Spotlight: Captain Starlight’s Cattle Raid

T. A. Browne was the real name of colonial era author Rolf Boldrewood. Boldrewood wrote many popular tales of frontier life and bushrangers, drawing heavily on his own experiences and on popular news stories as inspiration. The central character of Boldrewood’s magnum opus, Robbery Under Arms, is Dick Marston; a young stockman who becomes wrapped up in the exploits of the dashing Captain Starlight.

The theft of a thousand cattle by Captain Starlight and his gang is one of the major set pieces in “Robbery Under Arms”, and like with most events and characters in Rolf Boldrewood’s writing, was based on an actual event.


Henry Redford was a Queensland cattle duffer and part-time bushranger who performed one of the most daring heists in Australian colonial history. In 1870 he stole 1000 cattle from Bowen Downs Station near Longreach and moved them overland through the Strzelecki Desert to South Australia for sale, netting £5000. It was a daring accomplishment unrivalled by even experienced stockmen. It wasn’t until 1872 that Readford was arrested and tried for the crime. A sympathetic (or impressed) jury found him not guilty. The tale is recounted in the news article below.

(Images from “Robbery Under Arms”, 1920)

Western Grazier (Wilcannia, NSW : 1896 – 1951), Friday 26 May 1944, page 4


The Greatest Cattle Stealing Case In Our History

STORY OF HENRY REDFORD

The greatest cattle stealing swindle of all time in Australian history was way back in 1870— that of Henry Redford, stockman and his associates.

“Thank God, gentlemen, the verdict is yours, not mine,” said the Judge, and smiting the bench with his gavel, he left the courtroom. In the year 1860 explorers William Landsborough and Nat Buchanan, after tracing the Fitzroy and the Belyando Rivers west of Rockhampton, decided to go land-seeking still further west in the country traversed three years previously by A. C Gregory.

They travelled 150 miles beyond the Belyando, and came to good country near a mountain, which subsequently they named Mount Cornish. After the usual formalities, they obtained a lease of thousands of square miles of the wonderful rolling downs country in this neighborhood; and they formed two stations — one, Mount Cornish, a cattle station, and the other, Bowen Downs, a sheep station. In due course the proprietors of these two stations formed themselves into the Landsborough Company, and their brand, L.C.5, became known in all the saleyards of Australia. Two more part owners came into the company, namely, Morehead and Young, but in the slump In the middle ‘sixties, just prior to the discovery of Gympie gold, the three original pioneers, Buchanan, Landsborough and Cornish, were obliged to sell out their interests very cheaply, and Morehead and Young were left in possession. Thus, but the luck of the game, those who found the country were deprived of the rich harvest in later years.

In November, 1867, Bill Butler, over seer of Bowen Downs Station, made a 400-mile journey eastward to Gracemere Station, near Rockhampton, to buy from the Norwegian pioneer family, the Archers (formerly of Durundur) a stud bull. Bill selected a great white bull (named Whitey), an imported animal, who was pure white, and of remarkable appearance. This animal was branded A on the near and off rumps (Archer’s brand), so Bill branded him also with an S, for extra identification. He drove the bull home to Bowen Downs, and Whitey was liberated amongst the cows and heifers of Morehead and Young.

Just as Whitey was settling down to domestic felicity a villian [sic] appeared on the scene, and Whitey’s wanderings recommenced.

The villain was named Henry Redford, a stockman, with two mates and large ideas. Redford and Company lurked in a concealed gully on the Thompson River, near Mount Cornish, where they built stockyards and gradually accumulated a herd of over a thousand L.C.5. cattle, including many hundred cows and heifers who belonged to Whltey’s harem. No suspicion was attached to the comings and goings of Redford and his mates, Doudney and Brooke, who were employed by a teamster named Forrester, of Tambo. The stockyard builders had formed the tremendous plan of lifting a thousand cattle and droving them a thousand miles to South Australia, where they expected to sell them for £5,000.

