23 October 2014

Destroy All Your Books... Or Else: The attack on a Queensland historical society that should ring alarm bells for others

Imagine the volunteers in a respected History group receiving a legal letter from a business owner demanding that they either destroy all their stock of self-published history books, or hand them over to him... or else he would drag the volunteers before the Supreme Court. Their alleged crime? Having a similar domain name to the business, even though they actually had that domain name first. Well, this is exactly what happened to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society.

There have been several references on this and other websites to legal threats made against the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society by Cameron 'Jack' Sim of Brisbane-based 'Ghost Tours Pty Ltd'. The historical society was recently asked by someone what the threat was about, as it had never been explained anywhere publicly. When we told them the details, they were surprised this had been kept quiet. It was a fair point. So here it is.

The overall situation, put as matter-of-factly as possible, is this:

The pensioner volunteers who ran Boggo Road circa 1999-2004 did so (for legal requirements) as a not-for-profit entity called the Boggo Road Gaol Museum Association. Around 1999/2000 they established a museum website with the domain name ‘boggoroadgaol.com.au’.

Following retirements and deaths, the BRGM Association was wound down circa 2004 and assets were transferred to the not-for-profit Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society, including the domain name (although there was a clerical delay in transferring registration of that domain).

A couple of years later the BRGHS finally updated the old boggoroadgaol.com.au museum website with new information about their group, including not-for-profit publications and proposed tours of Boggo Road (a place which at that time had been closed for a few years years).

This drew the attention of ‘Jack’ Sim who had recently begun using a website with the domain ‘boggoroadgaol.com’ (his previous website was boggoroadjail.com.au) and had registered a trademark logo which - among other things - happened to contain the words 'Boggo Road Gaol' and his new domain address.

What happened next should be a teachable moment for volunteers and community groups around Queensland. Sim sent out two lengthy and expensive legal threats, one to the historical society and one to retired volunteer and Boggo Road legend John Banks, claiming that the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had infringed his trademark and had adopted the mark ‘BoggoRoadGoal’ [sic] with (and I quote);
‘the deliberate object of causing confusion and deception’. 
A very serious accusation indeed. In his mind, the historical society - which predated his Boggo Road business - was deliberately 'passing itself off' as that business simply because the volunteers were engaged in all the usual historical society activities (research, publishing and tours) and had a domain name that had been used by Boggo Road volunteers since 1999/2000 - years before his business was even established.

Sim then made the following demands:

In a nutshell, he had demanded that the volunteers of the historical society: 
  • Pay for 'damages' (even though the prison was closed and so no tours were even happening).
  • No longer be allowed to use the mark ‘BoggoRoadGaol’ when ‘passing off’ their books, research and proposed tours (remember, this is a community group called the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society).
  • Either destroy all the historical society’s printed stock and other material or hand it all over to him.
  • Pay all his costs.
  • If none of this was done, he would take the volunteers to the Supreme Court.
If the volunteers had agreed to these demands, the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society would have closed down. The group had about 40 members at the time (nearly 300 now) and the old prison - the raison d'ĂȘtre for the historical society's existence - had been closed for three years. The group was surviving thanks to the sales of the books they wrote and printed, but printing books is an expensive exercise and costs are only recouped by selling them. The demand that the volunteers destroy all their existing stock and pay what could have been thousands of dollars in costs would have left the historical society with no saleable product and no money for new stock or even paying their annual four-figure overheads (such as insurance). It would have been the end of their organisation.  

Fortunately the volunteers had access to some quality legal advice and the verdict was one of astonishment and amusement at the general absurdity of the threat, which they already knew to be baseless and misinformed anyway. The volunteers ignored the threat and so a follow-up threat arrived in the postbox on Christmas Eve. Not actually seen until a few weeks later, this second letter was also ignored.

Historical society volunteers met with Sim a couple of months later, He let it be known that the threat could be forgotten about if they signed off on his plan for running Boggo Road. A plan he then placed on the table. Not only did the historical society reject the ‘offer’ outright, they made it clear that they would not even discuss working with him until the threat was withdrawn. He refused to do so.

The logic behind the volunteers’ thinking is obvious. They are simply not willing to work for the financial benefit of any commercial entity that was threatening to sue and possibly close their group down. Why should they undertake volunteer work to help fund possible legal action against themselves?

