Creating an island community

Place: St Helena Island.

Time: 1866

Mission: Build a gaol 

Who: Made by prisoners, for prisoners

Why: Too many criminals, not enough space!

Rowing across the waters of Moreton Bay, Queensland, in 1866, prisoners contained aboard the hulk ‘Prosperpine’ were given the task of building themselves a prison on the island of St Helena. Chosen due to the availability of good soil and fresh water, it was initially intended as a Quarantine Station for newly arrived immigrants. It was quickly realised that the increasing numbers of criminals urgently needed to be accommodated, and that the current hulk, a floating gaol moored at the mouth of the Brisbane River, was not sufficient to cater for them all.

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Plan of Quarantine Station, St Helena Island, 1865

By December 1866, 18 prisoners were at work at Government works on the island of St Helena and also confined on the island:

  1. Hugh Hope
  2. John McCormack
  3. William Donohue
  4. Samuel B Read
  5. William Sparks
  6. Charles du Prat
  7. John Helig
  8. James Brookes
  9. William Martin
  10. William Robinson
  11. Carl Hedenger
  12. John Brown
  13. John Cavanaugh
  14. John H R Davis
  15. William Watson
  16. Henry Parker
  17. John Murray
  18. James Hughes

The St Helena Penal Establishment was officially declared open in 20th May of 1867, and on the island at this time were 45 prisoners. Initially there was barely enough accommodation to keep all men safely locked up, yet Samuel B. Read spoke on behalf of all the prisoners when he requested that prisoners be allowed to walk around freely on weekends due to overcrowding in wards.

Samuel Read stated:

When a large body of men are collected there, those who are anxious to read or think are deprived from doing so.’

Also on 20th May, along with these prisoners, were their protectors.  Mr John McDonald, who had been involved in the establishment of the prison from the beginning as Chief of the Water Police, now assumed the role of Superintendent.

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John McDonald, first Superintendent of St Helena Island Penal Establishment.

6 warders and 9 military guards from the 50th Regiment were also accommodated on the island to manage the care and safety of the prisoners. Sub Inspector Wassell was now placed in charge of the Hulk to be used solely as quarters for the Water Police.

John McDonald and the 6 warders had been on board the hulk already, as Water Police, so a move to the island would have been a natural step. The 6 who stepped ashore were:

Samuel Seymour – Coxswain who is in charge of St Helena.

Samuel Olson – Turnkey on board the Hulk.

Henry Baker – Turnkey on board Hulk.

James Aird – On board Hulk

James Hamilton – Constable

James Harrup – Constable.

We want to get to know these men, their thoughts and actions as they began this enormous task of building an island prison and an island community.  What was the focus of the early years as they carved out a place within the fertile soils of a picturesque island?  What were the elements that brought them together or set them apart?

You are part of the St Helena Island community also. Join us to build a community of people today, who continue to research, share and enjoy the island stories and connect with the lives of those who have come before us.

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