One day in September on St Helena Island -Warders

It’s a numbers game. My last post focussing on the importance of the 14th September 1921 showed how 30 prisoners were transferred on that one day to Brisbane Prison. Our new research shows that the same fate befell the warders, with 12 warders also leaving on the same day. In fact, by the 14th September 1921, St Helena Penal Establishment staff had been reduced from 45 to 16 warders (1). To reduce your staff by nearly 2/3 of the original levels in a short space of time is quite remarkable, and it was the signal for the next chapter in St Helena’s prison history. That signal was a death knell, ringing out the beginning of the end for St Helena Penal Establishment.

1921 Proclamation PRISON REFORM ST. HELENA AS REFORMATORY.

“I, Sir Matthew Nathan, the Governor, by and with the advice of the Executive Council, do hereby proclaim…an important scheme of prison reorganisation in Brisbane.

St. Helena is to be used more as a reformatory than a prison. Hitherto the penal establishment has been used for the imprisonment of prisoners serving sentences of 12 months and upwards. Fewer prisoners at St. Helena will obviously mean a reduction in the staff, and the idea is to billet the warders not wanted there at Goodna and other Government institutions.” (1)

A large party of Government Officials arrived on the island in 1920. With the organisation of the entire prison system under scrutiny, members of parliament made visits to assess St Helena Penal Establiushment first hand. Image: Courtesy State Library of Qld.

The Home Secretary said that of the 29 St Helena staff transferred, “a fair number of men will be absorbed in other gaols.”(1) I can account for 21 of the 29 men. Searching the records for the missing 8 leads me back in time to 1920, where 9 warders left but only 2 were appointed. The natural attrition of 7 men not replaced, all of which were in the second half of 1920, speaks to early political plans being made regarding the future of St Helena Penal Establishment.

Warders leaving St Helena P.E. in 1920.
Samuel Allison   WarderTransferred to Stewart’s Creek 31/01/1920
William Mullins   WarderDismissed 12/02/1920 for Bad language
John Aebli   Storekeeper, Warder Clerk, Telegraph Operator   Retired 25/06/1920
Rowland Walters   Warder  Resigned 5/08/1920
James Hynes   WarderSuspended and resigned 28/09/1920
Richard Leo   WarderTransferred to Brisbane 7/10/1920
Richard Bourke   WarderTransferred to Brisbane 13/10/1920
Frederick Mc Munn   WarderDied in hospital at Brisbane, 21/10/1920
Table compiled by Belinda Daly

4 other warders retired, resigned or were transferred other dates in 1921, bringing the total to 13. The retirement of Senior Warder Robert Murrie and Warder William Harrison saw the loss of some long term, senior warders, who took with them their expertise and understanding of the prison system in the St Helena Penal Establishment.

Senior Warder Bob Murrie, his wife Charlotte and sons Bob and Fred finally left St Helena Island in 1921, where they had resided since 1913. Source: Murrie family, Moreton Bay EEC
Warders leaving St Helena P.E. – various dates 1921
Cecil MontgomeryWarder   Transferred 19/02/1921 to Rockhampton.
George BuistWarder    Appointed post WWIAppointed 16/09/1920 ‘Resigned voluntarily’ 29/06/1921
William HarrisonWarder  Retired from service 1/10/1921
Robert MurrieSenior Warder   Retired 31/07/1921, left island with family 3/11/1921.
Table compiled by Belinda Daly

A large contingent of 12 warders all left on one day. They left St Helena Penal Establishment on the 13th of September 1921 and all were transferred to Brisbane Prison, beginning work on the 14th September 1921.   

The effects of this would have been very noticeable. Imagine the atmosphere in the warders’ barracks with ¼ of the warders gone from the island instantly. Around this time, the St Helena Rifle Club, an important social and recreational inclusion on the island, seems to have been disbanded after nearly 40 years of existence.

By 1921, the warders leisure time was spent in their barracks, the swimming pool, recreation/ billiard room, reading room or on the cricket pitch. Source: Laurie Collection, QPWS

Around the island, a reshuffle of roles and duties would have ensued to maintain the daily routine and prisoner tasks, especially since two Trade Instructors were among the 12 men transferred. Many of the transferred warders had been working and living on the island prior to WWI and were obviously long-term fixtures in the prison. Others were Returned Soldiers, employed on the island on their return from active duty.

Warders transferred from St Helena P.E. 13th September 1921
Michael Mogan   Warder clerk, Assistant Storekeeper  Appointed 27/06/1912. Exemption from WW1.
William Davies   Trade Instructor Tailor   3 stints on island from 1884 – 1921, totalling 24 years.
Sydney Hammond   WarderAppointed 5/12/1912. Suspension – Metcalfe escape 1924.
Joyce GoldWarderAppointed 16/06/1914. Suspension – Metcalfe escape 1924.
Daniel Dwyer   Temporary Warder 1/3/1914 Appointed Warder 1/8/1914. Reappointed post WWILeft St Helena to join WW1 8/06/1915.  Reappointed St Helena 31/07/1919 post WWI until 13/09/1921.
Norman Bruce   Warder  Appointed 27/03/1913. Suspension – Metcalfe escape 1924.
William TalbotWarderAppointed 1/03/1915.
Henry Vanderwolf   WarderAppointed 18/01/1912.
John Maher   WarderAppointed 29/02/1912 – 1921, excluding 2 years.
Frederick Windibank  Warder Appointed post WWIAppointed 1/06/1917. Transferred to Brisbane Prison 13/09/1921, suspended 12/10/1921 and asked to resign. Reappointed Brisbane Prison weeks later.
William Landrigan   Warder Appointed post WWIAppointed 4/04/1916. Transferred to Brisbane Prison 13/9/21. Senior Warder at Brisbane Prison until 1.04.1945. 
John RyanTrade Instructor BootmakerAppointed St Helena 12/07/1906. Suspension – Metcalfe escape 1924.
Table compiled by Belinda Daly

