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In 1930, local historian P. W. Walker wrote an account of a massacre of Aboriginal people at Barjarg (on the Broken River between Benalla and Mansfield), which had reportedly taken place some 90 years earlier. The veracity of his report was hotly challenged in the pages of The Australasian newspaper; however, it now seems that Walker had every reason to listen to the woman who told him the story in the first place: Mrs Catherine Withers.


The Broken River Valley at Barjarg (Jacqui Durrant, June 2020).

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes discussion of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In particular, I acknowledge the Aboriginal ancestors of the region in which I live, whose words may be quoted within this or other posts, with the greatest respect for their legacy.

In 1930, local historian P.W. Walker wrote in The Australasian newspaper of an incident that took place on pastoral run, somewhere in the Mansfield district:

‘The aborigines were numerous, and at times they were troublesome and treacherous. They would steal sheep, spear cattle and horses, and even murder white people. Consequently the men, women, and children who lived in their huts were exposed to great danger, the women and children at times being alone while the men attended, to the stock. Firearms had to be kept in the house and carried by the shepherds and stockmen, and the women went to the creek for water with a gun in one hand and a bucket in the other. In some of the huts holes were made in the walls to put the guns through and fire at the blackfellows. Sometimes the blacks formed themselves into large parties and attacked the dwellings. On one occasion there were seven white people and a black boy at one of the stations. The black boy heard the blacks arranging their plans to attack and murder these white folk, and he warned them. About 400 aborigines approached, but the white people had prepared a repast of damper and beef, which they gave to the blacks. The whites’ cooking did not appear to agree with the blacks. Nearly all of them were suddenly taken ill, and most of them died on the spot. They were buried near where they lay, and some of the mounds can be seen to this day.’[1a]

Reporting a historical massacre of Aboriginal people in a national newspaper was pretty heady stuff in 1930, and the author of said article – ‘An Early History of Mansfield’ — P. W. Walker, was questioned by one reader:

Sir,—Mr. P. W. Walker mentions in his article on the history of Mansfield a threatened attack, made by about 400 natives, on a homestead, and also deals with their subsequent complete destruction caused by a judicious mixture of beef, damper, and some other deleterious matter. Would he kindly tell us which homestead was attacked and where the natives were buried, and by whom?
-Yours. &c.,
Melbourne, November 8.’ [1b]

Walker offered this reply:

‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN. Sir,—In reply to “Another Oldtimer,” it was on the Barjarg station where the threatened attack was made by the blacks and where they were buried. I think it was in the ‘forties. My informant was the late Mrs. Frank Withers, and it was her father who told her.
—Yours. &c.,
Mansfield, Nov. 16. P. W. WALKER.’ [2]

What followed was a round-robin of criticism of Walker’s story, commencing with a further reply from ‘Another Oldtimer’, whose main objection was that those whom Walker had implied were likely responsible for the massacre — the early pastoralists Alex Hunter and James Watson, and their cousin William Francis Hunter Arundel — were ‘not the class’ to commit such an act. Hunter and Watson had formed a pastoral company in 1839 (largely backed by the money of the Scottish landed gentry, including the Marquis of Ailsa) [3], and it was commonly believed that Barjarg Station had been cut from their pastoral holdings; and thus it was supposed that they had to be responsible for any poisoning of Aboriginal people that might have taken place.

At length, ‘Another Oldtimer’ explained, ‘Serious trouble with the natives in the Mansfield district was confined to the early years of the fourth decade of last century, when one of Watson and Hunter’s… shepherds was murdered, and also two shepherds in the employ of the unfortunate and over-sanguine Waugh at Delatite Station. Of course, retribution was meted out, but Messrs. Watson and Hunter, or their cousin, Mr. Hunter Arundel, who occupied Barjarg at that time, were not the class to permit diabolical outrage. So Mr. Walker’s statement, unintentionally doubtless, amounts to a calumny on an honourable and distinguished name.’ [4]

Notably, ‘Another Oldtimer’s’ objection to Walker’s story lay not in the assertion that Hunter, Watson and/or Arundel had killed Aboriginal people — indeed he wrote, not so cryptically, that ‘retribution was meted out’. Instead, his objection lay with the claim that a mass poisoning had taken place: a ‘diabolical’ act, surely with the power to blacken ‘distinguished names.’ [5] (The distinction that ‘Another Oldtimer’ made between ‘retribution meted out’ to individuals, and ‘diabolic acts’ in which Aboriginal people were murdered indiscriminately, was an important distinction to pastoralists of the squatting era, in theory if not in practice.)

