13 December 2013

The Day They Smashed a Truck Through the Gates of Boggo Road

Many of the escape attempts from Boggo Road prison were subtle affairs, requiring discrete planning, construction of tools such as ropes, grappling hooks, fake weapons, or smuggling of saw blades and files. There was one attempt, however, in which a more direct approach was taken. Sure, there was a lot of planning involved, but instead of going over the wall or making a break for it while out at the hospital, these men actually smashed through the main gates of No.1 Division in a garbage compactor truck.

In March 1991 an internal prison intelligence report warned that three prisoners had been paying ‘considerable attention’ to the comings and goings of vehicles at the main gate, including the laundry truck, the garbage truck and even the bread truck. Although the gate officer was alerted, there wasn’t much that he could about what happened during the next afternoon.

A recent cut in prison staff numbers meant that only one officer was guarding the garbage truck inside the prison that day, and he was at the rear of the vehicle. He did not see when four prisoners overpowered the two drivers at the front of the truck and took control of it.

Once inside the truck, the fleeing prisoners hit the accelerator and drove into the heavy steel-barred gates at high speed. An officer working in the kitchen at that time recalled what happened next:
‘...we’re cooking the breakfast and the next thing you know, couple of gunshots go off, pow, pow, anyway we’re locked in the kitchen so I was happy to be there, so I thought ‘I won’t go outside to find out what’s going on’, and the next thing, Christ Almighty, ‘crash’, it was the truck hitting the gates, and the prison half shook, you know, ‘I’m in here, I’m not going outside!’ Anyway, more shooting going on because the bloke down the boom gate he had his little gun, he bloody shot six into the truck, it’s pretty scary. By that time, they used to call them hooters but they’re like sirens, the hooters are all going off, whoo whoo whoo, like air raid sirens... Got the prisoners, put them all back in [the cells], went over to the gate, they give me this big shotgun, by that stage the whole front doors been smashed off, and the gates been smashed, a hole through it, you could see the end of the road.’
The truck broke through both the inner and outer gates with such force that this is what they looked like afterwards:

Looking out (S. Gage)
Looking in (S. Gage)

As the truck headed for Annerley Road, prison officers in the towers opened fire, hitting the driver. The vehicle stopped in nearby Nelson Street, and the men jumped out and ran. One tried to steal a car, but was headed off by an officer. Another was caught a couple of hours later.

The truck on Nelson Street - right next to my old house! (S. Gage)

A third escapee, who had also been involved in an escape attempt a few months earlier, was recaptured four weeks later at the Pineapple Hotel at Kangaroo Point. The last man, Harold McSweeney, proved to be a lot harder to bring in. He re-emerged in May, suspected of committing two armed robberies to steal a total of $25,000 and shooting a security guard in the process. Four days later he was spotted in a car in Toowoomba. Police chased him through the city centre at noon and collided with him on a street corner. He jumped out of the car and in the shootout that followed he shot a police officer in the hip. Running from the scene he hijacked a car and later transferred to a motorbike.

Police roadblocks were quickly set up, but McSweeney rode straight through them, again exchanging fire with officers. Police sealed off some bushland after they found he had abandoned his motorbike, and a Channel Seven news crew, including newsreader Frank Warwick, who were following the action in a helicopter landed nearby. To their surprise McSweeney emerged from the bush and surrendered to them. The footage of this surprising event, along with scenes from the day of the escape itself, can be viewed below.

 (Channel 7 News)

One year later McSweeney was involved in an even more spectacular but ultimately tragic escape attempt, but I’ll save that story for another day.

(The No.1 Division of Boggo Road was closed in 1992 and demolished in 1996.)

08 December 2013

Campbell Newman Ignored Recommendation for Boggo Management Change

The controversial interim reopening of Boggo Road took yet another unwelcome turn in 212 when an independent recommendation to install new interim management at the old prison was ignored by the L-NP state government.

The recommendation was one of a number made to the government by a community consultant who had been engaged by the site developers. He met with a wide range of stakeholders for a few months during that year, after an incredibly messy trial reopening of Boggo Road that saw community stakeholders denied fair access to this public asset by the small businessman that had been installed there after a secret deal with premier Campbell Newman.

Back in April 2012 I stated my opinion that the interim opening had been a failure. The small business in question, 'Brisbane Ghost Tours', had a long history of attacking heritage groups and individuals that supposedly 'posed a threat' to their business interests. These attacks had even resulted in police and court involvement. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (BRGHS) had received extraordinary legal threats over their web address. It was inevitable that Ghost Tours would use control of access to squeeze out other stakeholders, and that is exactly what happened. High prices and restricted access saw community activities fail to happen at Boggo. Historic and creative communities and the Queensland public had lost out in the name of personal profit.

Promises from Public Works minister Tim Mander that not-for-profit organisations would get 'fair access' proved meaningless.

A subsequent community campaign attracted thousands of supporters and unwanted publicity for Boggo Road. Investigating journalists were denied access to basic official information. Questions on the reopening process were asked in parliament.

The consultation process was no doubt intended designed to alleviate the situation. A large number of meetings were held over two months with a number of stakeholders, including local schools and arts organisations.

