Wonnangatta Station History

Updated 2nd July 2014

As far back as 1835 the area in which Eagle Vale was to become a Pastoral Run was an unoccupied area on the map of “The Pastoral Holdings of the Port Phillip District, Gipps Land District”.  By 1857 this large land mass became a Run named Eagle Vale.  Angus McMillan first applied for a Licence for this original Eagle Vale Run (pastoral run No 372) in 1859 and on his application listed its boundaries as shown on the Public Lands Office 1857 & 1858 Maps of defined boundaries of Runs.

These boundaries for Eagle Vale ran from Mt Howitt and Mt Speculation in the North West across to Mt Selwyn, Mt Smyth and Hotham Heights in the North East and then looped South East to Mt Burregan, then down to Waterford where it then headed West crossing through Castle Hill and Mt Wellington to a point South West of Mt Tamborith before turning North to a point below Mt Thorn and back to Mt Howitt. McMillan on the licence application registered the area as only 32,000 acres, but it was obviously a much larger area taking in 870,000 acres (as recorded in the Rent Rolls of 1863). Most of the Eagle Vale Run was rugged, mountainous, heavily treed, and simply inaccessible. As Licence’s were paid for on acreage what McMillan was registering was grazeable acreage.

Unoccupied Runs 1866
Unoccupied Runs 1866

The borders of the original 1857 Eagle Vale Run are shown on two maps in at the Victorian State Library.

The first map is “Public Lands Office Melbourne, January 18th, 1858 – Pastoral Gippsland 1857”. The second map is “Victoria 1863”. A note on this map states “This map is published to meet the present demand for information respecting runs. The boundaries are Laid down being the protection on paper of the gazetted descriptions. A correct map will be issued as soon as the runs are surveyed”. The Library Map references are “822.03 BJE 1857 and 820BJF 1863.

Pastoral Gippsland-1857
Pastoral Gippsland-1857
Showing Eagle Vale on the Pastoral Gippsland map of 1857.
Showing Eagle Vale on the Pastoral Gippsland map of 1857.

Within the area of the original Eagle Vale Run was the valley in which Wonnangatta Station was built.

Pastoral Holdings, Victoria 1835-1851
Pastoral Holdings, Victoria 1835-1851

In 1866 this massive Eagle Vale Run was sub-divided into four separate named runs and one unnamed area. The named runs were Wonnangatta listed as 163,000 acres, Beechers Hill listed as 160,000 acres, Dargo High Plains listed as 121,000 acres and the new Eagle Vale (as recorded in the Rent Rolls) was 103,680 acres. The unnamed fifth area was the Southeast corner of the original run and a little smaller than the revised Eagle Vale. Its general boundaries were between the Dargo and Wonnangatta Rivers and from Waterford up to about 8km above Talbotville.

The boundaries of the Eagle Vale sub-division are on a map in the State Library titled “Plan Showing Boundaries of Unoccupied Runs Near Omeo July 13th, 1866”. The library microfiche reference is, MAPMF Historical Plans Collection, Gippsland. Run Plans 265a & 265b and 186.

Early Occupiers of the EAGLE VALE Run

1859Angus McMillan(the original Eagle Vale run)
1861Kaye and Butchart(the original Eagle Vale Run)
1863James Butchart(the original Eagle Vale Run)
1866 August 17thJames Butchart(first holder of the revised Eagle Vale Lease)
1869 June 8thConstantine Shiraz Holme(revised Eagle Vale Run)

Early Occupiers of the WONNANGATTA RUN

The following is a list of early licence holders that was obtained from the microfiche “List of Pastoral Runs, and from the Government Gazette’s Depasturing Licences and Rent Rolls” for both Wonnangatta and Eagle Vale.  These records are held in the Public Records Office and State Library.

1859Angus McMillan(as part of the original Eagle Vale run)
1861Kaye and Butchart(as part of the original Eagle Vale Run)
1863James Butchart(as part of the original Eagle Vale Run)
1866 August 17thWalter Wilson Duke(Duke was the first holder of the newly Sub-divided Wonnangatta Run)
 Declared Forfeited Gov’t Gazette 18th June 1867
1869 March 16thSold by auction Hugh Nixon
Declared Forfeited Gov’t Gazette 20th May 1870
1870 July 12thJohn Pender, William Bryce of Grant. Purchased at Auction on this date. This first rent recorded for J Pender Bryce (in the Pastoral Runs Rent Rolls 1862 – 1878) for the Wonnangatta Run was 1871 for the area of 163,000 acres at a rent of £25. (Which is just over 4 months of average wages of the day).


