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Top Places to Explore Brisbane's Convict Past

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by Damsel Martin (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer, blogger and animal wrangler living in Brisbane's western suburbs. Many of my stories offer great giveaways to readers - subscribe to hear about them first.
Published August 13th 2018
Prisoners' stories woven through city's beating heart
convict brisbane life irons museum moreton bay history settlement
Convict garments on display at the Museum of Brisbane. Image by David Kelly.

Brisbane is a city built on the blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of convicts. Established in 1824, the Moreton Bay Settlement received only the most hardened, recidivist offenders, who toiled in leg irons and chains to shape the city from the ground up. Some buildings, such as the Old Windmill Tower and Commissariat Store, still stand as a testament to their labour, while other sites have since been transformed. But by visiting some of these places, it is possible to get a sense of what Brisbane was like, and draw closer to our convict past.

1. Life in Irons: Brisbane's Convict Stories

The Museum of Brisbane's latest exhibition displays a hitherto unseen collection of the penal colony's foundation documents. The dim lighting is designed to protect the precious and original maps, registers, architectural plans and other documents. There's also an interactive display which reveals personal accounts of life in the fledgling settlement, from convicts, officers, military personnel and indigenous leaders. Enrich your visit by participating in a range of related events, including performances, lectures and tours. But you'll need to get in quick, because Life in Irons: Brisbane's Convict Stories closes on 28 October 2018. The Museum of Brisbane is open from 10am to 5pm daily (till 7pm on Fridays).

convict brisbane life irons museum moreton bay history settlement
Life in Irons. Image by David Kelly.

2. The Commissariat Store Museum

Convict-hewn stone forms the foundation of what is one of Brisbane's only two surviving convict-built buildings. (The second is the Old Windmill Tower, below.) The lower two floors of The Commissariat Store were built by convicts from 1828 to 1829 and, originally, the building was a hub used for storing, supplying and distributing food, clothing, tools and other requirements of the penal colony. Now it serves to showcase Queensland's history, through the tireless efforts of members of The Royal Historical Society of Queensland. The Commissariat Store is open from 10am to 4pm from Tuesday to Friday.

convict brisbane life irons museum moreton bay history settlement
The Old Windmill Tower. Image courtesy of Tourism & Events Queensland.
3. The Old Windmill Tower

In 1827, the feared commandant of Moreton Bay, Captain Patrick Logan, proposed to construct a treadmill that would grind sufficient grain to sustain the settlement, while also serving as punishment for recalcitrant prisoners. Work commenced on the mill tower, which still overlooks the inner city suburb of Spring Hill, a year later. However, it wasn't until 2012 that the windmill tower opened to the public for the first time as part of Brisbane Open House. Tickets for entry to the Old Windmill Tower are typically so sought-after that they must be allocated by ballot.

4. St Helena Island

It's a half hour boat trip from the Brisbane bayside suburb of Manly to the hauntingly beautiful St Helena Island. For more than 60 years from 1867, Australia's Alcatraz served as the state's foremost maximum-security prison. Most of the island, including the stone prison ruins, is accessible today only by guided tour. With offences punishable by solitary confinement, a lashing, or 14 days' shot drill (a forced march with a cannonball after a day's hard labour), St Helena Island was described as a hell on earth. It's a significant site because many original buildings still stand, giving visitors a rare glimpse of prison life in Queensland's early years.

convict brisbane life irons museum moreton bay history settlement
Convict ruins at St Helena Island. Image courtesy Tourism & Events Queensland.


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Why? A homegrown history lesson
Your Comment
Interesting article, Damsel! I love these historical stories...
by Elaine (score: 3|5463) 35 days ago
Great read.
by Kerenza Korostovetz (score: 0|8) 34 days ago
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