MAYBOLE'S PRINCE OF AUSTRALIA
view of Sydney harbour, with its magnificent bridge and unique opera house, is
one of the finest and best-known panoramas in the world. It is likely, though,
that few Ayrshire folk will know that a prominent part of the city's waterfront
is named after a native of the county.
John Piper was
born in Maybole on 20th April, 1773, a son of the local
physician, Doctor Hugh Piper. A brother, Thomas Piper, is known to Burns enthusiasts as
'Spunkie Tammie', a name given to him by the poet after the two men met in
Maybole in 1786. It has been claimed that a third brother settled in America and
that one of his descendants founded the internationally known Piper Aircraft
Corporation but research has shown this to be false
John is difficult to describe but he was a character,
certainly. Easy going and charming, he made friends easily; adventurous and
audacious, his exploits brought both fame and notoriety during his lifetime;
intelligent but irresponsible, he made and squandered a fortune in a few years;
all in all, he was an eccentric who lived life to the full. There is little
wonder that he is remembered still in Australia, his adopted land.
John arrived first in Australia in 1791, aged 18, as a lowly and poorly paid
Ensign in the New South Wales Corps, an ill-disciplined and motley band of
renegades raised in Britain and sent out chiefly to police the penal colonies.
According to contemporary writers, and repeated regularly ever since then, Piper
had already gained fame as the first European to have been behind the Great Wall
of China. The circumstances of his adventure have not been recorded and it has
never been authenticated. Ensign Piper had been only a short time in Australia
when he volunteered for duty in the convict settlement on Norfolk Island. The
island is only 14 square miles of rugged terrain in the south-west Pacific
Ocean, 1035 miles north-east of Sydney, and was probably the most isolated and
desolated outpost under British rule.
In 1795, Piper was promoted to Lieutenant and returned to Sydney but
things did not go well for him. After several minor scrapes with authority, he
got involved as a Second in a duel between his superior officer, Colonel
Paterson, and a friend, Captain MacArthur. The Governor of New South Wales
intervened and stopped the duel [see note below] and, with the others involved, Piper was
arrested. He then incurred the wrath of his senior officers by writing a rude
letter to the Governor, telling him that he had no right to interfere in a
dispute between gentlemen. He was court martialled but to the anger of the
unpopular Governor, was acquitted.
In 1804, Lieutenant Piper was posted back to Norfolk Island and as Acting
Governor ran the island for six years. His command was very successful and
included seeing the settlement through a near-famine when a plague of
caterpillars ate most of the green food. It was recorded by a convict who was on
the island at the time that 'the Governor had the goodwill and respect of
everyone for he always conducted himself as a Christian and a gentlemen.' In
1806, he was promoted to Captain.
On Norfolk Island, John met Mary Ann Shears, the daughter of a convict and
they formed an attachment that lasted for the rest of his life. At first, they
were not married but had two sons. In 1811 they returned to Britain on leave and
soon it became obvious that he would have to choose between the convict's
daughter and his military career. He chose Mary Ann, resigned his commission and
together they returned to Sydney in 1814. The couple married in 1816 and had
thirteen children in all.
John Piper's return to Australia brought a sudden and unexplained improvement
in his fortunes. Aged 41, he returned as Senior Naval Officer of the Port of
Sydney, a civilian post in spite of its title and a very important position in
the colony. Someone of great influence in Britain must have exercised it on his
behalf but who did so is not known. As Naval Officer of the port, he was
Chairman of the Harbour Trust, Chief of Water Police, Master of Lighthouses and,
most important, Comptroller of Customs.
His basic salary as Naval Officer was only $800 a year which was not high for
the importance of his position but compared favourably with the $180 a year he
had received as an army Captain 3 years earlier. in addition, he had small
salaries for his Trust, Police and Lighthouse responsibilities. However, it was
from his Customs post that he drew most of his money. As Comptroller, he was
allowed to take a five percent cut of all revenues collected at the port,
including customs duties, excise on spirits and harbour dues. The port was
growing quickly and already the customs office was the busiest in Australia.
Even in the early years, Piper's percentage gave him $8,000 a year, making him
amongst the highest paid men in Australia.
Soon, John Piper had amassed a considerable fortune. He dabbled in commerce
and was made Chairman of Directors of the Bank of New South Wales; he was also a
Steward of the Sydney Jockey Club, a Magistrate of the colony and President of
the Scots Kirk committee.
Socially, he was at the top of the ladder and he lived to the limits of his
wealth. Contemporary comments on him paint a picture of his lifestyle. He was
described as 'leader of the world in fashion', 'the great buck', 'the Prince of
hosts', 'the gay cavalier' and 'the Prince of Australia'.