THE BIG PLAN

They planned the biggest cattle steal in the world’s history. Never in the wilds of Texas were a thousand head rustled at one go. We do these things on a proper scale in Australia, even though Australia’s boys prefer to read stories of Zane Grey’s Wild West instead of our Wilder West. When the mob in the hidden stockyards were ready to start on their trans continental amble, Whitey refused to be separated from his sweethearts and wives.

To avoid raising too big a dust, the cattle were divided into three mobs, and were slowly droved down the Thompson River, day after day and week after week, leaving Bowen Downs further in the rear. The plan of the ‘lifters’ was to abandon the cattle and take to the bush, should they ever be pursued.

Anxiously they watched the horizon behind them for signs of pursuit, but, in that land of great distance, great mobs and great carelessness, their absence remained unnoticed. After three weeks the bellowing mob reached the junction where the Barcoo joins the Thompson country, completely uninhabitated and following the track blazed by E. B. Kennedy In 1847. They were 200 miles south of Bowen Downs, 200 miles west of Tambo Police barracks, and 200 miles north-west of Bulloo Barracks at Thargomindah which were in the charge of the intrepid Inspector J. M. Gilmour, who was even then searching the country west of Cooper’s Creek for bones presumed to be the remains of explorer Leichhardt, missing since 1847.

DOWN THE COOPER’S

The three herds were now joined into one big bellowing mob, and the daring duffers, following a very careful itinerary, drove them slowly down Cooper’s Creek towards the South Australian border at Oontoo. No human being was there to question the thieves, who were as bold as the brass they hoped to make from the sale. These were the days of slow police communication and there was nothing to fear except pursuit by black trackers from Bowen Downs. Every time a mob of emus galloped behind the duffers to the north, Red ford and his co-pirates imagined that they saw Inspector Gilmour or his equally famous offsider, Trooper Ludovic, with the two Bulloo black-trackers, Tiger and Tommy. But no Tigers or Tommies appeared, and as the season was good, the lowing kine wound quickly down the lea — in other words down Cooper’s Creek —till they came to the stockade of Burke and Wills Camp 65, which had been the focus of the drama that had thrilled and horrified a continent ten years previously.

Now, who will deny that Redford and his mates were game? For despite the tragedy of Burke and Wills, there Aussie duffers formed a plan to drive their mob down Gregory’s old path along StrzeIecki Creek towards Mount Hopeless, where Burke had been baffled. Redford was a Hawkesbury River native — one of that tough breed, descendants of convicts, outlaws, free settlers, soldiers and aborigines, who had fed on bacon and corn and ridden their shaggy ponies up and down the gullies sinces [sic] the days of Governor Bligh.

These men are the original hillbillies of Australia, distillers of moonshine, rough as bags, broad in the shoulders, narrow in the waist, long in the head, and with small hands and feet.

Redford, who by now had changed his name to Collins, was of the same Hawkesbury river breed as Postman Peat, who carried Her Majesty’s Mails on horseback from Peat’s punt, along Peat’s Ridge, to Newcastle, twice a week for 50 years, wet or dry.

Redford had the same do-or-die spirit, as now he tailed his purloined mob over the border into South Australia at Oontoo, in the district of the Three Corners of Death .

STURT’S DESERT COUNTRY

Ahead, of them the Strzelecki Creek meandered southwards in a series of waterholes, some dry and some full, and some fresh and some salt, through a desert country inhabited by the notorious Tinga Tingana blacks. This was Sturt’s Stony Desert Country, and the cattle lowed and mooed as they sensed what was ahead of them.

Whitey bravely led on, but several small mobs broke away and headed back to the north, to become a prey for dingoes and Tinga Tinganas.

The route lay through Nappamerrie, Innamincka and Burley Burley water holes, after which the Strzelecki Creek did the disappearing trick and bobbed up again in a series of soaks a few miles apart until the duffers and their mob came to Murtie Murtie waterhole, 70 miles below Innamincka.