Would you or your group do it?

The subject came up at a more recent meeting between historical society volunteers, government officials and Sim himself. He initially denied having made the threat, but when the actual legal letters were immediately produced he verbally repeated the threat! He was challenged by the volunteers to follow through with his threat, but has refused to do so.

And there it stands. The question as to whether or not his threat of legal action has been withdrawn or carried out pops up occasionally at historical society meetings. The answer either way remains ‘no’. It seems to be an inconvenient truth for some governmental officials, but for the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society it is a matter of principle. They will not reward threats from small businessman and will not associate themselves with the type of person who can behave in such a way. 

Prior to all this happening the historical society had held out an olive branch to Ghost Tours - in writing - recognising that the best route towards a peaceful future for Boggo Road was for us to work together. We received no reply. Unfortunately the legal threats made by Sim proved to be an obstacle to peace at Boggo Road.
What needs to be remembered is that when Boggo Road finally moves into a better future, there will be plenty of arts and history organisations lining up to bring the old prison back to life for the public. This is exactly what is needed, because a lot of different people had very different experiences of life inside that prison and so the many stories of Boggo Road should be told in many voices and many ways.  

And they should be allowed to do so in an atmosphere free of the kind of threats such as the one described above.

15 October 2014

Loaves, Fishes, & 'Jobs, Jobs, Jobs': How to really create jobs at Boggo Road

The redevelopment proposals for Boggo Road were recently made public and I have already discussed the radical concept of opening up the prison as public space, but there are of course other aspects to consider. Like job creation. Or, as we say in Queensland, 'jobs, jobs, jobs' (™ Peter Beattie).

This is actually not something not mentioned too much in the marketing material for the proposals, and personally it's not something I'd list as a priority at any heritage site, but it is worth exploring further as 'job creation' is being used to defend the status quo at Boggo Road. So what are the facts?

Let's take the situation as it is now. Imagine it is Wednesday night at Boggo and maybe this week there's a night tour on. That's a 1.5 hour night tour. At an absolute maximum it would provide two hours work each for two people. Or maybe just for one person, as is often the case with these tours. 

That's four work hours created by the tour, tops. And the rest of the site remains closed, empty, and redundant.

Now, imagine a Wednesday night under the new plans. What's taking place inside Boggo Road? There's a restaurant, busy as usual, with wait and kitchen staff. Each one working around six hours that evening. Maybe around six or seven or six staff. That's over 40 working hours right there. Just one restaurant instantly creates ten times more work than tours. Sad but true. Of course there could easily be two restaurants or coffee shops in the prison site, and unlike the tours, these businesses also boost the economy by purchasing ingredients and other supplies. 

On top of that, there's the crucial fact that the restaurant gets repeat business, something the tours don't.

Then perhaps there's the wine bar, doing brisk trade. How many staff there on the long evening/night shift? Now imagine there's some live acoustic music going on, maybe a bit of theatre in one of the yards. More employment happening. Take all the above together and you go way, way beyond the two or four work hours created by the tour on that night, from single up into triple figures.

And the beauty of all this is that you can STILL have the tour taking place anyway

As I said before, job creation should never be the raison d'ĂȘtre of any heritage site, but it is screamingly obvious that mixed use of Boggo would create much more ongoing work there. The place would, for the first time since it was decommissioned in 1989, provide meaningful levels of employment. This is despite Cameron 'Jack' Sim of ghost tours telling the state government that he would have created over 50 jobs at Boggo Road by now. That was a big call and the reality is that - at the very best - only a handful have been created. Two tours are scheduled per day, plus some night ones too, but you would struggle to create too many weekly work hours off the back of that. 

There again, this is a person who once claimed to have 30 employees while he was running three or four ghost tours per week, weather permitting. Sharing a maximum of 16 weekly work hours (but often less) among 30 people makes Jesus' trick of sharing the loaves and fishes among the multitudes pale in comparison. This is not to denigrate anyone's work at Boggo right now, it's just a reminder to beware of rubbery figures.

"Here's the new roster. We're having two tour guides per customer. So many jobs!
But I'm going to have to pay you in fish."