The BRGHS agreed to suspend the petition campaign. They withdrew 'Boycott' calls from their online material. The campaign was obviously hurting but in the interests of a compromise solution they played nice. This was, after all, supposed to lead to peace, with something for everyone. Even when the consultant eventually came up with a range of recommendations that fell well short of what the BRGHS wanted, the BRGHS was quite prepared to work within the new framework.

So there can be no doubting the commitment of the BRGHS to the process.

The most significant recommendation was that control of access to Boggo Road be taken away from the private business and vested in a new committee for the remainder of the interim opening. This change of management was to take place without an Expressions of Interest phase.

The findings were clear. Despite the marketing spin, privatised access to Boggo Road had failed.

After all, as the saying goes, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

The final decision on the recommendations rested with Public Works, who were expected to make a decision within weeks. That decision eventually came after three months of silence when, completely out of the blue, they called a snap 'Expressions of Interest' phase - just two weeks long. The report had been ignored and hidden. Why? What was the point, after three months of silence, of having this sudden and unnecessarily rushed process? The workable solution that had been crafted during the consultation process could have been finalised during that time.

It's a bit like getting one day's notice to do a university assignment. Sure, you could do it, but you would produce a better result with a month's notice. It was all the more galling as it had taken three whole months to come up with this announcement.

The public will never know the reasoning behind this decision.

So another two months of our lives had been wasted in participating in the consultation. With most of the BRGHS committee either overseas or interstate on family holidays when the EOI was called, they were in no position to put together a submission (for something we never wanted to do anyway). They were in a position to do so in late 2012, when calls for a tender process were ignored, but after months of being kept in the dark and having goalposts shifted, a lot of people had simply lost faith that this interim opening process was ever going to be coherently managed.

The snap timing of the EOI, and the fact that the BRGHS were denied access to basic data that the incumbent was privy to, meant that the EOI process could never be equitable. Instead of a workable solution, it only created further controversy.

As it was, only Ghost Tours and one former prisoner even put a submission in. This was the same Ghost Tours who had utterly failed to meet their promises in managing Boggo Road that they would have been sacked if they were public servants. Still, with practically no competition, the result was inevitable.

The outcome was that the failed privatised system was still in place while taxpayers paid for maintenance. We in the community turned our focus to the real reopening in the future and putting together a carefully crafted plan that makes sure the public get full value from this public asset.

Boggo Road Gaol was supposed to form part of a community-integrated development. When you install an anti-community businessman in there, it's just not going to work. The shelved report should be ringing some loud alarm bells in Public Works. The BRGHS will never support failed projects that work against community interests.

04 December 2013

Arrividerci Roma, a Guardian Spirit of South Brisbane Cemetery

Read about Roma Waldron, a founder of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery and passionate defender of heritage.

This story can be found at 'South Brisbane Cemetery'.

The first headstone in the cemetery, dated 1870. An appropriate to leave some flowers for Roma. Red flowers, to match her fiery personality.
The first headstone in the cemetery, dated 1870. An appropriate to leave some
flowers for Roma. Red flowers, to match her fiery personality. (C. Dawson)

14 November 2013

One Big Mistake to Avoid When Donating to a Museum Collection

While working at Boggo Road Gaol Museum late one afternoon back around 2004, we had a couple of people from Toowoomba turn up asking if the objects they had recently donated to us were out on display yet. What objects, we asked? Some old prison laundry baskets, they said. The staff looked at each other - we didn't have any baskets in the collection. However, the visitors were insistent that somebody from the museum had turned up to their house to collect these baskets. We knew nothing of it, but when they described the person to us we guessed what had happened.

They had advertised the baskets for sale, and this person turned up asking for them to be donated to the museum instead, which is what they thought they did. They had been scammed.

If you or a family member has some old prison stuff at home (uniforms, photos, paperwork, prisoner-made items, bits of a prison building... anything), then this is the kind of story you need to keep in mind. Please be careful, and thoroughly check who is asking about it.

If you are concerned about what might happen to your prison stuff in future and don't want to see it thrown in the bin (or some shyster to get their hands on it) then your best bet is to donate into the care of the not-for-profit Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society so they can add it to the Queensland Prisons Collection.

Be careful when donating objects to museums like Boggo Road - there are private businesses out there taking donations without telling you who they are.
Pre-1960s cap badge (BRGHS)

This collection has evolved over some time now, going through a few different guises along the way. I myself have been heavily involved with it since 2002, no doubt more than any other single person since that time as I collated, cataloged and stored hundreds of prison artefacts. I know this stuff like the back of my hand and am very happy to say that the care of this collection has just got even better.

The EPA Boggo Road collection (1992-2002)

To start off with... the Environmental Protection Agency supervised the Boggo Road museum collection during 1992-2002. The artefacts were documented, registered, and stored at the Boggo Road Gaol Museum as the ‘EPA collection’. Following the retirement of the curator in May 2002 I conducted a thorough on-site stocktake and found that several hundred on-site artefacts were unregistered, because:
  • many were not associated with the Boggo Road site, or 
  • it was not known where they came from, or 
  • they were duplicates of other artefacts, or 
  • certain groups of artefacts had just not been fully registered (such as books). 

The Boggo Road Gaol Museum Collection (2002-2003)

I was not authorised to enter these 'homeless' artefacts into the government's EPA collection, so in order to minimise further deterioration and possible loss I registered them in an interim collection register I named the ‘Boggo Road Gaol Museum Collection register’. This way, the objects could be registered into the EPA collection in future.

