20 December 2011

Slim Halliday: Man or Spider-man?

Arthur Ernest 'Slim' Halliday, convicted murderer and infamous Boggo Road escapologist during the 1930s-1960s, is the subject of some incredible tales, some tall, some true. Like the time he bent a solid metal cell door back with a winch made from bits of wood and bed sheet. Or the time he burned a hole in roof of the mattress workshop in a bid to escape. Or when he made a replica gun from bits of leather. These are some of the true tales.

Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, Brisbane, 1937 (BRGHS)
Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, 1937 (BRGHS)

There is, however, one particular story that is as tall as it gets. During one of my first visits to Boggo Road I took a tour with a highly-respected former prison officer who told our group all about 'Halliday's Leap', the place where Slim Halliday jumped off the roof of E Wing cellblock in 1940 and landed on the top of the perimeter wall before making good his escape. At the time I totally believed it - such is the authoritative power of the tour guide - but after I worked at the museum and spent more time in the area, I realised that the story and the numbers just didn't add up.

The legendary leap would have involved jumping from a three-storey cellblock roof onto the top of the red-bricked outer prison wall, a near-impossible feat involving a drop of eight metres over a width of four metres. The curved top of the wall itself is no more than 30cm wide and is over seven metres high – not the safest landing spot for someone jumping from a great height. Imagine jumping off the roof of a two-storey house, aiming to land perfectly on a 30cm-wide ledge, without breaking your legs or spine or falling over when you do land, because that ledge is seven metres off the ground - and someone with a rifle on the neighbour's roof will shoot you if they see you. It is, basically, a feat requiring all the abilities of Spiderman, and Slim may have been a lot of things but he was no superhero.

Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road (BRGHS).
Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road (BRGHS).

I delved into the official records at Queensland State Archives and a very different story emerged, but one that was no less impressive. To run through it briefly; Halliday had planned this escape for months, secretly making and hiding escape ropes, grappling hooks and wire cutters in the prison workshops. One day he slipped unnoticed from a line of prisoners and scaled the 10-foot high fence of the exercise yard to gain access to the Track that ran around the inside of the perimeter walls. He climbed onto the workshop roof and dropped down through a skylight that gave him access to the inside of the workshop, where he cut through wire mesh walls with the hidden wire cutters to get to his escape ropes. He climbed up onto the roof again and hooked the longest rope over the outer wall, at a place he had worked out to be a blind-spot from the towers. He dropped the shorter rope down the side of the workshop and climbed down onto the Track, then climbed up over the prison wall using the first rope before changing his clothes and making his escape.

Did Arthur 'Slim' Halliday REALLY jump from a cellblock roof to escape from Boggo Road?
A – Location of ‘Halliday’s Leap’
B – Workshops
T – Towers
No.2 Division, Boggo Road, in the 1940s. (BRGHS)

Slim Halliday's escape route from Boggo Road Gaol, 1940. (BRGHS)
Halliday's escape route 1940. (BRGHS)

There is no room in this article for the tale of the massive manhunt, shoot-outs and high-speed car chases that led to Halliday’s recapture, which is all covered in detail in the book The Houdini of Boggo Road. Of more relevance here is how the myth of 'Halliday's Leap' grew. One clue comes from discussions with local residents who were children when the escape happened. When news of the breakout got out, local parents ordered their children to stay home, but the kids had other ideas and formed themselves into 'posses', excitedly roaming the local streets in nervous pursuit of the escaped prisoner. They circulated a story that Halliday had jumped from a roof during his escape, and in the process of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this became a cellblock roof. This story took hold, and 50 years later it had become accepted even within modern prison officer circles.

Halliday escaped over the blind spot at this section of the wall again in 1946, and it gained the name of 'Halliday’s Leap’ quite early on. Following yet another escape attempt by Slim, this time in 1953, a newspaper ran an article with the headline 'HALLIDAY’S LEAP HEADACHE FOR BOGGO ROAD STAFF: WEAK SPOT IN THE PRISON WALLS'. However, the blindspot had in fact been fixed in 1947 with the erection of a new stand-alone guard tower (called E tower) in the prison grounds to the southeast of the workshops. The workshops and Halliday’s Leap were later demolished as part of the prison modernisation of the early 1970s. The myth of Halliday's Leap has only been demolished in more recent years.

