It’s been a constant battle on St Helena Island tours to dispel the myths and legends associated with the people locked up in the beachrock prison stockade. Visitors come expecting convicts and find only prisoners. You see, people incarcerated on St Helena Island committed their crimes in Queensland and were punished by being gaoled as prisoners on the island. Convicts on the other hand, did their crimes in the United Kingdom and were exiled to Australia as punishment for their crimes. So, for many years I was dispelling the myth of convicts on St Helena. Until I heard about Richard Wynn.
It’s due to people in the general public who contact me in search of ancestors, that new and previously unknown information comes to light. One such person was Ian, a descendant of Richard Wynn and he already knew lots of Richard’s story. He opened up a world of amazing information that had not ever been realised – the biggest of which was the fact that Richard Wynn was sent to Australia as a convict when he was 19 years old.
It was 1840 when Richard arrived on our shores in Australia from Surrey, England as a convict aboard the ‘Woodbridge.’ He had been transported for the crime of Larceny for 10 years. (1) Arriving in New South Wales, he made his way to Moreton Bay in 1841 and by 1845 he married widow Cecelia McColl in Queensland. At this time, as a ‘Ticket of Leave’ convict, he was required to gain official permission to marry Cecilia. (2)
Cecilia herself became a widow when her husband was killed a couple of years earlier and she displayed true courage and resilience as she faced threatening people in her own home whilst she lived alone. On her marriage to Richard Wynn, they lived in a house on Burnett St, backing on to Adelaide St in the heart of Brisbane. Richard worked as a drayman in the early years and both he and Cecilia also had livestock on their land. (3)
But Richard’s tendency to run afoul of the law continued in Brisbane in the 1850’s and prison records indicate that he was still under ‘bond’ as late as 1858. Richard’s many crimes usually centered around drunkenness, which saw him often taken off the streets by police and usually having to be sobered up before any further action could be taken.
THURSDAY 19 NOVEMBER 1857
Richard Wynn pleaded guilty to a charge of drunkenness. Fined 20s., or 24 hours solitary confinement. (4)
TUESDAY 4 August 1858
Richard Wynn, who was summoned for being drunk and disorderly appeared in Court drunk and was removed by a police constable to the lock-up until sobered sufficiently to understand the charge against him. (5)
Incarcerations: Brisbane Gaol (under name Richard Winn)
- Convict status “Bond.”
- 05/11/1858 Prison Number 169.
- Sentenced to 1 months’ imprisonment or to find bail. 2 Sureties of £10 each.
- Released 6th November 1858 on bail. Behaviour – orderly. (6)
I know of another 13 convictions and 2 more incarcerations for Richard Wynn in Brisbane Gaol between 1860 and 1865, so Richard was constantly in the eye of the law, being described as ‘a very old offender.’ Mostly this was for drunkenness, but other arrests were for other minor crimes such as killing a valuable dog, allowing his horse to stray on the streets and failing to appear at summons. (7)
Cecilia too, found herself on the wrong side of the law. In the same period in the 1860’s, she found herself in arrested for obscene language, assaulting another woman and drunkenness. She spent 2 periods in Brisbane Gaol, including one on remand for a more serious charge:
SUPREME COURT— CRIMINAL SITTINGS 1860. Cecilia Winn was indicted for having, on the 17th June last, stolen a silver watch and chain, the property of James Davidson. There was a second count, charging her with having received the watch and chain, knowing them to have been stolen. (8)
Brisbane Gaol, 1860 (under the name Celia Winn)
- 14/07/1860 Prison No. 142 Waiting for trial, Brisbane.
- 17/08/1860 Found Not Guilty, acquitted and discharged. (6)
Unfortunately, the union between Richard and Cecilia was not without conflict. Both appeared to have a preference for drink and this also turned to violence on some occasions, leading to more time spent in Brisbane Gaol.
LOCAL INTELLIGENCE, POLICE COURT. March 1860
Richard Wynn was charged with violently assaulting his wife Cecilia Wynn, on the 4th inst. Both Wynn and his wife were in a state of intoxication, and the injuries inflicted were done by the prisoner in kicking, throwing stones, and ‘punching.’ Mrs. Wynn said she did not require anything done to her husband. If they bound him over to keep the peace it would do. The bench took a different view of the affair (9)
Incarcerations: Brisbane Gaol (under name Richard Winn)
- Convict status: Free
- 05/03/1860 Prison No. 52 On remand until 12th Inst. Discharged to Police
- 12/03/1860 Prison No. 55 Remanded until 19th. Discharged to Police March 19th.
- 19/03/1860 Prison No. 59 Three months H.L. and find sureties to keep the peace for six months.
