Major James Francis Thomas earned world fame at the South African War in 1902 for the defence of Harry "The Breaker" Morant, but long before that he was known, in Tenterfield, for his sense of justice and fair play.
Respected in his home town as a quiet man of deep and sincere convictions, the whole Morant affair must have been nothing short of torment for the Major who defended Harry to the last hour, trying desperately for a stay of execution.
Morant and Handcock were executed because of the murder of Hesse, rather than for his murder, of which they were both acquitted at their Court Martial. This was the last time an Australian soldier was tried by a British Court Martial.
Indicative of the humility of JF Thomas was this reluctance to use the title of Major after he had returned to civilian life. He said he did not wish to pose for a title which no longer belonged to him.
The circumstances that provoked his resignation were also related to the, by now, infamous trial. He requested permission to publish certain undisclosed facts that he knew could have influenced the Court Martial. Major General Hutton refused. Major Thomas then resigned his commission in the Australian Reserve.
In the words of JF Thomas,
"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 peace time would have been out of place, for one returned to civilian life to assume. It would certainly be out of place for me to be what I am not".
A truly humble man, his endeavours on behalf of Morant were considered typical of his readiness to give help to his fellow man.
Major Thomas was a man of gentle nature and a lover of simplicity, whilst described by others as being eccentric and stubborn. He loved the bushland and flora and fauna, of Australia and is believed to be the first to bring the Gerbera flower to Australia from South Africa.
After his retirement, he spent much of his time on his property at Boonoo Boonoo, north-east of Tenterfield in New South Wales, and it was here that he died on 11 November 1942.
He had retained his interest in journalism and was owner of the Tenterfield Star for 16 years, frequently plugging for decentralisation and to get 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, it's cry at all times should be directed against the blighting evil of city congestion".
In the late 1890s Major Thomas purchased the Star for the purpose of advocating the cause of Australian Federation, which was first mooted publicly in Tenterfield, before becoming a question of practical politics.
In spite of the cold and even hostile reception which Federation first received in the electorate, his newspaper 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.
Major Thomas' unobtrusive actions of kindness were legion and it was said that he would give his last shilling to a needy person. Most likely he did...
(The above article was researched and written by members of the Tenterfield & District Visitors' Association.)
On his return to Australia, Major Thomas was presented with a civic letter of appreciation for his work during the Boer War, signed by the Mayor and Clerk.
TO MAJOR J.F.THOMAS of the New South Wales Bushmen.
Your fellow-townsmen of Tenterfield feel it incumbent on them to present you with a lasting assurance of their sincere pleasure at your return unscathed from the perils of the South African War, and of their 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.
The fame of the Elands River and Rhenoster will henceforth shed reflected brightness on the page of our uneventful local history.
Your fellow townsmen sincerely hope that the splendid efforts made on behalf of our Country and Empire will shortly prove to have secured for our fellow-subjects everywhere a lasting and prosperous peace, and that you may be long and happily spared to share therein is the earnest prayer of your fellow-townsmen, on whose behalf we have the honour to subscribe ourselves.
Thomas M. Walker. Mayor. Rob Stevenson. Clerk.
Tenterfield June 15th, 1901
The material for this article was supplied by Tenterfield & District Historical Society
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