14 December 2011

The Woman in Black: Solving the Mystery of a Vanishing Ghost

Learn about yet another bit of 'paranormal industry' fraud, this time the invention and sudden disappearance of a cemetery ghost.

This story can be read at the 'About Those Ghosts...' website.

19th-century mourning clothes

08 December 2011

How to Build a Boob Gun... & Why You Shouldn't

Some of the most popular objects in the Boggo Road Gaol Museum collection were the 1980s prisoner-made tattoo machines, or 'boob guns' in jail slang. These illegal items were not only testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of some inmates, they were also an artefact of resistance against the powers-that-be. Our tour guides had working models of these things that were always a big hit with visitors, and I once put together a display about these tattoo machines at the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland. The sight of passing uni students stopping to take notes is always a good indicator of interest!

Tattoo machine from the Boggo Road museum collection (BRGHS).
Tattoo machine from the Boggo Road museum collection (BRGHS).

Tattoo machines like this were an illegal item in prison, not only because prisoners were required to maintain the same appearance during their sentence, but also because they could be used as weapons. Another important reason for restricting their use in more recent years has been to minimise the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis C by sharing needles. However, none of this stopped inmates from getting tattoos, and there were over 100 tattooing items in the Boggo Road collection, including both complete and incomplete machines and components, showing that tattooing was a widespread practice within the Queensland prison system.

These machines could be cobbled together using bits and pieces found around a 1980s prison. The diagram below shows what the components were, and the table below this shows where these bits and pieces came from:
Parts of a tattoo machine, Boggo Road Gaol
Image: C. Dawson
Probable source
Drive rod and barrel
Issued for hobby work, etc, in cells
Needle and connecting pin
Needle or pin
Sewing needles and pins from industry workshops
Wire (later sharpened) from workshops, or paper clips issued as stationery
Diabetic needles from the prison hospital surgery
Mathematical compass, issued for hobby work
Guitar string
Prison issue
Connecting pin
Prison issue
Prison clothing
Extracted from audio cassette players or radios (allowed in cells)
Electrical wiring
Same as above
Tattoo ink
India ink
Issued for hobby work in cells
Ground from spent matches, mixed with oil
Pen ink
Obtained from split tube of pen and mixed with margarine
Binding for frame and components
Cotton thread
Prison clothing or workshops
Adhesive tape
Industry workshops
Industry workshops

Ink was applied to the skin prior to puncturing with the needle, although sometimes a mix of ground charcoal and water was used. Professional tattoo shops use special inks that do not irritate the skin and are unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Makeshift inks used in prison tattoos may be unsafe and damage the skin, causing permanent scarring. They can also contain dangerous chemicals.

This is how the machine worked:
How a tattoo machine works, Boggo Road Gaol
Image: C. Dawson

Apart from the obvious risk that an inmate could leave prison with some bloody awful tattoos, there are SERIOUS health risks involved with prison tattoos, as sterilising the makeshift equipment is difficult or impossible. Apart from basic skin infections, deadly diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS can be passed from one prisoner to another when needles are re-used. The playing card on the left below is from a deck issued to prisoners, while the poster to the right was also used in Queensland prisons.

Anti-HIV promo materialAnti-HIV promo material, Queensland

So all-in-all, brilliantly clever devices but potentially fatal to use. So don't.

Bad tattoo
Did I mention the bad tattoos?
More about tattoo machines and other prisoner-made illegal devices and objects can be found in the book Shivs, Bongs & Boob Guns: Made in a Queensland prison cell.

05 December 2011

Brisbane's Lost Plague Cemetery

This story can be read at the 'South Brisbane Cemetery' website.

