James Francis Thomas – The Man Who Defended Breaker Morant
It was a photograph consigned to the landfill of the waste disposal depot of the northern NSW city of Tamworth. A faded image rescued from the compactor as it was about to disappear forever into history’s dustbin.
After years of foraging through the rubbish dumped each day at the Tamworth tip, council worker Alan Cameron had become an adept practitioner of the adage, “One man’s junk, another man’s treasure”.
The picture was of war graves, configured and numbered in military style. The officer-like bearing and dapper dress of the troubled subject in the weathered snapshot caught Cameron’s eye: a sombre, reflective man, his tweeds offset by calf-length riding boots, baton and what appeared to be a military hat.
Closer inspection of the photograph revealed a rear-side inscription: “J.F. Thomas at Morant’s grave”. On February 27, 1902, Second South Australian Mounted Rifleman Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and his farrier, Sgt. Peter Handcock, had been executed by firing squad following court martial for their role – while serving in an auxiliary guerilla unit (the Bushveldt Carbineers)- in the summary execution of 12 Boer prisoners and a German missionary they claimed was an enemy spy.
James Francis Thomas, who practised as a solicitor in Tenterfield in northern NSW, had been plucked at short notice by British authorities from obscurity and his command as captain of the Boer War light horse NSW Bushmen’s Contingent to act as defence counsel for Morant and Handcock.
To the British, the prosecution was a foregone conclusion, this dour solicitor from a NSW backwater considered no match for a well-drilled, experienced prosecution team.
Boer War commander-in-chief Herbert Horatio Kitchener, according to documentary film maker Nick Bleszynski, had resolved beforehand to make scapegoats of Morant and Handcock in order to convince Germany and the Boers of Britain’s “fairness”, and therefore to expedite the peace process.
But the British were rattled by the unexpectedly robust and capable defence mounted at such short notice by Thomas, in which he argued the Boer War was characterised by atrocities and that other auxiliary units, acting under orders from a Kitchener underling, Hubert Hamilton, followed a similar deliberate policy of shooting prisoners.
Bleszynski’s documentary, “Shoot Straight You Bastards”, to be released in 2002, will focus on the theme “Beware the enemy within”, and will dissect the court martial transcripts, long secreted away by British authorities, in an attempt to expose legal anomalies for which, he says, Morant and Handcock – and ultimately Thomas – paid with their lives.
The photograph of the grave, unearthed by Cameron, had spilled from a large bag of memorabilia assembled by another Tamworth amateur historian, Vivian Sharpe, offloaded by his family shortly after his death. Sharpe’s material relating to J.F. Thomas had been supplied by the historical society of Tenterfield as a contribution to a book Sharpe was researching on a Light Horse detachment, the 12th Hunter River Lancers.
It is an image that has pushed Bleszynski and others to seek to place in rightful historic context the endeavours – and character – of J.F. Thomas.
He was a poet, newspaper proprietor and editor, legal practitioner, gallant soldier and forthright community leader – and the man credited with first bringing to Australia from South Africa the gerbera flower.
The remarkable picture, according to Bleszynski, records the beginning of the end of J.F. Thomas. “. . . the body language said it all,” Bleszynski says. “The deep regret causing him to stoop sorrowfully over the grave almost as though he was racked by some physical pain. He may as well have been shot on the veldt with the men he unsuccessfully defended.”
A thorough search of the record shows Thomas as a man who spent his life fighting various causes – causes that were to bring about his downfall. He joined the Tenterfield Mounted Infantry Regiment as a 1st Lieutenant in February 1894, assuming command in November of the same year.
Born on August 25, 1861, the eldest of three children, he attended the King’s School, Parramatta, in western Sydney.
Thomas subsequently paid homage to his alma mater in poetry published in “Australian Poets 1788 – 1888”, the foreword of which stated that while Thomas had “published no volume, he has written many fine poems”.
After studying law at Sydney University, he established a practice at Tenterfield in 1887. Thomas was reportedly one of a group of townspeople who successfully lobbied NSW Premier Henry Parkes to give his historic Federation speech at Tenterfield’s School of Arts on the evening of October 24, 1889.