Soon, the author of the latest book on the subject of early Victorian squatting, Pastures new: an account of the pastoral occupation of Port Phillip, (1930), A. S. Kenyon, weighed into the debate as a figure of academic authority, writing:

‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN. Sir,—The vague charge against the early pioneers of the Mansfield district of poisoning some 400 aborigines has now been given a somewhat more definite form. The place was Barjarg. Barjarg was part of the Watson and Hunter country taken up in 1839, and was cut out of it towards the end of 1841 by William Francis Hunter Arundell, a relative of the Hunter’s. Arundell was a gentleman of unimpeachable conduct. He transferred to Robert Jamieson, one of early Melbourne’s most reputable citizens, who was partner at first with Sir William Henry Fancourt Mitchell. Mitchell, for 18 months sole owner, transferred to James Moore in August, 1849. The Moores held it until 1863. Now against which of these gentlemen is the charge of murder to be laid? Throughout the whole of the forties Mr. G. A. Robinson, chief protector of the aborigines, and his district protectors (one of whom, Parker, was stationed on the Goulburn) investigated every report or rumour that was heard as to murder or even bad treatment of the blacks. This wholesale poisoning yarn, unwhispered at the time, originated in Van Dieman’s Land and has been revived and repeated in each colony. In every ascertainable case it can be attributed to disgruntled station hands, generally “expired” convicts or ticket-of-leave men. There never was any foundation for such a slander upon our early settlers, whose treatment of the aborigines was as kind and tolerant as the times permitted.—Yours, &c.,
Heildelberg (V.), Nov. 24.’ [6]

Finally, in yet another response to Walker’s story, family member Mr Ivan J. Hunter, wrote to The Australasian. ‘In those years,’ he started, ‘I think, my family were almost the sole occupants of the district  [my italics], which was then known as the Devil’s River country, and one of them certainly did occupy Barjarg. My uncle, Alexander McLean Hunter, was the first of the family to arrive there in 1839, and was followed by my Uncle John and my father, James A. C. Hunter, also their cousins, John (sometimes called “Old John” or “Howqua” to distinguish him from the other John—usually Jack Campbell Hunter and William Arundel.) Barjarg was the name of an estate in Scotland owned by a branch of the family. Now it seems to me that if it is believed that the blacks were really poisoned, some of my ancestors must be guilty of a very serious crime. I am convinced that no old hand, or anyone who followed early history, would believe such a story…’ [7]

Ivan Hunter went on to explain how ‘the natives were always treated well and many constantly employed on the different station properties’ [8] And so it would seem that the assertion of local historian P. W. Walker was now thoroughly squashed under the weight of denials that Hunter, Watson or Arundell would ever have engaged in such a brutal and cruel act of mass murder.

Only now, 180 years later, and with a broader range of primary historical source materials, can we give local historian P. W. Walker a second hearing.

Hunter and Watson's

A Field Sketch of Watson and Hunter’s pastoral empire, drawn up in 1846 by surveyor Robert Russell, at a time when Hunter and Watson’s pastoral company had fallen into insolvency (State Library of Victoria).

To begin with, the confidence held by Walker’s detractors that nothing ‘diabolical’ would ever have happened at any of the stations in the vast pastoral holdings of Hunter and Watson is unrealistic. As historian Judy Macdonald, who has read the papers of the Hunter family, points out, ‘Figures given by Alexander Hunter in September 1841 show that Watson and Hunter employed 100 hands, had about 80 horses, 3000 cattle and 20,000 sheep, constantly changing. They had 12 stations at Devils River, [and were] ‘buying and selling Melbourne properties daily.’ [9] To assume that Hunter and Watson, as principals of these numerous stations, were fully conversant with all that was being done by every number of their one hundred staff (comprising mainly assigned convict servants and ticket-of-leave convicts), is implausible. Furthermore, it may even be argued that Hunter and Watson’s grip on their pastoral empire was tenuous; possibly even chaotic: by 1846 their company was thoroughly insolvent (although the economic depression of 1842 played a role; it also seems the young men of the Hunter clan were more interested in horse racing than running a pastoral empire); and the court cases surrounding the eventual dissolution of the company would drag on into the 1850s. [10]

