The Wonnangatta murders occurred in late 1917 and in 1918, in the remote Wonnangatta Valley in East Gippsland, Victoria, Australia. The victims were Jim Barclay, the manager of Wonnangatta Station, and John Bamford, a cook and general hand. Barclay was a well-respected and much liked bushman, while Bamford was regarded with suspicion, and was known to be easily roused into violent tempers. The case has never been solved.
Barclay and Bamford
James ("Jim") Barclay was employed as the Wonnangatta Station manager in about 1916. He usually lived alone at the station. Aged in his late 40s, he had previously lost his wife to tuberculosis and left his newborn child James (also "Jim") to be cared for by relatives. Stephenson describes him as a "hardy and competent bushman ... a contented man of simple tastes." His nearest neighbour was Harry Smith, stepson of the original owner, with whom he had a good relationship.
In December 1917 Barclay decided to employ a cook and station hand. English-born John Bamford had lived at Black Snake Creek, 12 miles (19 km) from Talbotville, for twenty years. By 1917 he was aged in his late 50s and was variously described as "surly" having a "wicked temper" and being suspected of "having strangled his wife". However, Keith Leydon and Michael Ray suggest there is no evidence of this. What Barclay thought of him is not known, but Talbotville storekeeper Albert Stout is known to have warned Barclay not to be "drawn into arguments with Bamford". With the First World War raging and few men available for labour in the bush, it's likely Barclay had few choices regarding employees. Alan King, a stockman, stayed at Wonnangatta in late December 1917 and recalled that Bamford seemed to be on good terms with Barclay.
Barclay and Bamford were last seen alive in late December 1917. They had been to Talbotville to cast their votes in the so-called Reinforcement Referendum, the second of the two plebiscites held in Australia during the First World War to decide whether to introduce military conscription. It is not known how they voted, only that they agreed on the vote. They stayed the night with Albert Stout in Talbotville, before leaving for Wonnangatta at about 10 o'clock on the morning of 21 December.
The discovery of the murder of Barclay
On 22 January 1918, Harry Smith arrived at the station to deliver mail. He found Barclay and Bamford absent, although the words ‘Home tonight’ were chalked across the kitchen door. Smith stayed two nights, but no one came home, so he returned to Eaglevale on 24 January 1918.
Harry Smith returned to the Wonnangatta homestead late in the afternoon on 14 February 1918. The homestead was still deserted and the mail still sitting where he had previously left it on the kitchen table. Smith was shocked to find Barclay’s favourite dog "Baron," starving and neglected. He briefly searched the area again, stayed the night at the homestead and left for Dargo the next day to raise the alarm. There he telegraphed the owners, Arthur Phillips and Geoffrey Ritchie of Mansfield.
On 23 February 1918, Arthur Phillips and stockman Jack Jebb arrived at Eaglevale from Mansfield. With Harry Smith they returned to Wonnangatta. After a prolonged search they discovered a badly decomposed body near the Conglomerate Creek, about "420 paces" south east of the homestead. From the remaining pieces of clothing, a belt and a tobacco pouch, Smith identified it as Barclay. The body had been buried in a shallow grave, but dingos and foxes had apparently uncovered it. Newspaper reports that the skull was detached from the body at the time were incorrect, The skull was attached but protruding from the sand. The body was reburied. Phillips returned to Mansfield and contacted police. Shortly after, Detective Alex McKerral was dispatched from Melbourne, together with Constable Ryan, a native of the Mansfield district.
Several days later, the police party set out from Mansfield on the 80-mile (130 km) ride across the Great Dividing Range to Wonnangatta, to collect Barclay’s remains and return them for a post-mortem at Mansfield hospital. Wallace Mortimer recounts the famous tale of the Police party finding strychnine in the pepper container when they prepared a meal in the homestead on the night of their arrival.
Police found a shotgun in Barclay’s room that had recently been discharged although there were no bloodstains in the room. His bed was in "a state of disorder." Bamford’s room was also in some disorder, and his horse, saddle and some belongings were missing.
On the return journey, on the Howitt high plains, the police party came across the horse that John Bamford had ridden to Talbotville for the vote, running wild without a saddle or bridle.
The post-mortem found that Barclay had been murdered by a shotgun blast in the back, and had been dead for several weeks by the time of discovery. At the inquest that followed, McKerral said; "I am of the opinion that Barclay and Bamford had an argument over working matters and that Bamford loaded the gun and shot Barclay. He removed his working clothes, and dressed himself in Barclay’s suit, which is missing, saddled his horse and after dragging the deceased to the creek, rode the horse away." The verdict of the inquest was murder by person or persons unknown, probably sometime between 21 December 1917 and 4 January 1918.
