I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane. I love bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife, history and travel.
Published July 15th 2018
Learn about history of Qld's prison island
I've always been interested in history, especially convicts and penal settlements. This year I've visited two penal colonies, one in Port Arthur in Tasmania in February, and St Helena Island off Brisbane in July this year.
Maybe I like penal colonies because my great great grandfather, James Southerwood was a convict sent out from England to Van Dieman's Land in 1925 for stealing a sea chest and two silver spoons. James was sentenced to seven years at the Somerset Quarter Sessions on January 10th 1825. He arrived in Hobart Town on July 29th 1828 on the William Miles as an eighteen-year-old. He was granted a Ticket of Leave on January 14, 1832.
St Helena Island has had a very interesting history. It was a Quarantine Station in 1866. Before that, dugongs were killed on the island for their oil. The island became a high-security colonial prison from 1867 until 1907. After operating as a prison farm, it finally closed in 1932 and was declared a national park in 1979.
Aboriginal middens show that local people visited the island to hunt dugongs and flying foxes and gather shellfish. The island did not receive the name "St Helena" until 1828. An Aboriginal man, Napoleon stole an axe on North Stradbroke Island. Like his namesake, Napoleon Bonaparte, he was exiled to another island, which became known as St Helena. He didn't stay in exile very long. He built a canoe and paddled back to his own island.
A large group of us left Brisbane from a boat jetty at Hamilton on a recent Sunday to cruise down the Brisbane River and over to the Island on the MV Lady Brisbane. The Brisbane Bushwalking Club organised the trip. One of the walkers also invited his four-wheel drive club to come on the trip. Family and friends also came along. You can also get a boat tour to the Island from Manly.
St Helena is located in Moreton Bay 5 km from the mouth of the Brisbane River and about 8km northeast of Manly. It was a beautiful day and very interesting. After a barbecue lunch onboard, our large group was divided into four groups on the Island. Each group had their own guide to take them around the ruins and tell the stories of the Island's history.
The punishment on the Island was pretty brutal. We heard about the lash, the dreaded dark underground cells, the whippings with Cat o' Nine Tails and the horrid shot drill. The place was known as 'the hell hole of the Pacific' and 'Queensland's Inferno'. In 1891, 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.
There are restricted and unrestricted areas on the Island. You need a guide to visit the restricted areas. Our guide told us the Island was very profitable and all the prisoners learnt a trade while they were doing their time. This helped them get jobs once they were released. These trades included bookmaking, sail-making, tailoring, saddle making, tinsmithing, candle making, bookbinding and carpentry.
The guards used to put animal blood and offal into the waters to attract sharks to deter prisoners from escaping. Some did escape in stolen boats but were usually quickly caught. We did hear about the only convict to ever escape and not get caught. He was free and travelled the world for a couple of years. He then came back, gave himself up and returned to his island prison home to serve out his sentence.
We wandered around with our guide visiting the old ruins, wells, tram tracks, prisoner's graveyard and the children's cemetery. We also visited the museum, which had interesting displays of artefacts and information relating to the St Helena Island Penal Establishment. We listened to a recording from an old man who had lived on the island as a boy when his father was the Superintendent. He told a story of cutting grass in his yard with a cane knife one day when one of the prisoners came up and told him to stop using the knife. That prisoner had murdered his own brother with a cane knife and got very upset seeing the knife the boy was using.
We saw remnants of the St. Helena tramway, which operated between 1885 and 1932 and provided the first passenger tramcar service in Queensland. The prisoners grew crops grown on the island including sugar cane, vegetables, flax, maize and olive oil. They also used to mine lime and keep sheep and cattle.
As we walked around we saw a lot of wildlife. There were kangaroos relaxing everywhere amongst the ruins and white-bellied sea eagles high in the trees. The Island is heritage listed and is an important migratory bird site. It is identified in Birdlife International because it supports large numbers of Migratory waders and shorebirds. I also saw some Willie wagtails playing on the old walls. Dotti took some great photos with her telephoto lens of the sea eagles and some pied oystercatchers, which she gave me to use with this story.
I found some old photos of the Island on Trove from Brisbane City Council. One shows some horses and the vegetable garden. Prisoners watered plants by hand with water from wells using watering cans.
We learned about the life of prisoners as we walked around the ruins of the prison workshops and accommodation. It was tough living and working on the Island, even though they were in a beautiful area.
We saw some white-breasted sea eagles high in some trees as we walked along and Australian Sooty Oystercatchers. Dotti got some great photos of these birds with her telephoto lens.
I found some old historic photos on Trove of the Island in its heyday. One shows the prison vegetable garden and one some retired horses. Water was carried from the wells and plants were watered by hand with watering cans.
Vegetable garden St Helena, Brisbane City Council photo
I was very interested to learn thirteen of the Queensland Shearers strike ringleaders were arrested and sentenced to three years hard labour at St Helena Island prison. The Australian Labor Party was formed out of that strike, which was one of Australia's most famous industrial disputes. The Shearers strike began on January 5, 1891 at Logan Downs Station in Central Queensland, when the station manager asked shearers to sign a contract which would reduce working conditions and.
I also have connections with rebel strikers. My great great grandmother was a close relation of Peter Lalor who led the Eureka Stockade rebellion in Ballarat in 1854. It's a wonder I'm not a criminal or rebel because of my convict ancestor and my connection to Peter Lalor.
Once the Island stopped having prisoners on it, there was a lot of debate about what it would become. An article in the Brisbane Telegraph on 6 January 1927 described the work of demolishing the prison buildings, prior to the Government's handing the island over to the Brisbane City Council, "it should not be long before this beauty spot is made available for what it should always have been a health resort. It has been a cause of wonder for many years that such a picturesque spot should be reserved for the imprisonment of criminals when other sites could have been secured for that purpose . no doubt the grim buildings of the penal settlement will be replaced by weekend cottages, permanent residences, and attractive hostels"
Luckily the buildings were not completely demolished so people can visit now and see how it used to be. The article said the Home Secretary stated it was difficult to demolish the buildings because of the thoroughness with which the builders did their work.
When we got back on the boat, Brenda said we had walked 6.5 kilometres around the island. It didn't feel that far. After coffee and a hot muffin for afternoon tea, we arrived back in Brisbane. St Helena Island is a magical place and well worth a visit.
Very interesting article Roz. I loved your choice of photos. They were so relevant to what you were describing and they brought it all to life for me! It must have been interesting to visit this island knowing about your ancestry!
Hi Roz, Excellent detailed article, thank you for the summary and images.
May we place a link on our website?
Would you be interested in becoming a tour guide?
Glad you enjoyed the day.
Cheers, Captain Jim Kelly.