Statistical realities aside, the problem with Boggo Road has always been the sporadic 'open-for-a-tour-and-then-close-again' use of the site. As Public Works minister Tim Mander himself said a couple of weeks back, "this site has basically lain dormant other than for a few tours which take place during the week." Leighton Properties (the developers) described the place as "a neglected and under-utilised public asset." Their new plans are designed to fundamentally change all that, maximising use of a greater area of Boggo Road. Having the place constantly busy while retaining the heritage aspects will 'finally awaken this sleeping giant of Brisbane tourism', as they say. 

And there could be little doubt that it would always be busy under this proposal. The simple fact is that dining facilities, wine bars and Arts and entertainment events will create much more patronage, revenue and work for Boggo Road than History activities alone could. Having something like a coffee shop or any other hospitality facility inside an actual cellblock or exercise yard would be a consistently massive drawcard, especially when partnered with a dynamic programme of Arts events, not to mention nearby markets and of course the history. 

History will always be a massive aspect of Boggo, but revenue raised by historical activities should become far less critical under the new proposals. To my way of thinking, it would be fair to ask that revenue raised from other on-site activities could subsidise and strengthen the History side of things, allowing much more affordable (or even some free) tours and quality exhibits. There would then be real synergy between the joint attractions of history, arts and dining. 

Anybody who wants to measure the success of Boggo Road by the criterion of job creation should welcome the new plans with open arms. And there’s no escaping from that fact.

06 October 2014

The Revolution in Thinking About Boggo Road

Last week saw the announcement of the Leighton Properties proposal for the future of Boggo Road. The single most important thing to emerge from these plans is the revolutionary transformation of much of the space inside the old prison from ‘private’ to ‘communal’. The internal areas that were once locked away behind brick walls and iron gates will be integrated into the the surrounding community space and made accessible to all. The public will no longer have to pay to get inside Boggo Road, although it appears that a certain area will be set aside for guided tours.

This is a game-changing paradigm shift in how we think about this heritage site. 

I will here look at claims made on the website for the redevelopment in order to try and explain some of what is happening - as I see it.*

"Boggo Road will be unlocked for the first time in a century - opening it up to unprecedented historical interpretation and educational opportunities." (see here)
"The redevelopment will enhance and literally open up the Boggo Road Gaol to the broader community." (see here)
"The redevelopment will enhance and open Boggo Road to the broader community - inviting the public into the site to engage with and experience the site more freely." (see here)

Until now, the inside of the prison has been closed away behind impenetrable walls and doors. The physical space itself had been commodified, and private management effectively turned this public asset into private property. You have to pay high fees for the mere privilege of seeing it.

From next year, this area of Boggo Road will
be accessible for free. (Image here)
As someone involved who has been involved in the behind-the-scenes discussions for a long time now, much of the new proposals came as no surprise to me. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had pushed for a community-focussed approach to managing the heritage site and were quietly confident that this was the direction that would be taken. From what had I already heard, I anticipated the adaptive reuse of two cellblocks, the use of the other cellblock for historical interpretation, and the removal of 1980s prison structures. However, I did not expect the extent to which the prison would be opened up to the community.

Under the proposal, the public will be able to simply stroll inside the internal prison space whenever it is open. The grassed area in front of the cellblocks - known as the 'Circle' - will become public park space. Small parts of Boggo Road will still be set aside just for historical tours etc., but generally speaking the old ways of keeping the heritage buildings hidden away will be gone.

"On completion, Boggo Road is set to become a new destination known as much for its cultural amenities as its historical significance." (see here)
"Within the gaol buildings, a new historical and educational program, together with various cultural uses will be offered for locals and tourists to enjoy. As well as a museum and gaol tours, a rotating events calendar could include a mix of music and theatre performances, outdoor cinema and artisan markets. To provide activation, some original buildings are proposed to be sensitively readapted for the aforementioned uses, food and beverage offerings and function facilities." (see here)

It is important to remember that one aim of this wider redevelopment - which also includes nearly 500 residential units and retail facilities - is to create a successful and sustainable 'community' (always a nebulous concept). It is this thinking that has driven the reconceptualising of the heritage prison as open space, and it has also generated a new approach to how the prison buildings are utilised. Since its closure the place has been used primarily as a historical site, although during the Boggo Road Gaol Museum years we saw numerous functions (including weddings), live music and drama performances, and film shoots take place there. 