You’ll note in the table above the inclusion of “Suspension – Metcalfe escape.” Four St Helena warders transferred to Brisbane Prison on 13/09/1921 were suspended in 1924 due to the successful escape of prisoner Benjamin Metcalfe. Metcalfe was a habitual offender and escapee, with his attempt to dig through the St Helena prison cell walls and escape in May 1921 not having the desired result. Metcalfe was released from St Helena in June 1921, only to reoffend and be imprisoned in Brisbane Prison. In 1924, he created a rope ladder with which he escaped by climbing over the prison walls. He was recaptured a few days later in South Brisbane, but his attempt also had repercussions for the warders on duty, who were temporarily suspended during the inquiry. All were reinstated and continued their employment. (2)

The news of the 1921 dismissals was noted in the newspapers, with particular concern for the welfare of the Returned WWI soldiers:

DISMISSAL OF WARDERS REDUCING ST. HELENA STAFF.

The Government’s chief activities nowadays seem to be directed towards retrenchment. The blow now has fallen on the prison service. About 14 members of the staff at the island prison of St Helena have received notices of dismissal. It is learned that most of these men are temporary warders, and ex-soldiers. Under the scheme of prison reorganisation and rearrangement, it is said the services of these men are no longer required. (3)

Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), Wednesday 7 September 1921, page 2

There were actually only 5 warders who were completely dismissed from the prison service at this time, but this did not occur on the 13/09/1921. Instead, 5 men were dismissed on the 30th September 1921 and of these, 3 were soldiers and 2 were permanent staff. All had been working on St Helena Island for 5 years or less. Looking at the statistics from my research on all the St Helena warders who were soldiers in WWI, the great majority (15 men) resigned or were dismissed prior to September 1921. 3 men died, 5 transferred to other prisons, 3 entered the Police Force and 1 entered Military Service. Only one man, Frank Hills, remained on St Helena Island after 1921.

Warders dismissed 30th September 1921.
Michael MillettWarderAppointed St Helena 19/12/1918. Services dispensed with – staff reduction 30/9/21. Millet was reappointed to Stewart’s Creek P.E. on 31/01/1922.
Herbert Paul   WarderAppointed 4/05/1916. Services dispensed with – staff reduction 30/09/1921.
Frederick Todd   Warder  Appointed post WWIAppointed 8/01/1920. Reduction in staff – services dispensed with 30/09/1921.
Octavius Spreadborough   Warder Appointed post WWIAppointed 4/05/1916. Services dispensed with – staff reduction 30/09/1921.  
Edmund Burr Knight Warder Appointed post WWIAppointed 1/09/1919. Services dispensed– staff reduction 30/9/1921. Reappointed Brisbane Prison.
Table compiled by Belinda Daly

It’s worth remembering the stories of these Warder soldiers, who have featured in our blog posts before – just click on the name link to read their stories in detail.   

Edmund Burr-Knight was an ex soldier, St Helena warder and husband to Olga Aebli. Photo courtesy Deb Wheeler

Edmund Knight was in Royal Marines U.K., deserted in 1912 and enlisted in the A.I.F 1914, returning from WW1 in 1919. Appointed as warder on St Helena from 1/09/1919 he met his future wife Olga Aebli, daughter of the Storekeeper, who was living on St Helena Island also. The date 30/9/1921 was an auspicious date for Edmund – being the day he was dismissed from St Helena P.E. and also the date he and Olga were married in Brisbane! (4) How is this possible? It seems Edmund took 3 weeks leave from the 8th September, and so was able to turn a difficult time into one of joy.  Edmund did re-enter the Prison Service, gaining a Temporary appointment to Brisbane Prison on the 28/2/1922 and returning again to Brisbane Prison on the 1/7/1924 where he remained until 1937. (1)`

Frederick Todd was only on the island for 18 months. Despite his Military Service dates being from 31/03/1916 to 15/04/1918, he was appointed as a Returned Soldier on the 8/01/1920.  Leaving St Helena P.E. on the 30/9/1921 he did not return to the prison service.

Irwin Spreadborough and his brother Octavus were both soldiers in World War I and warders at St Helena Penal Establishment. Octavus was dismissed from St Helena P.E. in September 1921. Source: National Archives of Australia

Octavus Spreadborough enlisted in WWI on the 1/09/1914 until the 2/05/1916 and fought at Gallipoli with his brother Irwin. The brothers came back in 1916 and both were appointed to St Helena P.E. on the 4/05/1916. Irwin Spreadborough reenlisted and headed back overseas to fight again in WW1, heading back to the family farm at Warwick on his return. Octavus stayed on until the 30/9/21 when his ‘services were dispensed with due to staff reduction.’ Despite being officially reappointed on the 22/12/1921 at Stewart’s Creek Prison, the appointment was cancelled on 8/2/1922 and he never returned to the prison service.

Information Sources

  1. Week (Brisbane, Qld. : 1876 – 1934), Friday 2 September 1921, page 23
  2. Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld. : 1912 – 1936), Tuesday 26 February 1924, page 7
  3. Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), Wednesday 7 September 1921, page 2
  4. Birth, Deaths and Marriages, Qld

(Table Information)

  • Warder and Warder Defaulter’s Book 1882-1931, QSA
  • Register of Officials, Warders and Defaulters 1865-1947, QSA
  • Military records, National Archives of Australia
  • Police Staff Personnel records

Cover Image: Warder Standing in front of Armoury, St Helena P.E. Courtesy Beitz collection, QPWS.

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