Destroyed rats, Brisbane, circa 1900-02. (John Oxley Library)
Destroyed rats, Brisbane, circa 1900-02. (John Oxley Library)

01 December 2011

Australia's Next Top Bizarre Death-Contraption

Learn about the bizarre methods of execution proposed by 19th-century Queenslanders.

This story can be found at 'A Scaffold High'.

Humane and civilised execution in the Philippines.
'Humane and civilised' execution in the Philippines.

26 November 2011

The Boggo Road Burials Mystery

Were there bodies once buried within the grounds of Boggo Road prison? Find out here.
In the excellent 1980 Robert Redford prison movie Brubaker, the chief warden discovers multiple unmarked graves in the prison grounds and his attempts to unravel the mystery lead to political scandal. In the mid-2000s big questions were being asked about the possibility of bodies having been secretly buried in the grounds of Boggo Road. Was there a Brubaker-style mystery to be unearthed there? All the rumours suggested that indeed there was.

The mystery took shape back in the 1970s, when excavation work for sewerage pipes was taking place in an exercise yard in the new No.1 Division and three officers noticed a line of circular patterns in the walls of the newly-dug trench. One of the officers recalled seeing twelve ‘dark patches’, all of them about 45cm below the surface, 30-40cm in diameter, and uniformly spaced about 60cm apart. Another recalled seeing only four patches, which were light grey in colour as opposed to the more naturally-coloured soil surrounding them. I have in my possession stat decs and hand-drawn maps from these men relating to this incident.

When they reported what they had seen, their bosses informed them that, ‘all bodies were reinterred to Dutton Park' (meaning South Brisbane Cemetery), indicating that on-site burials actually had taken place at some point. They were also ordered to keep quiet about the incident. One of the officers, however, took some samples from the patches, which he described as being ‘very gooey... like wet clay’. These samples were stored for thirty years before being handed over to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society and then forensically tested at the University of Queensland in 2003. The tests discovered microscopic bone fragments of Caucasian origin, and degraded DNA sequences. The report concluded that the DNA was either from the remains of at least two individuals buried at the site, or from more recent contamination of the samples, or from a combination of these two sources. It called for further testing and an excavation of the site.

An archaeological survey of the No.1 Division in 2005 (at which I was present) failed to locate any graves, although it is very possible that the test trenches were dug in the wrong place. It has also been suggested that most of the soil in the area was removed during the 1990s demolition of the No.1 Division, which would have also removed any trace of the graves.

So were there bodies at Boggo Road? The 1970s trench was dug in an area that, according to prison lore, was once a burial ground. This was, in previous years, just outside the north-eastern wall of the original No.1 Division, built in 1883, not far from the original Superintendent’s House. Older officers recalled seeing white crosses painted on the outside of the prison wall there in the 1930s, and when one superintendent’s wife maintained a garden near there, the officers would joke with her about not gardening too close to the graves in case she dug up a skull. When the new No.1 Division was constructed this area was underneath an exercise yard.

Approximate location of the burial sites, Boggo Road Gaol, circa 1952.
Approximate location of the burial sites circa 1952. (John Oxley Library [modified by author])
There is also hearsay evidence of graves at the front of the prison. A 19th-century photograph (below) shows some white fencing, similar to a grave border, under a tree to the front left of the driveway from Boggo Road. A retired officer who owned the image claimed to have seen several grave sites here in the 1930s, some being fenced and one bordered with stones. In the photograph, however, this area is partially obscured by trees, making it difficult to observe the alleged graves.

The front of the prison in the late 19th century. The  alleged graves referred to above were said to be to the  left of the driveway under the trees
The front of the prison in the late 19th century. The alleged graves referred to above were said to be to the left of the driveway under the trees (BRGHS).

So we know that early officers have a memory of a couple of burial sites, and that in the 1970s grave-like markings in the ground were seen during excavation work. It seems very likely that there were graves in the north-eastern area at some point, but these graves would have been destroyed in subsequent construction and demolition work.

Which leads to a bigger mystery...who were they?