- Discharged by warrant and by warrant and by bail June 19 and 28th. (6)
As I continue to research the back story of prisoners incarcerated in St Helena P.E., I have come to realise that Richard and Cecilia’s story is not new nor unusual. Life in the small, pioneer town of Brisbane in early years was difficult for any person, especially those who lacked money, skills or who had previous convictions in gaol. The town’s population was small and consisted only of new immigrants and local indigenous people, facilities were rudimentary and employment restricted to a small select number of jobs that could assist in building the fledgling colony. Daily life would have required a great deal of tenacity and luck, and for those hard-of-luck, a cycle of survival via petty crime and opportunism endured.
The endless cycle of crimes and convictions is illustrated clearly in Our new St Helena Island database. Records show that many prisoners were gaoled more than once, with the highest known currently in the database for an individual prisoner being 63 incarcerations within various gaols! By the time Richard was incarcerated in St Helena Penal Establishment for the first and only time in 1871 aged 51, he had a long history of petty crime over the 30-year period living in Queensland:
BRISBANE POLICE COURT.
MONDAY, September 11. Stealing a Bag or Flour. — Richard Wynne, an elderly man, was charged, on remand, with stealing a 50-lb. bag of flour, worth 8s. 6d. the property of James Scott, storekeeper, Petrie terrace, on the 6th instant, between 8 and 9 in the evening. Complainant expressed a wish to withdraw the case but was informed that this could not be done.
He then gave his evidence: On the evening in question, he missed a bag of flour from his shop door. Acting upon certain information he had received, he proceeded along the street for some distance, and came up to Mr. Nelson’s dray, in which he found the bag of flour, and prisoner standing close by; on asking him why he had taken the flour, complainant only received abuse. Mr. Nelson, on being interrogated at the time, said the flour was not his. The bag of flour was then produced and identified as belonging to complainant and being the same that was found in the dray.
—William Tidy, labourer, deposed that he saw the prisoner take the flour from complainant’s shop door and place it in Mr. Nelson’s dray. Constable Crawford deposed that he apprehended prisoner and charged him with the theft. He only replied, “Has it come to that now?” In reply to the Magistrate, prisoner said, “I was drunk, and do not recollect anything about it.” He was sentenced to three months’ hard labor. (10)
St Helena Penal Establishment incarcerations
- Administration Number: 309
- Admitted to St Helena Island Penal Establishment: 25th September 1871.
- Sentenced to: 3 months H.L. for Larceny
- Sentenced on: September 11th 1871
- Sentenced by: Judge Rawlins, Brisbane
- Released by expiration: December 9th 1871. (11)
We do have a description of the St Helena Penal Establishment in August 1871 from an article in ‘The Sketcher’, which gives us an idea of the 4-year-old prison stockade:
…The prison is built of hardwood and is unpretending as to architecture, but fulfils most satisfactorily all requirements, especially as relates to the health and safety of the prisoners. The whole of the buildings and works on the island, except the machinery for manufacturing sugar, have been erected by the prisoner, who are still engaged completing the necessary works required for the establishment.
At present there are 116 prisoners, and it is worthy of notice that three only of the number are Queenslanders by birth; the balance, irrespective of Great Britain, Ireland, and the neighbouring colonies, are natives of eight Continental countries in Europe, and natives of eight other countries… The prisoners are employed as follows: Tailors 2; bootmaker 1; hammock-maker 1; baker 1; butcher 1; blacksmiths 2; bricklayer and assistants 3; brickmakers 8; Carpenters 8; lime burners 2; cultivating the sugar cane 45; manufacturing sugar 16. (12)
Interestingly, despite everything, both Richard and Cecilia Wynn went on to make both a living and a contribution to the community of Brisbane for many decades. They had their home and small dairy farm on Burnett Lane, one of 3 known dairy producers in the Brisbane township. (2) From this they went on to raise their family and become well-known about Brisbane. It’s interesting to read the glowing descriptions in Richard’s obituary, having lived a long life and dying in 1898.
All this leads to the discovery of a “first” for me and for the documented record – a prisoner on St Helena Island that was also a convict. As someone who loves this research, I am always excited when I can extend the known history into new realms, which give us a more holistic and accurate understanding of the true facts in the unique history of the island. Now when we share the story of St Helena Penal Establishment, we can correctly say that prisoners were sent to the island, but we know that at least one had a convict background also.
(1) Convict records McCoul – Search Results (convictrecords.com.au)
(2) Ian Douglas
(3) “Queensland times’ 24/12/98 sourced from Ian Douglas
(4) Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 21 November 1857
(5) Moreton Bay Courier, Wednesday 4 August 1858
(6) Admission register for male and female prisoners – Her Majesty’s Gaol, Brisbane 03/01/1850 – 03/02/1864
(7) Moreton Bay Courier, Tuesday 6 March 1860
(8) Ipswich and General Advertiser, Friday 24 August 1860
(9) Moreton Bay Courier, Tuesday 20 March 1860
(10) Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 12th September 1871.
(11) HM Penal Establishment St Helena -Register of Male Prisoners Admitted 1867-1886
(12) Queenslander, Saturday 12 August 1871