We can also discount Kenyon’s argument that the poisoning of Aboriginal people in Victoria was merely a ‘yarn’ that originated in Tasmania. Instead, there is evidence to suggest that the poisoning of Aboriginal people did take place on the Ovens and Broken Rivers, and elsewhere. As I have written before, in June 1839, not even a year after the initial settlement of North East Victoria by Europeans, Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Goulburn district, James Dredge, recorded the prevalence of mass poisonings with ‘sweet damper’ (ie: arsenic-laced damper) [11], and Assistant-Protector of Aborigines for the Melbourne area, William Thomas, also recorded in March 1839 that Aboriginal people on the Broken and Ovens Rivers had been ‘put out in this way.’ [12] Kenyon’s assertion that Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson and his district protectors ‘investigated every report or rumour that was heard as to murder or even bad treatment of the blacks’ is pure fantasy: anyone familiar with the journals of Robinson or his Assistant Protectors like Thomas and Dredge, will know that they were profoundly under-resourced, and will see the extent to which their investigations were hampered by the squatters’ ‘code of silence’ and government indifference.


The front gate of present-day Barjarg Station (Jacqui Durrant, June 2020).

Next, we should re-examine whether Hunter and Watson were the only pastoralists who could possibly have been responsible for the poisoning on Barjarg Station. Ivan Hunter was quite correct when he wrote that his family were almost the sole occupants of the district. Certainly, Barjarg was leased under license by Alex Watson’s cousin William Francis Hunter Arundell from 1841-1848. [13] This much was documented by Kenyon in his 1932 book (coauthored with R. V. Billis) The Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip. However, Billis and Kenyon’s book was only a simple ‘record of all [land]holdings under depasturing licenses.’ [14] It relied solely on government records, and as such, effectively missed periods of European occupation in which a pastoralist had failed to take out a formal license to ‘depasture’ stock.

As it turns out, before Barjarg was so named, it did have another early European occupant, whose association with the area would soon be forgotten: Peter Stuckey Junior. We can be certain of this, as on 10 May 1840, Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, was travelling south along the Broken River with Assistant Protector James Dredge, going from station to station; and having visited William McKellar’s station ‘Lima’ on the Broken River just north of present-day Swanpool (Lima Station still exists in the same location today), Robinson recorded that ‘At 15 miles from McKellar’s [we] came to Stucky’s station.’ If one maps the distance, one finds that Robinson had come to the head station of Barjarg (which like Lima Station, still exists in the same location today).

At the time of Robinson’s visit, Stuckey was only 18 years old; the eldest son of established pastoralist Peter Stuckey, who by this time was based at ‘Willie Ploma’ on Wiradjuri lands at Gundagai. Robinson found that Peter Stuckey Junior, along with his servants, had only just partially finished work on a hut which could sleep eight men. The hut had been built specifically because they feared Aboriginal attack. [15]

Robinson gave an account of their situation with regards the local Aboriginal people: ‘Was informed by Mr Stuckey that on about Saturday, 25 April [1840] last a party of blacks visited his station and on the day following made an attack upon it but without doing any injury except spearing in the back of the shoulder a domesticated native in Mr Stuckey’s employ and who belongs to the Murrumbidgee [ie: Wiradjuri] tribe. Mr Stuckey when attacked was living under loose slabs. He afterwards worked day and night to complete a part of his slab hut, which is very substantial with a slab ceiling and loopholes for firing out of. They could stand a seize [ie: siege] in this fortress, it is substantially built. … [Stuckey] is quite a youth. … He had 5 men at the station, four whites and one an assigned servant and a Murrumbidgee black.’

Robinson remained at Stuckey’s station that night, ‘to enquire into the particulars of their outrage [ie: attack]. It [the hut] was about 12 x 8, in which the four white men, the black, Stuckey, Dredge and myself, large [enough] to stow eight persons. Stucky’s people apprehended another attack from the natives and had their firearms prepared for the natives. Whilst they were preparing their fortress they kept a sentinel.’

Let us remind ourselves that the local historian, Walker, could not have read this account of Stuckey’s station in Robinson’s journals, as the journals left Australia with Robinson in 1852 and remained in Britain until well after Walker’s article was written. Robinson’s description of Stuckey’s situation, with his crew of European servants plus one ‘domesticated native,’ whom may have come to be remembered in history as a ‘black boy’ (adult ‘black’ men were once routinely referred to as ‘boy’), does resemble the group described by Walker: ‘there were seven white people and a black boy at one of the stations. The black boy heard the blacks arranging their plans to attack and murder these white folk, and he warned them.’ Indeed Robinson recorded that Stuckey and his men ‘apprehended another attack’ from local Aboriginal people. Clearly, the hut they built — strong enough to withstand a siege — was evidence of this fact.

