29 January 2012

Getting into Hot Water in a Boggo Road Cell

"He took a roll of toilet paper, unrolled and loosely rerolled a bunch of it, then tucked the bottom up through the hole in the middle, put it on the rim of the toilet bowl, and set it afire. It burned in a cone, like a burner, and lasted long enough to make a metal cup of hot tea."
That's how Edward Bunker (Mr Blue from Reservoir Dogs to you), writing in his book Education of a Felon, described how a fellow prisoner used to illegally heat his water in the Los Angeles county jail in the 1950s.

Reservoir dogs
"We'd kill for a cup of tea"

Here, as a follow-up to my article on illegal prisoner-made tattoo guns, is another piece on ingenious cellblock contraband, although this time I cover the somewhat less-edgier subject of how prisoners got to make themselves a lovely cup of tea while locked away for the night. Kettles and heaters were not allowed in the Boggo Road cells, but a number of objects in the Boggo Road Gaol Museum collection show that some thirsty inmates managed to get around this problem. As with the tattoo machines, it usually involved a bit of imagination and scrounging various items from around the everyday prison environment.

In his book Doing Time, about life in Victoria’s Pentridge Prison, author Barry Ellem described how inmates could rig up a simple electrical device in their cells:
"Another technique prisoners employ to get hot water is to make up an electric gadget similar to an element in an electric jug. This is called an immerser. If the cell is not a power cell the immerser is plugges into the electric light socket. Electrical shorts and power failures have occured because of this."
The plastic cup below, found in a Boggo Road kitchen, was similarly adapted to work as a mini-kettle. It contains an immerser constructed from matchsticks, electrical wiring, cotton thread and a razor blade. The wiring would have been attached to a power source such as a light socket.

Discover how prisoners used to improvise cell-made kettles to get a cup of tea after dark.
Queensland Museum item #H-46038

This immersion heater made from a power cord and razor blades was found in a prison cell in Hamburg, Germany.

The metal jug below, confiscated from a Queensland prisoner, has been adapted in a similar way:

Discover how prisoners used to improvise cell-made kettles to get a cup of tea after dark.
Queensland Museum item #H-45725

This grill, from a Mexican prison, is made from a tin can, electrical wire, dirt and a stove burner surface element.

Discover how prisoners used to improvise cell-made kettles to get a cup of tea after dark.
Image: Marc Steinmetz

Like the one described by Bunker, non-electric stoves were a bit simpler and could be made from a couple of empty tins, a few screws, and a bootlace for a wick. The upper tin sits on the three screws in the lid of the lower tin. The wick was coated in lard, which acted as wax does in a candle. The lard was sneaked out of the prison kitchen and rolled into balls so it could be ‘sold’ to other prisoners. When available, paraffin could also be used. The stove below was made from an old coffee tin and used in Boggo Road during the 1980s.

Discover how prisoners used to improvise cell-made kettles to get a cup of tea after dark.
Improvised water heater, Boggo Road Gaol Collection. (C. Dawson)

So there you have it. Inmate resistance to authority took many forms, not all of them necessarily confrontational. Sometimes getting a hot cup of tea or coffee during the long hours couped up in a cell was one of the little ways in which prisoners got one over the system. 'C'est la tea'.

22 January 2012

Tigers, Roller-Coasters & Special Effects: Brisbane's 19th-Century Dreamworld

Did you know that Victorian-era Brisbane had a resort that was Dreamworld, Seaworld and Movie World all rolled into one quaint 19th-century package?

It was the 1890s, a decade before the advent of cinema, and the citizens of Brisbane loved to get out and about for their family entertainment, heading to parks, theatres, forests, museums, the coast, and anywhere the public transport of the day could get them. If they took the steam ferry from Petrie's Bight, near Customs House, they could visit the Queensport Aquarium & Zoological Garden.

