No one saw this coming at the court-martial

There’s a wood burning stove in the original brick fireplace of a house at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane. The relic knows the story of a family feud that stretches back 150 years. It involves insults, a court-martial, trombones, railways, and a victory that no one saw coming.

It all started in October 1870 when a huge crowd forced its way inside at the Ipswich Courthouse west of Brisbane. I told the story live on West Bremer Radio this weekend.

The Ipswich police sergeant William Francis was called. He had arrested a man who was possibly Captain Thunderbolt just a few months earlier. Even though the mob was cleared, the protests continued outside against what they said was an assumption of authority by “tin-pot soldiers”.

What was happening was that William Jeffcoat, a local Ipswich lad who worked as a carpenter, was a bandsman with the Queensland Volunteer Artillery. He was being court-martialed for “insulting his superior officer”.

The alleged insult by Jeffcoat hadn’t even happened while he was on duty, when he said something like, “If he (the superior officer) said so-and-so then he’s no gentlemen, but an adjective something.”

That superior officer was Captain Henry Stanley who was the Chief Engineer of the railways, and his brother Francis was the Queensland colonial architect whose son later married the daughter of the Queensland premier Sir Thomas McIlwraith.

Captain Henry Stanley

The court-martial proceeded behind closed doors. But when the Brigade Adjutant arrived from Brisbane, he suggested that Captain Stanley had actually overstepped his duty, and more than likely he would be the subject of an inquiry. The Adjutant was George Verney who was a British Army officer with 74th Regiment of Foot and Aide-de-Camp to the Governor of Queensland. The court-martial did not go any further.

Brigade adjutant George Verney

Two months later, tension again flared when Captain Stanley ordered that members of the band return their regimental instruments. William Jeffcoat took this personally and so he and his brother Thomas simply refused.

Therefore, in December 1870, Captain Stanley again took William Jeffcoat to court, and this time his brother as well. The charge was “unlawfully detaining a trombone”.

William insisted he was keeping his trombone to pay part of his expenses for being arrested last time, but the court ordered that both trombones be delivered to Captain Stanley forthwith. The trombones were indeed delivered to the captain’s office – but one was in a box and was so smashed up that only the mouthpiece was useable.

And so in January 1871, Captain Stanley again had the Jeffcoats in court – this time it was Samuel’s brother Thomas who was charged with “willfully destroying a trombone”.

Thomas was found guilty and ordered to pay more than £7 which was a couple of week’s wages back then, or in default, one month’s goal with hard labour.

Some fortune came back to the Jeffcoats in 1884 when Captain Stanley was the railway’s Chief Engineer when William’s sixteen-year-old son was working as a railway messenger. The boy was on board a train that was involved in a fatal accident at Darra.  He was awarded £2,216 and 5 shillings which is around two million dollars in today’s money. 

The Jeffcoat victory was complete in 1975 – more than 100 years after this feud had started – when William’s great-grandson John Jeffcoat was appointed the Chief Engineer at the Railway Workshops.

Great-grandson John Francis Jeffcoat

It may have taken over a century, and they didn’t get to keep their trombones, but the Jeffcoat family did take over Captain Stanley’s office at the railways.

Curiously, the great-grandson served as a captain in the engineers with the voluntary Commonwealth Military Forces to also match their adversary Captain Stanley.

But even that would be nothing knew to the wood stove at Kangaroo Point, in the home to which William Jeffcoat retired after the turn of the century. There he undoubtedly recounted for his family many times the story of his trombone feud.


Photo credits:
62 Princess Street Kangaroo Point –
Henry Charles Stanley – Brisbane Telegraph, 28 February 1914, page 13
Major George Hope Verney – State Library of Queensland
John Francis Jeffcoat – Picture Ipswich, Ipswich Libraries

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