We recently visited the Wonnangatta Valley, known as one of the best four-wheel-driving trips in Victoria, but remembered by me as a place of great mystery and sadness.
|Wonnangatta Homestead circa 1900 (image courtesy of Parks Victoria)|
In 1860 Oliver Smith was prospecting for gold when he discovered an isolated valley with a river - the Wonnangatta - running through it. He settled here with his wife, Ellen, and her son, and started a cattle station.
From his gold days, Smith knew of a man by the name of William Bryce, and 22 years after settling in Wonnangatta he convinced the latter to become a partner in his cattle business. Bryce and his family - a wife, Annie, and seven children - moved in to make the most of this opportunity.
The following year Ellen Smith died during childbirth, and the newborn twins died soon after, one at 12 days old and the other at 14 days. It was too much for Oliver and he sold his share to the Bryces and moved back to his home country of America.
|The cemetery at Wonnangatta Station|
William and Annie went on to have three more children, and lost two - a three-year-old and Jessie, a 22-year-old girl who had been brought to Wonnangatta as a toddler in a gin case on the side of a pack horse. William died in 1902 and Annie lived at the homestead until her death in 1914.
|View over the valley (now a campground along the river bank) from the homestead|
Wonnangatta Station was sold to two men from a nearby town, who did not live at the homestead but instead installed James Barclay as resident and station manager. A few years into the job Barclay hired a cook, John Bamford, a man in his mid-50s as all the younger men were away at war.
In December 1917, Barclay and Bamford rode together into the town of Talbotville to vote in the referendum on conscription. They placed their votes, stayed the night in town and left on horseback the following morning, bound for home - Wonnangatta. They never reached the station alive.
Barclay's body was found near the property, half-buried with gunshot wounds in his back. As the police returned from their investigation they found Bamford's horse, running wild without a saddle, and Bamford became the prime suspect - a likely scenario as he was already believed to have killed his own wife years earlier. A state-wide search was soon underway and a reward placed upon the man police were now sure had murdered the station manager.
It was almost a year after the men went missing that Bamford's body was found by local bushmen under a wood pile by the Howitt Hut - originally built by the former owner of Wonnangatta Station, William Bryce, for shelter when the cattle were brought here to graze in the warmer months - on the plains 14 miles from the homestead. Bamford had been shot in the head.
A number of new theories circulated. Perhaps Bamford had murdered Barclay and a neighbour discovered this truth and invoked revenge. Maybe Barclay had stumbled upon cattle thieves on his return to the station. Another rumour involved an affair with a married woman and an angry, murderous husband.
But the mystery of the Wonnangatta murders was never solved.
The house was destroyed in 1957 by walkers who weren't too careful with their campfires. All that remains are a few ruins, the foundations of the homestead, and the graves of Ellen Smith and her twins, and Annie and Jessie Bryce.
|All that remains of the Wonnangatta Homestead|
A sorry ending to a series of tragic stories that took place on this land.
And a fascinating piece of Victoria's history.