The new plans would allow organisations like the
Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble to
perform at Boggo Road. (QSE)
It looks like this cultural aspect will become much more prominent, which is precisely what my friends in the Boggo Road Arts, History & Education Committee wanted. A foundation of our approach is the need to attract repeat visitors in a way that guided tours or a museum never can. The combination of a dynamic programme of music and drama, art exhibitions, a museum and historical activities, along with quality dining and bar facilities (also a nearby permanent market and an ‘Eat Street’ strip) as well as easy public transport access minutes from the city, should see Boggo Road becoming a major drawcard. 

No longer the kind of place you only need to see just the one time.

"Rejuvenation of a neglected and under-utilised public asset in the Gaol." (see here)

"this site has basically lain dormant other than for a few tours which take place during the week." (Public Works minister Tim Mander, 1 October 2014) 
"Through the urban renewal process, Boggo Road will be unlocked for the first time in a century – opening it up to unprecedented historical interpretation and educational opportunities." (see here)
"Within the gaol buildings, a new historical and educational program, together with various cultural uses will be offered for locals and tourists to enjoy" (see here)

It is a bit of a stretch to say that Boggo Road has lain dormant for 20 years, but it can't be denied that the potential of this sleeping giant has never been realised. This is why the new plan  - while being very positive  - also carries an inherent rejection of the way Boggo Road has been managed until now. I have my own criticisms of much of what is happening there - including the teenage booze-ups and offensive 'ghost hunts', both of which had previously been prohibited by the state government as being too disrespectful - but there are other deep-rooted problems. One is the anti-community attitude of the interim private management that has seen the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society denied fair access to the place. The other is that the current historical interpretation is way too limited. This needs to change and the historical society is hopeful that it will. As is spelled out on the redevelopment's website, "a new historical and educational program... will be offered for locals and tourists to enjoy" (my emphasis).

I have always argued that this change needs to include allowing different voices to tell different stories about Boggo. As I see it, the major issue is in the significance of the place. What does it mean to people? The simple (but also not-so-simple) answer is that Boggo Road means a lot of different things to a lot of different people who were directly affected by it. The old prison has a history full of conflict and reconciliation, despair and hope, tragedy and survival, loss and rehabilitation. I know that some former inmates would like to see the place demolished and wiped from the collective memory. Others want it to stand as a reminder and testament to their suffering. Many former officers have a great sense of pride about their service and want that aspect of their lives to be shared. Then there are all the families and friends of all these people.

Right now, while the days of the working prison are well within living memory, these are the people we need to consider first and foremost when it comes to remembering Boggo Road. In my personal opinion Boggo needs to stand as a touchstone to its varied histories as told by all those different voices. 

The good news is that it will stand, and there will still be the opportunity to tell all those stories, hopefully in an interesting and innovative variety of ways. Not just scripted tours. The public will be visiting in increased numbers and the history of Boggo Road will be shared more widely, and certainly in a much more engaged way than having it locked away for expensive private tours.


The new plans are of great interest to groups like 'A Better Future for Boggo Road' and the 'Boggo Road Arts, Education & History Committee', who have argued for creating a multi-arts community-focussed venue at the old prison. In many ways, this plan would deliver on that.
Of course there will be opposition to this, as already seen in this Brisbane Times article. Cameron 'Jack' Sim (the ghost tour businessman who holds the interim license at Boggo Road) is opposed to opening the place up for the community, an attitude that perhaps demonstrates greater concern about what is good for himself rather than what is good for Boggo Road, the local community, and the taxpayers who own and pay for it. A case of "the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many"?

Others will have legitimate concerns about structural changes to the old prison. The place is heritage listed and any changes will have to meet strict heritage guidelines. We don't know the precise nature of any changes yet so that is something to be watched carefully. 

A decade ago I would probably have opposed this proposal myself, and sought to retain as much of the existing prison fabric as possible. However, after years of delay, political interference and disrespectful treatment of the place, the strong community focus of the new plans come as a breath of fresh air. They are not perfect (I will explore issues of 'privatisation' in another article here) and there is still much to be done, but they are a great leap forward and have renewed hope that the right thing will finally be done at Boggo Road.

