at the station, yet there is no evidence of any payments so we presume Barclay and Bamford probably cut the crops themselves.Yet with Barclay’s cheque book butts missing and no one cashing a cheque we will never really know if Barclay did in fact write a cheque.
After Barclay’s body was found some of Bamford’s clothes were still in his room. Bamford’s horse was found on the high plains without bridle or saddle, so he would have to be on foot. This should have raised suspicions as to Bamford’s fate, he surely would not have been on foot in such an isolated area carrying a saddle and bridle and Barclay’s suit and possessions. It appears the police investigation was not balanced and thorough.
What was the date of Barclay’s death?
If we work forward from the dates we know Barclay was alive ie, 21st December 1917 and review the facts of the weeks after we can make a reasonable assumption of how long Barclay was alive. I doubt anyone has previously used this method, not even the police which astounds me.
To do this we need not only to look at what Harry said at the two inquests, but every bit as important at what Harry did not say because on review this provides us with many more facts. Harry reported what he saw and simply did not make any additional statement as to what he would have thought would be the plain fully obvious.
Let us review
At the second (Bamfords) inquest Harry said after arriving at Wonnangatta Station on the 14th February I found Bamford’s horse was missing from the station, not Barclay’s, just Bamfords. This surely means Barclay’s horse was there and Harry didn’t think he had to spell this out. He also reported Barclay’s dog Baron was there and starving, and that Barclay’s revolver, a good suit of clothes and a hand razor were missing. In any robbery police do not ask for an inventory of property and livestock that remain; they ask what is missing, and that is what goes in their reports.
This now takes us back to what Harry did not say about his previous visit to Wonnangatta on the 22nd January. Harry never said Barclay and Bamford’s horses and the dog were there because they were not, he said “no one was home”, and thought no more about having to spell out their horses were not there presuming every one would understand on a remote station if no one is home then their horse’s would not be there as this was their only form of transport. If their horse’s were there but neither man Harry would have raised the alarm then. Harry had found a note scribbled on the door “home tonight”, so he stayed two nights and when no one turned up he simply returned home thinking no more of it.
So where were Barclay, Bamford and the dog on the 22nd January, I would suggest they were alive and out together with both their horse’s and dog Baron up at Howitt Hut on the High Plains doing some work on the cattle yard fencing. Barclay returned to the Station alone leaving Bamford to continue work on the Howitt yards. Barclay returns home only to be brutally murdered even before he sits down to open his mail. Barclay may have even returned on the same day Harry left, ie, the 24th January, or a day or two after.
The murderer’s take Barclay’s possessions and hand gun, travel up to Howitt Hut and dispose of Bamford and steal his saddle and bridle. From the 24th January to the 14th February is three weeks. Crawford Mollison conducted a post mortem on Barclay’s body on the 7th March and stated he had been dead for several weeks, not months, so I believe this three week period is the period in which Barclay was murdered. I believe this is more than theory and that the facts tell us during Harry’s January visit Barclay and Bamford were out on their horses and alive even as late as the morning Harry departed. We will never know how close Harry came to being there and possibly meeting the same fate.
Now for some of the theories from over the years
One of the many theories on the murders has been passed on by Percy Weston to Keith Leydon. Percy believed the Bush Poet Billy Wye was involved in the murders, a theory he put together based on information passed onto him by his younger brother Eric and Bill Weston. On the 1st January 1918 Eric and Bill were out on their cattle run on the Buffalo River when they came across an established camp on Nelsons Creek. The camp was occupied by two of a four man team that consisted of two brothers said to be friends of Jim Barclay, Billy Wye and another man from Mansfield.
There were only two men in the camp and the Westons have not said which of the men those two were, how the Westons knew who the others were is a mystery unless the men in the camp had offered up the information freely. Whether or not they actually sighted Billy or saw someone they thought was Billy, we do not know. A bush fire started and the Westons had to clear out. Sometime after the fires the Westons returned to find their hut had survived but all their cattle were missing.
Percy always blamed Billy Wye for the cattle theft. This led Percy to his theory that Billy and the others were cattle rustling and committed the murders. However according to Dianne Carroll’s book Billy was in the army at the time of the murders. Billy had re-enlisted on the 8th May 1917 in the 3rd Military Guards and was stationed at Caulfield Military Hospital. He was discharged on the 22nd October 1920. Surely during leave (which would have only been a couple of weeks back in those days) Billy would not have had enough time to travel to the high country, meet up with cohorts, ride to different cattle leases, steal the cattle, drive them to Mansfield or Sale, sell them and get back to Melbourne. Nevertheless it appears the Weston’s did sight men on their cattle run, and it is possible whoever they were, they may have involvement in the murders.
It has been said a well known family from Talbotville are connected to the murders which is a possibility as the murders were committed in the weeks after Barclay’s last visit to Talbotville. When there did Barclay get some female company for which he has paid for with his life.
Another theory I have heard is that Barclay had given a woman gonorrhea so the family did Barclay in. I have heard stories this family came from Talbotville, another says Mansfield and yet another says Licola. I don’t think I have met two people of the same opinion, there are so many theories on the murders I doubt we will ever know the truth now that the culprits will be dead.