What is interesting is that Oliver Smith had been occupying and living in the Wonnangtta Valley from circa 1866, (he was already there in June,1867 when his son Thomas was born as he recorded his address on the birth certificate as Wonnangatta River. He also used the term Wonnangatta River on the 1872 death registrations of his partner Ellen and children Mary and Malinda).  It is believed Oliver moved onto the Station with his sons from America, Tom and Jack and his de facto wife Ellen Hayes and her three children, George, James, and Henry ( who was later to change his name by deed poll to Henry Smith but was always known as Harry) and their joint children, Oliver Smith Jnr and William.

Oliver had built a dwelling on the Conglomerate creek (then known as Home Creek).  He had also built sheds and fencing, had dairy cattle, and was getting well established. Oliver must have just squatted on the property regardless of others holding the official pastoral licence. On his son John’s birth certificate in October 1869 Oliver stated he was a squatter, Wonnangatta Station. Perhaps lucky for Oliver, Licence holders Duke and Nixon found the area too rugged, too wooded, too isolated and both surrendered their Licence’s.

During Oliver’s occupation in c.1870 we understand he took in a partner, a Scotsman, John William Pender Bryce. Bryce had been working in with Oliver Smith for some years delivering goods to Oliver and then taking and selling Wonnangatta dairy and produce to the gold miners throughout the district. Given Bryce’s close association with Oliver Smith, Bryce may well have been aware that Oliver did not have the Licence or legal rights to the Wonnangatta Run. Although Bryce went into partnership with Oliver Smith, Bryce took up the Wonnangatta licence (July 1870) in his own name immediately after Nixon forfeited it. It was common for Run licence’s to be taken out in multiple names, so whether Bryce decided on his own to leave Oliver out or in agreement with Oliver Smith we do not know. We also do not know if Bryce moved into Wonnangatta before or after he secured the Run licence, but it was around the same time.

With Bryce was Hannah Quye (known as Annie). There is no record of a marriage between John Bryce and Annie, and it is believed they lived in a de facto relationship; however, everyone knew her as Mrs Bryce. With Bryce’s six children they jointly went on to have William, David, Margaret, Annie, Allan, and Jessie.  John Bryce (also known as William) built a dwelling for his family on the rise above the Conglomerate Creek which is about a kilometre from the junction of the Conglomerate Creek and Wonnangatta River. John brought cattle with him to stock the Station, unfortunately these cattle were diseased resulting in not only their deaths but all of Oliver’s cattle too.

March 1872 was catastrophic for Oliver, his partner Ellen died around eight days after giving birth to twin girls, Mary, and Malinda. The girls died around five days after their mother’s death. Ellen gave birth in at the Station, there was a midwife but no doctor. Nancy, Mary, and Malinda are all buried in the Wonnangatta Station Cemetery. Oliver had had enough; he sold out to Bryce and just two months after Ellen’s death Oliver married Ellen’s mid-wife Annie Morgan. With Oliver having so many young children at the time it would have been necessary for him to have a woman with him to look after the children which is the reason for the quick marriage. Oliver and Annie bought Denny Connolly’s old pub at Upper Dargo (Cowa) where they remained for the best part of twenty years.

Sole Occupants

The Bryce’s were then the sole occupants of the Wonnangatta Station for the next forty-two years, ie, 1872 to 1914. The Bryce’s had four more children, Elizabeth, twins John, Ellen, and Cornelius, all born at the Station. Bryce’s uncle Allan Calder had moved onto the Station and worked for Bryce. Hannah’s son William did not have a good relationship with the William Bryce so when old enough he built his own cabin in the west of the valley just outside Bryce’s lease on what is known as top flat.

The Land Act was revised in 1884. Section 42 allowed for holders of grazing leases to excise land from their leases to obtain agricultural Licences of any quantity of land not exceeding 320 acres to be taken out for six years. Section 44 allowed these licence’s to be converted after six years to a 14-year lease or Crown grant if specified conditions had been met.

This allowed grazing leases holders to own the portion of land they had built their houses on and land they had grown crops on.

William Bryce had the Wonnangatta Valley surveyed into six allotments ranging in size from 33 to 319 acres. As no one person was allowed more than 320 acres Bryce placed the various allotments in his and the names of some of his children to get around the limit. Whether this was a standard practice or not I am not sure, however it worked in Bryce’s case as they were granted 6-year licences for all they applied for. At the end of the six years the Bryces were granted 14-year leases. This then turned to purchase at the end of the 14 years and resulted in Bryce owning most of the land along the river flats in the Wonnangatta Valley. It was for the reason, ie the 320-acre limit, when you look at the 1884 allotments sub-division of both the Wonnangatta Valley and Eagle Vale not one allotment exceeded 320 acres.

Constantine Holme who held the then Eagle Vale Pastoral licence applied for agricultural licences along the Wonnangatta River flats of Eagle Vale and suggested to young Harry Smith to apply for licences for lots several miles upstream of Constantine’s but still within Constantine’s pastoral grazing lease. Harry did this and with Holme’s blessing and support in his applications Harry was duly granted the licence’s as was Holme’s for the allotments he had applied for. It was a very generous act of friendship by Holmes to Harry.