The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society Collection (2003-2010)

After the formation of the BRGHS in 2003 the register was renamed the ‘BRGHS Collection’. NEW artefacts collected by the museum staff after May 2002 were also entered into this register. When the on-site collections were analysed for the Queensland government in 2004, some of the items in the interim BRGHS collection were absorbed into the government-owned collection (as I had planned for) and then moved off site at the end of 2005 when Boggo Road closed.

What was left formed the BRGHS collection was also moved off site. There were now two separate collections. The BRGHS collection was still active, but the government collection is no longer being added to.

Be careful when donating objects to museums like Boggo Road - there are private businesses out there taking donations without telling you who they are.
Prisoner-made tattoo machine (BRGHS).
And finally... the Queensland Prisons Collection (2010-)

The BRGHS continued to receive artefact donations but their collection system was outdated because many items in that register had been returned to government. In 2010 I developed a new numbering system and collection policy and re-registered all remaining items into the ‘Queensland Prisons Collection’.

This collection has recently been put into new storage and a new database set up. The upcoming Queensland Prisons Museum will be a great opportunity for some of these artefacts to be displayed for the Queensland public again. In fact, the BRGHS has a number of new displays in the pipeline at various places. This has prompted a wave of new donations to the collection

We continue to collect, document and store artefacts and images relating to Boggo Road and Queensland prisons. If you have any, let me know!


Please be aware that some organisations requesting your artefacts and stories are private companies who may use them for personal profit by restricting free access to the material and then prohibiting other researchers from using it.

It is also possible that items you donate could later be sold.

The BRGHS is a not-for-profit incorporated association and cannot use your donations for personal profit.
Please email us if you are not sure about people requesting donations from you.

08 November 2013

A Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Death Penalty Songs

Blind Lemon Jefferson, singer of one of 'A Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Death Penalty Songs' Here, in no particular order, are the top twelve death penalty songs that I can (a) recall right now and can (b) find a working link to on the web.

The heightened emotions and drama surrounding the death penalty are perfect ingredients for songwriters wanting to walk on the dark side. Of course this is always more effective in places where capital punishment is still on the books, but the songs looking back into history can also work pretty well too.

There are plenty more songs of this type out there so a volume 2 of this post should be turning up in the future.

'Long Black Veil'
Lefty Frizzell
"The judge said son what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else then you won't have to die
I spoke not a word though it meant my life
For I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife."
Now this is a proper country music song. A man is falsely accused of murder but refuses to provide the alibi that would prove his innocence. Why? He was having an affair with his best friend's wife at the time and was prepared to die in order to protect their secret. What a stand up dude. The kind of best friend we all want, unless we're married. As for me, I would have quite happily told all, complete with photographs.


'Mercy Seat'
Johnny Cash
"Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries
To enter the bright eye
I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile
And anyway I never lied."
The obligatory Johnny Cash entry. This song was originally written by Nick Cave in 1988 and then brilliantly covered by an elderly Cash in 2000. By that time Cash was nearing 70 years of age and was in poor health, giving this death song an even deeper tone of sombreness. Cash claimed that he had heard the song after seeing some news about Texas executions, and he asked about long-term Death Row inmates, "If a man's been there 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and do we still want to kill him?"

'The Green Green Grass of Home'
Joan Baez
"Then I awake and look around me, at the four grey walls that surround me
and I realize, yes, I was only dreaming.
For there's a guard and there's a sad old padre -
arm in arm we'll walk at daybreak.
Again I touch the green, green grass of home."
Spoiler alert: it was all just a dream! OK, I could have picked any version of this country song. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and Gram Parsons all covered it well, while of course Tom Jones had the biggest hit with it in 1966, a year after it had been written. However, I do like this 1969 cover by Joan Baez quite a lot.

'Send Me to the Electric Chair'
Bessie Smith
"Judge, judge, good mister judge,
Let me go away from here
I wanna take a journey
To the devil down below
I done killed my man
I wanna reap just what I sow
Oh judge, judge, lordy lordy judge
Send me to the 'lectric chair"
The great Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was probably the single most popular female blues singer of her time. This song is often listed as 'traditional' but it can't be too traditional as the electric chair wasn't invented until 1889. In one line Bessie sings 'I cut him with my 'barlow'', referring to a type of folding knife with a single 3-inch blade. Don't mess with Bessie.

'Hang Jean Lee'

Ed Kuepper

A song from Kuepper's 2007 album Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog, which was all about Jean Lee, the last woman to be hanged in Australia (1951). She and her two male accomplices had murdered 73-year-old Bill Kent in Victoria. The Wikipedia account of the crime reminds us of the 'good old days':
"They had heard that he kept money in his home, and thought Kent would be a soft target. While Lee kept Kent busy by performing oral sex, the two men would search the flat for money. The trio later gave conflicting statements to Police but what is known Kent was tied to a chair, by Lee, and over a period of hours all three kicked and beat him, while demanding to know where his money was kept, they took his money roll he had in his pocket but wanted more. Kent was at first defiant, but eventually insisted that he had no extra money. He was tortured then stabbed several times, before Andrews strangled him... Kent was found under a pile of sheets and clothing, his furniture had been broken and his home had been ransacked. A later report claimed that Kent's penis had been cut off and stuffed down his throat."

