(picture: “Harry Readford leaving NSW for the new frontier Qld, 1869” by John Morrison)
The controversy started when some cleanskin cattle were taken from Bowen Downs without permission of the owners. A New South Welshman Harry Redford (in some accounts called Readford) was one of four men in charge of drays and horses belonging to William Forrester who owned a station near Bowen Downs.
The four men rode 40kms up the Thomson River and built cattle yards where they mustered unbranded Bowen Downs cattle. These included a valuable imported pure white bull to accompany the cattle to keep them quiet. On 1 March 1870, the cattle were moved to Forrester’s camp where they were branded with the names of several owners. Redford and four other men drove the mob in a dangerous journey to sell them in the southern colonies.
By June, Redford and his crew were spotted at the general store in Strezletski Creek, South Australia. Redford (posing as “Henry Collins”) bought clothes and provisions and offered 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.
In September stockmen at Bowen Downs noticed tracks of cattle leaving the station. They followed the tracks to a neighbouring property belonging to a man named McKenzie where they found 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”. 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 a large number of witnesses testifying against the men, a jury found the pair not guilty.
The discovery of the stolen cattle led to further investigations which uncovered an even larger amount of missing cattle. The famous white bull was found at Strezletski and the remainder of the cattle were traced to Adelaide. McKenzie and McGrath were brought back to Roma to face further charges with Forrester and two other men (though not Redford) for stealing 200 cattle. McKenzie turned Queen’s evidence and testified he was in the pay of McGrath when they took the cattle and branded them in Forrester’s yard. Again the jury found McGrath not guilty. The prosecution decided not to proceed with the other cases.
In February 1872 Redford was arrested in NSW for the Bowen Downs crime. He was transported to Roma in November 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 seven out of 48 jurors accepted. The judge determined only those set aside by the prosecution would return 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 gave evidence against Redford. The defence undermined his testimony saying 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 arrest. After a 12 hour court case, the jury needed one hour to return another verdict of not guilty, greeted with gasps of surprise from the crowded Roma courthouse. The judge 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 attacked the verdict while wealthier citizens of Roma petitioned the government deploring the miscarriage of justice. “As a Magistrate of the District,” one citizen wrote, “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.”
The local judge wrote a letter to the Attorney-General. He said although Redford was charged with stealing a thousand cattle, only the theft of the white bull could be proven. “I fail to see the possibility of obtaining a conviction for cattle stealing in any case before a Roma jury,” the judge said. He blamed the defective Jury Act which allowed “respectable people” to be barred from jury duty.
In March 1873, the parliament in Brisbane withdrew 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”. They 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 misbehave and was arrested in St George in 1875 for horse stealing. Once again a Roma court refused to convict. 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 released, he joined a party exploring a route for a rail link from Brisbane to Darwin. His lasting contribution came by opening up stock routes between Queensland and the Northern Territory. He died in 1901 when attempting to cross the flooded Corella Creek in north-west Queensland.