Primary School curriculum

Year 5 HASS and Civics and Citizenship

The constantly changing occupation of St Helena Island in the 1800’s makes it a perfect platform for a study of Colonial Australia.

History: Australia’s Colonial Past – Key Concepts

Continuity and change is explored within the context of the establishment and settlement of St Helena Island from the 1850’s onwards – as a place to harvest resources for establishing Brisbane, as a Quarantine area for early immigrants and as a Penal Establishment for criminals. 

Cause and effect is highlighted through the understanding of St Helena as Noogoon, an important island to the local Quandamooka people of Moreton Bay. Contrasting the ways resources were used on the island by Indigenous and European people helps us understand the journey to what the island landscape is today.  

Perspectives are shared through the stories, voices and actions of a wide variety of individual people living at this time. Their lives highlight that history can be viewed from many perspectives and we can find empathy in the personal stories shared.

This site focuses on providing historical sources about St Helena Island. These allow the reader to question information and check for accuracy whilst also providing a variety of view points and perspectives to compare and contrast.

Geography – Place, space, environment, interconnection, change and sustainability. 

Inquiry Questions

  1. How do people and environments influence one another?
  2. How do people influence the human characteristics of places and the management of spaces within them?

These ideas are explored alongside the History Inquiry questions in the information below.

Civics and citizenship

Inquiry Questions

  1. Why do we have laws and regulations?
  2. How and why do people participate in groups to achieve shared goals?

History Key Inquiry Questions

What do we know about the lives of people in Australia’s colonial past and how do we know?

Primary and Secondary sources of information are important in building an understanding of the past. New research on this site is gathered from the piecing together of an event from a variety of sources to ensure accuracy and also to showcase a number of perspectives. 

Primary sources stored at the Qld State Archives tell of events through official documents, personal letters and maps and plans. 

Birth and Death certificates supplied by people in our community have been used to confirm if anyone, including women and children, were living on the island at a certain time. They have also changed what we know about St Helena’s Immigration and Quarantine history and we have doubled the known size of the Prison Warder’s Childrens’ cemetery. 

One personal diary in 1863  from a new immigrant working with the Water Police and later a St Helena Warder gave us a very personal, specific and detailed history of early Brisbane and Moreton Bay.

History: Reasons (economic, political and social) for the establishment of British colonies in Australia after 1800. How did an Australian colony develop over time and why?

Geography: Students’ mental map of the world expands to Europe … and their main countries and characteristics (space, place, environment).

People from many parts of Great Britain settled in Australia in the Colonial era. For the people, life in a far-flung land was completely different than home and drastic changes were needed to their habits, lifestyle and work practises. The settlement patterns and lifestyle of the people of the 1800’s in Moreton Bay and on St Helena Island illustrate people’s efforts to contribute to a new, pioneer colony. 

Convicts who reoffended in Sydney were sent to Moreton Bay Penal Settlement from 1824. While punishing long term prisoners, it also opened up and claimed new settlements for the British Empire. Convict labour created the foundation buildings of present day Brisbane and established shipping transport and farms for the supply of food and resources. 

Free settlers also arrived searching for new beginnings. The pioneer colony experienced waves of free settler via migration on large ships from Great Britain, many escaping famine and poverty due to the Industrial Revolution. Some arrived with great hope for a new life far away from poverty and hardship, but others were torn apart by diseases on board ship, leaving loved ones were buried on islands, including St Helena, before even arriving at Brisbane. New settlers sought land and housing on farming land or struggled to establish a business in Brisbane.

First Australians: Compare the cultural knowledge, beliefs and practices of local indigenous people of Brisbane and Moreton Bay through the diary of Warder James Aird as he travels around the settlement just after his arrival as a free settler in 1863. Language barriers and a completely different lifestyle did not prevent some understanding and appreciation between each other.

In the 1850’s new migrants were looking for any opportunities for employment and a way to earn a living. Mr Edwards was one man who lived on St Helena Island periodically, where he engaged dugong hunting on the southern foreshore. A boiling down works was established here to process the animals to create dugong oil which the enterprising Dr Hobbs sold to England with great economic success. 

Chinese immigrants arrived with a focussed intent – to find a fortune and better their lives. Following the discovery of gold in Queensland in 1857, a dramatic increase in the numbers of Chinese immigrants ensued, leading to racial tensions in the community and a restriction on new Chinese immigrants in 1877.  Chinese immigrants made important contributions to the Goldfields, but misunderstandings saw some jailed at St Helena. Segregation in work, sleeping cells and treatment was the norm within the management of the Prison.