Real Estate ad showing the neighbouring Aquarium Estate in 1889.
(John Oxley Library, #97488) 
The Queensport Aquarium, in the Brisbane riverside suburb of Hemmant, opened to much fanfare on 7 August 1889. Public aquariums had been hugely popular in England since the 1850s (following the abolition of a tax on glass!), allowing the British public to see fish other than kippers for the first time. Most seaside resorts had (and still have) an aquarium building, and the craze took off here in Australia too.

Queensport was more than just a simple aquarium, however, it was a whole resort in itself. Set in eleven acres of landscaped grounds, the centrepiece was a two-storey aquarium with six fish tanks, each one measuring 13 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Other attractions included a seal pond, a small zoo, fairground rides, a fernery, fountains, and a 1,400-seat concert hall and stage, complete with plush curtains and electric organ, that was the venue for concerts, theatre and opera. There was also a sports field that was mostly used for cricket and picnics, and the grounds were illuminated by new-fangled electric lights.

Where modern theme parks often have 3D movie screenings, the aquarium had its 19th-century equivalent in the ‘camera obscura’, a primitive optical device in a darkened space that projects a picture of the surrounds onto a screen (see how it works here). At the time, this was considered to be special effects entertainment.

Camera Obscura.

The fairground rides included ‘flying machines’ (flying foxes), swing boats, donkey rides, a merry-go-round, and an early form of roller coaster known as a ‘switchback railway’.

Switchback railway, Folkestone, England, circa 1900. Some brilliant 1904
footage of this contraption in operation can be seen here.

Apart from the fish and seals, other animal attractions were monkeys, apes, snakes, emus, panthers, cheetahs, and tigers named Jimmy, Sammy, Sir Roger and Dina. This menagerie had belonged to Charles Higgins, who had previously kept them at Toombul and also in a flimsy enclosure on the corner of George and Turbot Street in the city in 1888. Needless to say, this all ended badly when one of the tigers escaped and savagely mauled a man, exposing his brain. A newspaper account printed the understatement of the year when it described passers-by being "startled" by the sight of an enormous man-eating Bengal tiger actually trying to eat a man in George Street, and unsurprisingly everybody "hurriedly left the vicinity" (I would think replacing "startled" with "pant-shittingly terrified", and "hurriedly left the vicinity" with "running screaming for their lives", would probably be a more accurate description of what happened). The eventual move to safer cages at Queensport was no doubt heartily welcomed by everyone in Brisbane.*

The Queensport venture was initially a huge success, with the public flocking to the aquarium in their thousands. On the biggest days, such as Easter Monday and Boxing Day, steamers full of happy day-trippers would leave the company’s wharf at Petrie’s Bight every half-hour. The owners worked hard to get the public in, providing an array of other novelties in including the ‘Electric Orchestrion’ machine, rifle-shooting and archery exhibitions, Punch and Judy shows, minstrel shows, pedestal dancing, and moonlight trips on the steamers Woolwich and Natone.

One notable visitor was ‘Professor’ Christopher Fernandez, a travelling aeronaut whose specialty was ascending half a mile in a hot air balloon, setting off fireworks, and then parachuting back down to the ground. However, not all went according to plan during his appearance at the aquarium in May 1891, when his balloon failed to reach sufficient height and came down on nearby Gibson Island, where the good professor found himself bogged knee-deep in mud. A promised relaunch never happened due to bad weather, although Fernandez did successfully pull off the stunt at other venues around Australia.

Like most 19th-century riverside structures, the aquarium was subject to occasional damage by the Brisbane River. The big floods of 1890 and 1893 caused considerable damage, as did a gale in March 1892 that blew the switchback railway and several empty tiger cages into the river. Events like these would have added to what must have been considerable costs in maintaining the place, and although the owners soldiered on, the aquarium seems to have become much less popular by the mid-1890s. This demise is not well documented, but in late 1897 most of the content and structures were advertised for sale, including all the remaining animals and their housing. The pavilion and sports grounds stayed in place, however, and still attracted large picnic groups for a few more years. In 1900 the land was actually considered as the site for what later became the Princess Alexandra Hospital, and the pavilion was sold in 1901 prior to the land being subdivided.

