HOME OF THE LADY DENMAN - Local history isn't always about the big story - the everyday story of life in the early development of the region can be a fascinating, entertaining and educational journey.

14 November 2017

Young Thomas Speechley.

The tragic story of Thomas Speechley and the mystery of the lonely grave.


Standing alone at the end of a small dirt track nestled amongst the bush on the eastern bank of Currambeen creek is a small grave. I first discovered the grave by accident around 1980, riding through the bush on my bike I came across a small overgrown track leading to the river.  I had past this track many times before without noticing.  After ducking and weaving a short distance through thick scrub I was quite stunned to come across an old gravestone.  The grave still had a few dilapidated timber pickets sticking from the ground, with other termite eaten pieces scattered about.   The grave was marked with the words "Thomas Speechley accidentally shot through explosion 14th November 1904."  This sparked my curiosity to find out who and why he was buried here in this quiet, lonely place.

On previous rides in the area I had come across signs of old habitation scattered amongst the bush, rusted iron, drums and the body and chassis of an old Cadillac truck, windscreen surround, steering wheel and one free spinning timber spoked wheel still attached to the differential..

What grave?
I asked my relatives who had been in the Callala area since the 1950's but they knew nothing about the grave.  Over time I asked around and was always  met with the same response..."What Grave?,  When I moved from Callala across to Woollamia the grave slipped from my memory until I became involved in research at the Denman Museum.  I came across some old photo's of the grave in the museum archives. Since then I have spoken to one of the relatives of the young boy and after 37 years, recently re-visited the grave.

Walking along the rutted bush track from the Myola Boat Ramp car park for about 1200 meters I came across 4 timber posts sticking from the ground.  There the only indication of something different along the track.  Without those posts you could easily miss the grave site.  I pushed through the overgrown bush towards the river and came across a plaque attached to a large rock by the National Parks.  From there it's a very short walk to the gravestone...

The whole site is overgrown and easily missed if you didn't know it existed in the first place.

Thomas Speechley was a young boy aged 6 years and 8 months living with his family on the banks of Currambene Creek on the north eastern side of present-day Myola.  The area was an aboriginal settlement from 1895 – 1920's and was known by the aboriginal people as Bilong.   At one time there were between 10 -15 cottages there.  There are many middens in the area and association with aboriginals is recorded as far back as the early 1800's, other signs show the aboriginals have been using the area for many thousands of years.    Thomas's father William Speechley  was an Englishman married to an Aboriginal woman, earning a living by collecting the gum from Grass Trees on the north side of the bay near Beecroft Peninsula.   He owned a small boat and would travel from the Currambene across the bay to collect gum.  His boy Thomas would sometime accompany him.


14th November 1904.
The Speechley's and Christie Carpenter from Bilong, set off across the bay as they had done many times before.  While William and Christie were going about their business of collecting gum, Thomas played on the beach nearby.  

Thomas came across a 7lb shell casing, often found in the area. He showed his father who promptly threw it away and told Thomas to leave it alone before resuming his work of gathering gum.  Soon after a loud explosion occurred, when William arrived on the scene he found his son Thomas was already dead. Thomas had been fatally wounded by the exploding shell, ripping his hand off and doing extensive damage to his abdomen, killing him instantly.   Thomas was brought back to Huskisson and buried in the grave on the side of Currambene Creek not far from the families homestead.
As the years passed the grave and settlement were abandoned and slowly dissappeared into the bush.

Shell cases on the beach.
Why were there shell cases on the beach?.  The Navy had from the very beginning used Jervis Bay as a place for live shell practice and training.  The area where the incident took place was well known by locals for finding shell cases on the beach which they eagerly collected and sold back to the navy.  No one was aware that some of those shells could still be active,  all were thought to be "plugged" with no bursting charge.


The tragedy made news in papers all over the country including newspapers in England, many asking how this accident could have occured.


The Navy was puzzled by the death of the boy.

The authorities held an enquiry into the tragic accident and could not account for the shell being found on the beach in that location.   The navy explained, "when firing is carried on at Jervis Bay targets are moored out in the entrance of the bay and the guns are therefore, directed out to sea. Under no circumstances are the shells fired on to the mainland.  Occasionally targets are erected near Bowen Island, an uninhabited spot some distance from Jervis Bay. Those are fired at with both plugged and live shells, and it is thought that the fishermen of the neighbourhood have been in the habit of collecting the shells that have been thrown on to the island."

A target being redied for shell practice from the Quarterdeck of H.M.S Challenger in Jervis Bay one month before the fatal accident.

The shell that caused the death of young Speechley is believed to have been a 71b. shrapnel with an R.L. percussion cap. The slightest blow on the nose of the shell would cause the bursting charge of about 4oz. of powder to explode and shatter the shell, which Is composed of steel.
One explanation was that the shell could have come from a badly directed firing and could have landed on the beach after ricocheting, striking the ground sideways and not exploding. They also suggested the shell could have been from the time of the HMS Orlando which operated in the bay in the late 1890's. There was no way of knowing which ship the shell came from.

H.M.S Challenger. 
On the 3rd, 4th and 5th of January H.M.S. Challenger arrived in the bay and dispatched parties of about 80 men to conduct a  search of the beaches looking for live projectiles. It was reported that about 40 projectiles of 9.2in., 6in., 4in., 4.7in., and 4in., calibre were found, and collected together, but 11 were practice projectiles.  The existance of other live shells was a definate possibility.


HMS Challenger by Allan Green

Remarkably William Thomas was using shells for ballast and at the time of the accident carrying 18 shells weighing up to 80lb's in his boat.

Visiting Thomas.
The site is a beautiful, lonely place, sitting only metres from the rivers edge, disturbed only by passing boats and bird song.  There are known to be 4 other graves in the area,  these are unmarked,   suggesting the site was originally central to the small community which lived there.

The beautiful Currambene Creek adjacent to Thomas's Grave.

Comment  - Unknown has left a new comment on your post "Young Thomas Speechley.":
Such a bittersweet story but how lovely to hear that little Thomas' memory lives on.


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