150 word Short Story – Story 14 Coloured prisoners copy

By 1865 and entire family of 12 people, the youngest 5 years old, were living on St Helena Island. The Crompton’s had arrived in 1863 after the Industrial Revolution closed cotton mills and left them with no income. After a failed attempt launch a Cotton Cooperative growing cotton at the Gold Coast, they struggled to survive  by hand collecting and burning coral and oyster shells to create lime for cement, which was used to build Brisbane. Unfortunately, life was to deal the family more tragic circumstances.

Bushranger James McPherson saw opportunities to live a free and adventurous life as he roamed the Qld bush holding up Cobb and Co. stage coaches and robbing the occupants of money and jewels. With limited Police presence and many places to hide, James continued for 2 years until he was finally captured in 1866. Read about his time in St Helena Prison from 1870, where the first thing he tried to do was escape. He also complained of a lack of vegetables, of fighting and wrote a poem about the heat and mosquitoes.

History: How did colonial settlement change the environment?

Geography: How do people and environments influence one another? Exploring the extent of change in the local environment over time and the impact of change on ecosystems.

People have shaped St Helena Island considerably. The known history of human occupation helps us know why people occupied the island over time – living, working or taking the resources available on the island. It also gives us a timeline to understand the progressive changes that occurred to the natural environment on the island as a result of human occupation.

The First Australians

The local Quandamooka and Jandai language group people used St Helena Island as a resource for hunting dugong along the foreshore in winter, flying fox which flocked to the rainforest in summer and shells, fish and fruit year round. A primary source of evidence for this is the large midden on the island, which has been measured at being around 2,700 years old. Sustainable hunting and gathering practises allowed long term occupation of St Helena Island for at least this period. 

Occupation of the island by European immigrants from the 1850’s and 1860’s (see above) depleted valuable food resources, particularly the dugong and oysters.  By the time a Quarantine Station and Gaol was established on the island, access to the island for Indigenous people was completely prohibited. Large scale clearing of the original forest and scrub lands for sugar crops and building meant the flying fox ceased their annual visitation. Native wells were bricked up and used for agriculture.

From 1867, when the prison was established, the changes were irreversible. Local Indigenous people were permanently disconnected from their land which in turn affected their ability to uphold their spiritual beliefs, cultural practises and lifestyle.

What if?  Early Europeans watched and learnt from Indigenous people and understood how do work with the land, rather than change it completely?

History: Challenges experienced by people in the colonial era and the enterprising or sustainable responses made to these challenges

Geography: Examining the effects of landforms on the location and characteristics of their place. Exploring how a unique environment is used and managed.

Just like the establishment of the convict settlement of Moreton Bay from 1824 to 1842, St Helena Penal Establishment was built by criminals in uncleared bushland using local natural resources and criminal labour. Not only were the settlements created to confine criminals, but they were also required to be self sufficient in meeting their daily needs.

St Helena Island was chosen because it had a underground water table supplying fresh water, volcanic soil for growing crops and it was cut off from the mainland to prevent escapes. The people were innovative in using these resources and in being self-sufficient. 

People had to innovate to survive. Wind mills were built to harness wind energy for pumping water from the native wells. Horse and prisoner power moved stone, trees and people around the island. Steam power was introduced to operate the Sugar Mill. Wells were dug and water tanks installed, and food was provided by growing vegetable, fruit and sugar crops and livestock.

150 word Short Story – Story 19 Edward Heathcock

Isolation meant that people had to be innovative. Communication was achieved by semaphore flags, cannons and sentry towers. Families living on the island tried to overcome isolation by creating a school for the children and having concerts and balls to entertain each other. Some warders made a woodworking club to pass the time learning new skills.

150 word Short Story – Story 29 Flag code

The extent of environmental change on St Helena from 1866 to 1874 was dramatic. The original dry vine rainforest and low coastal scrubland had largely disappeared, cleared by prisoners and used for building or firewood. The land was fenced, the inland swamp drained, mangroves cleared, large scale sugar plantations were established, coral was collected and burnt in the new Lime Kiln to supply cement, while the quarry supplied large stone.

150 word Short Story – Story 33 Trades

All this was necessary to supply the needs of those on the island. All of this meant that any native food sources were eliminated, and substituted, forever changing the ecosystem. For every action, there is a consequence.

History: What were the significant events and who were the significant people that shaped Australian colonies? The contribution or significance of an individual or group to the shaping of a colony in the 1800s.

C&C: Values of Australia’s system of government, such as freedom, equality, fairness and justice. The role of different people associated with law enforcement e.g. quarantine, gaolers, police and the legal system e.g. judges  

C&C: How diverse groups cooperate and participate in our community. How people with shared beliefs and values work together to achieve a civic goal.

