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Published November 5th 2014
There is no escape or is there?
Boggo Road Gaol was one of Australia's most notorious prisons with an incredibly interesting, if somewhat macabre, history. They have several tours operating around different facets of the prison and I was invited to try one of their newer ones: Boggo Road Goal's Escapes Tour.
Our guide, Jack Sims and co-author of the book, Boggo Road Gaol Escapes, Volume 1, on which the tour was based, set the scene at the start. He ushered our group through the gate house and locked the huge door behind us. We had stepped out from bright markets, with a multitude of stalls and people buzzing around us, music playing; to find ourselves very definitely locked inside the darkened interior of the old gatehouse. Bright sunshine still beckoned on the other side of the open gatehouse, but only served to highlight the austere brick buildings, high fences and multitude of barbed wire that surrounded us now.
Jack continued to set the scene by giving us a brief history of the Boggo Road Gaol. Number 2 Division, which is now all that remains of the old prison, was where some of the most daring and audacious escapes took place during the 1920's, 30's and 40's. In the 1920's Sydney and Melbourne were experiencing criminal waves and these Southern Governments were forced to try and reign in some of the most, organised, criminal elements. Many of these "Southern Crims" were treated with great suspicion by local Queenslanders who resented the waves of criminals relocating northwards. This was where some of the worst criminals in Australian history were housed... and tried to escape from.
We were ushered towards the "back track", a part of the gaol where not many people, until now, have been allowed to roam. The back track was a part of the gaol that separated the cell and exercise yards from the outside walls which contained the turrets and guards. It was here, Jack started his first story with enthusiasm and obvious relish. It soon became apparent why Jack was so passionate about these stories – they were absolutely fascinating, made more real and more interesting, by the high walls and barbed wire that surrounded us.
Charles Lesley (from SA) and Jack Gleeson were the first men who got over wall. Many had tried to escape before, but most had failed. These men were career criminals, and convicted of armed robbery, assault and violence – not the sort of people who locals in Brisbane wanted roaming their streets.
One of the first things you notice when standing on the spot where Lesley and Gleeson staged their escape, is that it is next to, and in full view of one of the guard towers on top of the wall.
Unfortunately, shortly before their planned escape, the guards had been pulled from the towers due to government cutbacks. This at time, when prison was filled with greatest desperadoes the nation had ever seen! Of course, the criminals quickly noticed and escaped within days of officers being taken off.
Lesley and Gleeson made rope from scraps of fabric and metal in the prison workshops and on 22nd November 1923, with grappling hook and long rope, scaled walls about lunchtime. In broad daylight. It was an audacious and daring escape.
Jack Sims explains Lesley and Gleeson's audacious escape
They dropped over the other side of the wall and found themselves in the middle of a group of children, playing football on the nice green lawns of the outside prison. However, in landing, Lesley sprained his ankle and couldn't move, while Gleeson rain off down the street.
Lesley sat down against the prison wall, rolled himself a smoke (supplied by one of the children who was instructed by Lesley to retrieve the stash from his father's drawer) and instructed the somewhat surprised children to notify the guards. The guards didn't believe the children and sent them away. The children then told their parents and it was only after the parents went to guards in the guardhouse at the goal that they walked around to discover Lesley, still reclining against the outside wall.
Naturally, prison civil servants blamed the escape on the guards working at the time, but did nothing to reinstate the guards in the tower house, until a year later, another inmate escapes from exactly the same spot, again in broad daylight.
Incidentally, the 5.5 high towers will be open for tours to the public from 2016.
Our guide, Jack continued to lead us around the back track telling us more stories of daring breakouts, cunning escapes layered with a good smattering of fascinating historic detail and into the gaol itself. We were shown through Division 2 Cell Blocks where notorious criminals were housed such as the ingenious Arthur Earnest 'Slim' Halliday who made two jailbreaks – in 1940 and 1946 and James Savage in 1937. We were shown the horrifically small exercise yard and the Circle, along small corridors and into cool interiors of cells – each containing a story more fascinating than the last.
There are several tours that run through the old Boggo Road gaol and about the venue itself, here. You can read more about some of the other tours, such as the historical tour here, ex-inmate/ex-officer tour here or here. Keep an eye out also for the Graffiti tour, which starts soon also.