In the meantime...

Email info@boggoroadgaol.com.au for membership details.

Like the BRGHS Facebook page to keep up to date with what is happening at Boggo Road.

You can give feedback about the proposals on this page here.

* The opinions expressed here my own and not necessarily indicative of the position of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society.

01 October 2014

A Better Future for Boggo Road: One Step Closer?

A mock-up of the proposed public space in front of
the cellblocks. Looks good to me.
(Image from this article)
Public Works and Leighton Properties released a statement today about the future of Boggo Road. It is short on specific details but the overall direction they are heading in is to transform Boggo Road (or big parts of it) into a community space. Basically, one of the cellblocks will probably become a museum while the other two cellblocks would likely become dining and bar areas. The 'original prison courtyard' (known as the 'Circle') would to be transformed into a small public park. Other, newer parts of the prison will be removed as mixed-use space is created. I'm hoping to find out a lot more details in the coming days. 

(Update: The Boggo Road redevelopment page can be seen here)

The changes, also described in this article, will include:
  • A permanent new market area on the outside front of the prison, to be run by the James Street Market operators from New Farm
  • An 'Eat Street' strip between the prison and the Ecoscience building
  • Boggo Road prison tours to stay (hopefully with new tour operators)
  • The three cell blocks to be transformed into a museum and two dining/bar type venues
  • There will be no accommodation at the refurbished prison

From what we know so far, there are two good reasons for fair-minded people to be happy about this.

Firstly, the chances of the historical component of this public asset returning to not-for-profit management - one of the central demands of the ‘Better Future for Boggo Road’ movement - are stronger. This would be a significant victory for common sense, and full credit to site developers Leightons for engaging a decent community consultant who discussed ideas at length with all stakeholders.

That management could be provided by the National Trust of Queensland, which is something the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society and myself have pursued for years now, going back to meetings held with the previous National Trust CEO in 2004. I also wrote on the subject here back in 2012. There are questions of exactly how the National Trust would manage Boggo Road, but as a former member of the National Trust council I know there are some very good and capable people involved in the organisation and that they have a strong commitment to community engagement. The range of organisations and individuals that make up the Boggo Road Arts, History & Education Committee are certainly looking forward to the opportunity to help make this happen.

The other welcome part of this announcement is the community focus and the chance to create a cultural hub at Boggo Road. Over 10 years ago I suggested that the BRGHS push for the creation of a ‘dynamic cultural hub’ at Boggo Road, moving beyond just traditional methods of historical interpretation and using a wider range of cultural activities to help tell the story of the old prison. This has been part of the vision of the BRGHS for several years now:
'That the unique qualities of the historic Boggo Road site be utilised to generate a dynamic and innovative hub of creative discourse emphasising the significance of the site, with the core values of redemption, reconciliation and education.'
The establishment of the Boggo Road Arts, History & Education Committee last year was designed to help make this happen. I have also discussed the concept with the community consultant employed by Leighton's during this year and am hopeful it will happen.  

If there is a downside to all this it is the ongoing timeframe. I have always thought that the best approach for reopening Boggo Road was ‘do it once, do it right’. Unfortunately that did not happen back in 2012 but there is now a chance to make a clean start with a proper reopening preceded by - for the first time - decent forward planning and consultation. We shall see. 

It was back in October 2011 that I (representing the BRGHS) first met Leighton head honchos to discuss the future of Boggo Road. I basically reiterated the BRGHS desire that the whole planning process be informed by actual verifiable facts and not marketing spin. I came out of that meeting with a favourable impression of their attitude, a view reinforced by snippets of feedback received over the following months. With many details still to be finalised, the important thing to remember for now is that there is real hope for a Better Future for Boggo Road, and a big opportunity for fair-minded people to influence what happens there next.

24 September 2014

Plans to Erect Gallows in Queensland's Supreme Court Shelved

A museum exhibition about the end of hanging in Queensland opened in June this year at the new Supreme Court buildings on George Street, Brisbane. Capital punishment was abolished here back in 1922, and this exhibition marks the centenary of the last Queensland hanging, which took place in Brisbane in 1913.

