Major JF Thomas holds a special place in Tenterfield's history.
‘Breaker’ Morant may be the more famous name today but Major JF Thomas earned worldwide recognition for his determined defence of Morant in the South African War of 1902.
Long before that, he was well-known in Tenterfield for his sense of justice and fair play. Respected as a quiet man who held deep and sincere convictions, the Morant affair must have tormented the Major. He defended Harry to the last hour, trying desperately for a stay of execution.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Morant and Peter Handcock were executed following courts martial for murdering Boer POWs. While historians believe they were likely guilty of some offences, the bigger story is whether they became scapegoats for a widespread though unofficial ‘no prisoners’ policy during the war. Tellingly, this was the last time an Australian soldier was tried by a British court martial.
After he returned to civilian life, Thomas was reluctant to use the title ‘Major’, saying he didn’t wish to pose under a title that no longer belonged to him. However, his resignation from the armed forces was related to the infamous trial. He’d requested permission to publish certain undisclosed facts that he knew could have influenced the court martial. He was refused, following which he resigned his commission in the Australian Reserve.
“All that is a chapter of history and I use it only to illustrate how it came about that I ceased to have the rank of Major, a title which in peacetime would have been out of place for one returned to civilian life. It would certainly be out of place for me to be what I am not,” he said.
His endeavours on behalf of Morant were considered typical of his readiness to give help to his fellow man.
Though a gentle person and a lover of simplicity, others described him as eccentric and stubborn. He loved Australia’s bushland flora and fauna and is believed to have been the first to bring a gerbera flower to Australia from South Africa.
In the late 1890s Thomas had purchased the Tenterfield Star to advocate for Australian federation. The cause was first mooted publicly in Tenterfield, and in spite of the hostile reception the subject received initially, Thomas and his newspaper finally had the satisfaction of seeing the question carried by a majority of two to one.
The Star was also the first country newspaper to advocate the formation of the Country Party, and Thomas used the platform to argue for decentralisation and a better deal for the north of the state.
“The voice of the small bush newspaper is very much that of one crying in the wilderness. Its cry at all times should be directed against the blighting evil of city congestion,” he wrote.
In retirement, he spent much of his time on his property at Boonoo Boonoo, northeast of Tenterfield, and it was here that he died on 11 November, 1942.