Stephen Thomas arrived in Australia in 1850 on an all-expenses paid trip courtesy of the Crown. The Liverpool-born petty criminal had been transported to the colonies. One of his offences was stealing some cash, but his real talent may have been throwing a curse. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.
Thomas came out aboard the Onyx (pictured above). Back in England he worked as a seaman and like all good sailors he had an impressive collection of tattoos. One on his chest was of a fully rigged ship under sail. His convict record noted that he had a dark ruddy complexion, dark brown hair, stood just five feet six inches tall, and that his chest – and arms and legs – were particularly hairy. In other words, he was a short, tattooed, hairy man. Sadly I’ve not been able to find a photo.
Thomas was given his Ticket-of-leave in 1858 in Ipswich which back then was still part of the colony of New South Wales. A year later on the 4th of June 1859 his ticket was cancelled because he failed to turn-up for a Muster also at Ipswich, and so he was declared illegally at large. Two days later Queensland which included Ipswich achieved its own freedom as a separate colony.
Skipping muster and his body hair couldn’t have been too bad, because in 1863 Thomas got married and went on to have three children. He even started farming at Booval.
Things then went wrong for Thomas because in 1870, he was charged at the Ipswich Police Magistrates Court with stealing duelling pistols, but the charge was later dropped. The next year in 1871 misfortune continued when he was declared insolvent.
First, all of Thomas’s horses, dray, harness, cow and calf, and household furniture, were sold and rented back to him. The following year more of his property was sold, which was alleged to have included his clothes and four of his teeth. It was said that the teeth had been extracted at the Brisbane Hospital ten years earlier and he had been taking great care of them ever since. (This was denied by the auctioneer however.)
That’s when it appears that a curse may have become involved, because both the people responsible for selling Thomas’s property would later be publicly humiliated.
The auctioneer was William Hendren. He was one of the founding fathers of Ipswich, having been on the committee that established the first council and later became a councillor himself. He was Ipswich’s first registrar of births, deaths and marriages which he ran from his general store, and was a magistrate in the Ipswich court. Hendren was also the member for Bundamba in the Queensland Legislative Assembly.
Hendren was later himself declared insolvent and was forced to resign from parliament in disgrace.
The lawyer who managed Thomas’s estate, and so ordered the sale, was William Miskin. He was later a partner in one of Brisbane’s leading law firms Macpherson Miskin and Feez. He was the president of both The Royal Society and the Geographical Society of Queensland, and was on the board of the Queensland Museum. Miskin was also the inaugural president of the Toowong Shire where Miskin Street was named after him. He even had a number of butterflies named in his honour including the Theclinesthes miskini, the Miskin’s Blue, which is common near Brisbane.
But Miskin’s world also came crashing down. He had become overly ‘familiar’ with his young Irish domestic servant, he was caught by his wife, and Miskin then vanished which made headlines around Australia.
He’d actually taken off to the other side of the world with his servant who was six months pregnant. He didn’t re-appear to face the music until three years later, when he too was subjected to public humiliation.
The full story of William Miskin is one of the many told in my book ‘Dovercourt’. This is the name of the historic home in Toowong that still exists today, and where Miskin lived and familiarised himself with the staff.
I haven’t been able to find exactly what happened to the convict Stephen Thomas. He may be the same Stephen Thomas who lived to be ninety-six years old, but I can’t be sure.
But I do hope that was indeed our Thomas, because if his teeth really were sold by the Ipswich auctioneer under the direction of the Dovercourt lawyer, then he deserved to live a long and hopefully happy life.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO.
Barque Onyx by WT Baldwin – Maine Antique Dealers Association
William Hendren 1832-1903 – Karma Hodgson, via Ancestry
WH Miskin – Queensland Naturalists 2006, page 44
Dovercourt, 2020 – Savills Brisbane, courtesy of Robert Dunne