Billy Turner (centre) stands next to Johnny Tarampa, another Indigenous man given the title of king.
Billy Turner (centre) stands next to Johnny Tarampa, another Indigenous man given the title of king. Contributed

Stone axes handed back to descendants of Indigenous 'king'

NINE stone axe heads hand-carved more than a century ago by an Indigenous man known as the king of the Lockyer Valley have been handed back to his descendants.

For decades the axes lay forgotten, losing their sharp edge, beneath a home in Ropeley until late last year.

They were only able to be united with their creator's descendants after the homeowner went searching for local elders.

His father had received the axes sometime in the late 1800s as a gift from their maker, King Billy Turner.

The mysterious king was said to be able to raise warriors from Ipswich to Toowoomba and was the topic of childhood stories told to men like Uncle Sonny Thompson.

Uncle Sonny, one of the elders who now hold the axes, has been researching King Billy for more than 30 years.

Stone axes that belonged to King Billy Turner.
One of the stone axes that were carved by King Billy Turner. Rob Williams

He says many details of King Billy's life have been lost, including the dates of his birth and death.

Newspaper reports and old photos have uncovered only parts of a life that was spent travelling all across south-east Queensland.

One story places him in Toogoolawah, rescuing a young girl from drowning. An undated photo shows him at Ropeley with his wife and another man also given the title of king.

"What we heard from the great uncles was that he could raise 1000 great fighting men," Uncle Sonny says.

"My mother would tell stories about him at night."

The title of king is not part of Indigenous culture.

It was instead handed out by white leaders often looking to secure land access or a good relationship with local Indigenous tribes.

Uncle Sonny says King Billy was given his title along with a heavy brass breastplate by the railways commissioner, most likely to gain access for new railway tracks.

King Billy Turner's breastplate is part of the collection at the Queensland Museum. Photo: Image courtesy of Queensland Museum Network
King Billy Turner's breastplate. Queensland Museum

King Billy's breastplate is now part of the collection at Queensland Museum. His stone axes will be retained by the local Indigenous community.

Yuggera elders hope to use them in a display at the former Purga Mission to help the next generation of Indigenous children learn about their history.

Many of King Billy's descendants were born or lived at either Deebing Creek or Purga missions.

Only a few elders born at Purga Mission are still alive, including Aunty Phil Parsons.

Ms Parsons was among those who sat down with the QT earlier this month to share the story of King Billy. She was born beneath a tree at the mission in September 1926.

 Her grandmother, Amy Turner, is buried at the nearby Purga Cemetery Mission. Amy was King Billy's daughter.

Aunty Phill Parsons was born at the Purga Mission
Aunty Phill Parsons was born at the Purga Mission Rob Williams

Aunty Phil lived in one of the mission's six cottages with her family until she was taken out of the home to live in the on-site dormitories. Children were taken to live in the dormitories at a young age and would often sleep two to a bed.

"It was a lot of beds...beds like you have in a hospital," she says.

"I wasn't very old... eight or nine."

"In our teenage years we would learn how to work... the white man way.

"We had to learn to milk the cows and the boys would feed the pigs."

"We had to clean out the main office. All us dormitory girls had to take turns."

Aunty Phil's memories of life on the mission include church services, farm work and also going to school with the opera legend Harold Blair. She says the Salvation Army workers who ran the site treated them well.

Modern image of the Purga Mission with the cream shed in the background.
The cream shed at Purga Mission in 2016. Rob Williams

Those same workers would heavily limit children's ability to see their families even though they lived on the same property.

"They didn't like them (the children) learning their language," Uncle Sonny said.

There is very little evidence left of the mission's history.

Aside from the frame of an old slaughterhouse, the only original building still standing is a shed where kids like Aunty Phil would separate milk and cream.

The mission has now taken on a new life as a home for programs such as Work for the Dole. It has also become a place where Indigenous members of the community can seek advice from elders.

And in the future, it will be a place where children can learn the story of King Billy Turner.

Old image taken at the Purga Mission with the old cream shed in the background.Photo: Contributed
Old image taken at the Purga Mission with the old cream shed in the background.Photo: Contributed Contributed