The graves could not pre-date the prison, as they would have been exposed during the original construction works. It has been suggested they were the remains of executed prisoners, but Brisbane City Council records clearly indicate that all the prisoners hanged at Boggo Road were buried in lot 6B at South Brisbane Cemetery so I would think that explanation is unlikely. They could have been the graves of other prisoners who died at the gaol from causes such as suicide, disease or murder. I have heard it said that they could be bubonic plague victims, but plague victims were quarantined in a building at Colmslie and there is no way the authorities would have held such a person inside a tightly-packed prison. Over a hundred inmates died at the site during the 117 years that prisons operated there, some from highly infectious diseases, but the records regarding these burials are incomplete. As far as we know, records regarding deaths may also be incomplete.

The truth is that if there were graves behind Boggo Road, nobody knows who the people were. Different people may have different theories, but no solid evidence has been provided to back them up. The bodies have long gone, but the mystery remains for now.

For more on this subject, see my article ‘The Dead Outside the Fence: Burying executed prisoners in Brisbane, 1830-1913’, in the Queensland History Journal vol. 20, no.8, November 2008 (Royal Historical Society of Queensland).

17 November 2011

The Strangest Argument Ever Made Against Capital Punishment

This story can be read at 'A Scaffold High'.

Dr William Frederick Taylor, Queensland MLA (John Oxley Library)
Dr William Frederick Taylor. (John Oxley  Library)

07 November 2011

The Ghost That Haunted South Brisbane Cemetery... From 1,000 Miles Away

Read about how a photo from Tasmania was passed off as a ghost in Queensland... and what happened when the truth was exposed.

This story can be read at the 'About Those Ghosts...' website.

Photo of alleged ghost at 'South Brisbane Cemetery'. In truth it was taken in Tasmania.

27 September 2011

The 'Bully Boy' vs Brisbane Local History

Local historians have a rather quaint image; polite pensioners in cardigans sat in the archives, sifting quietly through 19th-century requisition records for railway department construction projects - and so it should be. But what happens when the practice of not-for-profit local history conflicts with private business interests? Usually, not very much, as the people involved are generally quite sane and rational. Sometimes, however, it can get quite nasty. In my decade of volunteer work with historical societies I have, unfortunately, come across more than my fair share of nasty.

It raised its ugly head again last week when the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, a community group of which I am a member, was attacked by Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim, owner of a small business called Ghost Tours. In some disingenuous online marketing material he had an unnecessary little dig at the FOSBC, saying that his business had been 'under fire' from them.

A couple of members of the public then posted mild criticism on the Ghost Tours Facebook page about the dig at the FOSBC, and both received a nasty cut-and-paste diatribe in reply. Members of the FOSBC were forced to publicly defend themselves and set the record straight on this matter, because if Mr Sim is prepared to send such material to random Facebook posters, who knows how many other people have had the same treatment? The diatribe is reproduced here, and I have highlighted specific comments which I will be dealing with.
"Dear Matt,
Your comment you posted yesterday was removed, along with another persons. Neither of you are long term followers of Ghost Tours, and your comments are made specifically to attack our business. I am happy to furnish you with the details. Tracy Oliveri and Chris Dawson who claim to represent the FOSBC undertook a campaign to have Ghost Tours closed down in 2009. The intention behind this was that they intended on running their own ghost tours through South Brisbane Cemetery using a psychic medium.What is low and wasn't very nice was the way that these people, representing FOSBC, attacked our tourism business. Both of these individuals have been served defamation warnings from Ghost Tours Pty Ltd and myself. Ghost Tours Pty Ltd supports many voluntary organisations, but the FOSBC is not one. Matt, we expect that followers of this newsletter to be supporters of our company and its historical work, not people who clearly are stooges for an aggressive, bullying and intimidating so-called voluntary organisation. Until such time that FOSBC forms into a separate, legally responsible, not-for-profit organisation (which it currently is not) our company will not support this organisation. And frankly we would encourage the public not to support FOSBC either. I assume that you are a stooge for FOSBC. So there is no loss in me making it clear to you that you are not welcome on our facebook page. Please give my regards to Chris and Tracy and remind them that I will just add your comments to the portfolio of material relating to their attempts to defame me and my business.

