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

10 March 2013

Ghost Hunts, Charlatans, & ‘Psychopathic Liars’

An expose on the types of people that can find a home in the unregulated 'paranormal industry' of ghost hunts and ghost tours in Queensland.

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

Snake oil linament.

07 March 2013

John Andrew Stuart & Jim Finch: Double Trouble

John Andrew Stuart (left) and Jim Finch (right).
It has been over 40 years since Brisbane’s 'Whiskey au Go Go' nightclub was firebombed. Five gallons of petrol were ignited in the foyer of the packed Fortitude Valley club, and 15 people were killed in the panic that followed. It was, until the Port Arthur shootings of 1996, modern Australia's worst mass murder.

John Andrew Stuart and Jim Finch were the two men sentenced to life for the firebombing. Stuart and Finch were both violent men and had spent most of their adult lives embroiled in gangland feuds over rich prostitution and gambling rackets in the south. They claimed that they had been framed for the murders, and their protests of innocence were incredible, as were their attempts to delay the trial. Much has been written about the case and the guilt or innocence of the two men over the years and this debate continues today. Despite this, Stuart and Finch have already gone down as two of the most notorious prisoners in the history of Boggo Road.

While being held in the now-demolished No.1 Division of the prison, Stuart and Finch desperately tried to convince everyone that they were innocent. At one time Stuart silently sewed his lips together with a paper clip. On other occasions he ate wire crosses and nails that lodged in his gut. This required him to go to hospital for treatment and so delayed the trial. This inspired other prisoners to do the same. He even climbed up on the roof of the old A Wing for three days in 1977 and pulled out dozens of bricks with his bare hands to spell out the words 'INNOCENT - VICTIM OF POLICE VERBAL' on the roof. Two officers were eventually sent up to retrieve Stuart, who was by this time riddled with bird lice.

A favourite trick of Stuart’s was to greet the officers unlocking his cell door of a morning by throwing the contents of his toilet tub over them. Many a new officer got a soaking like this. Some thought Stuart had a masochistic streak, and he would taunt groups of prison officers who had just bashed him with words like ‘is the best you can do?’, almost willing them to do it again.

His actions sparked riots and won him widespread support both inside and outside the prison, but he was never released. Stuart died of a heart infection (idiopathic myocarditis), alone in his cell on New Years Day 1979. He had been on hunger strike for six days.

Jim Finch also made memorable protests, including a 35-day hunger strike. His most famous stunt was to have the top of one of his fingers cut off at the same time as swallowing a wire cross. He falsely claimed that he bit the finger off himself. I understand that this bit of finger was kept for years in a jar (and may still be around somewhere) and at one point after his release Finch put in an unsuccessful official request to have it returned.

Jim Finch's finger, allegedly cut off in Boggo Road Gaol.
Finch's finger.

He was a fitness fanatic and was known as 'The Chinaman' because he would jog with two buckets of water suspended from each end of a prison mop over his shoulders. He later settled down to become a supposedly 'model' prisoner, although he was still regarded as a violent thug by some inside Boggo Road and certainly ruled the roost in his exercise yard. He did however, have a knack for staying out of trouble and was often suspected of deliberately getting himself sent to the Detention Cells for minor infringements just before any major trouble was due to break out in the prison. 

He began keeping budgerigars and became known to some as the 'Birdman of Boggo Road'. Finch had a real affection for these birds, making sure they were looked after during his time in detention. When two birds were killed by smoke fumes during a November 1982 prison riot an angry Finch wrote the following messages on a yard wall:

“Who ever is responsible for the death of my two birds Chirpy and The Whistler is challenged to a fight to the death”

“Chirpy, The Whistler. Killed by the gutless actions of weak prisoners.”

“JA* will look after them in Heaven.”

“Stumpy sends his love. Also Kevie and Fatty.”
(* JA = John Andrew Stuart. Maybe Stumpy, Kevie and Fatty were birds too. Or perhaps inmates.)

(Queensland Prisons Collection)
(Queensland Prisons Collection)

We can safely assume that this 'fight to the death' never happened. Finch was also a boxing expert, and loved to get officers to quiz him on boxing trivia using a set of little quiz cards he owned. He knew every answer. He campaigned and wrote a lot of letters and drummed up support for his release, and in 1986 he even got married to one of his supporters while in prison. In 1988 he was released and deported to his native England, where his new wife soon became aware of his violent side and left after a few months. Finch, who found work as a nightwatchman, later confessed his guilt in the Whiskey au Go-Go case to a journalist before changing his story again after being informed that he had only been sentenced for one murder and could be charged with the others. He has since died.

Whether guilty or innocent, Stuart and Finch certainly left their mark on Boggo Road history. Although the scene of their incarceration has long gone, the stories of their time inside will continue to be told.

05 March 2013

Top 10 Free Online History Resources for Queenslanders

For those of us who used to spend far too much time travelling from part of town to another to crawl through microform records and paperwork to get hold of some historical snippet or other and then all too often returning home empty-handed, the growing hoard of online data and records is a Godsend. I have listed some useful resources here (in no particular order), but of course have probably missed some. Please feel free to let me know of any good stuff I have missed.

This National Library of Australia website features journals, pictures and other material, but it is the massive searchable range digitised newspapers going back to the 1800s that make this such a brilliant resource.

Trove, National Library of Australia
Audio recordings of Queensland politicians and public servants talking about their life in public service during 1968-2008. Has a good search facility. Type in the word 'Boggo' and hear people explaining how nothing was ever their fault! From the UQ Centre for the Government of Queensland.

Queensland Speaks, University of Queensland.

Text Queensland
Another excellent website from the UQ Centre for the Government of Queensland. This one gives online access to a whole range of theses, journals, government gazettes, almanacs, books and Hansard. Has a word search facility to make things easier. Saves a lot of time having to go and physically get a hold of these documents.

Text Queensland, University of Queensland

Basic information about cities, suburbs, towns and villages in Queensland with a population of over 500. Yet another great website from the UQ Centre for the Government of Queensland.

Queensland Places, University of Queensland

Queensland Historical Atlas
The fourth and final offering from the UQ Centre for the Government of Queensland, this atlas features numerous peer-reviewed articles and of course plenty of great maps and images.

Queensland Historical Atlas

Picture Queensland
Thousands of pictures from the State Library of Queensland collection can be viewed here. Like most parts of the SLQ websites it can be a little bit tricky to navigate but very useful. Also excellent and much easier and quicker to use is Picture Ipswich, as well as Brisbane City Council's 'Brisbane Images'.
Picture Queensland, State Library of Queensland

Australian Cemeteries Index
Compiled by a network of individuals and community groups, this website features listings for 191 Queensland cemeteries, sometimes with photos of headstones. An excellent resource for those searching for graves. The South Brisbane cemetery section, with info from the FOSBC, is especially good.

Australian Cemeteries Index database

Australian Dictionary of Biography
Produced by the Australian National University's 'National Centre of Biography', this online version of the books first published in 1966 features hundreds of biographies of prominent Australians. Obviously only useful for the more famous people, but still a very handy and reliable resource.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Queensland Births, Deaths & Marriages
This Department of Justice and Attorney-General website features a great search facility for tracking births, deaths and marriages back through the 19th century.

Queensland Births, Deaths & Marriages

Queensland State Archives
There's never as much online digital records as we'd like these days, but the Queensland State Archives website is coming on well, going from a simple search facility to throwing up some pleasant surprises with it's online material. Still the number 1 stop for prison records.

Queensland State Archives