‘All I want for Christmas’ at St Helena Penal Establishment.

Separation from friends and family makes for a difficult time at Christmas. Prisoners, warders and families living on St Helena Island were only 8 km but a world away from participating in mainland festivities. So they made their own celebrations.

The regular supply ship approaching St Helena Island jetty, 1928. Isolation was a major issue for prison staff living and working on the island. A regular boat run was made between Brisbane, St Helena and Dunwich , providing vital connection to the mainland. Image courtesy State Library of Queensland.

Prisoner Michael Minnis was a religious man, a school teacher in Tingalpa and also a convicted killer sentenced to life in St Helena’s prison. Michael was employed as the Head Cook in the prison kitchen for 8 years, having responsibility for kitchen operations and fellow prisoners. Christmas celebrations in 1895 saw a bullock killed for Christmas dinner, for which Chief Warder Bowden remarked “The dinner was very nicely cooked.” Prisoners Minnis, McGee and Bryson also received similar praise for the plum puddings made for Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Four warders patrol the roadway leading from the St Helena Prison Stockade to Warders’ Row in 1893. One armed warder sits high in the Sentry Tower, above the white-walled bakery and kitchen area. Image courtesy State Library of Qld.

In 1897, 116 Christmas letters and cards from Mrs McConnell and other Christian ladies were distributed to prisoners during recreation time in the prison yards. In 1899, Mrs Mary Pennefather, the wife of the Comptroller General of Prisons, personally gave Christmas Cards to prisoners. No sport was held on Christmas Day, though it was not a holiday from work. However, Warder Brennan and Rev McPherson conducted Divine service for all worshippers.

Even the colourful gardens around the Superintendents and warders’ houses made a Christmas contribution. An entry in Chief Warder Bowden’s diary on the 24th December 1897 states that the ‘Steamer Otter lay at anchor all night ready to take a quantity of flowers and evergreens to decorate a church at Ipswich.’

Stunning gardens were created around the Chief Warders’ residence and the Official Residence of the Superintendent and later Comptroller General of Prisons. Visitors would often stroll through the garden, admiring the colourful exotic plants and the many fountains. Image courtesy of the State Library of Qld.

A few lucky warders were able to get leave to be with family on the mainland, but the majority continued to work. However, the Christmas spirit was evident in surprising ways, as experienced by Warder Patrick Falvey, who found himself before the Superintendent charged with a miscount of prisoners. With Christmas looming, the case was dismissed “owing to Christmas Eve.”

The first St Helena Island Community blog of 2020 spoke of bushfires and the threat of a global pandemic. All of us have now lived through this incredible, history changing year, which continues to wreak havoc on the world at large. I know many of us are exhausted and we know the fight against COVID 19 is not over yet. Still, I think we will all breathe a collective sigh of relief when 2020 is ushered out in a few days time.

We here at the the St Helena Community have been busy working on new and exciting ventures, taking the historical research on the island to new heights. We’re super exciting with what’s emerging… but like all good Christmas presents, you have to wait and enjoy the anticipation! 2021 seems like the right time to share some of the new ventures and start the New Year on a positive note, so stay tuned.

Happy New Year everyone.

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