For 65 years, St Helena was the scene of some brutal business, but these days it’s a historic national park with scattered ruins to tell its story.
It’s an easy day trip from the Sunshine Coast, provided you are prepared to make an early start for the eastern Brisbane suburb of Manly where a pleasant 30-minute cruise on Moreton Bay begins.
A Cat o’ Nine Tails tour is the recommended way to go for two reasons – access to most of the prison ruins is by guided tour only, and also because the team, led by suitably attired “prisoners” and their guard, brings history to life.
The tour begins on board, with the fascinating story of how the island was named in 1827. In 1866, a quarantine station was built on St Helena, but within a year, it was realised it would be much better to solve the problem of what to do with all the prisoners at Petrie Terrace prison and on boats moored on the Brisbane River.
The island was never used for convicts but opened in 1867 as Queensland’s first penal establishment to house long-term, high-security male prisoners.
On arrival, the catamaran docks at a jetty connected to a stone causeway built across the mudflat by prison labourers.
At the tip of the original causeway is a “swimming pool”. Prisoners placed steel tram tracks vertically into the water to make an enclosure for wardens to swim safely away from sharks.
Tram tracks? Yes, St Helena had Queensland’s first tram. It carried produce and people from the stockade and workshops at the top of the island to the causeway for export to Brisbane.
The tram was first hauled by prisoners and later by horse.
The island was all about making money for the government using free prison labour. The irony was they produced Queensland Police uniforms at one stage.
Sugar cane was planted and a mill built in 1869. It wasn’t entirely successful as it was thought escapees could easily hide in the cane. Remnants of the sugar mill, like the lime kiln used to turn coral collected from the bay into a useful cement for building, can be seen within easy walk of the causeway.
The island has two cemeteries – one for the children of the wardens and one for prisoners who even in death had numbers not names. It was said they would forever remain prisoners of St Helena. It is believed about 56 prisoners are buried here.
Many children were born and educated on St Helena and while the wardens were taken to the mainland, the children were buried on the island. This was heartbreaking for mothers who were unable to visit their graves on a high-security prison island.
Prisoners were forbidden to speak and flogged until skin became bone. The maximum was 50 lashes, but this usually had to be done in two sessions as 25 was enough to end at the infirmary. Floggings were always on a Tuesday when a surgeon came to the island.
But even this was preferable to solitary confinement, sealed below ground in a metre-wide cell with nothing but a dirt floor that turned to mud when it rained.
The prison closed in 1932 when, during the great Depression, it simply became unviable to keep it open. Production had dropped away during World War I when prisoners had to return to the mainland to cover for young men shipped off to the European battlefields. By then, Boggo Road, which had been used as HM Prison for Women, was taking men.
All up, 7500 hardy souls experienced the hell of St Helena.
There were some grand plans for its future, including a golf course and rabbit hunting, but in the end, it was leased as a cattle farm, and was a dairy in the 1950s.
Finally, in 1979, St Helena was declared national park – Queensland’s first – so we can all enjoy a day in the sun discovering our history less than hour from the CBD.