I think history is like a large jigsaw puzzle – the 5,000 small piece kind. In the box, the puzzle is a jumble of indistinct colours and shapes and there is no clarity. Yet, when you begin to join some pieces together, a picture starts to emerge, and the more pieces that you are able to join together, the clearer the picture is.
When researching St Helena Island’s history, we find many separate pieces and we are often unsure which pieces are connected and which belong to another story altogether. My files are full of one or two pieces of information that look very interesting, but I don’t have a wider story that they seem to fit with. And then suddenly I will have a conversation or get an email and another piece of the puzzle arrives to help make the story even more whole.
This happened a couple of weeks ago when I was contacted by Merv. Merv had read a blog post I had written about Olga Aebli and her family living on St Helena Island in the 1910’s and had joined the historical dots together. You see Merv had a handwritten letter from a lady he had briefly met many years ago and in that letter she had written some recollections of her time living on St Helena Island. (1)
Merv’s career involved driving buses and being a curious life-long learner and storyteller, he decided to always talk to the passengers on the bus to find out fascinating snippets of information. When travelling along the Wynnum foreshore on day decades ago, he struck up a conversation with Olga Anderson (nee Aebli) and was so fascinated with her story that he asked her to write a couple of pages to record this oral history. Thanks Merv, a great job well done. (1)
In the letter Olga mentions many aspects that we already knew about – there were about 30 warders and over 100 prisoners on the island during the war years. There was a horse drawn tram which met the ‘Otter’ every trip and took the passengers up to the jail, where prisoners were allowed a visit from a relative for half an hour every month. Vegetables and corn grew and there were several pigs and cattle and Olga’s family enjoyed milk, butter and buttermilk. (2)
Some aspects though, were new insights that I had not realised previously. These are important as they give that valuable insight into the lives of women and families on the island, which is largely unrecorded in official documents.
The three top officials were allowed to have their families living there…. The three families of womenfolk were not allowed out during the day, if we wanted to visit each other we had to be escorted.Personal letter from Olga Anderson
We had a swimming bath built at the end of the jetty but weren’t allowed to use it until the prisoners were locked up.Personal letter from Olga Anderson
This is fascinating, as I did not realise the extent in 1910 of the rules and regulations that shaped the lives of women and families on the island. To be confined to your homes all day on an isolated island would have made for an extraordinary daily life. (2)
Over the time of writing the many blog posts, we have had so many people from the wider community who have contacted us to share their knowledge and personal connections to the island. I plan to share these over this coming year, to showcase what can be discovered through a family memory, keepsake, letter or heirloom. They have all created a much more complete picture of the St Helena Island Warder history and I invite anyone with a connection to St Helena Island to contact us.
Getting back to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor, there are at times way too many sky blue pieces and green abstract leaf shapes and we tend to leave those till last. It’s so frustrating to have put in all that work to get bogged down when the puzzle is so close to completion. And so I’d like to also mention the generous monetary contribution of our local member Joan Pease and how it’s helped to finish more sky pieces that have been sitting, waiting for too long.
To prove a family is living on the island in a certain time period is a scramble at best, as it’s picked up in pieces from many sources. We scan Electoral Rolls, official correspondence from the Superintendent on St Helena, Chief Warder Bowden’s diaries, and memories passed down through generations. But it’s birth and death certificates that are proving the best was to know with 100% certainty if a family is living on the island. Hence my approach to Joan Pease, Member for Lytton, to assist with a donation for the purchase of some to finally put to rest some of my “guesstimates.”
There’s been both hits and misses in the last 13 certificates I downloaded, but I’ll share one success story now. I was amazed to realise that Chief Warder Henry Gimson’s son Henry Charles was born on St Helena Island on the 23rd January 1884. (3) His was a female dominated household, with 4 daughters ranging from 2 years to 8 years old and his wife Mary (nee McHugh). I had accessed a previous certificate for his daughter Ellen born in 1882, (3) to find out she was born in Goodna despite her father working on St Helena Island at the time, so I was not confident that Henry would be born on St Helena.
I knew the family was on St Helena as in 1883, as extensive repairs on the Chief Warders residence were requested by Acting Superintendent William Townley: (4)
…. bring to your notice the dilapidated condition of the cottage a present occupied by CW Gimson and his family…it was unfortunately built on the ground and not protected from the white ant in any way….Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence
Prison carpenter J.C. Daly inspected the house and reported that it would
…. require 2 additional rooms to make it habitable for the family now living in it (6 in number).Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence
Previous correspondence illuminates some new and surprising women on the island:
Letter to the Under Colonial Secretary 19th October 1882
The Chief Warder of this establishment is desirous of having a young girl down here to act as a nursemaid to his children. I have told him there would not be any objection but would ask you…
William Townley, Acting Superintendent.Colonial secretary’s correspondence
So we now have a women acting as nursemaid on the island for the Gimson family! What the 2 birth certificates tells me is that the family possibly moved onto the island after the birth of Ellen on the 24th January 1882, or were already living there and Mary had gone ‘home’ to family for the birth of her child. In 1884, Mary obviously felt confident in not leaving the island for the birth of her son Henry. (3)
There is still one more daughter, Eva who was born in 1881 when Henry Gimson was Chief Warder. Next certificate might be hers, as that will tell me if the family was on the island for the whole time or part of. But they are only one family, and thanks to the generosity of Joan Pease, I was able to access a birth or death certificate for 13 different families in an attempt to make the puzzle more complete. Next blog post I’ll share more, and even show how not being born on the island can still provide useful information.
- Personal correspondence with Merv Collard
- Letter written by Olga Andersen nee Aebli.
- Births, Deaths and Marriages, Queensland
- Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, Qld State Archives
Many thanks to local Lytton Member Joan Pease for her donation in April 2021 to access more of St Helena’s social history via accessing birth certificates.