'Hangman's Blues'
Brownie McGhee
"The hangman's rope is so tough and strong,
Hangman's rope is so tough and strong,
The hangman's rope is so tough and strong,
They gonna hang me boys, cause I done something wrong"
Tennessee-born Walter 'Brownie' McGhee (1915-96) had a long career and even appeared in such films as 'The Jerk' and the TV shows 'Matlock' and 'Family Ties'. Polio left him unable to walk as a child and his brother used to push him around in a cart. Because of this, his brother got the nickname 'Stick' and Stick McGhee went on to become a blues player himself. This song was originally written and recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Brownie McGhee

'I've Gotta Get a Message to You'
The Bee Gees
"Now, I'm crying but deep down inside
Well, I did it to him, now, it's my turn to die
I've just gotta get a message to you
Hold on, hold on
One more hour and my life will be through
Hold on, hold on"
Going into my teenage years, the Bee Gees were definitely not cool. Disco had recently died and become a cultural embarrassment, and the Bee Gees were big casualties of that shift. Their 1960s output, however, still holds up well. They turned out a lot of quality light pop, and were quite fond of writing about mining disasters and that sort of thing. This song, which like 'Green, Green Grass of Home' was about a man in his condemned cell, reached no.1 in Britain in 1968. Not so much of the old 'stayin alive' in this one.

Bruce Springsteen
"The jury brought in a guilty verdict and the judge he sentenced me to death
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest
Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor neck back
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin right there on my lap"
This understandably bleak song is based on the real-life killing spree of teenager Charles Starkweather in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1957-58, which left eleven people dead. Starkweather was executed in the electric chair in 1959. His accomplice was his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate, and she got a life sentence.


''Lectric Chair Blues'
Blind Lemon Jefferson
"And I wonder why they electrocute a man
at the one o'clock hour of night.
Because the current is much stronger,
when the folks has turned out all the lights"
Blind Lemon Jefferson was so named because he was blind (or at least seriously visually impaired) and his first name was, well... Lemon. Born in 1893, he was one of the first and best blues players from Texas. Jefferson recorded this song in 1928, one year before his death (probably of a heart attack while he was lost in a snowstorm). Rumour has it - and I put no credence in these blues singer stories - that when they found his body, his hand was frozen to the neck of his guitar. All in all, a very different kind of death to the electric chair.

'Gallows Pole'
Led Zeppelin
"Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
I Think I see my friends coming, Riding a many mile.
Friends, you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends? Keep me from the Gallows Pole.
What did you bring me to keep me from the Gallows Pole?"
This ‘Traditional’ (author unknown) song was popularised as a Blues song called ‘Gallis Pole’ by Leadbelly. Led Zeppelin rearranged it and changed the verse. The lyrics are about a prisoner trying to delay his hanging until he can be rescued by his friends and family. There are a number of versions of this song, most of them ending with the hangman setting the prisoner free, but Led Zeppelin's version ends with the hanging taking place despite all the bribes.

A similar folk song called ‘Slack Your Rope’ was sung by Peter, Paul and Mary as ‘Hangman’. It was adapted from a 15th-century British ballad, when even up to the last step on the gallows, most crime could be paid off with money.

'I'll Fly Away'
Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch
"When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly way (I’ll fly away)”
Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)”
Maybe a bit of a debatable entry this one, but it gets over the line by being on one of my favourite soundtracks at the moment (O Brother, Where Art Thou) and also being referenced by 71-year-old Edward H. Schad, Jr before his execution in Arizona last month. This hymn about 'flying away to God's celestial shore' was written in 1929 by Albert Brumley and was based on a much older song called 'The Prisoner'.

'The Last Outlaw'
Le Doogan

And to top off this list with a very local song, here's one about Patrick Kenniff, who was hanged for murder at Brisbane's Boggo Road back in 1903. There's a lot been written about this event and the supposed guilt or innocence of Kenniff, and this 21st-century take from Sydney band 'Le Doogan' was actually written by a Kenniff descendant.
Patrick Kenniff

There are many more songs that could easily have been listed too (e.g. 'Bohemian Rhapsody'), but maybe they can wait for another Top 12.

29 October 2013

Say Hello to the 'Boggo Road Arts, History & Education Committee'

It has been a while since an update here on the situation at Boggo Road Gaol, mostly because keeping tabs on what is happening there is like herding cats on a water bed. Well, now is a good time to bring you up to speed with a couple of announcements.


Leighton Properties are redeveloping the surrounding site and their plans are currently under consideration. Part of those plans will include work inside Boggo Road Gaol. Much of the old prison will remain a historical site, although some parts will undergo 'adaptive reuse'. What that actually involves I can't say, because I'm not sure. What I can say is that the place will not be opened fully and properly before 2018.

In the meantime, part of one cellblock is open on an interim basis only, but access is controlled by a small business with a long history of antagonism towards several not-for-profit groups. I'd advise you to avoid disappointment and wait to visit Boggo Road in all its glory, preferably under friendlier management.

Which brings us to...

The big news for now is that a growing alliance of interested individuals and organisations have created the all-new 'Boggo Road Arts, History & Education Committee'. The aim is to develop a new professional not-for-profit management body to take on the long-term running of Boggo Road. A brilliant new concept has been developed, and the right people are in place to make it happen. We're talking doctors, professors and professionals, people with a solid understanding of creativity, community and organisation.

