A Swiss storekeeper for St Helena Island

St Helena Island was John Aebli’s first and last appointment to a Penal Establishment. He began a new career as a warder at St Helena in 1900 and finished his penal career 20 years later in the same place it began. John, it seems, was a late starter in many areas, being 37 years old when he married his wife Anna, 38 on appointment in 1900 and in his 40’s when his 3 daughters were born. The entire Aebli family became an important part of the social fabric of the St Helena Island community.

Johannes Aebli emigrated from Switzerland. While the majority of warders orginated from England, Scotland and Ireland, a small portion originated in Sweden, Demark and Germany. Source: Warders Default Book, Qld State Archives.

Records show that prior to becoming a warder, John Aebli as employed with ‘A’ Battery, which was the first permanent Colonial military defence force established in Queensland in 1885. Recruits in Metropolitan Brisbane were now paid, as opposed to the previous fully volunteer forces and those volunteer regiments that remained. ‘A’ Battery was stationed at Victoria Barracks, Petrie Terrace and also at Fort Lytton, as an artillery force with a training role for all the Field regiments.

View of the brick barracks at the police depot on Petrie Terrace in Brisbane, 1951. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

It looks as though marriage in September 1899 gave John an imperative to change careers, as by February 1900 he was on Probation as a Warder at the St Helena Penal Establishment. Capitalising on the skills learnt from his time in the garrison, John Aebli became a member of St Helena’s Rifle Club, achieving strong results.

Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Monday 11 August 1902, page 9

The Rifle Club was more than a chance to hone skills – on an isolated island it was also a social outlet, as displayed by the 1903 triangular match with the Marburg and Ipswich Clubs:

… a hearty welcome given to the visiting teams by Superintendent Ryan, who was waiting to receive them on the jetty. The visitors were then driven to the range, and firing was commenced forthwith…The “Cease fire” having been sounded the command was given to retire on the warders’ quarters, where it was found that a sumptuous repast was laid out in first-class style, to which full justice was done. The inner man having been satisfied, the President of the Ipswich Club (Captain McLeod), in a very happy speech, presented the St. Helena Club with a trophy to be competed for by their members, a presentation for a similar purpose being made by Mr. Dance on behalf of the Marburg team. Mr. Browne, the genial secretary of the St. Helena Club, heartily thanked the visitors for their presence and gifts. A move was then made for the jetty, when the usual parting salutes were exchanged, and as “Auld Iang Syne” was being sung the Otter slowly drew away from the shore and headed for the Pile Lighthouse on her way home.

Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908), Tuesday 23 June 1903

Being a Probationary Warder gives man a year to prove his worth, and John made it through probation despite a rocky start with understanding the strict regulations and requirements of a warder on duty. The Warder’s Defaulters Book show John still learning the ropes of warder duties while he was on Probation:

Feb 14 1900        With neglect by not signing his name in the Warders’ Time & Occurrance Book at 6 a.m. today. Charged by the Acting Superintendent, found Guilty. Cautioned.

July 15 1900        With signing his name for the wrong post at about 6:15 a.m. on Sunday morning 16.7.1900. Charged by the Chief Warder, found Guilty. Cautioned.

Oct 26 1900         With giving a miscount of one prisoner going into F Yard at 6 a.m. Charged by the Chief Warder, found Guilty. Cautioned.

Nov 19 1900 With not marking his Tell Tale Clock with the letter G at 4:30 a.m. in D Wing. Charged by the Chief Warder, found Guilty. Cautioned.

His first 2 daughters, Stella and Olga, were born in Brisbane before John was transferred as a Warder to Thursday Island in July 1903. This was home for the entire family for the next 9 years and included an expansion of their family with a third daughter, Veronika Christina, born on Thursday Island in 1904.

Perhaps the worst default in John Aebli’s duties occurred when he was charged with letting Prisoner Craigie escape from Thursday Island Prison in September 1910, for which he was only reprimanded. Source: Warders’ Defaulters Book, Qld State Archives

Perhaps the worst default in his duties occurred when he was charged with letting Prisoner Craigie escape from the Thursday Island Prison in September 1910, for which he was only reprimanded. But that was only the beginning of a tragic year. On the 27th November 1910, Veronica Christine, aged 6 years and 10 months had died, and eighteen months later the family returned south to start the next chapter.

On arrival back at St Helena Island Penal Establishment in 1912 as a Warder Clerk meant a promotion for John Aebli, and he later became the Storekeeper, Clerk and Telegraph operator in 1916.  John now worked in the Penal Establishment’s communal store, a large brick building built in 1887 that was a busy, multi-functional space where all incoming and outgoing goods were stored. Here, John held an important role that had a high level of responsibility administering all goods on the island. John was in charge of checking for inferior quality, branding all stores as Government Property, ensuring no private use of these items and taking precautions against waste and loss.

The Administration and stores building was a major hub within the St Helena Penal Establishment . Inside were 3 rooms used for stores and 2 offices, where Clerks and Storekeepers like John Aebli worked. This building remains the best preserved prison structure on the island today. Image: Belinda Daly.

The 1912 prison regulations summarise the core tasks required to be completed by the Storekeeper and Clerks:

The storekeeper shall have charge of all public property, prisoners’ clothing &c., received at the establishment and shall be responsible that that it is kept in good order and preserved from damage by weather or other causes. He shall see all goods made or produced on the island safely and securely packed and shipped to the Government Stores, or to wherever the same may be ordered. He shall make no issues therefrom without such authority as may from time to time be prescribed by the Superintendent and will keep all necessary books, and furnish such returns as may be required. All goods &c. landed on the island shall be delivered direct to the Storekeeper’s charge.

Rules and Regulations relating to Prisons – Penal Establishment St Helena, Qld Government Gazette, published on the 27th December 1911. No 172.

Anna, Stella and Olga lived in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane from 1912 to 1916, which must have been a treat for the teenage girls as they joined the local State School and swimming clubs in a large town. Once John was promoted to Telegraph Operator, Clerk, Storekeeper from June 1916 he was allocated a married cottage, allowing the family to live with him on St Helena. It’s incredible to think how much changed for the Aebli family in the 4 short years they were on the island during World War I. The family stories and photos passed down amongst their descendants and relayed in our previous blog post are good reminders of the families’ contribution to St Helena and also how St Helena shaped them.

(L to R) Olga Aebli, Warder Edmund Knight, Storekeeper, Clerk and Telegraph Operator John Aebli, Stella Aebli, With Anna Aebli seated. This photo was taken in from of the married cottage on St Helena Island, in either 1919 to 1920. Image from ancestor Deb Wheeler.

At 17, Olga Aebli met her future husband, returned soldier Edmund Burr Knight who became a warder at St Helena Penal Establishment in 1919 on his return from the war.  That’s been a story from another year that you can read here. John retired from his prison warder career on St Helena in June 1920 and his records state simply “Mr J Aebli removed his household effects and his family to Brisbane on the 25th November 1920.” John Aebli was able to see both daughters married in 1921 before he passed away in 1922.

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