100 years ago – the large, long life of Bob Murrie

Bob Murrie Senior is a man of numbers. He was a husband to 3 wives and father to 5 children. He lived in 2 countries, starting life as a Cooper in Scotland before finding his way to Australia. In his long career in the Qld Penal Service he worked in 7 different prisons and Penal Establishments over 34 years. (1) Retiring in 1921 at around 76 years old, he enjoyed 6 more years before dying in 1927, aged 82. (2) For 5 hours in 1985, his 2 sons retold detailed, precious stories of their 8 years of prison life, giving life and colour to St Helena Island’s prison history. (3)

Young Robert Murrie (2)
Robert Murrie as a young man. Family records in Scotland show the spelling of his surname as Murray originally. The date and original source of this photograph are unknown, but could possibly be from his sons Fred and Bob Murrie in the 1980’s. Image held at Moreton Bay EEC.

Bob Murrie Senior seems to be an interesting character. The photo of him as a young Scotsman (above) shows someone with a bright and direct nature. This belies the fact that he only had a short time with son John, who died in 1872 and his first wife Jessie who died in 1881.(4) Leaving his daughter Jessie, aged 13, in England, Robert emigrated to Qld in 1883 with his second wife Grace Pratt. They welcomed his second daughter Thomasina in Qld in 1884. (5)

Screenshot (5)
Birth certificate for Robert Murrie’s first daughter Jessie. At 11 years old, Jessie lost her mother and her father remarried and emigrated soon after, leaving her in England. Joining her father and sister in Qld a few years later, she married and had 9 children in Mackay. Incredibly she died in 1971 at the age of 101.

1886 required some family reorganisation, as daughter Jessie arrived in Queensland just before Grace died to be with her father and sister. (5) Marrying in 1888, it appears that Jessie took over the care of her 2 year old sister Thomasina in Mackay. It was not long after that he entered the Prison Service as a warder in Mackay and Rockhampton Gaols, and later in Cairns and Thursday Island. Tragically daughter Thomasina also died 1895, the fourth immediate family member he had lost. (5)

Thomasina Murrie death certificate cropped
Robert Murrie’s second daughter Thomasina died under tragic circumstances in 1895. Her death certificate states she died of ‘accidental burns as a result of clothes igniting when near fire’ and she spent 14 days in the Mackay Hospital before succumbing to her injuries. The fact that her father was living and working on Thursday Island in 1895 suggests Thomasina was living with her sister Jessie in Mackay.

It was not until 1903 that Bob Murrie arrived at St Helena, a single man. His demeanour still shines though in records in the Warder’s Default Book (1), recording his direct, no nonsense replies to an inquiry about a boat trip:

Re: motor boat trip to Wynnum. He said that Warder Hammond did not know the ‘arse’ of a boat from the nose. Cautioned (No further action) – Comptroller General.

Bell 08 1918 New boat the Lily
St Helena Penal Establishment had a number of boats over the decades, some of which were made on the island by the carpenter. This image is of the new boat ‘Lily’ in 1918 with warders standing in the stern. Boats like this were an alternative to using the steamer. They were used to sail quickly between St Helena Island and Wynnum to transport warders, goods or visitors or when an unplanned trip was required. Image from Bell Collection, QPWS.

Boats seemed to have been a major part of Bob Murries’ role as he is mentioned in a boating accident in 1905 (6)

Warders 2 hours in the water

The 14ft skiff under a jib sail left St Helena this morning with Warders Macartney (sic) and Murray (sic) … a sudden squall sprang up, capsizing the boat and washing away the rudder, oars, paper and all the contents: in fact, the boat turned right over. This occurred at 2:30 and the men were observed in the water trying to right their boat. … At 4:30 the fishing boats Spider 1 (J. Antonio) and the Ettie (B. Antonio) came to the rescue and afforded all the assistance they could. They righted the boat and then towed her and the two warders to Wynnum Creek. The men, though rather fatigued, were little the worse for their experience. It is not the first time that this same prison skiff has capsized.

As a single man, Robert Murrie would have resided in the Warders’ Barracks from 1903 to 1905. His son, Bob Junior, later described the living quarters and daily habits of single warders (3):

“The Warder’s Barracks No. 1 had separate quarters inside for each warder, with a mosquito net and trunk for belongings. There was a covered walkway to the kitchen behind it, a dining room near the armoury, and a well which was filled by rainwater. The warders would get back to kitchen by 5 o’clock and eat in their dining room – it was ‘taboo’ to be in the kitchen area. The warder’s food was cooked in the prison and prisoners stayed back to deliver meals to the warders. They also had a ‘tucker box’ filled with meals for the warders on duty – prisoners fill it with meals and carried it down to warders on duty.”

Laurie 04 Warders' barracks
Warders Barracks No. 1, showing the verandah on the front and the barred section of the armoury on the right section of verandah. The kitchen stood behind the building. Image from State Library Qld.

By 1907 morale amongst warders separated from family and society for 6 weeks at a time was low. A recreation room for officers was ‘fitted up’ in 1907 as well as a tennis court, cricket pitch and construction of a fishing boat. By 1915 a new reading and billiard room was completed in an effort to stave off boredom by providing single warders with a chance to socialise and keep mentally focussed.

One of the reasons I love the Murrie’s stories, is because Bob Jr and Fred’s recollections recall the personalities, character and dialogue of some of the single warders, allowing us to hear them today and imagine life in their tight knit community. There were:

‘the two Spreadborough brothers, Bowden, Fred Mc Munn and Warder Robert McConkey who was as a ‘jolly fellow… full of fun and always good for a wise crack.’ Johnny Rhodes used to drill all the warders and Sandy Mc Pherson, who was in charge of the boat, was one of Bob Senior’s mates. He would go over to Wynnum on the regular run and if the tide was high they would head up the creek to the pub quickly. Warder Vanderworf was a senior man on the island and a jolly fellow. John Rhodes was the trade instructor, carpenter and blacksmith…Burke was the saddle man and the baker kept to himself.’ (3)

I’ll have to also introduce Warder Fred Mc Munn properly another time, as I’ve recently made a new discovery. Bob Murrie and Fred McMunn worked together and shared the barracks as single warders from 1909, when Fred first arrived as a warder. (1) But once I joined the dots I have recognised that Bob’s third wife Charlotte McMunn, whom he married in 1904, was Fred’s sister! In 1913, they all created their own unique family community when Charlotte and their 2 sons also joined them to live as an extended family on St Helena Island. The Murrie / McMunn family stories have only just begun.

Warders row
Remains of the Warders’ barracks kitchen and bathroom. The underground well is seen fenced to the left of the building. The timber Warders’ barracks is now gone. Image courtesy of Veloshotz.





  1. HMPE Prison – St Helena. Waders Defaulters Book 1867 – 1916, Qld State Archives
  2. NSW Births Deaths Marriages Index
  3. Oral Recording, Bob and Fred Murrie, 1985, St Helena Island, sourced from Moreton Bay EEC
  4. England Free BDM Index
  5. Qld Births Deaths Marriages Index
  6. The Daily Mail, Brisbane, Saturday April 15 1905.


Other sources

  • 1871 Scotland census
  • 1881 England census
  • Aust Electoral Rolls 1903-1980
  • Find a Grave
  • Mackay Hospital admissions
  • Qld Immigration Indexes
  • Scotland Birth Certificate
  • Scotland Death Certificate
  • Trove

Leave a reply, we'd love to here from you!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.