This new group has been a long time coming. There have been a couple of false starts in recent years, largely due to the ongoing delays and uncertainty over the reopening of Boggo Road (now a massive six years behind schedule). However, the experience of those false starts has proved invaluable in getting us into a strong position now.

Personally speaking, I am looking forward to taking a background role in this whole process while better people than me move in. Most people should know by now that this whole interim opening of part of a cellblock has been 'controversial' (to put it diplomatically). I could write several thousand words on the subject, but won't. Suffice to say that the concept of 'do it once, do it right' went out the window. Of more relevance here is that a recent consultant's report to Public Works recommended (among other things) the installation of new management at Boggo Road - preferably a new professional committee - and a decision on that was expected by mid-July. The result would have been a massive improvement in community access and engagement.

What happened instead was three months of silence followed by a recent snap announcement of a two-week 'Expressions of Interest' period for interim management of Boggo Road into 2014. This had quite clearly not been recommended. There was only supposed to be an Expressions of Interest for the real reopening. Why this decision was made, I don't know.

Now, the BRGHS has never wanted to run Boggo Road by itself. The plan was always to have a larger not-for-profit organisation manage the place with the BRGHS doing what it can to assist. Last year the BRGHS could have put together an Expression of Interest submission to achieve that. However, this snap EOI, made while half the BRGHS committee were on overseas or interstate holidays, caught the group unprepared. A decision was quickly made. Engaging in the ongoing interim opening saga, with the endless secrecy and moving goalposts, was looking more and more like a waste of time and energy... especially to try and achieve something that we never wanted to do anyway! It was time to step back and refocus on the big picture. Recharge, recalibrate, reinvent.

And that is just what has happened, and surprisingly quickly too. As a result of forming this alliance with some old friends and some completely new people, all with a shared vision for Boggo Road, the BRGHS has become part of something much bigger. There is now breathing space to carefully build something positive, creative and special.

We should have done this months ago!

01 October 2013

Dumbing Down Death Penalty History

How a ghost tour business dumbed down the centenary of the abolition of capital punishment in Queensland with made-up ghost stories.

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

How a ghost tour business dumbed down the cenetenary of the abolition of capital punishment in Queensland with made-up ghost stories.
A ghost yesterday.

24 September 2013

The Number's Up for Malaita Men on the Boggo Road Gallows

Why were Malaita Islanders the single largest national demographic of executed prisoners at Boggo Road, Brisbane, from 1883-1913?

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

Wreaths on the South Brisbane Cemetery plaque (ASSIS)
Wreaths on the South Brisbane Cemetery plaque. (ASSIS)

21 September 2013

The Exorcism of Ernest Austin's Phony Phantom

The exposure of yet another fraudulent Boggo Road ghost story from Brisbane's ghost tours.

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

Ernest Austin, 1913. (Truth)

18 September 2013

War & Peace & the Inala Civic Centre

Inala Civic Centre
(Photo: Leong Ming)
It was a striking sight. I was drinking tea at a shaded table on the side of the square when a Muslim woman walked past, dressed head to toe in a black burqa, a niqab covering her face. A few steps behind her was a woman in the typically-colourful robes of west Africa, and then came a little Vietnamese pensioner in a conical 'paddy hat'. They just blended into the passing crowd, nobody stared, and I thought 'This is how the world should be all the time'. Of course the world is not like this all the time, but at the Inala Civic Centre it often is. Which makes it my favourite public space in Brisbane. What makes it relevant to the pages of this blog is the surprising undercurrent of history that makes the Civic Centre what it is today.

Just to describe the place first, the Civic Centre is the outdoor shopping space right next to the indoor (and rather nondescript) 'Inala Town Centre' shopping mall on Inala Avenue in the Brisbane suburb of (you guessed it) Inala. The shops there form a rectangle, facing into an open space about the size of a football field. At first approach it doesn't seem overly promising, but while it might not be the snazziest shopping space in Brisbane, it is certainly one of the most alive.

History is often viewed as something that happened in a disconnected past, but in reality it is constantly shaping the world around us. Every street in every Brisbane suburb looks the particular way it does because of what went before feeding into what is happening now. The Inala Civic Centre has also been shaped by history, not the Victorian or Edwardian type, but a more recent backdrop of warfare and diaspora, and it is everywhere you look.

The first connection to war came with the creation of the suburb of Inala in the 1940s-'50s as 'Serviceton', a new housing project built for returned World War 2 service people and their families. Thousands of homes were built here, little houses on little blocks, cheap enough for those families to make a fresh start after the war. There were also post-war refugees from Italy, Greece, Poland and Russia. In later years a strong community of Seniors formed in the area, and they are still very active today, but by the 1970s many of the original families had moved on and the cheap housing saw the area develop as one of the poorer parts of Brisbane with a bit of a tough reputation that persists today.

Serviceton housing project, 1952 (State Library of Queensland)
Serviceton housing project, 1952 (State Library of Queensland)

A massive demographical transformation came with the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. These were the famous 'boat people', and thanks to the cheap houses they made this corner of Queensland their own. Today Inala and the surrounding suburbs are home to the heaviest concentrations of Vietnamese-speaking people in Australia

That influence is quite clear in the Civic Centre, which looks like a 'Little Saigon' because shops with Vietnamese signage and products dominate the place. There are numerous grocer shops with market-style frontages, and butchers, fishmongers selling a massive variety of seafood I'd never seen before, Vietnamese travel agents, movie and music shops, jewellers, hairdressers, vegetarian speciality shops, chemists, newsagents, cafes and restaurants. Even on a midweek morning these food outlets are busy with Vietnamese people, a sure sign of quality food.