I had helped the Supreme Court exhibition team with getting this together, including sourcing exhibit items, writing an article for the catalogue, and editing and advising with other text, so I personally found the final product to be both interesting and familiar. The first thing you see as you approach the entrance to the Sir Harry Gibbs Legal Heritage Centre (where the exhibition is housed) is the central section of the old Brisbane Prison hanging beam, first used in 1885. This mighty piece of triple-hooked timber is from the collection of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland and I used the beam back in 2005 for my 'Gallows of Boggo Road' exhibition, so it was good to see it still doing the rounds as probably the last genuine prison artefact of the hanging era.

The gallows beam, Supreme Court (C Dawson, 2014)

I emphasise the word 'genuine' because the next case holds a rusty barbeque plate made from a metal plate that was 'allegedly' once part of the gallows trapdoor. Apart from the fact that the trap was made of thick timber slabs, the evidence for the origins of this piece is dubious. Even if this was the real thing, it has been sadly neglected and the metal is now a mass of rust.

BBQ plate (C Dawson, 2014)

One issue for the Path to Abolition team was the apparent lack of hanging artefacts, and one of the early ideas was to construct a full or half-scale replica gallows for display, but perhaps a massive set of gallows (these things were about 7 metres high) in the Supreme Court entrance foyer wouldn't do too much for the image of Queensland, especially when the State led the way in abolishing the things in the first place. Gallows or not, it did allow me an eye-catching article title anyway.

The exhibition has a few other less startling replica items. The one shown below is a replica of the kind of white hood that was placed over the prisoners' heads prior to hanging, and next to it is a rope spliced with a washer (as was used instead of a knot). These items were made specifically for the 'Gallows of Boggo Road' exhibition, and although they are simple objects it is great to see them still being used in what is now their third exhibition.

Replica hood and noose (C Dawson, 2014)

Another replica item - this one produced by the Supreme Court team - is the hangman's disguise, as worn by executioners attempting to conceal themselves from those present at the hangings. This one consists of a black felt hat, some spectacular 19th-century goggles, and a false beard. The use of such disguises is documented in the book No Ordinary Run of Men: The Queensland Executioners.

Replica hangman's disguise (C Dawson, 2014)

The third item of clothing here is actually genuine. This is the black cap as worn by judges handing down the death sentence at the end of a trial. A striking contrast to the white hood of the prisoners.

Death sentence cap (C Dawson, 2014)
The exhibit manages to succinctly tell the story of hanging in Queensland and of course the path to abolition. It does this with original documents (such as petitions), some striking illustrations from newspapers of the day, and copies of prison records. The stories of five inmates involved in controversial cases that stirred up public opinion are also highlighted. At first I was struck by the fact that the case studies are all white people, when most of the executed were not white, but then you have to remember that public opinion of the time was more likely to be mobilised against the hanging of white people. 

Prison records of executed prisoners Arthur Ross and Ernest Austin (C Dawson, 2014)

Being a Hanging in History specialist I was right at home in this exhibition, and the team have done a very good job in getting the material together and telling the story in an accessible way. If you're in the neighbourhood, you should definitely pop in for a visit.

(The Path to Abolition: A History of Execution in Queensland exhibition can be seen in the Sir Harry Gibbs Legal Heritage Centre on the ground floor of the Supreme Court building on 415 George St., Brisbane. Go through the security check at the main doors then turn right.)

20 July 2014

A Boggo Road Great: John Banks, 1939-2014

John at work, 1980s (BRGHS).
Last month we said goodbye to the late John Banks, the founding president of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society. He was a man described by his former workmates as one of the true ‘Boggo Road Greats’, not only because he was one of those screws who was respected by officers and prisoners, but he was also a champion of the Boggo Road historical site. John could come across as very much old school 'hard-but-fair’ and easily annoyed into gruffness by fuss and nonsense, but his true nature was that of a giver and humanitarian. I’d like to take the time to put something of his life, as I knew it, on the record.

John was born in Brisbane on 3 October 1939 - a birthday he shared with the No.2 Division of Boggo Road. His schooling took him all around south Queensland until he gained a scholarship in 1954. His working career in Australia and overseas included long-distance truck and coach driving (and working as a doorman alongside the infamous John Andrew Stuart) before he became a prison officer at Boggo Road in 1972. By that time he had a wife (Gwen) and two children (Michelle and Michael).

