3 Scottish men and a world of adventure

Only a few people knew Samuel Olson at the end of his life. They described him as a crotchety and suspicious man, stone deaf, surly and living the life of a hermit in his home in Highgate Hill, Brisbane. (1) This was a long way from his beginnings on St Helena Island.

According to the 1864 census, 12,551 people lived in Brisbane, Queensland. (2) By now, Brisbane had been settled by European inhabitants for 40 years and Queensland had been a separate colony for 5 years. (Of course the census figures lied, as they did not include the indigenous inhabitants at all, not being recognised as citizens of Australia until 1966.) Of the 12,551 inhabitants, 6441 were male, including 3 recent arrivals, friends from their home of Glasgow, Scotland.

Samuel Olson, James Aird and James Hamilton met during their time spent in the Glasgow Police Force and all decided to emigrate to Australia in 1863. At this time, The Colonial forces were focused on bringing out trained police to the new colony with a new police act taking effect on 1 January 1864 stating that

‘Candidates with previous service with the Irish Constabulary, urban police or any military/ law enforcement agency’ were actively sought out for the service. (3)

This may have been the motivation to try their luck on the other side of the world.

Water Police Staff ca.1875
James Wassell, standing in the centre, was praised by John McDonald for saving his life.
Image No PM0001 QPS Museum

It was Samuel Olson who first gained a position in the Brisbane Water Police, employed by the Supervisor, Mr John McDonald. Not long after, Aird and Hamilton were also employed alongside him and all 3 were responsible for bringing ships into the harbour, checking for quarantine issues and bringing the ship to its destination. They were stationed on the hulk ‘Proserpine,’ a large vessel moored at the mouth of the Brisbane River.

It was the boating accident in January 1865 that was the first sign of changes to Mr Olson’s manner. Reports at the time suggest that the accident occurred during a particularly bad squall, which overturned the Water Police vessel within Moreton Bay. The men on board were stranded in the water for an extended period, clinging to the vessel that was ‘rolling over with every wave and shaking off the men who clung, exhausted, to her hull.’ (4) Both Mr Olson and Mr McDonald were said to have come close to drowning at this time, saved by fellow policeman James Wassell and the steamer, ‘Diamond,’ under the charge of Captain Labbett. The experience shocked Olson deeply and he was said to have become more despondent from that time on.

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 10.40.56 pm
First Superintendent John McDonald. Photo from Ken Scanlan

But this did not stop John McDonald from bringing Samuel Olson, James Aird and James Hamilton to St Helena Island in 1866 to supervise the building of the Quarantine Station on the island. When this function was altered to create a prison instead, John McDonald was appointed Superintendent, Aird and Olson became turnkeys (prison warders) and James Hamilton quickly rose from the position of Constable in the Water Police to the Chief Warder of the prison in 1867.

In the early years, St Helena Island could not have been any more different than their home of Glasgow. Samuel Olson had no boots, so he bought his own leather and a prisoner made him a pair. The warders were given rations of flour, but without a bakery to cook it, they sold it and brought already baked loaves from town. (5) They also found themselves at the scene of escapes from desperate prisoners taking advantage of the lack of secure buildings.

But the reason this crotchety man first came to our attention was this beautiful, handcrafted timber box, donated back to St Helena Island by one of the St Helena Community around 2008. In the roughest of places with the minimum of facilities, Samuel Olson was also an artisan.

More on that next time…

Writing desk 1
Inlaid wood writing desk, thought to be made by Samuel Olson on St Helena Island, donated by Mr Amos. Photo QPWS.


  1. Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), Saturday 30 January 1892, page 236
  2. Qld Census 1864,
  3. Policing Colonial Brisbane, Digital Colonial Brisbane 2017
  4. Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Thursday 19 January 1865, page 2
  5. Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence COL/A109/68/2318
  6. Inlaid Writing desk, donated to QPWS by Mr Amos, image by QPWS.
Feature Photo courtesy of Amanda Thepanda

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