Life in exile for over 350 prisoners and scores of warders on a small island in colonial Brisbane’s Moreton Bay. Was it purgatory or paradise? This book reveals the evidence.
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 thousands of society’s outcasts, for here was located colonial Queensland’s foremost prison for men.
During those years, and in the decades following its closure in 1933, the lovely little island gained a fearful reputation as ‘the hell hole in the Pacific’ and ‘Queensland’s own Devil’s Island’, where men were reputedly ‘kept chained by day and night’, ‘flogged to death’ and ‘hurried under the sod while their oppressors turned on those still living’.
It was a place to dread for the colony’s murderers, rapists, bushrangers, rebels, thieves and men of live violence and mayhem. They were subjected to the lash, the dreaded black hole, the gag and straight-jacket, and energy-sapping short drill. Life could be tough on St Helena. It was a secure prison – but dozens of men were desperate enough to attempt escape. Few succeeded.
But St Helena also gained a reputation as a self-sufficient model prison, held in high regard by visiting interstate and overseas penologists, churchmen and journalists, for here men could rehabilitated through learning cush trades as tailoring, bootmaking, tinsmithing, saddlemaking, and farming pursuits.
Indeed, it was claimed that the prison was for the inmates ‘a perfect paradise ... in fact they often want to get back there’.
Where does the truth reside? Was the St Helena Island Penal Establishment ‘living hell’ for society’s miserable outcasts or was it a ‘remnant of old Eden?’
This well-presented 296 page full-colour history of colonial Queensland’s island prison is rich in eyewitness accounts, anecdotes, historic photographs and documents, illustrations and absorbing tales of prison life, mayhem and escape. The material is presented in 18 illustrated chapters – an historical treasurehouse for student, general reader and historian.
Prologue: Off to St Helena
1. 'An Island Unworthy of Notice'
2. From Prison Hulk to Island Prison
3. The First Year
4. Rules and Regulations
5. Men at Work
6. Stockade Walls and Iron Bars
7. A Day in the Life of a Prison
8. The Devil's Own Brigade
9. The Wild Men of St Helena
10. Purgatory of Paradise?
11. A Unionist Remembers
12. A Warder's Unhappy Lot
14. 'There's Gold in the Trenches!'
15. The Battle for St Helena
16. 'What Are we Going to do with the Darned Place now that We've Got It?
17. After the Storm