Robinson left the following day, and unfortunately we can learn no more of Stuckey’s situation from him. Indeed, by April 1841, Stuckey had established himself on a new station at the junction of the Murray and Ovens River [16], and the lease of Barjarg had been taken out by Arundell. This means that Stuckey’s stay on that part of the Broken River lasted a year or less. No wonder his presence on the Broken River was forgotten, and was absent from the archives consulted by Billis and Kenyon.

One might ask how deep the fear of imminent attack ran among Stuckey and his stockmen, and what might have driven them to possibly take the drastic step of poisoning a large number of local Aboriginal people. By the time of Robinson’s visit, Stuckey and his men would have received reports that two days after the attack on their own station, a stockman at Chisholm’s Myrrhee Station in the King Valley had been murdered and ritually mutilated (having had the caul fat from around one kidney cut out) by a group of Aboriginal men, believed to be the same group responsible for the attack on not only their own station, but a number of others. [17]

A letter written to The Port Phillip Gazette on the 8th May, signed by someone calling themselves ‘A Friend to Justice’, condemned Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson’s passive role in the events which were happening during the course of his visit to North East Victoria, writing that ‘Mr. Robinson passed a party of stockmen all armed going in search of the natives; he ought to have put himself or his sub at the head of these men, not only to prevent the wanton effusion of aboriginal blood, but to bring to justice the murderers of Mr. Chisholm’s man.’ [18] Clearly, stockmen in the vicinity of the Ovens and King Rivers were looking for violent retribution, which ‘A Friend to Justice’ knew would be ‘wanton’ — which is to say ‘indiscriminate’.

A little over a week and a half after George Augustus Robinson had visited Stuckey’s station (Barjarg), Aboriginal people also attacked David Lindsay Waugh’s station on the Delatite River. Waugh’s station was considered to be in the immediate neighbourhood of Stuckey’s: two stockmen — John Kyly, immigrant, native of Cork; and convict ‘lifer’ Emanuel Haly — were murdered, and this time, their bodies were never recovered. [19] With good reason, we can speculate that increasingly ‘wanton’ forms of retribution, including poisoning, were pursued by pastoralists and their stockmen.

Hunter & Watson's detail

Detail from Russell’s Sketch Plan of Hunter and Watson’s pastoral holdings, showing its boundary with Arundell’s Barjarg Station, 1846 (State Library of Victoria).

So who was Walker’s informant regarding the massacre at Barjarg — ‘Mrs Frank Withers’? The Withers family were gold-rush-era settlers of the Mansfield district, and ‘Mrs Frank Withers’ was Catherine Withers (born Dublin, 1848, who died at Howe’s Creek, Mansfield in 1922). Her Irish emigrant parents James Doyle and Molly (Mary, nee Murtagh) had settled on the Broken River sometime in the 1850s. In 1928, upon the death of Catherine’s brother Frank, The North East Ensign would remind its readers that Catherine and Frank’s father James Doyle ‘was well known in the early days[,] and for years manager and book-keeper of Barjarg and Warrenbayne stations.’ [20]

According to a Withers family descendant Fon Cathcart, who wrote a history of the Withers family in 1965, Catherine Withers’ mother, Molly Doyle, had an amicable relationship with local Aboriginal people:

‘She had plenty of Irish spirit and, though used to living in a big city, she was quite unafraid of the blacks who roamed around the homestead. She was a bare 5 feet tall, but had a heart as big as a giant, and she opened it right up to these poor dispossessed aborigines, feeding them when they needed it from their own not to plentiful larder, and administering to their children when they were sick. They adored her.

‘Jimmie Doyle ordered them off his property at every opportunity, and gave them the benefit of his large Irish vocabulary of swear words.
“Are you feeding those so-and-so’s?” He would bellow at her.

“Divvil a bit,” she would reply with an innocent look, having just given them the last of her batch of bread!

‘The blacks had a great sense of humour apparently, which is quite interesting to note, for when they saw Jimmie Doyle coming in the distance they would often bundle the tiny Doyle children into their canoe and row up the Broken River, laughing mockingly as he raced to the bank and swore volubly at them. They called her “Missy Doyle” and him “Mr Buggarem”, with a rare insight into the ways of white people!