The Queensport Aquarium wharf can be seen to the right in this picture of
people surveying flood damage in 1887 (John Oxley Library).

The suburbs of Brisbane would never really see anything like the Queensport Aquarium & Zoological Garden again.

* The tiger's victim was an Austrian man named Peter Bertram, who survived the attack. A couple of years later he was charged with murder, and so would have spent time in Boggo Road Gaol on remand.

12 January 2012

Young, Shipwrecked & Black: Australia's Unlikeliest Hangman

The amazing story of a young African-American who became Australia's only black executioner.

This story can be read at 'A Scaffold High'

Gallows scene.

04 January 2012

What Lies Beneath: The Secret Underground History of Brisbane

It occurred to me recently that there is a lot of nonsense floating around about old underground cells and tunnels in Brisbane. If the rumours are to be believed, Brisbane is sitting atop a vast subterranean network of 19th-century hidey-holes and secret passageways, and its a wonder the whole city doesn't just collapse into the ground.

Boggo Road has more than its fair share of such stories, but the old Brisbane Gaol that stood on Petrie Terrace during 1860-83 has a couple of its own. One mystery involves the remarkable 19th-century reporter Julian 'The Vagabond' Thomas, who wrote a whole account of his time locked in an underground cell there in 1877. He described in detail of how the gaol governor kindly granted him access to the cell for six hours, his arrival at the gaol, the structure of the cell, and of how he and the governor shared drinks afterwards. However, there is actually no other evidence that this cell even existed. It is not on any existing plans, it is not mentioned in any other records, and it didn't show up during a recent archaeological dig of the area. Now, I'm a bit of a fan of Thomas, who did great work going 'undercover' in prisons, immigrant homes, asylums, soup kitchens, etc, but this one is hard to explain away. Did he just make it up? Quite possibly, but if that was the case then why did the gaol governor Frederick Bernard not rebut his story?

Another story I heard about the old gaol was that a secret tunnel ran between it and the Lord Alfred Hotel (est. 1870 as the Prince Alfred Hotel), directly across Petrie Terrace. What is now used as the cellar was reported to have been used as a lock-up in the 19th century, but the police have no record of them ever being used in this way. A few years back I actually got to go and investigate this place, which to tell the truth looks much like a regular hotel cellar, but there is what appears to be a short passageway running in the direction of Petrie Terrace, blocked off with a fibro sheet. However, historian Thom Blake, who worked on the archaeological dig across the road, reckons there is no tunnel here and this is just an urban myth.

Cellars of the hotel, 2006.

Some underground cells that actually did exist were the infamous 'Black Holes' of Boggo Road, but from my time working at the Boggo Road Gaol Museum it is clear that these cells have become a highly misunderstood part of the prison's history, mainly due to confusion of different cells used in different eras. The original No.1 Division was built in 1883 with two underground cells, also known as 'black peters', which were used to hold troublesome prisoners for 24 hours or so. They were down ten stone steps under a trapdoor in the floor. A former superintendent described them in this way in 1982:
"An abrupt left turn and a half dozen paces brought you to the door of the cell. When this door opened, it revealed another door hinged to the inside of the cell wall with a buffer area of fourteen inches between each door. Even with both doors open, the darkness inside the cell was incredible. The air was foul and the floor was usually covered with water from underground seepage. The use of the black peters in this wing was discontinued some years ago. To sentence men however bad they may be, to be locked away in these cells was barbaric to say the least, and their use should never again be contemplated."
B Wing also contained two ‘dark cells’, which were also underground but were better ventilated as they adjoined an external wall. The new No.1 Division, built 1968-74, also had punishment cells, which became infamous as the modern ‘black holes’. Although these were mostly underground, they were built into sloping ground and so had some external ventilation. They were, however, felt to be inhumane and were closed in 1984 under public pressure. In late 1987 the Bjelke-Petersen state government made a controversial decision to reopen the cells in order to contain Aboriginal protesters who were felt to be a threat to World Expo '88. This move sparked major riots across the Boggo Road prisons. The punishment cells were closed by the state government in 1989 as they were in breach of United Nations regulations regarding the treatment of prisoners.