Declaration of the colony of Queensland in 1859 followed by the depression of the 1860’s leading to an increased crime rate and need for a prison. A Quarantine Station was being built on the island in 1866 to cope with the arrival of immigrant ships, but was converted to a prison within months. 

The man in charge was John McDonald. He was a military man who fought in the Crimean War.  As Inspector of Water Police in Brisbane, he was in charge of upholding the law, assisting arriving Immigrant ships, finding shipwrecked people, running the Water Police Court onboard the Prison Hulk and taking charge of his Water Police Crew. He was chosen to be the first Superintendent of St Helena Penal Establishment in 1867 and was a man of authority and inventiveness. With very little time, resources or plans, he was asked to build a self sufficient island by prison labour, local resources and to ensure that he turned both a profit and ensured the security of all prisoners. Read about the Rules and Regulations established for himself and his Prison Warders and the creation of ‘Shot Drill’ as a punishment for prisoners.

150 word Short Story – Story 30 Rules and Regulations

150 word Short Story – Story 40 Shot drill 9

South Sea Islander Sugar Plantation workers. The Sugar Queensland’s climate allowed for the establishment of large sugar plantations, and labour was needed. From 1863, South Sea Island men were coerced, and at times kidnapped from their island homes to work on plantations under contracts for 2 or 3 years. While economically it was very successful for the plantations, the social impact of South Sea Islanders was severe. Read accounts of their arrival into Brisbane and Attamarip’s experiences within prison.  Also read about the Hopeful Crew, jailed for kidnapping islanders, causing political division in society.

150 word Short Story – Story 21 Attamarip

150 word Short Story – Story 20 Hopeful Crew 5

The Shearer’s Strikers of 1891 and 1893 were jailed on St Helena Island under a charge of ‘Conspiracy.’ This caused major conflict in society – those who supported workers and shearers desmans for fair wages and conditions and those that said the protest action was unlawful. Occurring during a time of drought and hardship, it changed the shape of politics forever, forming the bis of the Labour Party.

150 word Short Story – Story 17 Shearer’s Strike

‘What if’ the Government negotiated with Union Leaders and met their demands, rather than bringing up a replacement labour force from the South?

Charles Pennefather has a river named after him as he explored and charted new parts of North Queensland. He became the third Superintendant of St Helena Penal Establishment and later Comptroller General of Prisons for all of Qld. Charles Pennefather was a devoted family man who loved St Helena Island, where he remained living for over 2 decades. He was also a humanitarian who shifted the prison management systems and philosophy into a new era. Where once Punishment was seen as a way to change a person’s character, now reform was proposed as a way to send capable, changed citizens back to society.

Charles Pennefather was a firm disciplinarian who was respected and trusted by the prisoners. Read about the hominy mutiny and the finding of the revolver that occurred early in Mr Pennefather’s time as Superintendent to see how he dealt with dangerous situations.

150 word Short Story – Story 22 Mutiny

150 word Short Story – Story 23 Adam Cleft

Geography: How do people influence the human characteristics of places and the management of spaces within them?

The indigenous midden on the southern end of the island helps us understand how local Aboriginal people used the island and what foods and resources were accessed. 2700 years of midden creation has left a large hill permanently on the landscape.

Old maps of St Helena island in 1869 show how Superintendent John McDonald divided into areas for specific agricultural, trade or incarceration purposes. These were fenced and maintained by prisoners. These field allocations and fence lines are still used by QPWS Rangers today to manage livestock and visitor access.

Cemeteries were not established for the first burials of immigrants on St Helena Island, and these graves are now unknown. But the first burials of prisoners was set aside in a designated area still visible today and research tell us who they are. Find out how QPWS recognised the need to undertake radar imaging in order to manage the site better, and how it changed everything they knew.

The Warders’ Children’s cemetery was established from 1875. It took until 2018 for Warder’s cemetery research conducted by ‘The St Helena Community’ to uncover the truth – that what we see is only half the size.

Qld Parks and Wildlife Service management has restrictions in place on the island since the early 2000’s for the protection of cultural sites. Find positive and negative perspectives on the restriction of the Visitor Experience vs conservation of the site.

Moreton Bay Marine Park zones were implemented in 2008, to manage the conservation of the environment with the recreation needs of people. The area around St Helena Island is designed to conserve fish species and fishing off the pier is prohibited. What would be the different views on the issue, from a variety of people?



The above short stories were developed by the St Helena Community for the Qld State Archives. They link with the content of current exhibition “Birdcage of the bay” and are designed to be used conjunction with and extend the material within the exhibition.