Record of the Month November 2011

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Record of the Month November 2011 is associated with Wonnangatta, Victoria located at these coordinates -37.1330546, 146.788646


Record Citation: VPRS 24/P0, Unit 964, Item 1918/363
Record URL:
Agency: VA 862 Office of the Registrar-General and the Office of Titles
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Date: 1918
Record Type: Inquest
Event Type: Unsolved Murder
Language: en
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User Tags: inquest, john bamford, james barclay, murder, wonnangatta, jim barclay, harry smith

Record of the Month November 2011.JPG
Record of the Month November 2011

In 1917, World War One was raging, the Soviet Union was formed, and the Balfour Declaration outlining that Jewish people should have a homeland was written. 1917 was a year of great international importance. Yet it was a lone cattle station in rural Victoria which managed to take the spotlight as well, for all the wrong reasons.

Wonnangatta Station lay in the remote valley of Wonnangatta, Victoria Wonnangatta in Gippsland. The nearest town to the station was 32km away. Not surprisingly, this station was known as the most isolated property in Victoria. Such isolation made the Wonnangatta Station the perfect place for a crime to be committed. The sole resident of the property was a tall and handsome man named James Barclay. In his inquest Barclay was described as a friendly and easy going man who lived a simple life on the station. He had previously lost his wife to tuberculosis soon after the birth of their first child. Barclay gave his only child Jim to be raised by relations. In 1917 he decided to employ a cook at the station. Given the current shortage of man power due to the war raging in Europe, Barclay had little option but to employ a man named John Bamford who was in his late 50’s. Bamford was known for being argumentative and Barclay had been warned not to aggravate Bamford's temper. This man was also previously a suspect in strangling his wife. In the case of his wife, Bamford remained a suspect and he was never proven guilty of this crime. Perhaps he was innocent, yet became such an obvious suspect due to his complex temperament?

Bamford was employed in December 1917. Barclay and Bamford were last seen alive at 10am on the 21st of December 1917. Bamford had been at the property for only around one month before the shocking murders occurred at Wonnangatta station. Was this a coincidence? Barclays nearest neighbour, Harry Smith, went to the station on the 22nd of January to deliver mail. On arrival he found the words ‘home tonight,’ written across the front door. Smith returned to the property on the 14th of February, in which he stayed the night due to concern on finding the property still deserted and Barclay's dog starving and neglected. Smith then made his way into town to raise the alarm with police that something was seriously wrong at the Wonnangatta Station. Barclay’s badly decomposed body was discovered on the 23rd of February near a creek on the property. On post mortem examination, it was found that Barclay had been shot from behind a number of times in the right and left shoulder area. The inquest stated that it appeared as though there had been a struggle in Barclay’s bedroom. Whether he was dead or alive at the time, it was theorized that he had been dragged by a horse to the creek where his remains were discovered.

It took almost a year before Bamford's body was found also on the property in harsh bush land. This double murder has intrigued generations. How could such a brutal monstrosity occur in quiet country Victoria? For many, Bam ford has been considered the main suspect of killing Barclay. In this theory, Barclay’s best mate Smith discovered what Bamford had done, shot Bamford in the back of the head and dumped his body in revenge. Apparently, years after the murders, Smith was always very reluctant to discuss it, which has added to the theory that he at least knew what had happened at the station. Yet one aspect that makes it hard to believe Smith did murder Bamford in revenge, is that he would have knowingly left Barclay’s dog to starve on the property, given that once Bamford was dead, there was no one left to look after the dog. Smith and Barclay were very good friends, and Barclay's dog was an important part of his life.

There are other theories which try to explain this mystery. One is that Barclays’ son was being raised by an aunt called Mary Campbell, who had Barclay and Bamford murdered to ensure that she would inherit the 500 pounds21,500 £approx2009
43,500 $AUDapprox2009
10,000 shilling
120,000 pence
in Barclay’s name. Jim was underage at the time of his father’s death, and therefore his inheritance went into the sole custody of Mary Campbell. In Barclay's inquest, there is little evidence linking Campbell to the murders. Yet given that she gained much financially from Barclays’ death, she remains a likely suspect.

Other theories include that Barclay was having an affair with a woman, whose jealous husband took revenge and murdered Barclay as well as Bamford to ensure no witnesses. The Wonnanagatta Station was extremely isolated, therefore making even the idea of Barclay having an affair with a married woman implausible.

The cattle thieves’ theory is one that seems highly credible yet also just as ambiguous to prove. Cattle thieving was common practice during the time, and cattle thieves were known to be in this part of Gippsland. Yet no livestock was stolen from the property. Perhaps the cattle thieves were discovered by Barclay, killing him and Bamford in fear of being turned into the police. They may have fled the property not taking any cattle with them for concern of creating damning evidence against themselves.

There are many pros and cons of the theories. Perhaps none are even remotely close to what actually happened in this isolated place. Harry Smith, Barclay's son Jim, as well as many of the local countrymen were always very opposed to discussing the murders even years after they occurred. Why was this? Why would close family and friends not want to speak of finding justice for these two men? Are you able to solve this haunting mystery?

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