The trio were well equipped with shooting irons, and were able to vary their diet of everlasting beef with the black duck which were abundant in the lagoons and swamps of the disappearing Strzelecki. That experienced traveller, Whitey, who had now inspected the scenery from England to Rockhampton and thence most points westward to Bowen Downs, vowed that he had never seen anything like the parrakeelia and maneroo weed of the Strzelecki. Now the Tinga Tingana waterhole was reached, headquarters of the dreaded tribe of that euphonious name, but the natives made no attempt to bar Whitey’s progress.

On he went via Yerungarrowie and Goora Goora waterhole, until finally Whitey and Redford and their thousand beefy companions sighted the roof of a slab humpy!

They had come to Artacoona Well the furthest outpost of polite society in South Australia, inhabited by the Walke Brothers, who named their station Wallelderdine. Bowen Downs eight hundred miles to the north-east. The robbers felt safe from pursuit, but their problem was how to dispose of the booty without being pinched.

Walke’s Wallelderdine Station was the fringe of South Australian settlement, and word would soon spread about the passage of such a big mob down the Strzelecki. The simple-minded Walke Brothers could scarcely believe their eyes as they saw the cloud of dust on the northern horizon of their desert-bounded station, which betokened the arrival of Whitey and his attendants, come all the way from Queensland through the graveyard of Burke and Wills.

Redford, alias Collins, announced that he was a Queensland grazier, travelling a mob belonging to himself and his brother overland to the saleyards at Port Augusta.

WHITEY SOLD

They asked the Walkes for provisions and clothing from the station stores, offering in exchange two prime L.C.5 cows, but the Walke Brothers had cast covetous eyes on Whitey. that deep-thewed wanderer of the waste lands.

Little did the Walkes realise that Henry Redford, in the stillness of the night, by the Strzelecki’s brackish sand holes, had already decided to sell this pedigreed champion whose value was more than £500, anonymously to the first bidder in preference to shooting him before reaching the more settled districts.

In exchange for three pairs of moleskin trousers, 150 lbs. of flour, 7 lbs. of tea, cream-of-tartar and baking soda, and some plug tobacco, Whitey changed hands.

This transaction was Harry Redford’s only mistake. It also proved a bad deal for the Walkes.

Refreshed by a feed of damper, the three musketeers of Mount Cornish next drove their bull-less herd in the direction of Mount Hopeless, passing Mulligan Spring — so named because the blacks’ name for It was Mullachan.

Mount Hopeless and Mullachan were both out-stations of Blanchewater, which specialised in breeding Indian Army remounts (walers), of which there were 3,000 head on the station.

As the mob passed through the dried mud of Lake Crossing, between Lakes Blanche and Callabonna, their hooves padded over the spot where a few years later the skeleton of a diprotodon was found by scientists and amazed the whole world. At length they reached Mount Hopeless Station, which had been pioneered by John Baker in 1858, and went on to the homestead at Blanche water. John Baker was absent, but his manager, Mr. Mules, opened his eyes at such a huge mob appearing from the desert. Now Hawkesbury Henry had had enough of cattle duffing, flies and heat, and his only desire was to convert the herd into cash, split the divvy with his pals and leave the quart pots of the Strzelecki for the flesh pots of the Torrens. So he made a proposition.

SOLD FOR FORTUNE

Mr. Mules jumped at the chance of buying the mob, which it had never entered his head to believe were duffed, for, in all Australian history, cattle duffers had never lifted more than a few head at a time.

So the deed was done, and the duffers departed for Adelaide to cash their draft of £5,000.

The scene changes to the courtroom at Roma in Queensland, 300 miles west of Brisbane.

There, on the 11th day of February, 1873, before Judge Blakaney on circuit, the case of Regina v. Redford is called.

The prisoner, Henry Redford, Is indicted that he in March, 1870, at Bowen Downs Station, feloniously did steal 100 bullocks, 100 cows, 100 heifers, 100 steers and one bull, the property of Morehead and Young.

Sounds a bit paltry, considering that the mob was 1,000 in addition to Whitey.

Mr. Pring, Q.C., prosecuted for the Crown, and plain Mr. Paul defended the prisoner.

JURY EMPANELLED

Forty-eight jurymen were empanelled, but after strenuous and prolonged objections by both sides, only seven good men and true remained in the box.