Shops at Inala Civic Centre
(C Dawson)
Shops at Inala Civic Centre
(C Dawson)
Shops at Inala Civic Centre
(C Dawson)

There are also many foodstalls here, stacked high with containers of Vietnamese meals and deserts. I'm not sure what some of the food actually is but it all smells great. Adding to the sensory onslaught in some parts is modern Vietnamese pop music. There are always small crowds of men around tables eagerly watching and discussing ongoing games of xiangqi (Chinese chess). come here at Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and the place is going off with firecrackers and lion dancers.

Xiangqi at Inala Civic Centre, 2012  (Brisbane Daily Photo)
Xiangqi at Inala Civic Centre, 2012. (Brisbane Daily Photo)

While the Vietnamese influence is the most obvious at the Civic Centre, the market-like setting of crates of Asian vegetables, herbs and fruit spilling out from shopfronts seems to suit the shopping habits of many other people from around the world. Although most people shopping at the Centre dress much like myself in bog-standard suburban-wear, there is always a healthy sprinkling of of cultural clothing that livens the place up visually. Muslim women in burqas and scarves, their men in white, and sometimes bearded elders dressed as though they have just been teleported from a remote Afghan or Hindu Kush village. There are West Africans in brilliantly-coloured hats and dresses, the occasional Vietnamese person in the famous round-brimmed nón lá (leaf hat). On special occasions and Sundays, Samoan and Tongan men will wear lava-lava skirts, and Indian and Sri Lankan women might do their shopping there in sari's, and Buddhists monks often drop in too.

There of course plenty of Anglo people around, and Inala also has a notably strong Aboriginal community. Go back far enough and there's plenty of conflict on that front too.

What makes it such a sight is the balanced mix and variety of national styles. That mix seems to become more diverse with each passing year. It is obvious that many of these people are refugees from the some of the worst trouble spots of recent decades. Vietnam, Sudan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Syria, north Africa and Iraq to name a few. They have formed their own community groups and religious centres,and the Civic Centre seems to be another place for them to catch up with each other. The community hall is as likely to be filled with the beautiful sound of Sudanese or Samoan congregations as it with pensioners playing hoy or having 'Waltzing Matilda' singalongs (as I heard last week).

Inala Civic Centre
(Photo: Julia's Pantry)
There is a genuine sense of 'community' (always a vague notion) in the square. People know each other, and stand chatting to the neighbours and friends they chance across there. You might get a sense of community in other public places, but all too often you don't. What I like about the Civic Centre is that sense of community is natural and not self-conscious, it just happens and people don't make a big deal about it (except maybe me).

The Inala Civic Centre in 2013 is a place that has been shaped largely by people returning from or escaping from war zones. They have created a harmoniously multicultural oasis, but as history unfolds around us it will doubtlessly change and who knows what this place will be like in 20 years time? It could well have disappeared beneath some godawful Anglocentric and soulless Westfield shopping complex and Brisbane would be much the poorer for it. As it is now, however, this is just how the world should be.      

I'd suggest paying it a visit while it is still here. Any day of the week is good, but Saturday mornings is 'Crazy Time' when it is always jam-packed and you will struggle to find a car park. There is a bus stop right outside, where the 100 Buz is very regular.

04 July 2013

The Story of the 'Executed Prisoners' Plaque.

Learn about the installation of a plaque on the grave of executed prisoners in a Brisbane cemetery, and the disingenuous attempts to stop it.

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

South Brisbane Cemetery plaque on the graves of executed prisoners

10 June 2013

Beer Ahoy!

In the classic 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!, the unwelcomely sober lives of the inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Todday are considerably enlivened when they realise a cargo ship sinking off their coast contains 50,000 crates of whisky. Much of the comedy revolves around the attempts of the islanders to salvage the whisky and hide it from the stuffy authorities. This was actually loosely based on a real-life incident, when the whisky-carrying SS Politician sank off the island of Eriskay in 1941.

A somewhat similar incident occurred in Brisbane once, only this time involving beer and not whisky, and with a lot less hiding and more instant consumption. This was during the devastating floods of 1893, which showed that although natural disasters can bring out the best in people, others can be quick to seize an opportunity no matter what the circumstances.

The damaged building in this case was the West End Brewery, which had opened on the corner of Montague and Merivale Streets in 1886. The brewery contained a lot of rickety wooden sheds that were inundated when the Brisbane River flooded in March 1890, although not too much damage was done at that time. 

The West End Brewery during the 1890 floods. (State Library of Queensland)

Worse was to come in the larger flood of February 1893, and of the five breweries in Brisbane that year, West End Brewery suffered the most. The rising water reached up to the second-storey windows of the main tower, and of course all the houses in the immediate neighbourhood were submerged. Although the brewery tower survived the experience, the timber buildings were wrecked by the raging torrent. The damage is apparent in the State Library of Queensland photo below.

