High Country Mysteries

Ron and Viv Moon — 15 October 2020
Wonnangatta Valley, in the Hidden Valley of the Alps, has a long history that includes some rather mysterious circumstances.

The Hidden Valley of the Alps is probably one of the most iconic destinations in the Victorian High Country. 

Completely surrounded by mountains, the Wonnangatta Valley was first discovered by A.W. Howitt in 1860. Wonnangatta Station was taken up soon after by American prospector Oliver Smith in 1866. With his wife and young son, Harry Smith, they were the first white people to call the valley home. The original homestead built by the Smiths, then later enlarged by the Bryce family, was accidentally burnt down by bushwalkers in May 1957.

However, in 1917–18, a more dramatic happening occurred in this verdant valley when the infamous Wonnangatta Murders took place.

In December 1917, then Wonnangatta Station manager, James Barclay, hired John Bamford as a cook and odd-job man. Barclay was warned about Bamford, a wiry man with a violent temper who’d been suspected of strangling his wife. 

Eight days later, the two men rode off to Talbotville, to vote on whether conscription should be made mandatory to help the war effort (it was defeated). It was the last time the two men were seen alive. 

Some days later, around the 22 January, Barclay’s best friend, Harry Smith (whose hut can still be seen at Eaglevale), took Barclay’s mail to him to find the door of the hut closed. He didn’t see anything suspicious, and there was a note pinned on the door stating, ‘home tonight’. 

After a couple of nights camped there, Harry left, but after not hearing from his mate returned to the valley in the middle of February. The note was still there, and Barclay’s dog was very hungry.

Returning to the valley with a couple of companions around the 24 February they stayed overnight and after a search of the area they found Barclay’s badly decomposed body and a severed head in Conglomerate Creek. 

Barclay had been shot in the back. The still-missing Bamford was immediately suspected, and a Melbourne detective was called in to investigate, but all he uncovered were unanswerable questions.

It wasn’t until the snows melted nine months later in early November 1918, that Bamford’s body was found hidden under a pile of charred logs, 400m from the Howitt Hut on the Howitt High Plains. He had been shot with a single bullet to the head. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Dargo.

Neither of the murders have ever been solved.

Some say Bamford, in one of his angry argumentative moods, killed Barclay, and then a friend of Barclay’s (he had many) killed Bamford. 

Harry Smith was a prime suspect of the latter murder, while others thought both had been killed by rustlers which was kind of rampant in the area in those days.

Interestingly, Barclay had purchased a handgun just prior to his death and carried it, loaded, with him everywhere. So, maybe he was expecting trouble. 

As an aside to this story, a little later the first vehicle to enter the valley was in 1945 when a horse track was widened to take the body of the legendary Harry Smith to Sale for burial. 

After the death of the last Bryce family member, the famed property was sold a number of times. In 1988 the station freehold land was finally purchased by the State Government and included in the Alpine National Park. 

However, mysteries and missing people continue to haunt the area.

More recent is the disappearance of Russel Hill and Carol Clay under what you’d have to say are pretty suspicious circumstances. They went missing while on a trip into the Wonnangatta back in March of this year, and while their camp was burnt out their vehicle somehow survived the flames. 

Just a few months earlier, in October 2019, Niels Becker did not return from a bushwalk near Mt Stirling, while in July of that year, Conrad Whitlock vanished after last being seen on the road to Mt Buller.

All these disappearances occurred within a 60km radius of one another, while a mysterious recluse called the ‘Button Man’, because of his supposed habit of cutting deer antlers down to make clothing buttons, has made an appearance in the story. 

However, detectives don’t have any suspects, although apparently they know of a few other hermits in the area who have strange and unsociable habits.

So today, the mountains hold a few more mysteries. I wonder who will finally solve them? 

A 4WDer or camper perhaps?


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