Gruesome End To Expedition

Many new species of plants, both ornamental and edible, that we take for granted today were introduced at the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens and their collection also gave us a Sunshine Coast murder story.

The site of the gardens was established beside the Brisbane River in 1828, three years after European settlement, to provide food for the penal colony.

The botanic reserve was declared in 1855 and Walter Hill, an outstanding botanist, was appointed superintendent.

He remained curator of the gardens from 1855 to 1881 and his experiments in acclimatising plants gave us mango, pawpaw, ginger, grape vines, wheat, tropical fruits, tea, coffee and spices, as well as our beautiful jacaranda and poinciana trees.

In 1862, Queensland’s first granulated sugar was produced at the gardens.

Hill was passionate about native plants and once made an adventurous journey to north Queensland to collect specimens. Naturally, he did not always have the time to venture into the bush himself, so he would send his assistant, one William Stephens, to the north coast of Brisbane, which we now know as the Sunshine Coast in search of plants.

There wasn’t much of a road connection but Brisbane sawmiller William Pettigrew had established a timber depot near the mouth of the Mooloolah River and his paddle steamer, the timber drogher Gneering, regularly plied between the two settlements with supplies. 

By 1866, Stephens was in the habit of travelling up the coast by paddle steamer and often walked about 100km back to Brisbane. On one occasion, he was said to be collecting rare specimens for the Melbourne and Paris Exhibitions.

He would usually buy supplies at the timber-getters’ store and employ Aborigines as guides to help him.
There was much to collect – seeds, berries, fruits, ferns, orchids, wildflowers, bark, leaves and vines – as he searched the dry heath and wallum woodlands as well as the sandy coast.

Bunyas never grew along the lower Brisbane River, so it appears that the seeds of the bunya trees, the bunya nuts, that Stephens carried back from the Sunshine Coast hinterland, grew into the six giant bunya trees (Araucaria bidwillii) that stand tall in the City Botanic Gardens.

On what was to be Stephens’ final visit, a young Aborigine called Tommy Skyring, was employed as his guide for five shillings and half a pound of tobacco.

Stephens had a reputation for being generous and got along well with Tommy.

Perhaps it was the sight of the silver coins he used to pay for goods that attracted two other Aborigines, Johnny Griffin and Captain Piper, who followed him.

When Stephens stopped to make camp for the evening and was bending over cooking Johnny cakes, he was killed by blows to the back of the neck.

It was said that Captain Piper had Tommy Skyring mutilate the body so as to incriminate him. The place, near the Caloundra turnoff from the Bruce Highway, later became known as Dead Man’s Water Hole.

The penalty for killing a white man was severe, a hanging offence, and the three Aborigines were accused of the murder. Tommy Skyring had been a trusted employee of the timber-getters. Johnny Griffin was only about 14 years old and Captain Piper had already served time in jail.  

Constable Nalty from the mounted police at Maryborough was sent to investigate with a detachment of native police.

Captain Piper and Tommy Skyring were captured and taken to the Gneering for transportation to Brisbane.

Captain Piper escaped by slipping his handcuffs and swimming ashore as the Gneering reached the mouth of the river. Tommy Skyring met a sad end. The tragedy preyed on his mind and he suffered “violent hallucinations” before dying a month later in Brisbane Gaol, possibly the first Aboriginal death in custody.

The warrant for the arrest of Captain Piper was made in 1866 but he was not captured until 1879. After waiting six months, his trial began.

Johnny Griffin was called to give Queen’s evidence and Piper was accused of “feloniously and wilfully and, of malice aforethought, murdering one William Stephens”.

Witnesses were called.

Robert Keely, a timber-getter at Mt Mellum had seen the three Aborigines at the Mooloolah River store. Peter Campbell, a timber-getter, and Thomas Maddock, a grazier, saw the body and testified to the injuries. Mrs Ellen Carroll  claimed she had heard Captain Piper admit his guilt.

There was a difficulty about whether or not Johnny Griffin understood that he was under oath and the court explained what would happen in the hereafter to clarify: “you would be going to heaven or you would have damnation in hell”.

Johnny explained that Tommy Skyring had struck the first blow and he was to blame. Tommy was unable to speak for himself. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty and both men were  discharged.

What became of Stephens’ collection after that awful day?  We can only say that our native plants are great survivors.

Main Image:  The Gneering berthed at Pettigrew’s Wharf in Brisbane, in around 1895.