Here goes then. I will stick to provable facts.

1. Did we try to close down a business so we could set up our own in its place?
Of course not. In early 2009 the FOSBC was approached by a woman interested in conducting not-for-profit 'paranormal investigations' in the South Brisbane Cemetery. Doing these as fundraisers for volunteer heritage projects initially seemed like a good idea, but during the planning process Mr Sim made a range of threats to try and stop them from happening simply because he felt that they threatened his business interests.

Although we were not deterred by his threats, the FOSBC eventually came to the conclusion that the paranormal investigations were probably not appropriate inside a cemetery and dropped the idea. People were buried there to rest in peace, and we would respect that. In fact, the more we looked into what was happening, the clearer it was that cemetery night tour/ghost hunt activities were an unregulated mess of commercial exploitation. The Brisbane City Council (BCC) obviously agreed because they instigated a review and prohibited all cemetery 'ghost hunts'.

At the same time, and in the wake of large-scale 'satanic' vandalism in the Toowong Cemetery, the FOSBC joined with the Friends of Balmoral Cemetery and the Greater Brisbane Cemetery Alliance to lobby the city council and state government to implement cemetery by-laws to help curb vandalism and trespass. Stopping all night tours was a preferred option, certainly for me anyway. We also felt that when it came to deterring nocturnal trespassers, promoting cemeteries as novelty supernatural venues was not helping the situation.

2. Did we want to 'close down' Ghost Tours?
Absolutely not. Cemetery tours are only one part of that business anyway. However, I do think that Ghost Tours should either lift their game or get out of our cemeteries because in my opinion they are:

Far-fetched stories of vampires et al sully the memory of real people buried in cemeteries, and in-tour occult rituals (as Ghost Tours do/did in Toowong Cemetery) clearly violate the spiritual values of a cemetery, where people honour the memory of their loved ones. These tour rituals were supposedly banned after Brisbane City Council found out about them in 2009, but we have evidence that Ghost Tours still conduct them regardless. 

Historically inaccurate
While the ghost stories on these tours are mostly laughable, the historical content of the tours can be questionable, often contradicting the historical record. Protecting the heritage values of a place includes making sure that the History is actually correct. In places like Edinburgh historians have even started doing tours specifically to debunk the misinformation told on the many ghost tours there. But don't just take my word for it. Last week the following review of the South Brisbane Cemetery Ghost Tour appeared in the Courier-Mail:
"The problem with the tour is not the yarns, which, of themselves, probably have enough of the right elements. Moreover both raconteurs are too flat and robotic, so glib that they are unable to breathe atmosphere into their stories. Many of them are flawed, besides. Scene-setting fundamentals such as dates and locations are missing. Accuracy can be wanting." (QWeekend, 24 September 2011)
    Discouraging heritage research and activities
    Mr Sim is openly hostile to other people and organisations conducting cultural heritage activities which he feels might impact upon his personal business interests, and aggressively tries to discourage such activities and research (more on this below).

    The BCC review into cemetery night tours was completed in late 2009 and the outcomes were:
    • Licenses and fees were now required for the right to conduct night tours in BCC cemeteries. 
    • These licenses do not provide licensees with exclusive use of a cemetery. 
    • Tour marketing, content, and tour guide clothing must be deemed appropriate by the BCC. 
    • No 'ghost hunts' allowed (too disrespectful).
    In other words, vindication for much of what the FOSBC had complained about. A lot of inappropriate practices were stamped out, and Ghost Tours would (for the first time ever) be required to pay for access to cemeteries.

    In the wake of the BCC review, the FOSBC commenced not-for-profit Moonlight Tours in 2010, feeling that if night tours were to take place, then we want to raise standards by offering an affordable and historically-accurate product.

    So my reasons for wanting Ghost Tours to either improve or leave our cemeteries was entirely unrelated to the establishment of Moonlight Tours. To say we tried to close down his business in order to do our own ghost tours is patently wrong.