Not only were many brewery buildings gone, so too were 500 kegs of beer, worth about $250,000 by current values. Some were carried by the waters to the railway embankment, the nearest high ground, while others washed ashore at the foot of Bowen Terrace. The results were all too predictable. Word spread quickly and large numbers of men swarmed to the riverbank. The scene was described in the Brisbane Courier:
"A great deal of drunkenness was unfortunately observable in various directions. The weather was no doubt the excuse for the over-indulgence of many; but when kegs and barrels of beer floating away from the West End Brewery were washed ashore at the foot of Bowen-terrace and others from the Phoenix Brewery were picked up in Fortitude Valley the scenes enacted were disgusting in the extreme, and men were seen drinking all they could and then quarrelling for possession of the cask containing the balance. Several of the accidents which occurred are undoubtedly the result of this and similar misconduct."
Another news report read:
“Hundreds of casks of beer from the West End Brewery were seen floating along, some of which were rescued along the banks, tho bungs knocked out, and conscienceless beings (I cannot call them men) swilled the contents till they became mad drunk.”
It is not too hard to imagine similar scenes taking place now if kegs of beer were washed down the Brisbane River, and much of it would no doubt go straight onto YouTube, complete with overloaded utes, bogan fistfights, and Yours Truly struggling down the street with a wheelbarrow full of beer.

Despite their massive losses, the West End Brewery was rebuilt as an imposing brick structure and by the following year the owners were claiming to have the largest output of beer in Queensland.

(Brisbane Telegraph, 1894)
It might have survived massive floods, but the West End Brewery closed in 1913 and the premises was turned into a bottling factory.

For most Brisbanites the Great Flood of 1893 had been a tragic disaster, but for a few 'conscienceless beings' it brought manna from Heaven in the form of a bounty of free beer. What would you have done?

20 May 2013

The Last Hanging: Remembering 1913

Learn about the centenary of the abolition of capital punishment in Queensland, and why we celebrate these anniversaries.

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

Gallows beam at the Boggo Road Gaol Museum.
(Courier-Mail, July 2005)

02 April 2013

Queensland 1948: Reds in the Cell Beds

Courier-Mail, October 1949.
There have been several occasions over the decades when activists in the 'Deep North' found themselves locked up in Boggo Road for real freedom-of-speech issues.

One of these people was Gilbert Burns, who in the 1940s was an executive member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). A former coal miner from Sunderland, England, he had set up the radical 'Anvil Bookshop' on Elizabeth Street in Brisbane in the 1930s and then stood for state parliament as a CPA candidate in Bremer.

Anti-communism was rife within official circles and the authorities were content to use the law or plain brute force to suppress it. Burns and his fellow communist Fred Paterson were under constant surveillance by the Commonwealth Security Service, and in March 1948 Paterson, by now a state MP for the CPA, was knocked unconscious by a policeman when he intervened to stop the officer assaulting a civilian during a strike march. Paterson had to suspend political activity for several months as a result of the severe head injuries he had sustained. An inquiry found that ‘no wrongdoing had occurred’ and no police officer was ever charged. Paterson had been attending a march of striking railway workers. Officials Ted Englart, Max Julius and Mick Healey served 15 days in Boggo Road in 1948 for their failure to pay fines incurred under anti-picketing laws during that strike.

Ted Englart (seated left), Max Julius and Mick Healy on the morning of their release from Boggo Road.

In September of that same year Gilbert Burns participated in a public debate in Brisbane between the Queensland People’s Party and the CPA on the topic ‘That communism is not compatible with personal liberty’, which was a somewhat ironic topic given what happened next. Members of the audience were allowed to ask questions of the speakers, and a QPP plant in the audience asked Burns:
“We realise the world could become embroiled in a third world war in the immediate future between Soviet Russia and the western powers. In the event of such a war what would be the attitude and actions of the Communist Party in Australia?”
Burns was evasive with his response, so the questioner interjected and demanded a direct answer so Burns said, “All right, we would oppose that war. We would fight on the side of the Soviet Union. That’s a direct answer.”

This set-up by the QPP to trap Burns into publicly stating his loyalty to the Soviet Union led to him being prosecuted under the federal Crimes Act 1914 on a charge of uttering seditious words. Prompted by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and (to a lesser extent) the Irish Easter rebellion of 1916, the Commonwealth Parliament had amended the Crimes Act in 1920 by criminalising seditious speech and conduct.

A 1950s ASIO surveillance photograph of political activists, including Gilbert Burns in the dark suit (National Archives of Australia)
A 1950s ASIO surveillance photograph of political activists, including Gilbert Burns in the dark suit (National Archives of Australia)

Burns being escorted to the Brisbane watch-house. (Courier-Mail, October 1948).
Courier-Mail, October 1948.
Burns was convicted of uttering seditious words and initially sentenced to six months imprisonment in Boggo Road. He spent one night there before being released on bail pending his High Court appeal, arguing that his answer to a hypothetical could not establish the seditious intent required under law. The Chifley government, facing a deteriorating Cold War situation, disregarded unanimous legal advice that Burns had committed no offence and instead instructed the Crown solicitor to prosecute Burns and lay as many charges as possible. Burns’ appeal was eventually rejected by the High Court in October 1949 and the 46-year-old was taken from his Morningside home to Boggo Road to serve out his original sentence. The court had also confirmed the conviction of Laurence Sharkey, the Communist Party’s General Secretary in Melbourne, who had made a similar statement in response to a query from a Daily Telegraph reporter. Sharkey received three years in prison, but only served 13 months.

