“We could go anywhere, we were only youngsters. We couldn’t go in the stockade, but if there was a warder with you, you could go in. My father’s job…at 9 o’clock at night, he used to go in to the prison and make sure everything was locked up and under control, and I’d go in with him sometimes… we’d go in the front Number 1 gates and then go in between gates and then I’d see the fellows on duty and say hello and then we’d walk back home. We did that every night. A couple of times in the day we went in there…”
Few families lived on St Helena Island 100 years ago. The Murrie family was one of them – Dad Robert Murrie, Senior Warder at St Helena Penal Establishment, his wife Charlotte and their two sons Robert Junior (Bob) and Fred. In the mid 1980’s this family became an enormously important source of history when Bob Jnr and Fred travelled to St Helena to recall their time spent so many decades before. Their tales bought the penal social history alive.
Finding Fred and Bob was quite accidental. Members of Qld Parks and Wildlife Service and the newly formed St Helena Field Study Centre were holding an event designed to create conversations with community members in the hope of building the known history of St Helena Island. Fred Murrie was discovered and it was organised to take him on a tour of St Helena Island to record his stories. At the last minute he asked if Bob could come too. As both aged men trod familiar old paths around the penal stockade and Warders Row, it became obvious that these men were sharing specific, detailed information that no one else knew. So much of our current understandings have relied on these candid personal details.
“The fellow in the in between gates, he had the keys…. The bloke on Front No. 1 gate could open the door and go in between gates but you couldn’t get out, the bloke inside had all the control of 1 wing, 2 wing, 4 wing and so on. I never ever got into the corridors themselves, I don’t know what was in there. As you entered the gate, on the right hand side was the saddler’s shop and on the left was the entrance to other shops where I was not allowed. Straight ahead was the main gate with the iron bars on it. The No. 1 man had the keys to the gate and he let you in and locked the door behind him, and he was in between gates with one gate to the wing this way, one gate that way and one up to the tower. The man on one of the wings would come along with his key and open the door to let him in. The man in between gates could only let people in, he could never them out.”
Compare the Prison Stockade plan with Bob Murrie Junior’s recollections (above) of the coordinated system for the operation of entering the main gate. Bob’s specific details of warders’ actions add an important third dimension, bringing people and movement to what are otherwise lines on a page.
Outside the stockade, Bob remembers the beautiful flowers in the Comptroller’s garden and remembers eating from the fruit trees including custard apples, avocados, loquats, paw paws and peaches, as well as olives from the many trees in the grove. Bob also recalled sneaking in to turn on the fountains. There was a high water tank connected to the fountains, but 9 times out of 10 it would not work as you had to have enough water in the high tank. The water for the fountain tank had to be delivered by prisoners in a water cart from the large water tanks near the windmill/old sugar mill.
Bob and Fred held fond memories of the warders on the island, who looked out for the brothers’ safety and enjoyment during outdoor activities. The warders
“…had four different black boys on the boat, and the fish nets. They used to take the boat occasionally to fish, particularly at a time like Easter. They would put the fishing net out on the east side of the jetty and also use the other side near Green Island, taking the dinghy out and dropping the net further out. You’d be amazed what came in, all sorts of stuff – whiting, mullet. They would bring a couple of drays down and fill them up with fish and distribute them to all the warder’s houses. If there was some left over, the prisoners might get some.”
On one particular outing, Bob and Fred caught 85 whiting which they gave out to everywhere. They had to gut, clean and salt them and hang them out to dry.
Amazingly, Bob and Fred were on speaking terms with some of the prisoners, particularly those who laboured outdoors. Fred remembers talking to prisoners as they worked in the gangs in various parts of the island. One, a carpenter called Harry Stratford, made some glory boxes for their father.
Bob also recalled the following story:
“We got along with everyone here. Prisoner Peter Tynan, he was a ploughman who killed his brother with a cane knife up in Mackay when he was drunk.” As Bob was cutting a hedge with a cane knife, Peter Tynan came up to him and said hello and almost cried. Peter implored “Put that away, that caused me to come in here…I did something dreadful with it.”
Bob remembers that they let Peter as a part of the amnesty during World War I. At this time they let a lot of the ‘old timers’ out and reduced a lot of sentences. This was not to go into army, as it was later in WW1, but as celebration of peace.
Bob Murrie Junior’s voice can still be heard today. When I created the museum on St Helena Island in the year 2000, it seemed only right to have his heart-felt reminisces playing so that all visitors could hear first-hand about how special this island was to him and his family. Next time you are heading to St Helena Island, head into the museum for a listen.