John also worked at other prisons such as Wacol before his retirement in the 1990s, and then he started guided tours at the recently-closed Boggo Road with three other men. Within a few years the others had retired to leave John and a tiny handful of volunteers running the not-for-profit museum (that’s where I met him in 2001).

As manager of the Boggo Road museum he very regularly volunteered through 60-hour weeks without making a cent in return. As a tour guide he took thousands of schoolchildren through the place, sometimes doing six tours a day, and the schools came back year after year, just for John. Teachers have recently been in touch with us expressing their disappointment that he wasn't there to take tours anymore. At times John carried the gaol on his back to keep it open and - by virtue of it being open and in regular use - safe from demolition.

An image that always stuck in my mind was when I called into the museum about 6am one September morning to get some work out of the way (I had my own keys). As I walked up the driveway through cold dawn drizzle there was John slowly making his way around the prison unlocking the dozens of doors as he did every morning, a cat following close behind. He’d usually be there for another 12 hours, 18 if there was a function that night. And this was how he lived his life at the museum.

John, 2005 (BRGHS).
The simple fact is that nobody has ever worked as hard for Boggo Road and nobody ever will again. The fact that Boggo Road is still standing is part of his legacy.

I would talk here about his ‘tireless efforts’ at the museum, but that would not be right because he was greatly tired by his efforts. It was not uncommon for him to take five or six tours through the prison in one day, in later years limping through them and taking short breaks when he could to rest his arthritic knees. He was a man in genuine pain (which was thankfully relieved in later years by knee operations). And this was his life, week in, week out, and he did it for free – the true mark of a labour of love. This was all despite John being one of the ‘faction’ who remembered the fly-by-night heritage demolitions of previous years and insisted the government was going to end up bulldozing Boggo Road anyway.

His effort was all the more remarkable because he also had to endure what was described as a ‘personal vendetta’. The museum was not-for-profit, with the surplus for each year being donated to charities such as ‘Drug Arm’, and every cent was meticulously accounted for in the records. Despite this, a businessman who leased an office at Boggo Road and had free access for tours developed some kind of a personal issue with John and lodged an endless series of petty and often hysterical complaints behind his back. John generally brushed these off, but it offended the rest of the volunteers, especially when John got a call from Centrelink because someone had told them he was making money at the museum (and therefore basically committing pension fraud). A completely false accusation, as was soon discerned.

To see a fundamentally honest pensioner freely volunteer his time to take so many tours through the prison and then be treated like this was beyond belief. What is the mentality of a person who would do that? It was, as another former officer said in prison parlance, 'a maggot act’. In Christmas 2008, after John had moved to the Sunshine Coast hinterland for a well-deserved retirement, the Boggo businessman sent him absurd legal threats and made exorbitant demands for compensation. It is a measure of the man that John was able to shrug off these attacks over the years, but he was a honest and compassionate person who gave his time freely for the common good and he deserved better.

I might just be a friend praising his work here, but then it was also highly praised in speeches in the Australian Federal Senate. Not many of us can say that.

Of course, sheer hard work alone doesn’t make you a good person. What made John stand out was the fact that he was, much like his good friend and museum colleague Don Walters, a humanitarian - despite the often gruff exterior. For example, he was once asked in a radio interview about prison officer brutality and he replied that, ‘some officers seemed to think prisoners were there for punishment. They weren’t. They were there as punishment’. This was a theme he brought to his prison tours. ‘Every prisoner who walked in the door’, he would say, ‘will one day walk out of it. And they could move next door to you. What kind of a person do you want them to be after prison? Do you want them to be better people or be brutalised?’ He had no time for former officers badmouthing prisoners on tours and if it happened he let them know it. 

John was saddened by the prospects of some of the young inmates in his keep. Many had the kind of childhoods and lack of education that make prison almost inevitable, and without further help they were condemned to spend a life in and out of prison. John was the kind of officer who tried to provide that help. He took the time outside his regular duties to teach inmates to read. He taught them horticulture, using rose cuttings obtained from New Farm park keepers. He also taught the craft of leatherwork, and used the proceeds from sales of their work on Christmas presents for the particularly disadvantaged inmates with intellectual problems who probably deserved to be in a different kind of institution. Christmas Day for John and Gwen was sometimes spent inside institutions handing out these presents.