The discovery of Bamford’s body
Bamford was now the prime suspect, and a statewide search was begun. A reward of £200 was offered by the government for information regarding Barclay's murder. A man claiming to be Bamford, and claiming to have killed Barclay, was arrested near Yarram and charged. However, it was realised that this person was suffering from delusions. He was later identified as a vagrant known as James Baker.
In early November 1918, Mounted Constable Hayes, together with local bushmen Harry Smith, William Hearne and Jim Fry, were searching the Mount Howitt area when Hearne noticed a boot protruding from a pile of logs, near the Howitt Plains Hut. Under the pile they found Bamford’s body. As the route to Mansfield was still under snow, the body was taken 80 miles (130 km) to Dargo. The post-mortem found a bullet lodged in the skull, and again at the inquest, a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown was made. Bamford’s body was buried at Dargo cemetery.
Up to this point it had been taken for granted that Barclay had been killed by Bamford. Speculation now followed the line "that Bamford shot Barclay and afterwards Bamford was shot by some friend of the manager, in revenge, in the good old wild west manner."
Police suspicion naturally fell on Harry Smith, but there was no direct evidence. In addition, he would have had to carry out a complex deception about the discovery of Barclay’s body, and he was present at the discovery of Bamford's. It is also unlikely he would have knowingly allowed the body of his friend Jim Barclay to lie where the murderer left it and be disturbed by animals for three weeks. He was not charged. Writing in 1980, Harry Stephenson seems to favour the theory that Smith "might have had an answer to the mystery" and noted that older cattlemen were still reluctant to discuss the case.
A second theory was that the two men had been victims of stock thieves. Wallace Mortimer suggests Barclay and later Bamford were perhaps killed by horse thieves, and cites "old timers [who] are adamant in their belief such was the reason." The Police report refutes this, pointing out that the only stock missing from Wonnangatta was Bamford's horse that had been recovered on Mount Howitt.
Wallace Mortimer dismissed any significance of the right shoe and a hat found placed near the crotch of Barclay's body. According to Mortimer, the idea that this implied a motive for the killing (Barclay, a ladies man, killed by a jealous husband) came from a novelist, "who had obviously done little or no research into the matter."
After he finished his schooling, Jim Barclay's son Jim (junior) went to work for Harry Smith, for many years, at Eaglevale. Harry Smith died aged about 86 in 1945. Sometime in the late 1970s Mortimer interviewed Jim Barclay Junior for his history of Wonnangatta Station. Barclay's enigmatic comment on the murders was; " It was all a long time ago and both the murderers are long since dead. I can't see that anything can be gained now, it's all best forgotten."
- The word "station" in Australia means ranch or pastoral holding of some size
- Clark, Mary Ryllis. "Wonnangatta: Murder Mystery at Wonnangatta Station" (PDF). Parks Victoria. Retrieved 2013-06-17.
- Stephenson, Harry (1980) p.70
- Clark, Mary Ryllis (1986) p.2
- Mortimer, Wallace (1980) p. 80
- Keith Leydon & Michael Ray (2000)The Wonnangatta Mystery:an inquiry into the unsolved murders. Warrior Press, Mansfield. ISBN 0-9587177-5-3
- Stephenson gives the date 22 December 1917. Note; It is hard to believe Smith made a journey to deliver mail only a day after Barclay and Bamford had been in Talbotville
- He was not a local mailman as some accounts suggest. His Eaglevale property was close to 1,000 acres according to Mortimer
- Stephenson gives the date 24 December 1917
- Stephenson gives the date 25 January
- Mortimer, Wallace (1980) p.87
- This map shows a reconstruction of the homestead and the position of Barclay's body when found. Reproduced from The Wonnangatta Murders by Keith Leydon and Michael Ray Archived 29 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
- Stephenson, Harry (1980) p.73
- McKerral cited in Stephenson, Harry (1980) p.73
- See Page 6 of the Victorian Government Gazette, 5 June 1918
- McKerral cited in Stephenson, Harry (1980) p.75
- Stephenson, Harry (1980) p.75
- Mortimer, Wallace (1980) p.106
- Mortimer, Wallace (1980) p.121
- The Wonnangatta Murders by Keith Leydon and Michael Ray. page 127
- Mortimer, Wallace (1980) p.120
- Photos of Harry Smith's hut at Eaglevale.
- Alpine Park Page, with link to Friends of Wonnangatta Group
- Australian Alps National Park government website