Harry Redford - Captain Starlight?
recently noticed a club magazine photo taken in the Longreach area of a lagoon
near Starlight's Lookout. The caption claimed Starlight was an outlaw of the
area. Starlight was actually the lead character in Rolf Boldrewood's classic
novel 'Robbery Under Arms' originally written as a weekly serial in the Sydney
Mail between 1882 and 1883. Boldrewood was the name used by Thomas Alexander
Browne, JP, who at the time, was a police magistrate and mining warden at Dubbo.
It is widely believed that he based Starlight on the real life story of Harry
Redford, drover, pioneer, bushman and cattle thief. This is his story.
Little is known of the early life of Henry
Arthur Readford, commonly known as Harry Redford, however by 1869 at the age of
27, he was squatting on a property named Wombundery, near present day Windorah.
Redford was an expert bushman and drover who often worked as head teamster for
William James Forrester, transporting stores to many outlying properties in
western Queensland. He realised that many holdings were so extensive that stock
from isolated portions would not be missed for some time, if ever. Bowen Downs
was one such property of immense size (approx. 744,000 ha). Redford devised a
plan to steal cattle from the owners. Cattle duffing was very common, in fact
many small farmers made a regular living by rounding up stray cattle, changing
brands, or branding cleanskins, and using them to stock their own properties.
Many of these men later became respected members of the community, their
cattle-duffing enterprises soon forgotten. Redford may have joined their ranks
if he had not devised a plan requiring great skill and daring: a plan that was
to go down in history as one of Australia's largest cattle duffing exploits.
In early 1870 Redford, after recruiting four
men, started work on cattle yards in a secluded gully that led to the Thompson
River. The mustering of many small mobs of cattle from remote parts of Bowen
Downs started in earnest. When he had about 300 in the yards they were then
driven 40 kilometres south to another property. It was while droving one of
these mobs south that Redford included a white pedigree bull in the mob, a bull
imported from England, with quite distinctive markings and brands. Redford did
not want the bull but as is often the case, he found it very difficult to chase
one lone animal away from the herd. This bull was to be a major problem to
When about 1,000 cattle were assembled, plans
were made to drive them overland to South Australia. Two of Redford's men
refused to accompany him on a trek through largely unexplored country so Redford
and two other men set out from a point reputed to be about 35 kilometres west of
Isisford. They split the cattle into three mobs to avoid a suspiciously large
dust cloud and followed the Barcoo River down to its junction with the Cooper,
staying on the north side and crossing at a point close to the depot of the ill
fated Burke and Wills expedition of 10 years earlier.
The opening months of 1870 were very wet.
Redford knew feed would be plentiful. Flooding of the Strzelecki Creek had left
it knee deep with lush pasture and the waterholes alive with game. By June 1870
the group had come to Artracoona native well, some 1,200 kilometres from their
starting point, and close to Wallelderdine station (called Hill Hill Station in
most publications). Redford, running short of supplies, introduced himself to
Alan Walke, a store keeper near the station, as Henry Collins whose brother
owned a property in outback Queensland. Redford sold the white bull and two
branded cattle to Walke in exchange for supplies then moved the mob on between
Lake Blanche and Lake Callabonna, arriving first at Mt Hopeless and then
Blanchewater. The station manager, a man named Mules, purchased the entire mob
for $10,000. It is not known if Redford ever received any money for this
transaction as all he took to Adelaide was a note promising payment in six
By this time the stock had been missed and three
Bowen Downs Stockmen were already well down the Cooper on the trail of the mob.
They arrived at Artracoona Native Well to find Walke who showed them the white
bull and presented receipts from Henry Collins. By the time they reached
Blanchewater most of the cattle had already been sold through the Adelaide
saleyards. However, enough evidence was discovered and warrants for the arrest
of those involved issued. The men who helped Redford were soon arrested and
brought to trial at Roma. The locals had sympathy for the cattle duffers because
of their great droving feat, and verdicts of 'not guilty' were recorded in all
Redford was arrested in January 1872 and taken
to Blackall to await trial. After a lengthy remand and bail period the trial
finally started on the February 11,1873 at Roma Court House. Although evidence
was quite conclusive and the Judge directed strongly for a conviction, the jury
brought in a verdict of not guilty. A stunned and angry Judge said, "I
thank God that verdict is yours, gentlemen, and not mine."