As I said, all this was done outside his regular workload. He didn’t need to do it, but he did it because he wanted to. Most of the prisoners and the officers respected him for it.

Unlike some prison officers, John made no effort to conceal his address and phone number, despite having young children at home. His philosophy was that if he did his job properly and fairly inside the prison, he would have nothing to fear outside of it. Sometimes former inmates would rock up to the museum just to say hello to ‘Mr Banks’. It is no surprise that one of his favourite movies was ‘The Green Mile’, and Tom Hanks’ characterisation of a sympathetic prison officer in that movie probably struck a chord with John. As he told me last year; 
'Being a prison officer, you are not supposed to talk to prisoners, you are not to have any dealings with prisoners, but how can you work within a system and not having something to say to somebody? Now, I had no trouble with any prisoner, they were quite amiable to me, they were polite, and the feeling between me... they were prisoners, I was a prison officer, when I went home I had to forget about what they went in there for, but when I came back to work I had to remember what they were in there for and I had to make certain they didn’t escape. But if you want to be gruffy and bad-tempered and do all the stupid things... you’d have a pretty rough time in there because all you do is just keep looking at your back all the time.'
He was also a giver outside of prison, whether he was coaching baseball to kids or being the RSPCA ‘Santa Paws’ for several years (you haven’t really seen John until you’ve seen him dressed as Father Christmas greeting a long line of pets - "have you been a good budgie this year?"). No doubt there’s a lot of other generous things he did that I don’t know about, because you had to rely on other people to tell you about this stuff. For instance, one thing I only heard about from Gwen was when John took a small group of at-risk youth through Boggo Road for a tour once. The biggest boy in the group had a bit of an attitude and seemed proud that he would probably be going to prison one day. John took the time to explain to the boy that while he might be a big fish in his little youth group, he would be passed around the big fellas in prison like a sex toy. And people like John wouldn’t always be there to protect him. John knew because he had seen this happen.

Well, about six months later the youth group coordinator rang up to say ‘thank you’. That little talk had made such an impact that the boy’s attitude had completely changed and he had since started an apprenticeship. Prison was no longer an option. As I said to Gwen when she later told me this, if John had done nothing else with his life, that one thing alone would make it a life worth living. 

He also had a great touch with animals (outside of pig shooting and fishing), and a wild cat that lived around Boggo Road adopted him, following him everywhere and jumping on his lap whenever the chance arose. When the museum closed in 2005, John adopted PC (Prison Cat) and PC continues to live a happy life today. John also became a bit of a Birdman of Boggo Road and loved breeding canaries and budgies. The Banks household was often a foster refuge for wounded wildlife.

John and Gwen receive honorary lifetime memberships
of the BRGHS from Senator Claire Moore after his
retirement in 2007 (BRGHS).
So what is John’s legacy? In terms of History, it is not only the survival of Boggo Road prison and the tens of thousands of children who learned about it from him, it is also the fact that the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society exists and that hundreds of its members continue his work. John always said that seeing the museum come to life when it could just as easily have been demolished was a ‘dream come true’, and he took great satisfaction in knowing that the good work was being carried on by others, and that the prospects of Boggo Road becoming a not-for-profit site again were looking very promising. How many of us can aspire to having others remember and carry on our labour of love when we have passed away?

The BRGHS will, in time, formalise his legacy at Boggo Road.

Even more important than all that, however, is the legacy of his personal life, in having a family that love him, and people grateful for the innumerable acts of kindness that made their lives easier or better.

After a short illness, John died peacefully in his sleep in June with loving family by his side. In typical John fashion, he asked for a no-fuss private family funeral (although his first preference was to be put in a cardboard box and dumped in the garden).

His family has lost a deeply-loved husband, father and grandfather; his colleagues have lost a respected friend; and Boggo Road has lost its champion. However, the dead only die when they are forgotten, and the work and actions of John Banks counted for a lot and will clearly not be forgotten.

The following poem is often attributed (probably wrongly) to Ralph Waldo Emerson. There is a lot in it that can be said of John Banks and remind us that even after all the slings and arrows, he did succeed…
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
Rest in Peace, John. You earned it.