In the 1860s the newly formed government of Queensland issued licences for a sheep and cattle station called Bowen Downs north of Longreach in central western Queensland. Bowen Downs extended along the Thomson River and its tributaries to the town of Muttaburra. In 1870 more than thousand cattle disappeared from the Bowen Downs station. This event would have grave consequences some years later to the town of Roma, 700kms to the south. (picture: "Harry Redford leaving NSW for the new frontier Qld, 1869" by John Morrison)
The controversy started when a number of cleanskin cattle were taken from Bowen Downs and branded with the names of several men who lived in the area. Among those who lived in the area at the time was a certain New South Welshman called Harry Redford (in some accounts called Readford). Redford was one of four men in charge of drays and horses belonging to a William Forrester who owned a station near Bowen Downs.
The four men rode 40kms up the Thomson River and built cattle yards. When the yards were completed, they mustered a large number of unbranded Bowen Downs cattle and gradually filled the yard with them. Among the cattle taken was very valuable imported bull of pure white colour who would accompany the cattle to keep them quiet. On 1 March 1870, the cattle were then taken to Forrester’s camp where they were branded with the names of several owners. Later Redford and four other men drove the mob in a dangerous journey to the southern colonies to sell them off.
By June, Redford and his crew were spotted at the general store in Strzelecki Creek, South Australia. Redford (posing as a “Henry Collins”) bought clothes and provisions and offered to sell the storekeeper two cows in payment. Redford told him he and his brother kept the cattle in an adjoining colony. The storekeeper demanded the white bull as well and the deal was done with Redford issuing a receipt in the name of Collins.
It wasn’t until September that stockmen at Bowen Downs noticed tracks of cattle leaving the station. They followed the tracks to a neighbouring property belonging to a McKenzie where they found some Bowen Downs cattle. McKenzie made no claim to the cattle but another man would later testify McKenzie was told “the coast was clear” when it came to dealing with the Bowen Downs cattle.
McKenzie and two other men (McGrath and Cornish) were arrested and charged with stealing “20 oxen 20 cows 20 steers 20 heifers and calves” from
Moorehead and Young (owners of Bowen Downs). McKenzie and McGrath were brought before the District Court in Roma in 1871. The Government, alarmed at growing reports of cattle thefts, supplemented the Crown Prosecutor with a private barrister. Despite bringing a large number of witnesses to testify against the men, the jury found the pair Not Guilty.
Meanwhile the discovery of the stolen cattle led to further investigations which uncovered an even larger amount of missing cattle. After a massive search, the famous white bull was eventually found at Strzelecki and the remainder of the cattle were traced to Adelaide. McKenzie and McGrath were brought back to Roma to face charges with Forrester and two other men (though not Redford) for stealing 200 cattle from Moorehead and Young. McKenzie turned Queen’s evidence and testified he in was in the pay of McGrath when they took the cattle and branded them in Forrester’s yard. But once again the jury found McGrath Not Guilty. The prosecution decided not to proceed with the other cases.
It wasn’t until February 1872 that Redford was arrested in NSW in relation to the Bowen Downs crime. He was transported to Roma in November that year and remanded for trial in February 1873 charged with stealing “100 bullocks 100 cows 100 heifers 100 steers and 1 bull.” There was great difficulty empanelling a jury with only 7 out of 48 jurors accepted. The judge determined only those set aside by the prosecution would return and the process continued until 12 were selected. A Bowen Downs overseer told the court he had bought the valuable white bull and Redford's signature was matched with the fictional Collins. A former accomplice in the raid gave evidence against Redford. The accomplice’s testimony was undermined by the defence which showed he had escaped from a lunatic asylum in Brisbane and was promised a pardon if he gave evidence.
The defence called no witnesses but said Redford had suffered great hardships in the 12 months since being arrested. After a 12 hour court case, the jury needed one hour to return a verdict of Not Guilty, which was greeted with gasps of surprise from the crowded Roma Courthouse. Judge Blakeney asked the foreman to repeat the verdict, after which he exclaimed “Thank God, gentlemen, that verdict is yours, not mine.”
The Brisbane Courier, Sydney Morning Herald and Victorian press sharply attacked the verdict while wealthier citizens of Roma petitioned the government deploring the miscarriage of justice. “As a Magistrate of the District I beg to add my private testimony to the fact that the feeling in Roma is evidently much very against convictions for cattle stealing and the present jury list contains many names of men quite unfitted to return an honest verdict,” one man wrote.
Judge Blakeney wrote a letter to the Attorney-General explaining the situation. He said although Redford was charged with stealing a thousand cattle, only the theft of the white bull could be proved. However the judge said “I fail to see the possibility of obtaining a conviction for cattle stealing in any case before a Roma jury.” He blamed the defective Jury Act which allowed “respectable people” to be barred from jury duty.
In March 1873, the matter came before parliament in Brisbane which decided to withdraw the District Court from Roma for two years. Defenders of Roma juries wrote letters to the Brisbane press in order to “redeem ourselves from the imputation cast upon us” and put the blame on the Crown for failing to secure the prosecutions. In the end the ban lasted less than 12 months.
The trial received notoriety across Australia. It was one of several episodes which Ralph Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms is based on with Redford’s fictional counterpart Captain Starlight tried in “Nomah”. The real Redford continued to get himself in hot water and was arrested in St George in 1875 for horse stealing. However, once again a Roma court found him Not Guilty. A second horse stealing charge was dismissed due to lack of evidence but he was eventually sentenced to 18 months for a third horse stealing offence. Significantly, this trial took place at Toowoomba, not Roma.
When he was released, he joined a party which was exploring a suitable route for a rail link from Brisbane to Darwin. He would receive lasting fame for opening up stock routes across the Barkly Tableland between Queensland and the Northern Territory. He eventually died in 1901 when attempted to cross the flooded Corella Creek. He was buried nearby.