St Helena Island Prison – Birdcage of the Bay

“Liberty is sweet. If you open the cage door, the bird is sure to fly out.”

So said Frederick Hamilton, St Helena Penal Establishment prisoner and would-be escapee. He certainly flew… well, paddled at least, first in a bathtub and then a makeshift raft on his way to Fisherman Islands and ultimate freedom. With 200 yards to go, he nearly made it.

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The St Helena Community team has been paddling hard too, as have the project team at Queensland State Archives, headed by Phil Manning. Friday March 22nd 2019 is the launch of the new Qld State Archives project focussing on St Helena Island, and The St Helena Community have been proud to provide much of the content and material for the exhibition. Last week we all headed to St Helena Island to film stories being told amongst the ruins and conduct interviews with Belinda, Daley, Roland and Lauren. It was lovely for us to be indulging in our passions and even more so when in the company of professionals like Chris, David and Phil who were ever so patient with us!

6:30am feels a bit rough when you’re trying to get moving out of bed! But the beautiful light and stillness as you walk down the St Helena jetty was good for the soul as well as the filming.

Entitled ‘St Helena Island Prison – Birdcage of the Bay,’ the Queensland State Archives exhibition focuses on the prison as an outlying island, whose population remains behind bars, isolated from society. Frederick Hamilton’s quote regarding opening the birdcage door to allow him to escape is so beautifully appropriate, illustrating one of the ideas encapsulated in the exhibition’s title. Hamilton’s 1911 escape story is one of the many, many stories featured in this new exhibition – stories of prisoners and warders and the complex interactions between them all inside the prison stockade.

Ranger and Actor Daley Donnelly conducting a masterclass of Scottish accents and enthusiastic delivery, reading Bushranger James McPherson’s ‘Mosquito Poem,’ captured on film by Phil and Chris from Qld State Archives. 

The project brings history into 2019 through the latest interactive digital technology. The 3D Virtual Reality of the Prison Stockade is awesome and literally gut wrenching. I am a motion sickness girl (yes, I worked on boats for 20 years and got good at coping!) and I did feel ill in the draft stages. I’m assured now it is all much improved! But to see the minimal ruins currently on the island transformed into a stunning walk through the St Helena Prison stockade – ward corridors, cell blocks, up onto the sentry towers, down into solitary confinement – is incredible and allows a visualisation of the actual prison environment in a way never achieved before. Lauren cried and I held my stomach and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

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Inside of “D Wing’, the only known photo to exist showing a prisoner walking down the corridor flanked by individual cells.  (1913). The new Virtual Reality experience allows you to recreate this for yourself. 

This is interpretation of St Helena’s History in a way that hasn’t been achieved before.  We’ve not had a digital 3D model that can be walked through with such ease, and that allows you to choose your own path along the way. The journey is peppered with images, stories and items of interest, so that you discover the stories and island history as you walk through.  I won’t go into detail – because I think you should visit and find out for yourself! But believe me when I say it’s exciting to push the boundaries of how we communicate and engage with St Helena’s history.

Being behind the scenes at Qld State Archives and getting to get up close and personal with so many carefully preserved books and documents was an extra boost of joy for Lauren and I. There were a few new discoveries for us in these books, and so we know there is yet more research ahead …

Of course, being the State Archives, historical images, documents and artefacts are a feature of the project. Not only is there the Virtual Reality, but there is also the digital Interactive Table filled with short stories, images, maps and plans, as well as numerous other items gathered from kilometres of stored documents in the archives, as well as videos from the last week’s filming. The exhibition is interactive and able to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. Material from the exhibition will also be utilised by school students and visitors to St Helena in the future, so it will be an ongoing resource enjoyed for many years to come.

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We will all be there on the launch on the 22nd March, so anyone is welcome to come and take a look. The exhibition runs at the Qld State Archives at 435 Compton Rd, Runcorn, from March until the 6th September. If you are as passionate about St Helena as we are, or would like to view the site in a new way, please head down to the State Archives and be prepared to be swept into another dimension!


5 thoughts on “St Helena Island Prison – Birdcage of the Bay

    1. Thankyou Paula, it is exciting and new and different, which is a lovely thing for us and for everyone! Looking forward to the final result.

  1. Hello Belinda
    I have just read your very interesting blog about David Graham and his family. My father was his grand son, Graham,who used to visit St Helena when he was a little boy to holiday with his cousins.
    I have been meaning to contact your group after I saw the Gardening Australia segment with that lovely photo of Graham and Reg. I would love sometime to see the album.
    The exhibition sounds great. Despite the horror for the prisoners there was obviously another side to life there.
    Thank you for the blog
    Helen Stuart

    1. Hello Helen,
      Can I first apologise for not replying sooner to your lovely comments. You caught me at a very busy time just before I headed overseas and I am only just catching up now. Sorry.
      I am so glad you enjoyed the blog post about your ancestor David Graham. The entire family is very important in the history of St Helena and some of the best photos we have are from your ancestors.
      If you are happy to send me your email address, I can send you the full profile I have created on David Graham including photos? I’m sure you’ll love it.

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