The prisoner produced no evidence.

Mr. Pring, Q.C., then addressed the jury. He said that the prisoner’s guilt was beyond all doubt, that the evidence could not be answered, and that it only remained for the jury to give a verdict which would put a stop to the abominable habit of cattle-duffing in Western Queensland for all times. (No applause from the public gallery, which was crowded with cattle-duffers. Seven red faces In the jury box, which was also crowded with cattle-duffers).

Mr. Paul, counsel for the prisoner, next addressed the jury, which listened to him with bated breath. He ridiculed the evidence given by the lunatic McPherson, and asked that the Court should direct the jury to put such evidence out of their minds.

“This informer” he said “is trying to escape the penalties of his own crimes by giving evidence against his quondam mate.” Continuing Mr. Paul pointed out eloquently that the prisoner had been held under arrest for 12 months without a trial and had suffered great hardships through being refused bail.

At the conclusion of Mr. Paul’s address, which had lasted for an hour, the jury looked sorrowful.

The Judge, in his summing up, instructed the jury not to be led away by the specious though clever address by counsel for the prisoner. He instructed them to dismiss from their minds the hardships said to have been endured during the 12 months Redford was conined [sic] awaiting trial. These remarks were uttered, no doubt, with a view to making the prisoner appear a martyr.

The Jury then retired at 9 p.m., the case having lasted since 10 a.m. that day.

NOT GUILTY

The jury returned to court at 10 p.m., after an hour’s retirement.

“What is your verdict, gentlemen?” asked the Judge’s associate. “Not guilty!” said the foreman in a still, small voice.

(Sensation In the Court).

“What did you say?” thundered the Judge.

“Not guilty,” replied the foreman, guiltily.

After a pause His Honor said: “I will new discharge the prisoner, but before doing so, I wish to remark that I thank God, gentlemen of the jury, that the verdict is yours, not mine,” and smiting the bench with his gavel, His Honor retired in a huff and a hurry.

The sequel came a few months later after His Honor’s return to Brisbane.

The Government of Free and Easy Land uttered the following terrible malediction against Roma:

PROCLAMATION

Wednesday, 5th April, 1873.

By the Most Honorable George Augustus Constantine, Marquis of Normanby, etc., Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Colony of Queensland.

“Whereas it is now deemed expedient to withdraw for the time hereafter mentioned from the District Court of Roma, the criminal jurisdiction of such Court, now before I, George Augustus Constantine, Marquis or Normanby, Earl of Mulgrave, all in the County of York, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom; the Baron Mulgrave of New Ross, in the County of Wexford, in the Peerage of Ireland; a member or Her Majesty’s most honorable Privy Council, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Colony of Queensland and its dependencies

DECLARE and ORDER

that the criminal jurisdiction possessed by the Court at Roma shall be with drawn therefrom for the term of two years.”

Thus by bell, book and candle, on this Black Wednesday, the Honorable George Augustus Constantine (you know the rest) formally blacklisted, reprimanded stigmatised, chided, castigated, admonished. lectured, reproved, condemned, execrated and generally anathematised the Roma Jury Panel which had found Henry Redford not guilty!

So ends the true story of Henry Redford, alias Starlight, the hero of Rolfe Boldrewood’s fictitious, false and fantastic fable, “Robbery Under Arms.”

Redford was still alive when that book was published, and had been adjudged “not guilty,” so Boldrewood had to beware of the laws of libel.

I have now told the full and true story for the first time, as Redford died in 1903 in the Northern Territory, and all the actors of the drama, including the seven jurymen and the Great White Bull himself, have long since passed away.

It is said that the Walke Brothers went broke through neglecting their own business while engaged on Her Majesty’s business at Roma.

It is also undeniable that John Baker, of Mount Hopeless, was under no obligation to return the 1,000 head which his manager, Mules, had bought from ‘Henry Collins’; for, as Redford was adjudged ‘Not Guilty,’ the receipt given to Mules was valid.

What became of the £5,000 only the lawyers and Henry Redford know. — ‘Man’

[Source: State Library of Queensland]

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