In 1820 he was granted 190 acres of land on the waterfront in a location
which was, at that time, outside Sydney. On his estate he built a mansion with a
double-domed roof, which he called Henrietta Villa. A description of the new
house was lavish in its praise-'There is nothing like it in the colony. He has
laid out immense sums and no expense has been spared to ornament this fairy
palace.' The banqueting room, which lay under one of the large domes, was in the
form of a St. Andrew's Cross. The garden, enclosed with a clipped hedge, also in
the form of a St. Andrew's Cross, supplied 'an abundance of the choicest fruits
of every species.' There was a private orchestra, boats and boatmen, several
carriages, and a stable of racehorses. Well over 100 people were employed in the
house and on the estate.
Henrietta Villa was the
scene of magnificent entertainments---grand balls, picnics and elaborate fetes
of all kinds. A friend said of John Piper,' He does things properly for he sends
carriages and four, or boats for those who like the water, and returns his
guests to their homes in the same manner. At his table there is a vast profusion
of every luxury the four quarters of the globe can supply. His wealth and social
eminence did not change John and he was still an easygoing and affable man. He
was very generous and his friendship was abused by many who saw him as an easy
touch financially. He recognised no social barriers when making friends and was
surrounded by an army of spongers. It was said by one snobbish acquaintance
that---''There is no honour in dining with Piper for he invites everyone. His
wife, Mary Ann, responded well to the challenge of her changed social position
and soon the convict's daughter was a highly respected hostess.
As his influence increased, John obtained more grants of land from the
government. Throughout New South Wales he had a total of over 5,000 valuable
acres in lots of various sizes and in Sydney, in addition to his estate, he had
an acre of land in the heart of the city.
But John's heyday was not to be long-lived. In 1825, by which time he was 52
years of age and had been back in Australia for eleven years, a new Governor was
appointed. Sir Ralph Darling was no sooner in post than he turned his attention
to John Piper and an official enquiry was set up to investigate the customs
accounts. It was found that while the annual revenue was about $400,000, there
was only about $1,000 in the account; John Piper had received $20.000 as his
percentage and $8,000 as his salary, and the remainder had been frittered away
by lax and costly administration.
The enquiry's finding was that John Piper had not been dishonest--he had been
negligent, imprudent and irresponsible. $229,446 was outstanding as unpaid
customs dues, caused by laxity in their collection. Although John's percentage
cut depended on the total amount collected, it was known that he never harassed
tax debtors, indeed, anyone with genuine difficulty in paying was likely to be
entertained to lunch at Henrietta Villa by the sympathetic Comptroller.
The Governor suspected that John's banking affairs would be in a similar mess
and a check showed that under his Chairmanship and by his influence, more than
half of the assets of the Bank of New South Wales had been loaned to a small
group of businessmen. Once more, the collection of interest payments had been
less than efficient.
John Piper was forced to resign from most of his posts, including those of
Comptroller of Customs and Bank Director. In addition, he was ordered to pay
large sums of money to the government as compensation for his negligence. He was
left in financial difficulties and knew that he would have to sell his home and
most of his land to settle his affairs.
However, 'the gay cavalier', 'the Prince of Australia', decided to go out
with a flourish. He summoned his boatmen and his private piper. As the boatmen
rowed him out into the middle of Sydney harbour, his piper played a lament at
the stem and John stood at the prow in full dress uniform with his sword held
high. When they reached the middle, he ordered the oarsman to stop and with a
last farewell he stepped overboard. His servants loved him dearly and fished him
out immediately. Having made his eccentric gesture, John returned to his
position at the bow of the boat and to the strains of a rousing strathspey he
was rowed back to the shore.
The Piper debts were paid in full, even although a severe fall in land values
at the time caused his properties and other holdings to be sold for rock-bottom
sums. John Piper retired with his family to a small country property at Bathurst,
New South Wales, which he called Alloway Bank in remembrance of his Ayrshire
roots. He reared cattle, made cheese, kept sheep and sold wool. He was a
magistrate, sat on the board of' the local church and was involved in many other
aspects of the town's affairs. Unfortunately, through a combination of drought,
generosity and extravagance, he lost this property as well. Wealthy friends who
still held him in high regard as a man, raised money and set the family up in a
500 acre property which they arranged in the names of Mrs. Piper and the
children. John Piper died there on 8th June, 1851, aged 78 years.
A promontory on the south side of Sydney's waterfront which was part of
John's 190 acre estate is still called Piper Point and streets in the district
are named to his memory. The Point, densely covered with expensive apartment
blocks and high class properties, is the millionaires' district of the city. The
land that formed the estate and the acre John owned in the city centre are now
important parts of Sydney and if they had been retained in Piper ownership until
developed, his descendants could have been fabulously rich.
John Piper may have been a foolish man in many ways but he was always
friendly and generous to all classes of people, Many men benefited from his
kindness and many abused his friendship. Fortunately. a few real friends recognized
his true worth as a man and stood by him to the end. One thing is; certain, he
led a full and interesting life.