A Different Story From Billy Wye
Of all the reports over the years on the murders only two men have put anything in writing of a direct statement stating they know who the murders were, and one man is the bush poet Billy Wye. In Dianne Carroll’s book “Billy Wye, He Was Forgotten” (and the bush poetry in this book makes it a must read) Dianne included a letter written by Billy Wye on the 30th August 1948, to a Mr Moir, in which he wrote:
The actual murderer is dead and one of his associates, there were four of them in the diabolical act, two of them are still living and prospectors. Contrary to public opinion, it was not over cattle duffing, but over a girl, she is now a grandmother, I know her well. The old man ( her father ) and one of the two sons, long since dead confessed to the priest when dying in vain in an effort to save their dirty souls. Of course he keeps it a secret, which in my crude way of thoughts makes him a bigger villain as the actual murderers.Billy Wye
The two murdered men were great friends of mine. There may have been a certain amount of justice under the unwritten law, for shooting Barclay, but there was no justification for the brutal slaughter of Bamford. He was an unfortunate eyewitness of the callous tragedy, and paid the penalty with his life after they compelled him to dig a hole in the mountain creek and dumped Barclay into it. They then put him on his mare, pinioned his arms behind him and tied his legs beneath the mares belly, led him several miles away, onto Mt Howitt, and the old monster, without warning shot him from behind.
Eleven days latter, on the 7th September 1948, Wye again wrote to Mr Moir. In this letter he writes of the murderers intentions to avoid Harry Smith and his home, and what he believes may have happened: the “hatter” mentioned being Smith.
Nothing could pass this hatter’s camp but what he saw or heard of it, he was keen and cunning as a dingo and the murderers knew it, so they tricked him, by taking up a long spur leading up from the river valley, onto the main top they encircled the homestead and made their descent through the night and sprang a surprise on Barclay and Bamford. They made a getaway from the station by avoiding all cattle, and rode to Mt Howitt were they disposed of Bamford. They took a big sweep around the mountain tops and turned down onto the river below the junction of the Crooked and Pioneer Rivers.Billy Wye
I know the country as well as you know Bourke Street. There is no doubt in my mind that Harry Smith found their tracks and followed them, hence his announcement that Bamford’s remains would be found on Mt Howitt, which they were. He was among many others who knew the culprits, but like the underground gangs of the cities, silence meant safety.
My concern with Billy Wye’s story re Bamford is that they shot and covered his body only 400 metres from Howitt Hut where it was more likely to be found. Bamford’s murder appears to be an act done in a hurry, cover the body and get away.
There are thousands of places on the Howitt High Plains were they could have disposed of Bamford’s body, places where it would never have been found. I feel it is more likely the murder’s chance encountered Bamford at Howitt Hut and disposed of him in haste, or they purposely rode up to the high plains to also silence Bamford in case he knew of anything.
So only part of this story may have some substance, or none at all. Again without Billy Wye’s full notes which have long been missing we do not know who were the brothers Billy was referring to.
Howitt & Bryce’s Huts
At the time of John Bamford’s murder there were two huts on the Howitt High Plains in the area of the murder, both huts were built by the Bryce’s, one was called Howitt Hut which is located about 8 KLM directly south of The Terrible Hollow and on the west side of Howitt Road, the second was called Bryce’s Hut and was on the eastern side of Howitt Road and 7 to 8 KLM south east further on past Howitt Hut. People looking back a hundred years could easily get the two confused. To complicate things further there is now another hut, Guys Hut. When Bryce’s Hut located on Bryce’s Plain near the conglomerate Creek and Bryce’s Gorge lookout fell into decay in the 1930’s Guys built the current Guys hut as a replacement.
The original Bryce’s hut is shown in Harry Stephenson’s book “ Cattlemen & Huts of the High Plains”. Its ruins were still standing in 1936 but has all gone today.
Howitt Hut which is also shown in Ian Stephenson’s book was the one closest to The Terrible Hollow. Its construction was originally timber slab walls with a shingle roof. It was completely rebuilt as it is today, a corrugated iron wall and roof clad hut. Probably the only original part would be the fire place. Not quite the romantic bush hut of the original timber one.
In Ian’s book there are a series of photos of both huts shown on pages 64, 65, 77 & 85. On page 77 Ian states Howitt Hut was the one near where Bamford’s body was found.
In Wally Mortimer’s book “THE HISTORY of the WONNANGATTA STATION” on page 98 he states the search party were at Howitt Hut. Not Bryces.
In the book by Keith Leydon & Michael Ray, “The Wonnangatta Mystery” from page 87 onwards it is the story of the finding of John Bamford’s body. On page 88 they tell us the search group rode to Howitt Hut. On page 90 there is a sketch showing the hut and surroundings where Bamford’s body was found.
In John Ricketts book “Victoria’s Wonnangatta Murders” on page 107 which details the inquiry into Bamford’s death Constable Daniel Hayes stated that Bamford’s body was found under a log about a quarter of a mile ( 400m ) from the hut and 15 chains ( 300m ) in from the road. He also stated the location was around six miles ( 9KLM ) from The Terrible Hollow. This again confirms the location as Howitt Hut.
Detective Bruce confused things a little in his report to his superintendent referring to the hut they were near as Bryce’s hut. The search party a day or two earlier had been searching around Bryce’s hut, found nothing and had moved on to Howitt Hut and The Terrible Hollow , and this is probably where Bruce got confused and also as both huts had been built by the Bryce’s.