Holmes did not leave any of his estate or land to Harry, he left it to his nephew Sydney Ede. However, Holmes had been particularly good to Harry in sometimes employing Harry (as is mentioned in one of Harry’s licence applications) and getting him set up with his own land.

John William Pender Bryce died in 1902.

Hannah died in 1914. During the Bryce’s occupation two of their children died in at the Station, in 1878 Ellen aged three and in 1891 Jessie aged twenty-two. Uncle Allan Calder died at the Station in 1885.  Hannah, Ellen, Jessie, and Allan Calder are all buried in the Wonnangatta Station cemetery. After the mothers passing the children that inherited the Station sold out and moved away.

In 1914 the Station was purchased from the Bryce’s by two partners, Geoff Ritchie, and Arthur Phillips, who held the Station for five years. They did not live at the Station themselves, so they appointed Jim Barclay as the live in manager. Jim lived alone at the Station but was sent additional hands at peak periods to help. His main contact was Henry Hayes who by this time had changed his name by deed poll to Harry Smith and he was now a man in his mid-fifties.

Harry was now a property owner in his own right at Eaglevale on the Wonnangatta River, albeit around twenty miles downstream of the Wonnangatta Station he once called home with his mother and stepfather Oliver Smith. Harry would pick up Jim Barclay’s mail at Talbotville once a month and take it to Jim in at Wonnangatta Station. Prior to becoming manager Jim had been calling at the Station and knew the Bryce’s well, so both Harry and Jim had a personal history with the Station and had become good friends.

The workload had become too much for Jim on his own so in mid-December 1917 a local man called John Bamford was employed to live and work at the Station to assist Jim. In January 1918 both these men were coldly murdered. Harry visited the Station on the 22nd of January 1918 with the mail, but no was home. Harry stayed two nights and when no one turned up, so Harry returned home to Eaglevale. Harry would have thought nothing of this because the Station had cattle leases up on the Howitt High Plains where the cattle were grazed over the summer months. Nothing was array at the Homestead so Harry would just assume Barclay would be staying a few nights at their hut on the High Plains, as they most probably were.

Harry returned to the Station on the 14th of February with the next delivery of mail, Barclay had obviously returned to the Station since Harry’s last visit as Barclay’s horse and dog were there, but this time things were not right; Barclay’s favourite dog was starving. Bamford’s horse was not there. On entering the homestead Harry found the mail he left in January was still on the table and had not been opened. Harry spent just the one night there with Barclays dog and returned home the next day arranging for an urgent telegram to be sent from Dargo to the owners alerting them Barclay was missing and things were not right at the Station. Bamford was also missing.

Arthur Phillips acting on the telegram he had received arrived at Wonnangatta on the 21st of February. He had with him Jack Jebb as company, on searching around no trace of Barclay and Bamford could be found. On the 23rd Phillips and Jebb arrive at Harry Smith’s asking for his assistance, they took Barclay’s dog and arrive back at the Station on the 24th, search but again find nothing on the day. The next day they start the search again. Barclay’s dog kept running down to the Conglomerate creek which aroused suspicion. On following in the direction of the dog to the Creek they found the partly buried body of Jim Barclay in the bed of the creek. They covered the body, returned to their homes, and notified the police. On the 28th of February Harry arrived back at the Station with constable Hayes from Dargo. On the 2nd of March 1918 detective McKerral and party arrive at the station having travelled from Melbourne and Mansfield.  Barclay had died from a shotgun blast to the back. The investigation now starts into Barclay’s murder.

As John Bamford was missing and as he did not have a great reputation it was natural he became the chief suspect in Barclay’s murder. Bamford’s horse was found without saddle or tackle up on Mt Howitt and a search found nothing of Bamford. For the next eight months the search was on for the suspected killer, John Bamford. The winter had come, the Howitt high plains covered in snow and during this time Harry was campaigning for another search of the high plains figuring Bamford’s body may be found up there. A sensible deduction as Harry would have figured that when he made his first visit to Wonnangatta on the 22nd of January Barclay and Bamford were both away from the Station and they were working on the High Plains lease, and that’s where Bamford’s horse was found running loose.

In November 1918 because of Harry’s agitating, Harry was accompanied back to the Howitt high plains by Constable Hayes, William Hearne and Jim Fry who were now managing Wonnangatta Station. They had searched for about a week and found nothing when on the 7th of November only four hundred metres from Howitt Hut Hearne being a large man stood on a log as assistance in mounting his horse, the log moved just enough to reveal something under it, it was the body of John Bamford. He had died from a single pistol shot to the head.

