Digby was once the infamous site of a sheep massacre in the 1800s that created national headlines.

In February 1869, Mr Duncan McLean was moving a large flock of 6400 sheep from the Little River area near Geelong towards a station on the mouth of the Glenelg River when the flock was detained at Digby.

Passing onto the land of Mr Richard Lewis, owner of the Rifle Downs’ station, the sheep were detained on suspicion they had a disease. Mr Lewis was a well-known former ships’ captain from Portland who settled at Digby to run the hotel and train racehorses.

R Lewis

Mr Richard Lewis, owner of the Rifle Downs’ station

Mr Lewis, suspecting the sheep were scabby, detained them under the powers of the Diseases of Animals Statute, more commonly known as the “Scab Act”.

A call was put out to the district Inspector, Mr McRae, who visited the property and forwarded a report to his superior, Chief Inspector Edward Curr who duly ordered based on his examination, the order was given for the flock of 6400 sheep to be destroyed.

A neighbourhood man, Mr Barclay, was contracted to kill the sheep for the sum of £100.

Killing 6400 sheep was no easy thing and a first for the Colony for such a large number of animals to be killed.

The Border Watch 13 March 1869 recounts the process as follows:

“Following the Chief Inspector’s carefully thought out plans, a pile of wood 150 feet long, 24 feet wide and 4 feet high was erected and then parallel ran another pile of wood of the same dimensions.

 

“A number of them were driven into the enclosure, killed with axes, and placed on the wood, about 2000 sheep forming the first layer. “

When all were killed and piled up, the pie of dead sheep reached nine feet high. This pile was then set alight.” and now nothing but ashes remain.”

[Border Watch, Pg 3 Saturday 13 March 1869]

 

Apparently £100 in those days was a goodly sum, and upon hearing the plan to kill the sheep had been rescinded Mr Barclay, keen to see his contract and payment fulfilled proceeded with slaughter despite Mr McRae’s entreaties to stop.

When this blunder led to the Government having to pay “heavy damages” to the sheep’s owner, an official inquiry was launched in March 1870 to identify blame.

A copy of the Report from the Select Committee on the Destruction of Sheep at Digby; together with the proceedings of the committee and minutes of evidence, 1870 is held in the Portland Library’s Local History Collection.

According to the report, proceedings took over two days of questioning on orders of the Legislative Assembly.

The select committee was invested with looking into the circumstances which led to the “loss to the Government of a large sum of money”.

Appearing before the committee were chief protagonists: resident district inspector Mr McRae and Chief Inspector Mr Edward Micklethwaite Curr.

Edward Micklethwaite Curr

Chief Inspector Mr Edward Micklethwaite Curr

The committee was told Mr McRae went to Rifle Downs and reported there were 6420 sheep in a weakened and diseased state. The drover’s refused to return the sheep from where they came because their horses died and the sheep too sick to move. Local landowners also refused to have the sheep travel over their land.

The Attorney General instructed Chief Inspector Mr Curr to personally inspect the flock and report his findings.

Mr Curr’s advice was he had seen 6400 scabby sheep and the Attorney General determined they flock should be destroyed.

But Mr Curr had in fact seen only one scabby sheep separated from the flock and kept in a dog kennel on Mr Lewis’ Rifle Downs Station.

Mr McRae was suspended for his part in the wholesale slaughter of the sheep but in the end the Select Committee found the fault lay at the feet of Mr Curr for failing to inspect more than one sheep.

This finding in no way hampered Mr Curr’s career and only several years later he was lauded for his role in the proclamation of Victoria as “scab free” on June 6, 1876.

Mr Curr’s later life was spent on an entirely different subject and he went on to publish extensive works entitled The Aborigines of Australia 1887 (also part of the Portland Local History Collection) before dying two years later in 1889.

Books

Where was the infamous site of a sheep massacre in the 1800’s?

What were the circumstances that led to Chief Inspector, Mr Edward Micklethwaite Curr having to appear before a Select Committee on the Destruction of Sheep at Digby?

What did Mr Curr then go on to achieve in his later life?

To find the answers to all these questions and more, visit the Portland Library and view the resources held in the local history collection.

 

Portland Library

32 Bentinck Street, Portland VIC 3305
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