In the ensuing furore within the community,
letters were written, petitions signed, and newspapers featured editorials, all
protesting at the blatant miscarriage of justice. Public opinion was so intense
that the Executive Council of the Queensland Government cancelled the criminal
jurisdiction of the Roma court for two years.
Although it was Redford's dubious criminal activity that made him famous, one can admire some of his achievements. Redford was one of the first pioneers of the lower Cooper and the first to overland a large mob of cattle down the Strzelecki Creek. He was chosen, because of his reputation as a great bushman, to overland 3000 head of cattle from the Barcoo River area to the newly discovered Barkly Tableland, where he founded and managed Brunette Downs Station, Many properties throughout the Top End owe their existence to his ability as a great drover, and his droves of the 1880s from the Atherton Tableland to Dubbo are only rivalled by two other great drovers of the north, Patrick Durack and Nat Buchanan. Harry Redford drowned in Corella Creek in the Northern Territory on March 12, 1901. His grave is on Brunette Downs Station.
A recent query about Harry Redford’s cattle duffing trip along Strzelecki Creek and remarks in relation to Hill Hill Station prompt me to add the contents of this letter from Historical Researcher, Helen Tolcher, to the foregoing information.
23rd June 1998.
We have just returned from a trip to Innamincka
- a mixture of Museum field-work and the necessity to take a particular
photograph in the old cemetery for my next book - during which we used the
Westprint Maps as included in the National Parks Service Desert Parks Handbook.
Generally, you have to be congratulated on an
excellent coverage of the area which must be very useful to people arriving
there without any background knowledge - so much historic and other information
that it almost makes my books redundant! However, the Birdsville and Strzelecki
Tracks map stopped me in my tracks as I browsed the mass of print on the back.
You do say that notice of errors would be appreciated, so prepare for an
elucidation of one I found.
I refer to the account of Redford’s journey
with the cattle down the Strzelecki Track. You mention "Hill Hill"
Station, and Walke as a neighbouring storekeeper who bought the stud bull and
two cows. This is a further dissemination of a piece of folklore which has
become enshrined in the accounts of the Redford droving feat over a number of
years, and about which I have on a number of occasions protested to bodies such
as "Australian Geographic" when it has cropped up in a published
Obviously you have not actually read
"Drought or Deluge" or you would have noticed there a completely
different story. After ten years of exhaustive research in the records of the
Lands Department of SA and in many other sources, I can state categorically that
no such place as "Hill Hill Station" ever existed in the area in
question. If you read the account of Redford's trial in the "Brisbane
Courier" of 18 February, 1873, you will find that the Walke brothers
occupied a small station called Wallelderdine, near Artracoona Well, and kept a
general store there. This station was briefly occupied but deserted by 1871; the
empty huts are described by traveller George McGillivray in 1871 and later by
John Conrick in the early 1880s.
A look at early pastoral maps of South Australia
will show how this misapprehension has arisen. At the point in question along
the Strzelecki Creek the words "Hut Hill" appear in italic print (not
"Hill Hill"), and just below it in bold upper and lower case print
"Old Station". All names of natural features (hills, wells, crossings)
appear in italics, all station and property names appear in upright, bold print.
The "Old Station" represents the remains of Wallelderdine Station. In
an "Australian Geographic" article years ago the ruins of Carraweena
Station shown as those of "Hill Hill Station", the station which
bought the white bull. Carraweena was established much later and south of
Wallelderdine, and therefore has no connection whatever with the Redford story.
As no mention of Wallelderdine appears in South Australian pastoral records (and
certainly none of Hill Hill Station) I suspect that the Walkes squatted on their
patch without benefit of any formal lease.
I suppose most people would dismiss my reaction
to Hill Hill Station as much ado about nothing, which in the overall scheme of
things it probably is, but long hours spent in freezing research areas tend to
make one twitchy about details. And as I said in the beginning, the maps are a
tourist's delight and you are to be congratulated.
Helen Tolcher. Linden Park. South Australia