Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Andrew Stuart (1940–1979)

by Tim Prenzler

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John Andrew Stuart (1940-1979), criminal, was born on 15 September 1940 in Brisbane, fifth child of Queensland-born parents David James Cochrane Stuart (d.1956), invalid pensioner, and his wife Edna Ruby Rita, née Morgan. John left school at the age of 13. In 1955 he was charged with stabbing a youth during a brawl at Fortitude Valley. Over the next ten years he received a number of convictions, in New South Wales and Queensland, for burglary, car theft, dangerous driving and escaping from custody. In 1966 he was found guilty of malicious wounding. Although he was considered to be highly intelligent, he had spent twelve years in detention by 1972, including several periods in mental institutions.

On 8 March 1973 fifteen people died in the fire-bombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub at Fortitude Valley. Two days later, acting on information from Stuart's elder brother, police arrested Stuart and his alleged accomplice James Finch and charged them with murder. Stuart had paid Finch's air-fare from England and he had arrived ten days before the fire. Both of them maintained their innocence during their trial, which began on 10 September that year. Stuart claimed that, after he had been approached by members of a Sydney-based crime syndicate who wanted him to extort money from managers of Brisbane nightclubs, he tried to warn the police about plans to set fire to the Whiskey Au Go Go. The police alleged that Finch had lit the fire, but that Stuart was the chief instigator, and that he had spread rumours about the Sydney syndicate to intimidate nightclub owners and to avoid blame. Having dismissed his counsel early in the trial, Stuart thrice swallowed pieces of wire: he was absent from court much of the time while recovering from operations in Royal Brisbane Hospital. The two men were convicted, largely on the basis of a typewritten record of a police interview with Finch, unsigned by the suspect. On 22 October they were sentenced to imprisonment for life.

Detained in the maximum security wing of Brisbane (Boggo Road) gaol, Stuart went on a hunger strike, continued to swallow wire, and staged a roof-top protest in 1977, pulling bricks and guttering from the roof to form the words 'innocent—victim of police verbal'. He died of idiopathic myocarditis on 1 January 1979 in Brisbane gaol and was buried with Salvation Army forms in Lutwyche cemetery.

Controversy over the verdict and the cause of Stuart's death continued for a decade. In 1985 an international authority on 'stylometry' (the analysis of speech patterns) testified that it was extremely unlikely that Finch's confession was recorded verbatim and that it had probably been composed by the police. On 22 November 1988 the Bulletin published an interview with one of the six officers involved in the case who claimed that Finch's confession had been fabricated. Stuart's mother Edna Watts asserted that, before her son's death, she had received phone calls alleging that prison officials planned to poison Stuart. The Prisoners' Action Group maintained that Stuart had been a paid informer in investigations into police corruption, and that he may have been bashed by guards several days before his death. In 1988 Finch was paroled from prison and deported to England where he admitted that he, Stuart and four others were responsible for the murders. Told that he could be extradited to Brisbane to face further charges, he again proclaimed his innocence.

In June 2017 the Queensland government announced that it would re-open the coronial inquest into the fire.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Browne (ed), Australian Crime (Syd, 1993)
  • Jail News, 3 Feb 1979
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 7 Jan 1979
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 24 Feb 1986
  • Bulletin, 23 Feb, 15 and 22 Nov 1988
  • Sun (Brisbane), 21 Mar 1988, 10 Jan 1989.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tim Prenzler, 'Stuart, John Andrew (1940–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1940
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


1 January, 1979 (aged 38)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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