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A brief history

St Helena Island Prison

Several kilometres from the mouth of the Brisbane River lies St Helena Island. For more than 60 years from 1867, St Helena was home to many hundreds of society’s outcasts, for here was located colonial Queensland’s foremost prison for men.

In the early 1860s, as Brisbane’s gaol at Petrie Terrace became more and more crowded, about 30 prisoners were transferred to an old hulk, called the Proserpine, anchored near the mouth of the Brisbane River. In 1866, as part of their labours, the prisoners were taken each morning across the waters of Moreton Bay by whaleboat to St Helena Island. Here they were put to work sinking wells, clearing scrub, quarrying stone and building accommodation for a new quarantine station. They were brought back to the hulk each night.

Government plans for the quarantine station were scrapped later that year — because the conditions at Petrie Terrace gaol had become so unbearable, the prisoners from the Prosperpine were set to work building a gaol instead. On 14 May 1867, the Governor of Queensland signed a proclamation declaring the island ‘a place whereat offenders under order or sentence of hard labour or penal servitude may be detained’. In the years that followed, St Helena was to become Queensland’s showpiece prison.

The toughest years on St Helena were undoubtedly the early ones, and the ruins on the island testify to the hard work that the prisoners had to do. These, too, were the years of severe punishment — the lash, the dreaded dark underground cells, the gag, and energy-sapping shot drill. These were the years that gained St Helena its fearful reputation as ‘the hell hole of the Pacific’ and ‘Queensland’s Inferno’. But in these days tough measures were called for, because St Helena housed some of the country’s worst criminals. In 1891, for example, there were 17 murderers, 27 men convicted of manslaughter, 26 men convicted of stabbings and shootings, and countless individuals responsible for assaults, rapes and similar violent crimes.

Because of this, St Helena had to be a secure prison — and it was, through its isolation and iron rule. During its lifetime, there were fewer than 25 serious attempts by prisoners to escape. Most of the 50 or so men involved were recaptured, although three disappeared without trace, two were drowned or taken by sharks in Moreton Bay, and a few were caught several years later.

By the turn of the century, the St Helena establishment had grown to accommodate over 300 prisoners in a maze of buildings surrounded by a high stockade wall. It operated as a self-sufficient settlement, and even exported some of its produce to the mainland, including bricks for many of Brisbane’s buildings, clothes to be sold in Brisbane, and white rope for ships, which was made from a cactus found on the island. In the island workshops the prisoners were taught such trades as boot making, tailoring, tinsmithing, saddle making, bread baking and butchery. The island boasted a prize dairy herd which won many awards at the Brisbane Exhibitions. The island was extensively farmed. Maize, potatoes, lucerne and other vegetables thrived in the rich volcanic soil and the sugar mill crushed over 75 tons of locally-grown sugar annually by 1880.

In many ways, St Helena was regarded as a model prison for the times, and held in high regard by visiting interstate and overseas penologists.

By the 1920s, the prison had begun to show its age. In its latter years, after the majority of prisoners and the workshops had been removed to the Boggo Road gaol on the mainland, the island became a prison farm for trustees, with a few dozen resident inmates tenaciously dismantling the ageing edifice. The ruins of several of the prison buildings remain today.

The last prisoner left the island on 15 February 1933.

The island became Queensland’s first ‘historic’ national park in 1979.

From The St Helena Island Prison by Jarvis Finger, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1988, pp. iii-v