Alumnus reveals grim and grisly past of Brisbane

31 October 2017

Could Brisbane be the resting place of Jack the Ripper? A new historical book about Brisbane's dark and sordid past explores this and other questions.

We recently caught up with co-author and alumnus Helen Goltz to discuss Grave Tales - the book she co-authored with fellow journalist Chris Adams. 

Q: What inspired you to write about Brisbane’s dark past?

It’s interesting you should use the term ‘dark past’ as many people have a sense of fear or trepidation about cemeteries. We see “Grave Tales” as a history book, and our subjects are all ordinary people who willingly or unwillingly were caught up in historic events. Some of these events were tragic, others were inspirational. My co-writer and husband, Chris, and I are both journalists and we love to dig up a good story (I know, so obvious). We had this concept for years and finally, after both finishing up at 4BC, we decided to kick the book series into action. We’ve since discovered that we are not alone … there are many cemetery lovers out there.  

Q: What was the most shocking story you uncovered when researching for your new book?

There’s sixteen amazing stories and some are shocking, others are poignant, or sad, or fascinating, and there’s a few twists that we weren’t expecting. For example, there is a grave in Toowong Cemetery that is not what it claims to be – it is a fake and the bodies listed are not interred there. There’s war veterans that were heroes and met sad endings; suffragette crusader Emma Miller; Qld’s only hanged woman Ellen Thompson; some major accidents like the sinking of the Pearl ferry in the Brisbane River that took the lives of young professionals, Grace and Harry; and Peter Jackson, Australia’s boxing hero deprived of the world title because of his colour; to name a few.

Q: Do you believe the accounts that Jack the Ripper may have settled in Brisbane in his later years?

We think Jack, aka Walter Porriott, is as good a contender as the eighty detained and the thousands that were questioned by the London police for the profile. Walter’s great-great grandson, Steve Wilson, is believed to have spent 25 years researching his relative and has put together an intriguing case for this story.  Walter was certainly one of Australia’s greatest fraudsters if not the Ripper.

Q:  What advice would you give to budding writers and history buffs keen to take on similar projects?

It’s a great time in our history to write and research the past, because we have access to many excellent resources. The Queensland State Library is one of Australia’s best, and Trove’s free access to many of the newspapers from past eras is exceptional. If we were writing this book pre-internet days, one volume would have taken us forever. A small piece of advice however is to soldier on … we have found discrepancies in names and records because fact keeping in past decades was not as rigorous as it is now. Also, floods, fires and ignorance has seen the destruction of a lot of historical material. At some point and time, you have to accept that you have as much information as possible and move on … you usually uncover new material after you have gone to print!

 Q: Did you uncover any stories that had a connection with UQ?

Not in this volume. Of course, everyone knows the intriguing history of the Mayne family and their significant grave at Toowong Cemetery, but we thought that story was well known and so well told by Queensland author, Rosamond Siemon, in The Mayne Inheritance. That’s not to say we won’t uncover a UQ connection in the second Brisbane volume of Grave Tales. We’ve avoided many renowned persons and politicians, instead opting for historic events and the everyday people caught up in them, people who may have lived in the very same street that you live in now.

Q: Where can people get their hands on a copy of your book?

From our website or from Amazon. If readers would like to come to any of our ‘talks’, we also have them for sale, and a bit cheaper because no postage is included. Our talks are listed on the website.

Grave Tales: Brisbane was released in April; Grave Tales Great Ocean Road Country: Geelong to Port Fairy is at final edit stage and will be out in October; and we’re researching Grave Tales: Sydney now. The next volume for Brisbane might be a year or two away yet, but we are heading up the highways of Queensland shortly.