Another subterranean feature of Boggo Road was the tunnel at Boggo Road connecting the two male divisions of the prison, allowing inmates to be securely transferred to and from the No.2 Division workshops. This tunnel was built when the workshops opened in 1929. The roof of this tunnel was removed during 1970s construction work and the tunnel was filled with rubble. An archaeological survey in 2005 located the tunnel (right), which was fairly well preserved, but it was decided that tunnel was not historically significant enough to warrant preservation. I witnessed this excavation.

Discover some of the surprising underground history that lies beneath Brisbane.
One of the few real tunnels under Boggo Road. (Austral Archaeology)

The remains of this tunnel were destroyed by construction work on the Ecoscience building next to the prison, but at least it did exist, unlike another Boggo Road tunnel that I recently heard about. This tunnel allegedly ran underneath Annerley Road to the Boggo Road prison, and was used to transport laundry between a convent built on land opposite the Dutton Park primary school and the prison. Is it just me, or would there be risk management issues in digging a tunnel from a prison directly into a convent? Apparently, this this story used to be told by 'Ghost Tours' and so, needless to say, the tunnel was totally haunted. The story, needless to say, is total codswallop.

Not only was there never a tunnel under the road... there was never even a convent there! The land was the site of Websters bakery from 1880s until the mid-19th century, and some time later the land was purchased by the Sisters of Mercy with a view to putting a hospital staff car park there. There absolutely never-ever was a convent anywhere on Annerley Road.

There is a certain irony that the Boggo Road reserve is now sat atop some major tunnelling activity. A huge Busway tunnel was excavated directly beneath the prison in 2009, and now there are on/off/on/off plans afoot to excavate a rail tunnel right next to the prison. When complete, this tunnel might also be used to transport laundry to imaginary convents around Brisbane.

Some people also believe that at the end of World War 2 the U.S. Army, which had big bases around Brisbane, buried all kinds of their equipment around the city rather than go to the trouble of taking it back home. This great website lists all kinds of stories about this, including military aircraft buried at Archerfield Quarry; Bren guns buried in swamps area near Eagle Farm; BP-38 Lightnings buried at Eagle Farm airfield; buried engines at Banyo; engines, cars, trucks and Harley Davidson motor bikes buried in the Forest Lake area; wrecked aircraft dumped at Johnston Street, Bulimba; Merlin engines from Archerfield dumped near the corner of Cavendish Road and Stanley Street; military aircraft, machinery and surplus equipment dumped in a flooded quarry at Morningside; plus other equipment buried in suburbs such as Herston, Windsor, Norman Park and Willawong.

How much of this is true? Some stories are quite factual, such as the ammunition dump found at Nundah near the Gateway Bridge. Others seem to be urban myths, like the tales of old army jeeps under what is now Fairview Park, in Fairfield. Local residents have claimed the jeep story cannot be true as the area was just lantana scrub until 1955, when it was made into a council dump and later on a park

The problem with what lies is beneath is the fact that it cannot be seen, much like the 'afterlife' or, as once was the case, the surface of Mars, the bottom of the oceans and the centre of the earth, and so vivid imaginations always fill in the blanks. That has certainly been the case with the tunnels of Brisbane.

Do you know of any other local hidden tunnel stories? I'm sure there must be more out there.

PS: I have recently heard rumours of a mysterious 'Clem 7 Tunnel' near Woolloongabba, and stories that a few people have even driven their cars through it. I haven't met anybody who has seen it, and it is probably just another urban myth, but will let you know if I hear anything else.