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


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.


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.


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 .


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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


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]

Blue Cap: An Overview

Some of the more obscure bushrangers have nicknames seemingly pilfered from Grimm’s fairytales. One of the most notable is Blue Cap, the alias of Robert Cottrell. Cottrell was not prolific or prodigious as a bushranger by any far stretch, but he and his gang caused their fair share of trouble along the Murrumbidgee River in the late 1860s.

Many of the exploits of Bluecap’s gang were claimed to have taken place around Berry Jerry.

Robert Cottrell was born around 1835 but next to nothing is known about his formative years. It is known that he took up bushranging when he absconded from the farm at Billabong where he was employed claiming he was being maltreated. Cottrell was not the greatest bushman or criminal due in part to his health. Cottrell suffered from acute Opthalmia – eye problems that made him extremely sensitive to light – so he was frequently seen wearing an eyeshade to protect his eyes from the sun. Cottrell claimed he was forced into crime by desperation, his employer not providing him with adequate accommodation or nutrition. One must presume that he was extremely malnourished indeed if he thought that bushranging would be better able to provide food.

Cottrell gained the moniker “Blue Cap” (sometimes recorded as “Captain Blue Cap”) very quickly during his criminal career though it is not known why exactly. It is possible that his eyeshade may have been mistaken for a blue cap, though usually they came in green. It may have also been a blue jockey’s cap. Regardless, Cottrell was one of many bushrangers operating in New South Wales during the mid to late 1860s, yet he managed to outlive the Hall Gang and was close to the end of Captain Thunderbolt’s time when his career as an outlaw ended.

As 1867 settled in Cottrell teamed up with a convict named Jerry Duce who complemented Blue Cap by adopting the nickname White Chief. Blue Cap and White Chief built up their gang over the course of the year. The strange monikers continued to be a trend as Scotch Jock (allegedly a former telegraph of John Dunn) and Jack the Devil signed up to join in the fun as well as a rogue known as King. Raids on farms were the core of their operation, the gang preferring to steal supplies rather than valuables.

The gang now had enough momentum to step things up and proceeded to perform a string of audacious raids, striking all of the stations and travellers they could along the Murrumbidgee River. At the first station they stole supplies and forced the station manager to play draughts with them while they sheltered and ate. At the next station they again took supplies and forced one of the women of the household to play piano for them. As the string of robberies went on the bushrangers started raiding the liquor cabinets of their victims. This predilection for alcohol would become a recurring problem.

It was at this time that a chap named T. A. Browne had his own experience of the gang. Browne was a well-known squatter in Wagga Wagga, owning the Bundidgaree Station near Narrandera. The Blue Cap gang had been reported as going about their depredations in the area and Browne, who was minding coach horses for his friend James Gormly, was keenly aware that he was likely to cross paths with the bushrangers and warned his friends to secrete any of their valuables until the threat had passed. The experience left a considerable impression on Browne who used it when crafting the character Redcap in his story The Squatter’s Dream, written under his better known nom de plume – Rolf Boldrewood.

The Murrumbidgee River [Source: Bidgee – Own work, CC BY 3.0,]

At one station the gang stuck up they got so stuck into the booze that Blue Cap passed out. Scotch Jock bought a wheelbarrow from the superintendent with his loose change and used it to cart Blue Cap off the premises to a nearby dam and dropped him into the water to sober him up. Alcohol became the cause of major conflict in the gang with the men frequently having heated arguments after a little too much rum.