Enough time had lapsed by now that the murderer’s trail had gone cold. The police had been fooled and the murderers had gotten far away. What was farcical in the case was that the police had now become suspicious of Harry Smith, and they arrived at this conclusion because Harry had foreshadowed where Bamford’s body would be found. Their fictional view was Bamford had killed Barclay and in revenge Harry tracked Bamford down and killed him.  At the time (and ever since) many a wild theory has been pouted around as to who did the killings and the reason for them.

The police sent a Detective Bruce out to question Harry at his home at Eaglevale, Bruce even took Harry’s pistol (even though it was a completely different calibre to the bullet that killed Bamford) fired a round into a pine tree outside Harry’s hut, recovered the bullet and kept it as evidence. Bruce could have fired this shot just to take the bullet and cartridge back to his superiors as proof Harry’s gun was not the murder weapon. Whatever his intentions we will never know. Harry always remained resentful of the police for their suspicion and treatment of him. The killers were never found.

In 1919 disheartened by the murder of their friend and manager Jim Barclay, Ritchie and Phillips sell the Station to the Allen brothers who held the Station for the next five years.

In 1924 the Station is sold to a syndicate from Alexandria comprising Reginald Barnewell, John Rennie, Ralph Fry and a Mr Hoban. This syndicate held the Station for ten years.

In 1934 Alex Guy with his sons Jack and Arthur purchase the property and hold it for 36 years.

In May 1957, the Bryce homestead was burnt to the ground by persons unknown.

In 1970 the Gilder family (of Glenfalloch Station, near Licola) take over the Station

In 1988 National Parks bought the Wonnangatta Station from the Gilder’s and incorporated it into the Alpine National Park. With Government Policy of banning all cattle grazing in National Parks an era ended for the Wonnangatta Station. For me, a person who visited the Station during its period of cattle grazing it no longer holds the same romance. However, we still must be grateful that National parks have not closed the Station off to 4W Drives as I personally no longer have the physical ability to walk in. However, as a 4W Driver I respect the bush and I do not cut up the tracks and I always take my rubbish home with me, like every user of the park should.


1.  Thomas Smith 8th June 1867

2.  John Hayes (Smith) 26th October 1869

3.  Twins Mary and Malinda Hayes (Smith) 27th February 1872

4.  Elizabeth Bryce 20th December 1872.  (Reg No 2775)

5.  Twins John and Ellen Bryce 1875

6.  Cornelius Bryce 29th October 1876

In all eight babies, which included two sets of twins.

Wonnangatta Cemetery Interments.

1The first person to die at the Station was Ellen Smith (real name Eleanor Hayes) who died   on the 5th of March 1872 aged 36 years.
2The second was Ellen’s baby daughter Mary who died six days later on the 11th of March 1872.
Unmarked grave
3The third was Mary’s twin sister Malinda who died a day later on the 12th of March 1872.
Unmarked grave
4 The fourth was Ellen Mary Bryce who died on the fifth of January 1878 aged three years.
5The fifth was Allan Calder who died on the 27th of February 1885 aged 64 years.
6The sixth was Jessie Bryce who died on the eighth of December 1891 aged 22 years.
7The seventh and last was Hannah Bryce who died on the 23rd of April 1914 aged 78 years.
All the above are buried in the Wonnangatta private cemetery.
The list below are others who died in Wonnangatta but are interned elsewhere.
8The eighth was the Station Manager Jim Barclay who was murdered in the Station in 1918
9 & 10On the 31st of October 1983 Mark Boxer and his fiancée Robynne Ogleby died when their four-wheel drive vehicle rolled down the “Windowmaker” the steep hill beside the cemetery.
11A ten-year-old James Hayes / Smith was really the first tragedy of the Wonnangatta Station. It was when the two brothers James and Henry (Harry) were playing at pole-vaulting, using long thin saplings as poles, one of these poles snapped and went straight into James’s chest. Oliver managed to get him to Sale hospital where he died. His death was around six weeks after the accident. He was buried in the Sale cemetery. James died as a direct result of the accident, really becoming the first non-indigenous casualty of the Wonnangatta Station.

3 Replies to “Wonnangatta Station History”

  1. Just read your article which I found fascinating. I know some of the areas mentioned having had a house at Jamieson and visited several places, Thanks for giving the story which keeps our history alive.

  2. Great article! Thank you so much for writing this. Have visited this place as a child and always thought it was incredibly spectacular but did not know the full history. Thank you for keeping the history of the high country alive.

  3. I have visited Wonnangatta with my son, and was disappointed to see the encroachment of weeds over the pastures. I think that there should be some arrangement for occasional agisting of cattle to help with weed control.
    Otherwise, because I had some understanding of the history of the area, I found the experience quite emotional to think that people spent so much of their lives in such a remote area.

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