It was a seminal moment in the history of Tenterfield and Australia, the speech in which Parkes suggested a convention of leaders from all states to devise the constitution necessary for establishing a federal government and a federal parliament for the conduct of national business.
Thomas at that time said that Parkes’ Federation speech and his own support for the Federation movement generally was the principal reason for his purchase of the local newspaper, “The Tenterfield Star”, which he owned for more than 16 years.
Thomas’ leadership qualities were borne out in 1895 when his local reservist troop, the Tenterfield Rifles, won the prestigious statewide trophy, the Hutton Shield, then awarded to the elite of Australia’s Light Horse contingents on the basis of dress, drill, cavalry attack, marksmanship, horsemanship, fire discipline and command. They were skills, according to Bleszynski, that, “while not honed in the heat of battle, would come in useful when the Empire sent out the call to the colonies for able-bodied young men to defend her honour when war was declared in South Africa in October 1899”.
Thomas was among the first to volunteer; Military Headquarters commissioned him Captain and requested he urgently raise a contingent for South Africa. Within less than three weeks, on November 3, 1899, the first mounted contingent known as A Squadron NSW Citizens’ Bushmen was dispatched to the Boer War under his command.
Tenterfield mayor William Reid hosted a concert in Tenterfield in Thomas’ honour, presenting him with a purse of gold sovereigns in place of a gift, “. . . so that whenever your eyes fall on it, you might think of the many friends you are about to leave in this district . . . I can conscientiously say no man in our midst will be more missed than you will be . . . Tenterfield must think itself highly honoured in providing for the Empire a gentleman who has risen to the position of Captain in one of the finest armies going to South Africa”.
And Thomas did his hometown proud, with three mentions in dispatches during the Boer War, including his award of the Queen’s Medal with four clasps for heroic actions.
At Elands River in the Transvaal, his troop and a smaller contingent of Rhodesians lost 75 men while holding out against 1000 enemy troops and guns for 13 days, refusing to surrender on any terms, before eventually being relieved by British forces. Boer War chronicler Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: “When the ballad-makers of Australia seek a subject, let them turn to Elands River, for there was no finer fighting in the war.”
Having served 12 months in South Africa, the NSW Bushmen contingent embarked at Cape Town on May 9, 1901, for its return to Australia – one officer and 29 men having either died or been killed. The survivors, Thomas included, disembarked in Sydney on June 11, 1901.
Reid’s successor as Tenterfield mayor, Thomas Walker, proclaimed on Thomas’ brief return “the towns people’s public pride and delight in the heroism with which you and your gallant comrades have maintained and promoted the honour and reputation of this state and district”.
Within a month of his return to Australia, Thomas’ energy, compassion and generosity was borne out by his vigorous lobbying on behalf of his destitute fellow returned servicemen.
“Do not want to act behind the back of the government”, Thomas declared in correspondence with reluctant high-ranking officials of the Defence Department. “Lord Kitchener says he wants more men . . . Large numbers of the men who returned with me have been utterly unable to find employment of any kind, and many are absolutely stranded . . . great inducements were offered them to settle in South Africa, but our government opposed [this] . . . I have been asked by my men to try to get them back to South Africa where they will try their fortunes on the gold fields, and whilst the war continues, they are willing to enlist again.”
“Personally, I have no special inducements for another period of hard service, but I like the men and I think they like me, and I am willing to go with them.”
It was a fight that Thomas won, the Imperial Government subsequently providing free passage from Sydney on the steamer “Britannic”. Thomas resigned from the NSW Bushmen’s corps, returned to South Africa, and almost immediately found himself railroaded into the position of advocate, with the rank of Major, before the court martials of Morant, Handcock and George Witton.
The last painful duty befalling Thomas, according to Bleszynski, was – together with other Australian comrades – to claim the bodies of Morant and Handcock.
A parson’s preamble to a truncated burial service arranged by Thomas included the words, “. . . For as much as this is unconsecrated ground”. Much of the traditional service was omitted.