After one of their audacious raids on the station of a man named Featherstonhaugh the gang were hotly pursued by local police on horseback. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the gang when they managed to shake off the police pursuit only to reach the flooded Urangeline Creek. Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures so the bushrangers took their mounts into the creek, all the time struggling against the waters that rushed downstream, foaming and gurgling, pushing the horses away. Cottrell led the group and a gang member named Hammond took the rear. With considerable difficulty all of the gang cleared the creek with the exception of Hammond, whose horse struggled to maintain a footing in the creek. As the rain pelted down in the dusky gloom, the gang could barely see as Hammond’s horse was bowled over into the torrent and Hammond dragged underneath. Rider and mount were washed away like flotsam and there was nothing anybody could do. After a failed search the gang continued on their journey. The drowned horse would be found washed up downstream the next day, still equipped with saddle and saddle bags and Hammond’s waterlogged corpse even further downstream two days later. The incident was too much and the gang, already starting to flake apart, decided to go their separate ways. The White Chief would go on to a reasonably successful run with a gang member named Brookman and new offsiders but not for long, the shadow of the gallows finally catching up with them at the beginning of 1868.

Mrs. Willis interceding for Doolan’s life [Robert Bruce, August 27, 1867] (Credit: State Library of Victoria)

In October, Blue Cap fell in with a postman named Tom Doolan who had grown tired of the straight and narrow. He brought together Blue Cap and some other small time bushrangers and hatched a plan. Doolan had borrowed some pistols from his master William Flood on the pretense he was worried about bushrangers. Doolan proposed that they all stage a mock gunfight during which his accomplices could “steal” the firearms. They would later create a billiards tournament in town to create a distraction while they robbed the bank. Doolan met with confederates Scott and Smyth in town and rode to the station where he was employed. As they approached, Doolan took off and the others, now joined by Blue Cap, chased the postman. As Doolan rode he dropped two of the pistols in the grass for the bushrangers to collect. Doolan and the bushrangers engaged in a gunfight, shots going off everywhere. Staff at the station were baffled and terrified, not realising that the bushrangers were firing with pistols that were capped but not loaded. After a while firing ceased and Doolan was dragged to a spot barely visible to the staff. Doolan went on his knees before Blue Cap and they engaged in a discussion. Doolan provided Blue Cap with a clasp knife and instructed him to cut into his forearm and pretend he had been shot. Scott went to the homestead and grabbed a tablecloth. Blue Cap’s black mare was injured from a bullet wound to the chest. Blue Cap then took blood from the horse and spread it on himself to increase the goriness of his injury. That night he stayed at the station, refusing to let Doolan out of his sight. It wasn’t long before Doolan’s plan was foiled and he was arrested for stealing the firearms and put on trial.

Cottrell’s life on the run came to an end when he attempted to bail up three plain-clothes policemen. Crossing their path with the intention of bailing them up he was greeted with “Hello Bluey” from one of the troopers. Bluecap took off but was soon apprehended after being shot and promptly taken to Wagga Wagga.

Tried on 20 April, 1868, Cottrell pleaded guilty to three charges of robbery under arms and was sentenced to ten years hard labour. On the days leading up to the trial Cottrell had been in extremely poor health and in fact had suffered a series of seizures that required multiple men to hold him down. His face in court was covered by a green eyeshade and he was described as looking sickly, pale and thin.

Cottrell was not in prison anywhere near as long as expected as the New South Wales government issued a controversial amnesty that enabled many prisoners to be released in 1874. Having served almost four years of his sentence it was deemed that he had been a model prisoner and his lack of prior convictions made him a perfect candidate for release. When Cottrell walked out of the gates of Goulburn Gaol he walked out of the pages of history and what became of him has not been recorded.

Selected Sources:

“BLUE-CAP’S GANG.” Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1853 – 1872) 22 February 1868: 12.

“THE EARLY DAYS.” The Urana Independent and Clear Hills Standard (NSW : 1913 – 1921) 3 March 1916: 1.

“THE FAMILY CORNER.” Healesville Guardian (Vic. : 1893 – 1898) 12 November 1897: 3

“THE NEWS OF THE DAY.” The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) 10 September 1867: 5.

“NEW SOUTH WALES.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) 27 August 1867: 3.

Boldrewood, Rolf. The Squatter’s Dream. Macmillan and Co., 1891. [ Available online: ]