ANZ 6: Prison island

Wallaby in prison

Moreton Bay was first occupied by Europeans in 1824 as a prison for convicts transported from Britain. It was part of the New South Wales penal system, and was reserved for hardened criminals and recidivists. The commandant, Captain Logan, had a fearsome reputation for cruelty.

The convict system remained in force until 1840, and land selection was opened in 1842. By 1859, Queensland separated from New South Wales and became a (partially self-governing) British colony in its own right. In 1901, it joined with five other colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia, represented as an independent and separate nation by the Treaty of Westminster in 1930.

All of this is necessary background to St Helena Island, a small island in Moreton Bay which was a prison from 1867 until 1933. Contrary to first impressions, it was never occupied by British convicts!

St Helena was an experiment in creating a self-sufficient and self-supporting prison. (Perhaps one could say that Australia was an earlier such experiment.) The island was fertile, and fish and dugong lived in the surrounding water. The prison settlement included a farm, a sugar mill, workshops, brickworks, clothing factory, butchery, bakery, and many other enterprises. The goal was that the prison would be self-supporting, and that the prisoners would leave with a trade which they could follow on the outside.

Escape was difficult. The shore was lined with mangrove swamps which were occupied by mosquitoes, sandflies, and the occasional snake (not that this seems like a great deterrent!); the mainland was 4km away and sharks patrolled the waters (encouraged by the warders throwing raw meat into the sea).

The prison was regarded as a model of its kind, and attracted many visiting penologists. However, the regime was harsh. Punishments included the cat o’ nine tails, shot drill, and (most feared by the prisoners) solitary confinement in a dark cell with a diet of bread and water. I saw in a punishment record in the museum an account of a prisoner who had been given seven days in solitary for singing in his cell.

Little now remains. Buildings were made of local beach stone, which was very soft, or of wood, which catches fire. It is said that the island is overrun with wallabies, though we only saw three or four (one of whom, above, was pretending to be a prisoner). The natural vegetation is mangroves and casuarina (she-oak), but several fine trees (including bunya and hoop pine, frangipani – see below – and mango were planted and still thrive.

According to the guides, the island became unworkable as a prison for various reasons, including the fact that the warders’ families were not allowed to live there, and warders were not keen on being separated from their families for a month at a time. Also, in rough weather, boats carrying supplies couldn’t make the trip. So a new prison was built at Boggo Road, and the remaining prisoners transferred there. (It can’t be quite that simple, since one of the museum exhibits was a record of five prisoners being transferred from Boggo Road to St Helena.) Boggo Road was still in existence in my lifetime but has now closed.

Frangipani

As is probably clear by now, the conference excursion was a boat trip to St Helena Island. We went by bus to Fort Lytton, near the mouth of the Brisbane River, once a defensive fort, now a national park sandwiched between an oil refinery and the Brisbane docks. The boat took us out to the island, and circumnavigated it while we ate lunch. Then we went onshore and the boat crew put on tour guide hats and took us up to the ruined prison buildings. We were not allowed to stray from the groups, and in particular a walk round the island was not permitted; so various interesting things such as the prison cemetery were denied to us.

I would also have liked much more time in the museum!

Another oddity was an abandoned light rail line from the jetty to the prison complex. This, it seems, was built by a charity, who planned to run a cane train; they built the line, and then the government refused them permission to run it. So now mobility-impaired people are unable to do the tour.

The guides often returned to the fact that the prison was self-supporting, as opposed to the present day when keeping a prisoner bunged up for a year costs the state a lot of money; they encouraged us to think about how prisons could be again made self-supporting. I suspect there is a three-word answer to this: Health and Safety.

The trip also encouraged me to speculate about something else. Why would a regime with such harsh punishments be set up as late as 1867? Maybe the people running the colony then still remembered the days when it was a harsh convict prison, and thought it was quite natural to re-introduce such a system. I don’t know for sure.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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