    3. Did we receive warnings for defamation?
    Mr Sim hands out defamation threats like the Easter Bunny hands out chocolate eggs, mainly because he has little grasp of what defamation actually is. He made many defamation threats during this period, and every single so-called 'warning' was so baseless that they were ignored by the several individuals and community groups who received them. The emptiness of these threats is proven by the fact that they were never followed up on. The general standard of the threats is exemplified by his text above, where a person's criticism of his criticism of someone else is somehow 'defamation' by the person he was criticising in the first place!

    4. Is the FOSBC an 'aggressive, bullying and intimidating' organisation?
    What a laugh. The legal records clearly show the 'bullying, intimidation and aggression' nature of Mr Sim.

    After he found out about the planned not-for-profit cemetery tours he made unwanted phone calls on a daily basis to the woman involved, and when she would not return his calls he began leaving messages at her workplace. He was then warned by the police to stop contacting her, but when he did not do so she sought a peace and good behaviour order. In July 2009 Mr Sim appeared before Ipswich Magistrates Court, and although the order was not granted on a technicality (as the complaint had been brought under the wrong section of the law), the presiding magistrate criticised Mr Sim at great length, describing him him as 'arrogant' and a 'bully boy'. He was warned that if he continued with his behaviour he would end up in the Supreme Court charged under the telecommunications act.

    And all this was a result of nothing more a proposed occasional heritage fundraiser...

    There is much more to this, too much to include here in any detail. We received yet more threats when we started our South Brisbane Cemetery Moonlight Tours, and also when Tracey released her book Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery, resulting in Mr Sim having to again be warned off by the police before he would stop. As a result of all this, the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society and the Friends of Balmoral Cemetery all refused to have any further dealings with Mr Sim.

    The email record also clearly shows Mr Sim's belligerent attitude. For example, he wrote to FOSBC secretary Tracey Olivieri to complain about the proposed not-for-profit 'tours':
    "We will seek legal action against any individual, business or company that seeks to damage or destroy our business interests. This is not a threat, aggressive behaviour or harassment. It is a business’ right to defend its commercial interests... those stories and tales told on our ghost tours are copyright and form part of the intellectual and material property of our business operations." (18 June 2009)
    The argument here seems to be that it is illegal to try and compete with Ghost Tours' business (and that he somehow 'owns' ghosts stories). And as he told us in another email, "there is no room in the market place for a rival operator" (15 May 2009).

    The message to Brisbane historians and historical societies is that Cameron 'Jack' Sim thinks you cannot run tours where he runs tours. How many businesses out there have the privilege of a self-proclaimed monopoly?

    5. 'So-called' voluntary organisation?
    The FOSBC is made up entirely of volunteers, so why is Mr Sim implying that the FOSBC is not a volunteer organisation? Like many other volunteer and community groups around Australia, they have chosen not to become an incorporated association. Such a move is of course entirely optional, and the FOSBC volunteers have opted not take on the administrative hassles and expensive costs that come with incorporating. And we certainly don't want to associate ourselves with Mr Sim's activities by accepting his so-called 'support'.

    6. "...we would encourage the public not to support FOSBC"
    I can only presume this comment makes it okay for others to 'encourage the public' not to support Ghost Tours. Such 'encouragement' could take the form of a 'Boycott Ghost Tours' campaign.

    7. "...the portfolio of material relating to their attempts to defame me"
    For the record, we do not know the Facebook commenters. End of story. We don't even know if, like Cameron Sim does, they are using assumed names. It does not make sense to take the comments of complete strangers on Facebook pulling you up for publicly attacking a community group, and then assume they must be associated with that community group before launching bizarre attacks on them.

    Mr Sim needs to accept that there are a lot of people out there who don't like what he does.

    In conclusion...
    As a result of his attempts to stop our not-for-profit fundraisers, Cameron 'Jack' Sim dished out several baseless legal threats, was warned a number of times by the police, and even appeared before Ipswich Magistrate's Court where the magistrate herself described him as a bully and ordered him to stop contacting the complainant.

    On the other hand, Tracey and myself made zero legal threats, were never warned by the police, and so did not appear before courts. I think the record speaks for itself.

