Maltman, Soldier, Warder, Newsagent. The many lives of George Buist.

George Buist, the last know returned soldier arriving at St Helena Island in September 1920 as a warder, was only on the island for 9 months. Not much happened, excepting a miscount of a prisoner at evening muster in C Wing. But his war service deserves a special mention as not too many men met and married their wife and had a child all while on active duty.

G_ Buist one of the soldiers photographed in The Queenslander Pictorial supplement to The Queenslander 1915_
George Buist, World War I soldier, in uniform. Source: Discovering Anzacs, NAA. 

George Buist’s story shows how complex life can be for one individual, but it opens a window onto women and children’s attempts to find a way to make it through life as he was married 3 times. The story begins in Fife, Scotland in 1883, where he was born and later became a Maltman. By the time he married his first wife Mary Ann Garrity in 1908, he was living in Edinburgh, and they were still there when daughter Mary Ann was born on the 26th April 1911.

Tragedy followed, as the mother Mary Ann died from childbirth on the same day. There is no telling how any of us would psychologically react to such a terrible event following on from the birth of our child, but George obviously did not cope. He boarded a vessel bound for Australia on the 8th May. By the time he arrived on June 21, 1911, he had no way of telling how his daughter, in the care of her Grandmother was faring. Infant Mary Ann died in the Edinburgh Sick Children’s Hospital on the 25th August 1911.

G Buist WWI details
George was on the battlefront during 1916 to 1917, but was then transferred to the Australian Army Provost Corps in England where he remained until 1919. Source: Discovering Anzacs, NAA.

George remained in Queensland and was in Childers when he enlisted in WWI on the 30 January 1915, returning to the Northern Hemisphere where he took part in battles at Gallipoli, Africa and France as part of the 9th Battalion. He was hospitalised many times, for Diarrhoea, Gunshot wound and Varicose Veins. In 1915, 1916 and 1917, George was days late returning from each furlough following his hospital discharges in England. This literally cost him, as he was fine 5 pounds and twice forfeited 3 day’s pay. It seems, though, there was a reason, as on the 28th April 1917 George was married in the Paddington Registry Office.

At this time George was in the Perham Downs Camp in Ludgershall, England, attached to the Australian Army Provost Corps. The Provost Corps were in charge of traffic duties, maintaining army discipline, security, Prisoners of War and the management of Military Prisons. By transferring into the Corps, George remained in England and was present for the birth of son George in July 1917. When he was shipped to Australia (still on active duty) on the 3rd July 1919, his wife Gladys and son George travelled to Australia with him.

It was not until late September 1920 that George Buist joined the ranks of Warder at St Helena Island Penal Establishment. Source: Warders’ dates of appointment book – H M Penal Establishment/Gaol, St Helena, Qld State Archives

100 years ago people were rebuilding their lives again. Finding a way into employment as a warder in a prison on an island in Australia was far removed from George Buist’s previous occupation as a Maltster or his role as a soldier. But his wives had their lives changed completely also, thanks to the arrival of their children, and it seems that adaptation to changing life circumstance and geographical location in the world was the job of men and women alike post World War I.

For the prison management of St Helena Penal Establishment, dealing with an influx of temporary, untrained ex-soldiers over 5 years must have placed great pressure on the prison. Training people with little insight into the role, with potentially little motivation to actually have a career as a warder and having to train them while maintaining the security of the prison must have been a major undertaking. In the year 1916 alone, the new Superintendent arrived, 15 warders were appointed, 5 were placed on the island temporarily, 4 left and 2 warders died. Up until 1921, some of these men stayed a month or two and some stayed for years, some were efficient and some underperforming in their duty to an extent that they were not asked to continue their duties.

Warders Barracks 1928 SLQ
On appointment in 1920, all new warders were housed in one of two Warder’s barracks on St Helena Island. These provided Dormitory style housing with communal kitchen and bathroom. Despite many warders having families of their own, they remained separated from them for up to 6 weeks at a time. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

I am unsure if George was treated by the Government as a Returned Soldier to be employed in Government Institutions or whether he found employment on St Helena Island himself as it took 11 months between discharge from the army to him taking up duty on St Helena. With a wife and child newly arrived in Australia, island life would have created great difficulties in communication and housing for the family. After only 9 months on the island, George resigned from St Helena with no reason given on the 29th June 1921.

In 1921, staff in St Helena Penal Establishment were reduced from 45 to 16, with the Comptroller General Charles Pennefather reporting that ‘a fair number of men (warders) will be absorbed in other gaols.’ It seems every prison staff member was asked to make a decision about their future at this time – stay on the island, transfer to Brisbane Prison or another gaol in the state, retire or resign.

Boggo Rd Gaol Number 2 division
Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, around 1903. Sourced from

A transfer to Brisbane Prison may have helped George Buist retain a wage, but the role of a warder may not have been something George wished to continue. He chose to resign. George finished his life as a Newsagent in Middlesex with his third wife, a long way from Moreton Bay and his former life.



Discovering Anzacs, NAA
England census
England Death Certificate
England Free BDM Index
England Marriage Certificate
Queensland Passenger Lists 1848-1912
Scotland Baptisms Scotland BDM Index
Scotland Birth Certificate Scotland Births and Baptisms
Scotland Census
Scotland Death Certificate
Scotland Marriage Certificate
UK incoming passenger lists
Washington Passenger and Crew Lists 1882-1965

6 thoughts on “Maltman, Soldier, Warder, Newsagent. The many lives of George Buist.

  1. Wow what an interesting life! I wonder if he told his own stories while selling the papers? Thanks Belinda 😊

    1. Hello Paula! I agree that his own story would have made good front page news. Thanks for reading! Belinda

    1. Hello Natalie, I have just written to your mother Gillian via Facebook, so thanks so much for you both getting into contact with me. As I said to Gillian, I thank the web for the ability to reach across the world to people everywhere and I have had many family members make long lasting connections after I write a story.
      I did say to your mum that my aim is to research, write and share the social history of St Helena Island in Moreton Bay, Queensland. I am focussing particularly on warders and their families as no-one has done anything in this area yet and it is totally overlooked. I am so glad you found the post I did on George – my theme at the moment is ‘100 years ago’ which was when George Buist was on St Helena.
      As I said to your mum, I am happy to create a profile of George Buists’ time on St Helena Island if that is something you would all like and I can email it if you give me an email address. In return, can you tell me about the book your mum mentioned and is it possible to get a copy of his photo for our records? All sources of information will always be acknowledged as being provided by you.
      Looking forward to hearing from you both again.

  2. I have always been interested in the people on St Helena Island. I live in Manly West and for many years fished around the island but never went ashore. It is a fascinating island with its history. Last year I went on a tour of the island and saw many establishments and their purposes. I had a trade background and was interested who taught the men the skills at that time. The story goes on about that place, the lost cemeteries and their discovery of those poor souls resting places. I would like to keep in touch with your research.

    1. Keith, I think you came on a tour with me in 2019? Is that right?
      Thanks for your feedback. I agree, St Helena Island does have a fascinating history and great to know that you are enjoying our research and stories.
      Belinda Daly

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