Following hard on the heels of the explorers (and sometimes being explorers themselves), squatters and settlers were moving into the high country of what is now the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Victoria by the 1830s and 1840s.

It was soon recognised that the mountains offered lush grazing, but while certain properties could be occupied year-round, much of the higher country could only be grazed in the warmer months owing to snow depths at other times. Mountain graziers developed a seasonal rhythm of taking stock into the mountains each summer, in order to rest the home property and take advantage of the high pastures.

This seasonal grazing lasted for several generations. With the declarations of Kosciuszko State Park in 1944, the highest leases around Mt Kosciuszko were terminated and gradually all grazing in the park was curtailed, and it finished by the end of the 1960s. In Victoria, grazing licences were cancelled from 2006.

The buildings erected as periodic shelter for the people working with sheep and cattle were on the whole rudimentary structures, although where year-round habitation was possible more comfortable homesteads (like Coolamine and Currango in Kosciuszko, and 1860s Orroral in Namadgi) were erected. Many huts have survived today. They reflect vernacular building styles and techniques that, in some cases, are no longer practised. The slab huts, built from hand-split slabs of local timber (particularly straight-grained Alpine ash, but also other species) are classic structures of this type and can be found over a wide area of the Australian Alps.

Apart from the huts, reminders of the grazing story in the high country also include timber stockyards and early fences. Namadgi, for example, possesses some significant specimens of forked fences using little or no wire, and early twentieth-century dingo fences, built especially high to keep dingoes away from stock. The rough sheep ‘breaks’, or temporary bush yards, constructed simply from branches thrown together into a low wall, can also be seen by observant travellers in the alps parks. Place names also reflect the past, and graziers, brumby runners, miners, skiers and walkers have all left a rich heritage of names.

Gunshot, strychnine and decapitation

The unsolved murders of Wonnangatta homestead (taken from Alps news #41)

Wonnangatta was established around the time of the Gold Rush, at the time one of Victoria’s most remote cattle stations, set in a valley accessible only by pack horse. It was an isolated life for the large home-schooled families who lived there: families that became high country legends through their skill and legendary hospitality but who equally suffered infant mortality and death in childbirth.

wonnangatta homesteadBy 1914 the station was owned in partnership and managed by a third party – James Barclay, a local cattleman whose wife had died of tuberculosis only nine months after they’d married. Perhaps he initially welcomed the isolation, but by 1917 he’d hired John Bamford to cook and do odd jobs. It was war time and men were scarce, so when Barclay was warned that Bamford had a bad temper and was suspected of (but never charged with) strangling his wife, Barclay hired him regardless.

Eight days after Bamford had settled into his new job, the two men – Bamford and Barclay – rode into Talbotville to vote in the referendum on conscription. When later questioned by police, those who’d seen and spoken with the pair, described them as cheerful and comfortable in each other’s company. Around the same time Bamford’s best friend and neighbour rode over to Wonnangatta to drop off the mail – there was no-one about. About three weeks later he again rode over only to find no-one there and Barlcay’s dog looking distressed and half starved. The alarm was raised and a few days later a search of the property uncovered the body and severed head of Barclay, half buried, badly decomposed with evidence that he had been shot in the back. No evidence of Bamford was found at that point though it was noted that a horse was also missing. And while it may not be relevant, later, when reinforcements from Melbourne arrived at the crime scene, as they prepared their first meal in the homestead they seasoned their bacon and eggs from a tin marked pepper, only to watch the eggs turn a strange colour from what was in fact strychnine. Nine months later, following the snow melt, Bamford’s body was also found, shot in the head, under a partly burnt out woodpile, about 12 miles from the homestead near Howitt Hut.

Officially the murder remains unsolved, but with many theories. Perhaps Bamford murdered Barclay and locals handed out their own justice, tracking him down, executing him then attempting to dispose of the evidence in the woodpile? Or, as rumour has it, was Barclay killed by a jealous husband, who was then forced to chase and murder Bamford who may have been a witness? Or perhaps cattle thieves had been stumbled upon by Barclay, signing the fate of both men.

More information can be found in the Australian Alps education kit.