ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER ON ST HELENA ISLAND

In prison 1st January 1921- 158 prisoners.
Received through the year 117.
Discharged through the year 186
In prison 31st December 1921 – 89 prisoners.

Prisons Department Report – Year ended 31st December 1921

In 1921, The Home secretary, Mr McCormack controlled prisons. Major discussions had been ongoing for years regarding the best way to administer and manage prisoners in Queensland. The final decisions, outlined in the Prisons Department Report – Year ended 31st December 1921, had major repercussions for both St Helena Island and Brisbane (Boggo Rd) Prison.

  • New buildings were erected for female prisoners at Brisbane Prison. Females were moved from their current building, allowing for space to be converted into a prison for detaining long sentenced, male prisoners.
  • St Helena Penal Establishment had always contained the majority of long term prisoners in Queensland. From this time forward, all long term prisoners would be housed in Brisbane Prison.
  • St Helena’s prison buildings were seen as a fire risk and not supportive of modern classification due to 12 person and 4 person cells and mixing of prisoners in yards and workspaces. Fewer prisoners at St Helena would now allow more separation between prisoners, ensuring the Home Secretary’s wish that a “complete system of classification and separation can now be carried out.”
Prisoners transferred from St Helena Penal Establishment to Brisbane Prison 13th September 1921. List compiled by Belinda Daly, ‘The St Helena Community.”
  • The whole system would now be formed on the principle of reformation and not a vindictive desire to punish, with employment and learning a trade in prison providing greater assistance for individual prisoners in their transition back into society. It has to be said that this already existed on St Helena Island for decades, as all prisoners worked and were instructed by Trade Instructor/Warders.
  • St Helena would be converted into a ‘farm colony’ and well-conducted long-term prisoners will be sent there for special treatment during the latter stages of their sentences, while qualifying for absolute release. The regulations will be so modified, as may be deemed expedient in order to bridge the gulf between confinement and liberty. The rigours of prison discipline will be relaxed, and the prisoner will learn to act for himself and gain that confidence which will enable him to combat the temptations of the outside world on his release.

St Helena would be converted into a ‘farm colony’ and well-conducted long term prisoners will be sent there for special treatment during the latter stages of their sentences, while qualifying for absolute release.

Home Secretary
Prisoners (in white uniforms) tended the fields on St Helena Island since the establishment of the prison in 1867, growing a variety of food for prison consumption. The change in management to a prison farm in 1921 was therefore an easy transition.
Image: State Library Qld.

The St Helena P.E. prison population halved in 1921.
Interestingly, 30 prisoners can be accounted for as being transferred on one day, the 13th September 1921. This date looks to link with when St Helena Penal Establishment officially became St Helena Prison Farm. On the same day, 12 warders were also transferred, (I’ll write about their story in the next blog post) showcasing how this one day was a highly organised logistical feat. I haven’t seen records of such a mass transfer before, so this spelt a major turning point for St Helena prison, and one that was, in fact, the beginning of the end for this island prison.

Prisoners transferred from St Helena Penal Establishment to Brisbane Prison 13th September 1921. List compiled by Belinda Daly, ‘The St Helena Community.”

The 30 prisoners transferred to Brisbane prison were a very varied cohort, aged between 20 and 48 years old and ranging from labourers to drovers and electricians to theatre workers. Despite the edict focussing on the transfer of long term prisoners, the data in the tables show that the prisoners’ sentences ranged from 18 months to Life. Certainly a fair portion of the men had sentences of 10 years or above. The tables also show a variety crimes, ranging from stealing to very violent and serious crimes. Interestingly, some prisoners who were transferred to Brisbane Prison on the 13th September 1921 were realeased after only 1 month while other remained for 5 years. Probably the most telling detail is that the majority have been incarcerated before, including Albert Hunt who was on his 23rd conviction, so consideration for transfer may have been decided on the likelihood of the prisoner returning to prison again.

Prisoners transferred from St Helena Penal Establishment to Brisbane Prison 13th September 1921.
List compiled by Belinda Daly, ‘The St Helena Community.”

The 30 prisoners transferred on the 13th Spetember 1921 all have Administration Numbers in the 6000’s, which indicates that nearly 7000 prisoners were admitted to the St Helena Penal Establishment to this date. Once they arrived at Brisbane Prison, prisoners were issued with a new Administration number. For those that remained on St Helena, a new system of prison management was installed, which became known as ‘the Honour System.’ In this, prisoners were asked to be responsible for their own actions, ensuring their behaviour was within prison regulations. The punitive punishments of the past were long gone, with the focus now on supporting a prisoner in making himself ‘an honest man.’

Interior of the St Helena Prison on the island in Moreton Bay Queensland 1914. Source: State Library of Qld.

This post is an exciting one for the St Helena Community as the information contained in the prisoner lists is the result of painstaking research and data entry by Sandy, Deb and Belinda. For the first time, we have a fully searchable database which can allow us to go far deeper into St Helena’s social and prison history, and extract specific, detailed and original information on a wide range of topics and questions. We’re excited to be at the point of making new discoveries from old information and sharing that widely. If you have a prisoner ancestor that you have been trying to trace, please drop us a line. We may just have the answer to your long standing question.

Sources:

  • Prisons Department Report – Year ended 31st December 1921
  • Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, QPWS and Qld State Archives
  • Boggo Rd Prisoner register 1934 – 1936
  • General Record and Description of Prisoners – Various years
  • Register of Male Prisoners Admitted
  • Various newspapers, sourced through TROVE, NLA

One thought on “ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER ON ST HELENA ISLAND

  1. It has always been my intrigue and interest into the history of St Helena Island. For many years I have recreational fished around that island and the stores told has been the mystery for me. My visit at the latter end on 2020 was a great time for me to see what the layout of the island prison living and working. As a retired TAFE trade teacher I especially was taken by the trade learning conducted there I knew about the white house (which was later duplicated),at the mouth of Wynnum Creek, the horse stables and lockup and how the prisoners were transferred to St Helena but there it stopped until my visit and your stories. .Keep up the good work.
    Regards
    Keith Jarrett

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