    I have gone public with this in order to defend the reputation of the FOSBC and the people in it, including myself, now that it is clear that Mr Sim has been smearing our name and slandering us to others. I have dealt only in provable facts here. Will there be yet more legal threats because of this blog? Maybe, but from now on communication on these matters will be dealt with in the public sphere.

    In the meantime, if you have had a similar experience then please do let us know. We would love to hear from you.

    15 September 2011

    Cleaning Boggo Road

    While the Boggo Road Gaol was closed, the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society took it upon themselves to keep it clean.
    In a blog about a recent visit to Boggo Road I wrote that there was 'little difference' in the condition of the place as compared to when I last saw it in 2005. After going in there last Sunday for a cleaning bee, I would now like to retract that statement. It's one thing to casually stroll around noting that a building hasn't fallen down yet, and quite another to stand there with a mop, bucket and broom faced with the task of actually cleaning it.

    So it was on 11 September when members of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society went into the old prison for our first cleaning bee since the museum closed six years ago. It was like stepping back in time to open the main gates and walk around with the keys in my hand again, then to open doors and find calendars and newspapers from 2005. It was also a bit like an archaeological dig knowing we'd have to scrape away layers of dirt to reveal the prison in its former glory.

    We had about 30 people there during the day, armed with buckets. cloths, brooms, mops, gloves, spray bottles, gurneys and squidgees. First on the agenda were the cellblocks, and because the cells have barred windows with no glass there was a six-year build-up of dust on the floors. This proved very tricky to sweep because while half the dust is swept into a nice little pile, the other half goes straight up your nose. Although most of the dust was cleared from the cells anyway, next time we will be using a mega-uber vacuum cleaner to finish the job.

    While the Boggo Road Gaol was closed, the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society took it upon themselves to keep it clean.
    "You first." "No after you." "No, after you, I insist."

    We also got into the gutters and drains, removing inches of dirt that were blocking them. Some areas were scarier than others, but the toilets were made usable again, to the relief of all.

    We had one or two hiccups, notably when Phil killed the digital security system keypad with a blast of high-pressure water, prompting a visit from the security services. Fortunately the now-clean keypad miraculously came back to life later in the day. John P's single attempt to blow the dust from a cell with a leaf-blower ended just as you'd expect, but he seemed to be in his element in the gatehouse, being all no pasaran and keeping non-BRGHS visitors away.

    All-in-all it was great to get back inside Boggo Road, roll up our sleeves and get stuck into cleaning the place. The buildings benefitted from the visit, and so did our group. There has been some concern within the BRGHS that the place was not being looked after properly, and now we can do it ourselves to make sure that it is. Having some actual hands-on work to do at the prison is great for morale as people have been getting impatient about getting back inside Boggo Road. So although it's not opening for a few years yet, this is a brilliant way of staying in touch with the place.

    The first clean-ups will be obviously be the hardest, but we aim to reach a point where we can stroll in, wipe over some surfaces, do a quick sweep of the floor, and its finished. That day is still far away though, and until then the BRGHS will be going into Boggo Road every month to fulfill the first of our founding objectives:

    "#1: To work to preserve, maintain and promote the site of the No.2 Division at the former Brisbane Prison."

    29 August 2011

    Crims & Screws

    Conflict is often at the heart of the Boggo Road story, but were inmates and officers really so antagonistic?
    Another battle of wits between MacKay, Fletcher and Godber.
    in the classic sitcom Porridge.
    first got involved at Boggo Road about ten years ago, not through some interest in prisons but rather through a desire to work in a museum. I had never actually stepped foot in a prison before. Although a few family members and old schoolmates have been inside prison, I never gave the places too much thought, so I went into the field with very little idea about the overall relationship between officers and prisoners. I had assumed (again, without giving it any thought) that they lined up on opposite sides of the fence, one side trying to control, the other side trying not to be controlled, with the inevitable conflict in between making Boggo Road so infamous.