“Missy” wasn’t afraid of what they would do to her children – as soon as “Mr Buggarem” went off to the sheds they’d row back and deposit their precious burden back in a safe place. One of these precious burdens was Catherine, usually called Kate, who, like her sisters of whom we know of two, was pretty as a picture – she grew up to be the future wife of Frank Withers, eldest son of James and Mary…’ [21]

Given that the Doyles reportedly arrived in the Broken River district in the 1850s [22], they could have heard the story of the massacre at Barjarg no later than fifteen years after its actual occurrence. Jimmie Doyle would have been in the employ of James Moore, who had taken over the lease of Barjarg from Arundel in 1849, and who also later developed Warrenbayne station. [23] So, Catherine Doyle — a.k.a ‘Mrs Frank Withers’ — had spent time with surviving local Aboriginal people on the Broken River as a child, and her father had intimate knowledge of Barjarg Station at a time well within living memory of any  massacre that took place there. It seems that local historian P. W. Walker had every right to put Catherine Withers forward as a credible source of local oral history.


Unfortunately, as it stands, I cannot yet find any other independent account of a mass poisoning at Barjarg station. A letter written in 1926 by Iris E. Howell which chronicles the history of Barjarg — a copy of which is now in possession of the current fourth generation owner of Barjarg Station, Mr Fred Forrest — either directly quotes Walker; or alternatively, both she and Walker have both directly quoted an external unacknowledged source. Mr Forrest says that from what information has been passed down to him, the poisoning did not happen at the current site of Barjarg Station (now substantially descreased in size), but further downstream on the Broken River, at a place which was flooded by the construction of Lake Nillahcootie.

I don’t doubt that the late 1830s and early 1840s was a time of extreme unmitigated violence in North East Victoria, on a colonial frontier awash with convicts and squatters who in every sense were a law unto themselves. Whether we attribute the massacre at Barjarg to squatters William Arundell or Peter Stuckey, or any of their convict or free settler stockmen (with or without their masters’ knowledge), what matters now is the recognition of Catherine Withers as a credible witness to local oral history, and most significantly, that we make an acknowledgement that a highly illegal mass poisoning of Aboriginal people on Barjarg Station more than likely did occur.

In a forthcoming blog post, I will examine the evidence for which Aboriginal group in particular was likely the victim of this horrific event.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!

References to ‘Massacre on the Broken River’

[1a] ‘Early History of Mansfield,’ By P. W. Walker. The Australasian, Saturday, 8 November 1930, p.4.
[1b] ‘DETAILS REQUESTED. TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN,’ The AustralasianSaturday 15 November 1930, p.4.
[2] ‘Details Supplied. To the Editor of the Australasian,’ The Australasian, Saturday, 22 November 1930, p 4.
[3] Judy Macdonald, ‘John ‘Howqua’ Hunter and the China connection,’ Latrobeana, Journal of the C J La Trobe Society, Vol 15, No 3, November 2016, p.24.
[5] ibid.
[6] ‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN.’ The Australasian, Saturday 29 November 1930, p.4.
[7] ‘MANSFIELD MEMORIES. TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN.’ The Australasian, Saturday 20 December 1930, p.4.
[8] ibid.
[9] Judy Macdonald, ‘James Watson and “Flemington”: a Gentleman’s Estate,’ Latrobeana, Journal of the C J La Trobe Society, Vol. 8, No. 3, November 2009, p.22.
[10] Judy Macdonald, ‘John ‘Howqua’ Hunter and the China connection,’ Latrobeana, Journal of the C J La Trobe Society, Vol 15, No 3, November 2016, p.24.
[11] James Dredge Diary, 1 June 1839, p.52. James Dredge, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16].[12] Dr Marguerita Stephens (ed) The Journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas 1839-67, Volume 1: 1839-1943, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), Melbourne, p.8. Entry for Sunday 24 March 1839.
[13] Billis, R. V. and Kenyon, A. S., Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip, Macmillan & Company Ltd., Melbourne, 1932, p.7.
[14] Billis, R. V. and Kenyon, A. S., ibid., Preface.
[15] Ian Clark (ed.), The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Protectorate, 1839-1852, Melbourne, 2014, this entry dated 10 May, 1840.
[16] ‘Hume River, APRIL 8th, 1841.’ The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, Monday 26 April 1841, Page 2.
[17] ‘THE BLACKS —HUME RIVER, JUNE 2’ The Colonist, 24 June, 1840, p.2.
[18] ‘The Blacks. To the editor of the Port Philip Gazette,’ The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Tuesday 23 June 1840, p.4.
[19] British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Condition of Aborigines, House of Commons Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627, p.116.
[20] ‘OBITUARY. MR. FRANK DOYLE,’ The North East Ensign, 30 November 1928, p.2.
[21] Fon Cathcart, The Salt of the Earth, The Authentic Story of James and Mary Withers — Pioneers of the Mansfield District, Melbourne, 1965, p. 21.
[22] Fon Cathcart, ibid., p.21.
[23] Billis and Kenyon, op. cit. p.99.