More women for St Helena Island – the arrival of the Aeblis

At the same time as 10 year old Bob and 7 year old Fred Murrie were rolling cannon balls down drains and fishing in the mangroves, the teenage Aebli sisters arrived to live on St Helena Island. It was 1916 when Johannes Aebli was promoted to Telegraph Operator, Clerk and Storeman at St Helena Penal Establishment, a position which included married quarters on the island to house his wife Anna and daughters Stella (16) and Olga (14). Leaving in 1920, the Aebli family story is a fitting finish to the ‘100 years ago’ series for 2020.

The Aebli’s definitely bought a European flair to St Helena Island, as shown in photos of the family next to their residence. Johannes, or John as he became known, was originally from Switzerland and Anna Petrea originated from Denmark, though both had lived in various parts of Queensland for a long period of time. At a time when World War 1 was underway, the prison was 50 years old, and very few families were living on the island, this stylish family made their own stamp on St Helena.

Ancestors Karen and Desni recall:

They were quite self- sufficient as they grew their own food, dairy products, meat etc. She (Anna Petrea) said they quite often had murderers working in their home and around their yard. Old Nin would cook up scones for morning tea and also give them lunch so the prisoners used to love working in the wardens home and garden as they knew they would get a good meal.”

Bob Murrie Junior described the cottage they lived in and surrounding gardens situated at the end of Warders’ Row as follows:

… the prison built a new house there. It came from Peel Island and (was) brought to St Helena and re-erected and painted up by the prisoners. The prison management decided to build a new house rather than move us out of our house. The house had a dining room, with fireplace, back was business quarters. Had reception room that came straight in off the verandah and 2 bedrooms.  It was a big house as Warder Hennessy, the storekeeper had children and got them to extend the verandah so children could sleep on it. Then the Aebli family took over from Warder Hennessy and then after Aebli family, the Cranch’s took the house over.

The end of Warders Row where the Married Quarters once stood and the gardens flourished has only remnants of rain tank stands and crumbling bricks today. Image: Belinda Daly

Karen also recalled the family was able to have relatives visit the island once a week on Sunday via the ferry. In fact, another ancestor, Deb Wheeler, recalls her Grandmother Mary and her Aunt Lilly Hammar, were fellow Danes and a good friends of Anna Aebli, visiting often. By 1918, the friendship extended to having Mary live with the Aebli family on St Helena for about 2 years, as she was unable to remain at home in Warwick. It is quite unusual to hear this story, as the regulations within the prison had always been heavily regulated as to who was able to be on the island and normally only reserved for immediate family.

Yet if I consider the time 1916, it is actually a time when a number of new and unusual changes occurred, bringing more families and especially more women into the new island community. The newly appointed Superintendent John A. MacDonald brought his wife Helen and daughters Mabel (28 years), Eva (26 years) and Ethel (21 years) to live on the island. Chief Warder David Graham, wife Mary Ann and daughter Grace 27 years) had lived on the island for some time and their children and grandchildren visited often. Charlotte Murrie had also been living on the island for a couple of years with her sons. With the addition of Anna, Olga and Stella, it seems young Bob Jnr and Fred Murrie were outnumbered.

The Graham family women, Annie and Grace (left) and Mary Ann and Tot (right) spent many years living on St Helena island, where their husband and father, David Graham was Chief Warder. Their photos like this one on the “Kangaroo” tram cart, allow us to view life in the 1910’s on St Helena Island in great detail. Photo courtesy the Fiona Pearce Collection, sourced from QPWS.

This unusual time that existed on this prison island in the late 1910’s is most exciting for me. We continue to tell stories about the prison escapes and the brawls, the regulations and the prison structures. I’ve written many stories about the war years and the soldiers involved in fighting in that global tragedy. But the fact that 11 women on St Helena Island carved out a life in the war years amongst the omnipresent prison walls with prisoners working in their gardens and houses, has never been realised, let alone shared.

Small pieces of information and amazing photos continue to be shared with me by ancestors of people living on St Helena. People like Karen, Desni and Deb, who have helped expand St Helena’s known history by giving personal family insights into the Aebli family which allow us to glimpse into the character of these women and a record of the events in their lives.  People like Jenny and Fiona, ancestors of the Graham family who shared their stunning photos with Qld Parks and Wildlife Service.

I’d like to finish with a video I created in 2018 with Lauren Penny. Here I’m explaining why it’s my dream to re-imagine the physical place of Warders Row and reveal the layers of it again through all of the people living there.

Belinda Daly, St Helena Island, 2018


Bob Murrie Oral recollections

Personal correspondence – Knight and Wheeler families

Qld Parks and Wildlife Service

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