Thomas returned once more to Australia, according to his own record, in “the early part of 1903”. He assisted Witton in the preparation of the book “Scapegoats of the Empire”, lending Witton his copy of the trial proceedings and notes.
He resigned his commission voluntarily – with some pressure from the Army – over the issue of proposed publication of material in a book of his own impinging on the decision of a court martial. He argued that he tried the case “not as an Army man but as a private practitioner of law.”
In any event, Thomas deferred the publishing task to Witton. But he never again used the title Major after returning from South Africa. He unsuccessfully lobbied NSW Premier John Lee for assistance for Handcock’s children (ending up helping them himself) and for an inquiry into the Morant/Handcock case.
On his return to Tenterfield, the record, according to Bleszynski, shows signs of Thomas “increasingly physical isolation from the community he had become such an integral part of”.
The properties he owned diminished in size and quality as his fortunes declined, and he himself became more and more eccentric and disheveled – often sleeping in a tent in the local graveyard at night rather than at his small farm several kilometres out of town.
In April 1915, Thomas sold the “Star” newspaper. And, as his financial position worsened, his law practice too was sold in 1919, subject to an agreement not to practice law in Tenterfield until December 1925.
The denouement of Thomas’ decline stemmed from his decision, when the limitation of his legal work in Tenterfield expired at the end of 1925, to immediately return to the town and again begin practising.
A bachelor with no apparent romantic attachments, and a thorough gentleman, he reportedly could not bring himself to drag into disrepute the reputation of one of his clients of 30 years standing, Mrs E.J. Power, daughter of a longstanding and prominent Tenterfield family. Mrs Power had Thomas declared bankrupt over outstanding costs relating to litigation she instituted against him following a disagreement over the management of her affairs.
Bleszynski’s research has unearthed an article that appeared in “Smith’s Weekly” on May 7, 1927, which put Thomas’ case as follows: “. . . Thomas prefers to remain in Long Bay [gaol, in Sydney] as a confinee in contempt rather than pay £77/ 8/ 8 legal costs . . . He is in Long Bay on principle and considers himself a victim of injustice.”
During his incarceration, according to Bleszynski, Thomas provided “a kind of legal aid system – his cell becoming an office cluttered with files as he helped other prisoners with their appeals for freedom.”
But, in the first of two body blows, the Law Institute disbarred Thomas while he was in Long Bay, reportedly on the grounds he was a bankrupt. He had refused for twelve months to allow examination of his property and means, or declare himself bankrupt, or pay the disputed amount.
Also, the “Tenterfield Star” reported in 1928 that a full Supreme Court hearing chaired by the chief justice determined that Thomas was “not a fit and proper person to be allowed to continue as a solicitor of an honourable profession”. The court found he had advanced no justifiable excuse for having held certain monies from administration of an estate on trust for the family of a deceased client.
Thomas returned to Tenterfield in disgrace, scratching a living from quasi-legal advice and accounting.
Says Bleszynski: “The Australian Law Journal of May 15, 1929, records that Thomas unsuccessfully appealed against [his disbarment] at the High Court on April 18, 1929.”
On November 10, 1942, he took ill in his office in Tenterfield. “Sensing the end of his long journey, he asked to be taken out to a property 30 km from town at Boonoo Boonoo,”Bleszynski notes.
J.F. Thomas, aged 81, was found dead the next day – Armistice Day, 1942. “The irony was that, in 44 years, he himself had found no Armistice,” Bleszynski comments. ‘The saddest part is that his death certificate records nephritis and malnutrition – rather than heartbreak – as the causes of death.”
Perhaps his association with Morant has forever sullied Thomas’ reputation in the minds of the weak. But whatever the opinions about the men he defended, Thomas should not be tarred with the same brush. If Morant was the anti-hero, then J.F. Thomas was the real hero.
“Thomas cared too much. He made the cardinal mistake in legal practice of getting personally involved. He was one bloody decent human being, a man Australia has yet to recognise as a figure of national importance.”
Article courtesy of Anthony Hoy, taken from ‘The Bulletin’, April 4, 2000