There would be numerous other occasions when political activists were locked in the Boggo Road cells, most famously during the ‘free speech’ protests of the 1980s. If it was China we would no doubt be calling them 'dissidents'. Those events will be covered here at a future date.

27 March 2013

Nobody is Going to Sue You For Sharing a Story...

The potential privatisation of access to history at Boggo Road Gaol has raised a number of important issues relating to the practice and presentation of History.

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

Eric Cartman

14 March 2013

"They're too soft on them these days" (Says Boggo Road ex-Officer After 1926 Riot)

‘BOGGO ROAD RIOTS!’ Three little words that conjure up images of prisoners on roofs, protesters in the street, fire engines, smashed windows, phalanxes of riot squads, and burning cells. Scenes that put Boggo Road in the newspapers several times during the 1970s and ‘80s. However, this history of violent resistance to authority at the prison goes back a bit further than you might think, and the Roaring ‘Twenties had their fair share of prison troubles too.

Back in 1921 the female prisoners were moved out of their under-populated cellblocks in the Women’s Prison at Boggo Road and housed in a smaller building on the reserve. Their former home was quickly filled with a quite different type of prisoner, being men serving long sentences and transferred to the prison from St Helena Island in Moreton Bay. The former Female Division became No.2 Division, in effect a maximum-security prison for the worst offenders in the system.

Boggo Road Gaol, 1929. (State Library of Queensland)
Boggo Road Gaol, 1929. (State Library of Queensland)

Trouble flared up one morning a few months later when the inmates asked to have shutters removed from the windows of what is now F Wing. The gaol governor refused, fearing that if the shutters were removed then the prisoners would be able to communicate to people outside on Annerley Road. After lunch that day the 78 prisoners were mustered to return to the workshops but about 30 of them, described as ‘old-timers and Southern criminals’, refused to go. They were on strike. The recalcitrant prisoners were each locked in their cells, and continued to refuse to work. That evening they began shouting and singing, alerting the public outside that something was wrong. The next day a visiting magistrate came to Boggo Road and increased the sentence of each striker, and all the men returned to work.

An escape incident in 1923, coupled with a stabbing and rumours of 'other trouble caused by the prisoners' led to calls for staff reinforcements and an inquiry into the wisdom of transferring the long-termers over from St Helena. In 1925 the Home Secretary, James Stopford, had to admit that 'revolts are frequent in prisons, not only in Queensland but in other States'. This statement came after a string of incidents, including a late 1924 fight involving Boggo Road inmates that left one man badly wounded after being stabbed, another Boggo Road man holding a hunger strike, and a dozen men in Stewart Creek prison, Townsville, being charged with 'refusing to work, destruction of property, gross insubordination, assault on an officer, threatening prison officials, and obscene language'.

Worse was to come in June 1926. Trouble had been brewing in No.2 Division for months and discipline had reportedly become so lax that some long-timers would not follow some warders’ orders, instead answering them with ‘vile language’. During lunch hours they ‘danced to the music of a gramophone’ and resented any interference to their perceived rights. The warders feared that an outbreak of violence was inevitable.

Stewart Creek Prison, Townsville, 1914. (SLQ)
Stewart Creek Prison, 1914. (SLQ)

It came one morning when over 20 prisoners in No.2 Division were being escorted into the prison bootshop. The officer in charge was Warder Simpson, described as the ‘bete noir of the prisoners because of his strict regard for prison rules’, and on this morning the body of prisoners savagely attacked him without warning. He was being ‘badly mauled’ and had to be rescued by warders Ralson and Dwyer, both of whom were also attacked with one of them ending up badly injured. The officers managed to get out of the bootshop while the inmates smashed the bootmaking equipment and threw it into the yard outside. The disturbance was suppressed when other officers arrived on the scene from No.1 Division, and the prisoners were escorted to their cells. 21 of them had their sentences prolonged by one to six months as a result of this ‘riot’. There was a brief flare-up again a few days later with men refusing to carry out some duties, but this was quickly dealt with.

Boggo Road bootshop, Brisbane, 1967. (BRGHS)
Boggo Road bootshop, 1967. (BRGHS)

In the aftermath of this incident public details emerged of a prison under strain. One ex-warder, interviewed in the Brisbane Courier, claimed that gaol discipline was ‘practically non-existent’ and that warders were sometimes reprimanded in front of the inmates for charging prisoners with misdemeanours. Staff unrest was rife, and unhappy warders were said to have resigned because of the perceived lack of discipline. He claimed that their firearms were obsolete and useless in an emergency, and that prisoners in the yard would without consequence throw stones at the sentries on the wall.

The same ex-warder claimed that a number of causes were behind the problems, including temporary warders who did not wear uniforms and did not have the required authority to lock prisoners up. these men were openly defied. Alcohol, specifically rum, was commonly drunk by the prisoners and it was initially suspected that warders were smuggling in alcohol after a tin supposedly containing treacle was found to be filled with rum. A search of warder’s bags turned nothing up, and it was concluded that the rum was coming in via visitors.

Fast forward several decades and you will hear former Boggo Road officers looking back at the much bigger riots of the 1980s and blaming it on (in part) the negative influence of ‘southern criminals’ and lax managerial attitudes. It really does seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same!

19th-century Turnkey