Is data your thing?

Is data your thing?

Or stories?

For me it’s always the story, which is why it’s so amazing that this whole blog post is going to be about data and databases. And I’m going to be seriously enthusiastic about them because we’ve never had digitised data relating to St Helena Penal Establishment in any format that is searchable. And now The St Helena Island Community does, and it’s a game changer for St Helena Island.  

If I go back to the 1980’s (Yes, that is 40 years ago!) an archivist was appointed by Qld Parks and Wildlife Service to collate and record the existence of historical information related to St Helena Penal Establishment. Sourcing material from far and wide, we were then able to understand what items relating to St Helena were stored with which organisations or private individuals. She was able to create a system of paper and other physical documentation, kept by QPWS, that gave some shape to the people, places and events of St Helena Penal Establishment.

Remember when we stored our information via paper master cards? As someone trying to discover more about St Helena Island’s history, this type of filing system was my treasure trove for over 20 years. Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

The information is now quite old and remains incomplete, yet it’s all we’ve had to share the history of St Helena Island. The frustration of knowing that after 20 years of working on St Helena, the historic record remained far from complete became apparent to me a number of years ago when I was searching for a warder by the name of Samuel Olson. A beautiful wooden writing desk had been donated back to St Helena Island and the donor attributed its making to Warder Samuel Olson. It was only after a lot of unfocussed searching that I found one mention of him. One. That was one of those crossroad moments where you know something has to change, as St Helena Island deserved so much more.

Writing desk attributed to Warder Samuel Olson was kindly donated back to the QPWS by Jim Amos in the early 2000’s. Searching for the background story to this beautiful object showcased the gaps in the historical record. Source: QPWS.

I’m proud to say the change has now happened.

The St Helena Island Community has long recognised that a complete and highly accurate baseline of information is essential if we are to ensure that St Helena Island’s history can continue to contribute to our current and future knowledge of the site and its place in society. And we also recognise the digital world we live in and that this is the only way to now store and share information. So we’ve gone back to the source quite literally, or rather the sources. We felt, if we were going to create a database, it needs to be built from the ground up, using original historical documents as our source of data.    The St Helena Island Community has been working hard to create our new digital database, the result of many, many hours of focussed, painstaking data input by myself, Sandy and Deb.

We now have detailed records of over 400 Superintendents and warders who worked in the prison between 1866 and 1932, as well as at least 370 women and children who were also part of the prisoner community at that time.

Original sources such as the Warder Defaulter’s Book and other official registers of prison officials and warders give us an insight into St Helena Penal Establishment’s staff. As well as personal details, previous employment and St Helena P.E. employment showcase the range of men who worked on the island in various capacities. Source: Qld State Archives.

Warder and family details include:

  • Personal details
  • Date of appointment and departure
  • Length of service
  • Misdemeanours and commendations
  • Pay rates and promotions
  • Stories of daily life
  • Education
  • Recreation and leisure
  • Extraordinary events

We also have detailed records for over 6000 prisoner admissions into St Helena Penal Establishment between 1866 and 1932, including the Hulk ‘Prosperpine‘.

There was more than one prisoner named Thomas White in the records of St Helena Penal Establishment. The new St Helena Community database can provide the specific detail required to be accurate in the story of each man. Source: Qld State Archives.

Prisoner details include:

  • Crimes and sentences
  • Personal details
  • St Helena arrival and release dates
  • Administration and other prison numbers
  • Employment
  • Misdemeanours and punishments and
  • Prison events that detail life inside the prison

The wealth of information in our database still astounds me as I am not used to being able to find information simply by doing an online search!  What the St Helena Island Community database can tell us is infinite. As we continue to input data, we will be able to discover trends in Prison Management over time, including style of punishments, types of crimes, employment within the prison and segregation. We’ll also be able to see how local and global events shaped the events on St Helena Island for all members of the prison community.

The St Helena Island Community database allows specific searches of the data to be undertaken. We can now find all prisoners who were flogged, or those who worked in the bakery. We can also find details of when and where prisoners were transferred to and from. Source: Belinda Daly

And finally, we will be able to share specific stories of individuals, where we can trace one person’s life’s journey and specifically their journey inside St Helena Penal Establishment. This is often where the gaps in the historical record lie. Too often a report or article finishes with “…and they were sentenced to 3 years at St Helena P.E…” I’m proud to say this is where we can fill the gaps by adding valuable prison insights to an individual’s story.  

This is where you come in…

I get so many enquiries from the general public requesting information on ancestors, stories that are being developed, and topics of interest that have led people to research various aspects of St Helena Island’s history. I am now in a place where I can deliver some detailed, accurate information that goes beyond anything that I have been able to do previously. So this is your opportunity to search for that elusive piece of the jigsaw that has never been able to be sourced previously!

Please head to the “Research database” page on our website and fill out the contact information to get the ball rolling.

Give as much detail as you know about your individual person, including dates, to ensure we get the right person in our prison records.

I will then research and compile all the information I have on that person and email through a detailed written profile for you. As all this takes time, I would ask for payment of $20 to cover the time taken to research and collate the information.

I look forward to hearing from you as I’m always very glad of an excuse to take the next deep dive into the data!

Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

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