Architectural plan of St Helena prison
News of the day

Queensland Figaro, Saturday 26 July 1884, page 30

Life on St. Helena.

No. 00001. 29 Ap : 84.


3 Years.

That, reader, is a copy of the document furnished to every convict on being released from Her Majesty's Penal Establishment, St. Helena, and, as the holders of these pieces of paper have a natural reluctance in displaying them, I offer it to you as a novelty, and as a means of introducing myself to your consideration. As a released convict, peradventure, I deserve no consideration, and should not have the presumption to bring my contaminated person between the wind and your immaculate integrity ; but, the proprietor of this journal thinks I have a story to tell, and, by his leave, I intend to tell it.

Mr. Ex-Dispenser-Warder Thomas, of Vagabond notoriety, furnished the southern Press, some years ago, with a description of gaol-life from a warder's point of view, and I have no fault to find with the way in which he treated his subject, but I have always considered that his sketches would have been materially improved had he viewed matters from the other side of the prison bars. However, there is plenty of time for him to rectify this, and until then I shall endeavour to place before you some idea as to what sort of place the premier gaol of Queensland is.

Those of my readers who have travelled to the bay have had the "convict isle" pointed out to them, some, mayhap have visited it, and for all such a prospect is still in store. A short description will therefore suffice, and, as it were, place me en rapport with my readers. St. Helena is situated about four miles east of Lytton, and is the largest of a group ; the others of which are Mud Island, Green Island, and Fisherman's Island. It contains about 200 acres, of which considerably over a fourth is under cultivation, chiefly in cane.. A sugar-mill has been erected from which some very fair sugar is obtained, and some very bad, but as the latter is served out to the convicts and warders only, it passes muster. To the north-west lies Bribie Island, where the aboriginal Mission Station is, and in about the same direction may be seen the Glass Mountains on the Gympie Road, to which many a convict's gaze is eagerly directed. North-east you have Moreton Island pilot and light-house station. To the south Cleveland, and on the mainland to the east Dunwich, the home of superannuated humanity.

Captain William Townley dispenses the hospitalities of the island. Although an old soldier he is no fool, and if he only proceeds as he is doing he will succeed in making St. Helena as undesirable a place of residence as the Brisbane Hospital ; and that this is necessary the number of re-convictions at our criminal courts pretty plainly proves. Many of you, doubtless, remember the Captain when he was P.M. at Ipswich, or before that. He has changed since then consumedly, and where before he would have been glad to have had a little friendly advice he is now in mortal terror of being dictated to, and the result is that he and his warders love one another with an all-pervading love. Since the beginning of last year thirteen of these gentlemen have left the establishment, and eight have been sacked for all sorts of breaches of gaol discipline, and still they are not perfect, though this weeding out has had good results—in this way, that it is not quite so easy for prisoners to employ themselves in "crooked" work as it was.

Wardens are a peculiar race of men-—they are of two sorts, and must either lend themselves to promoting the prisoner's comfort, from a prisoner's point of view, or act as if they fully understood their relative positions and intended to do their duty. In St. Helena they are of the first sort, and the casual visitor would be surprised to see the cordial feeling that exists between the convict and his guardian. "Short-timers," or those unfortunate prisoners whose stay will not exceed a period of six months, and who are known also under this distinguishing term of "toe-raggers," have not the opportunities of becoming on good terms with the warders that longer-sentenced men have.

You may have heard of the escape of two prisoners from the island a few months ago—Montmartin, a New Caledonian escapee, and a Colonial youth named Tiffen. The circumstances were these: —Montmartin was one of a batch of prisoners who were identified in December last as being New Caledonian escapees, and while you people in Brisbane were exercising yourselves over the fate of a respectable citizen, though an ex-convict, named Sibley, you lost sight of the fact that there were half-a-dozen or more recidivistes waiting transhipment in St. Helena. The men who were brought up and identified by the New Caledonian warder, were Ishmael Sobieski, doing 7 years for housebreaking; Carlo Pedro, a diminutive specimen of humanity who used to knock about Brisbane with an organ and a monkey, and who got three years for robbery; Convi and Lanini, two Italians convicted at Gympie some years ago, of manslaughter, and sentenced to 15 years each; Henri Granger, another seven years man, who got twelve months knocked off his term for diving to the bottom of the water tank in C yard, for the body of a prisoner named Hays who suicided. These, with Montmartin, were identified as escapees ; but, as that gentleman had kocked a warder on the head on making his exit from the island, he was considerably more wanted than the others. He was accordingly committed to probation or "slow broke," as it is termed in gaol parlance ; and, while there, the idea of making his escape suggested itself. To assist him, was young Tiffen, and the modus operandi was as follows:- Tiffen, who worked in the saddler's shop, managed to secure access to what was known as the lime house, lying immediately under the cell in which Montmartin was confined.

With a brace and bit he perforated the flooring not allowing the point of his instrument to go quite through. Thus far matters had proceeded very satisfactorily when Montmartin was sent back to the associated cell where he had previously slept. The escape was, therefore, delayed for a few days and it was then that Tiffin determined to accompany him. He had to renew the operation which he had previously indulged in, which was, however, effected by Montmartin's assistance. On Sunday 23rd January the escape occurred, and I consider it as clever a thing of the sort as was ever perpetrated—more especially when you take into consideration the position of the men. One man in the ward could not be depended upon nor conciliated - an individual named Michael Mullance who was convicted at Rockhampton some years ago and got four years for wife murder—still they managed to get down through the hole and over the wall of the stockade. And speaking of getting over the wall, here is another matter which casts a bitter reflection on the gaol authorities. The cases which convey the goods from town to the Island were in the habit of being stacked up by the gaol wall and to get over that was as easy as to climb a ladder. Over the wall their course was plain, the washhouse furnished canoes in the shape of tubs and the signal halyards on the flagstaff gave them what cordage they required. They were on the mainland two hours after getting over the stockade wall.

(To be continued.)


Formerly the base for a commercial dugong fishery and an emergency quarantine station, St Helena Island in Moreton Bay attracted the attention of authorities during the 1860s as an ideal site for a penal institution. The first prisoners were incarcerated on the island in 1867 and in 1868, a major building program resulted in the number of convicted felons serving their sentences at St Helena rising from 140 to 300 by 1873. Some of them were the most desperate criminals in the colony, and St Helena soon had a grim reputation for the harsh treatment meted out to inmates. The island was also believed to be escape-proof. More than 50 prisoners are known to have attempted to escape from the island, only one being successful: in 1924 the notorious gunman, Charles Leslie, was whisked away by motor boat. There was also another very important side to the penal institution. Between 1867 and the early 1870s, prisoners were involved in pioneering experiments in the production of sugar and the dairy farm which was established in 1892 paved the way for important dairy herd improvements throughout Queensland. By then, the colony’s largest penal institution was also becoming somewhat of an anachronism as more enlightened approaches to penal reform were introduced. Closure, however, did not occur until 1933, when the island was taken over by the Brisbane City Council. Control of St Helena and its well-preserved heritage buildings passed to the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1985 when it was proclaimed Queensland’s first Historic Park.


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