    These notions were probably influenced by the usual suspects; too many movies and bad journalism. Dramatic stories of the goings-on at Boggo Road were in the Courier-Mail all the time in the late '80s/early '90s, providing regular fodder for cartoonists like Sean Leahy. The officers he drew looked like big, square-headed, broken-nosed, brutish thugs, which is also how he tended to portray the prisoners. They were basically two gangs of Neanderthals at war with each other. I soon found that the reality was, as usual, much more subtle and complex, as prison officers and prisoners are a very eclectic mix of individual personalities, much like any other large groups of people in society.

    Until 2004 the Boggo Road Gaol Museum was run by a small group of former officers and a few other volunteers. They would tell tour groups the story of the prison from their own perspective, but even among these few tour guides there were quite large differences in attitudes and opinions. I soon worked out that this was quite normal, and it was very difficult to get two officers to give the same version of events about anything that happened in Boggo Road. While this can be interesting for a historian trying to gather information, it can also be a headache at times.

    One area that was instantly noticeable was attitudes about prisoners. Some officers were all-too-ready to throw around negative generalisations, while others knew there were good eggs and bad eggs among all groups in the prison. After all, officers and inmates saw each other most days of the week, and in some cases a somewhat friendly relationship would develop over time. Sometimes not. As one former officer told me, he saw the prisoners as 'fingerprints', no two the same, and the key was to know what kind of approach he should take with each person. Everyone thrown into this potentially-volatile mix had their own personality and they had their own individual relationship with everyone else in there.

    An eye-opener for me was the former inmates who occasionally visited the museum. When I was researching the book 'Escaping Boggo Road' I read up on the 1973 escape of Trevor Bateman and Ronald Russell. They seemed like archetypal bad guys, one a murderer, one an armed robber, and both of them jail-breakers. A a few years 'Bluey' Russell himself popped into the museum for a chat with John Banks, the 'hard-but-fair' museum manager and former officer, and apparently they got along just fine talking about the old days.

    Another happy museum visitor was Nathan Jones, former armed robber and prisoner who tried his hand at pro-wrestling in the USA as the 'Colossus of Boggo Road', and has also made a number of movies. Jones was a notoriously difficult prisoner, a 7-foot 1-inch man prone to the kind of angry outbursts in which he once bent back a thick metal cell door. Again, here was a former 'enemy of society' who left prison a very different man. People change.

    Chatting to former prisoners about the prison and the officers is also very revealing. Quite often they express their respect for individuals within the system, not everyone, but certainly some. Indeed, one of the items in the Queensland Prisons Collection is a 'sorry you're leaving card' given by prisoners to the late Don Walters, another former officer and museum manager, when he retired. The prisoners thanked Don, a couple calling him a 'humanitarian', and some of these people turned up to his funeral in 2003 with their families. Another example of the unexpectedly (at least to us to us outsiders) complex interaction of people within Boggo Road.

    There again, Boggo Road was no game of Happy Families and a lot of people have terrible memories of the old prison and would be happy to see it vanish from the landscape altogether. And that's not just the ex-inmates who suffered there, but also those former officers who left the job with various levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then again, some of those who suffered want the place to remain open and tell the full story of life inside, gory details included.

    The point is that you can't pigeonhole people from Boggo Road based on their history as either officers or inmates.

    If we could use television as a rough guide to real life (which we can't really), then a good example would be the classic TV show 'Porridge', set in a 1970s British prison. The main focus is on the prisoners, a mixed bunch of guys, some more likable than others, with a few nasties like Harry Grout thrown in. The characterisations of the officers are a bit limited, with the 'hard' Mr McKay and the 'soft' Mr Barrowclough being towards each end of the spectrum. What you see in Porridge is not just comedic conflict between the two tribes of officers and prisoners, but also between the prisoners (and the officers) themselves. Even prisoners at the time said it was the 'most accurate portrayal of real prison life on TV'.

    This inter-personal and systemic conflict is at the heart of Boggo Road's history. The central element of any compelling story is conflict, and Boggo Road has that in spades, on so many levels, and all new researchers need to leave any preconceptions at the door.