19 December 2014

The Longest Gallows Speech in Queensland History

Learn about the extraordinary 1912 execution of murderer George Silva at Boggo Road prison - the longest gallows speech in Queensland history.

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

George David Silva, executed at Boggo Road in 1912. (Qld State Archives)
George D Silva, 1912. (Qld State Archives)

02 December 2014

140kph Winds vs the South Brisbane Cemetery

See some of the damage caused by falling trees in the South Brisbane Cemetery during a massive storm in November 2014.

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

Storm damage to trees in South Brisbane Cemetery, Queensland, November 2014. (T.Olivieri)
South Brisbane Cemetery, November 2014. (T. Olivieri)

29 November 2014

The Historical Suffering of the Mentally-Ill is Not a Sideshow Alley Freakshow

What is the real motivation behind a ghost tour company's demands that a Brisbane mental health institution be opened up to ghost hunters?

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

Wolston Park Hospital. (Wikimedia Commons)

23 October 2014

Destroy All Your Books... Or Else: When Small Business Attacks Historical Societies

The shocking story behind 'Brisbane Ghost Tours' baseless threats against a respected community group.
Imagine the volunteers in a respected History group receiving a legal letter from a small business owner demanding that they either destroy all their stock of self-published history books, or hand them over to him... or else he would drag the volunteers before the Supreme Court. Their alleged crime?

Having a similar domain name to the business, even though they actually had that domain name first.

Well, this is exactly what happened to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sim then made the following demands:
Ghost Tours' legal threat
The threat from 'Ghost Tours' and 'Boggo Road Gaol Pty Ltd'.

In a nutshell, he had demanded that the volunteers of the historical society:
  • Pay for 'damages' (even though the prison was closed and so no tours were even happening). 
  • No longer be allowed to use the mark ‘BoggoRoadGaol’ when ‘passing off’ their books, research and proposed tours (remember, this is a community group called the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society). 
  • Either destroy all the historical society’s printed stock and other material or hand it all over to him. 
  • Pay all his costs. 
  • If none of this was done, he would take the volunteers to the Supreme Court.

If the volunteers had agreed to these demands, the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society would have closed down. The group had about 40 members at the time (nearly 300 now) and the old prison - the raison d'ĂȘtre for the historical society's existence - had been closed for three years. The group was surviving thanks to the sales of the books they wrote and printed, but printing books is an expensive exercise and costs are only recouped by selling them. The demand that the volunteers destroy all their existing stock and pay what could have been thousands of dollars in costs would have left the historical society with no saleable product and no money for new stock or even paying their annual four-figure overheads (such as insurance). It would have been the end of their organisation.

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

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

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

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

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

Prior to all this happening the historical society had held out an olive branch to Ghost Tours - in writing - recognising that the best route towards a peaceful future for Boggo Road was for us to work together. We received no reply. Unfortunately the legal threats made by Sim proved to be an obstacle to peace at Boggo Road. It is not insurmountable, but remains an issue.

What needs to be remembered is that when Boggo Road finally moves into a better future, there will be plenty of arts and history organisations lining up to bring the old prison back to life for the public. This is exactly what is needed, because a lot of different people had very different experiences of life inside that prison and so the many stories of Boggo Road should be told in many voices and many ways.

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

24 September 2014

Gallows Beam at the Supreme Court of Queensland

A new exhibition on the abolition of capital punishment opens in the Queensland Supreme Court. (UPDATE: This exhibition closed in early 2015 and the gallows beam was returned to the Commissariat Store, William Street, Brisbane.)

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

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

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

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

Was this rusty BBQ plate made from the Boggo Road gallows platform?
A rusty BBQ plate (C Dawson, 2014)

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

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

Replica hood and noose made by the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society
Replica hood and noose (C Dawson, 2014)

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

Replica hangman's disguise (C Dawson, 2014)

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

Death sentence cap as worn bu Queensland judges when passing sentence of death
Death sentence cap (C Dawson, 2014)

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

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

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

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

20 July 2014

A Boggo Road Great: John Banks, 1939-2014

In 2014 we said goodbye to the late John Banks, the founding president of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society. He was a man described by his former workmates as one of the true ‘Boggo Road Greats’, not only because he was one of those screws who was respected by officers and prisoners, but he was also a champion of the Boggo Road historical site. John could come across as very much old school 'hard-but-fair’ and easily annoyed into gruffness by fuss and nonsense, but his true nature was that of a giver and humanitarian. I’d like to take the time to put something of his life, as I knew it, on the record.

John at work, 1980s (BRGHS).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John and Gwen receive honorary lifetime memberships of the BRGHS from Senator Claire Moore after his
retirement in 2007 (BRGHS).

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 July 2014

Boab Prison Trees - Fact or Fiction?

Away up in Western Australia's wild and woolly nor-west some distance out of Wyndham there's a boob in a baob tree which is surely the queerest gaol in the world! It was used in the early days for imprisoning natives overnight while on their way to the township for trial and it is known officially as the Hillgrove Lockup.' (Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 1940)
(The World's News, 27 December 1902)

‘A Boob in a Baob Tree’, indeed. Well played, headline writer. ‘Boob’ is slang for ‘prison’ and, yes, he was writing about keeping prisoners inside a tree, specifically the rather peculiar boabs (Adansonia gregorii, also known as baobabs among many other names) found in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia.

There are two such ‘prison trees’ in the Kimberley region, one near Wyndham and another near Derby, some 900km away. Plenty has been written about these trees over the last century, thousands of intrepid tourists have photographed them (they have been tourism drawcards for decades), and the trees are even listed in the State Heritage Register of Western Australia. As boabs are some of the longest-living lifeforms in Australia (some are estimated to be 1,500 years old) their future as historical icons seems assured.

However… as a historian and a skeptic (every historian should be one) I would say that extraordinary claims demand hard evidence. There are plenty of retrospective tales about these trees being used as lockups, but is there any hard evidence? I tried to find some…

The Kimberley. Wyndham is the yellow dot to the east, Derby the yellow dot to the west.

The Story
On the King River and Kurunjie Gibb River roads just south of the small town of Wyndham stands a large hollow boab tree at least 15 meters in circumference. This is the ‘Boab Prison Tree’, widely thought to have once been used as a makeshift lockup around the turn of the 20th century. Back then it was reportedly known as the ‘Hillgrove Lockup’. It was often necessary to march prisoners in chains over hundreds of kilometres from their places of arrest, and safe overnight camping places were required where the prisoners could be secured (according to a 1905 government report, about 90% of Aboriginal arrests in the region were for cattle-killing).

A similar tree just south of Derby is also said to have been used to confine Aboriginal prisoners being transported to Derby in the 1890s. The hollow had a ‘ceiling’ about 6 metres high with two natural holes for ventilation.

'Prison Boab Tree', Derby.

Newspaper articles about these trees began to appear in the 1910s and were already referring to their use as lockups in the past tense. The earliest mention I’ve found of it so far is in a Perth newspaper of 1919, which simply featured a photo with the caption, 'A Boab Tree at the King River Pool, Kimberley. It is known as tile "Hill Grove Lockup." Twenty six native prisoners have been held in this tree at one time.' 

Occasional newspaper articles over the following decades repeated the claim and generally provided very similarly-worded information. The story goes that patrolling policemen in the 1890s or 1900s discovered that the Wyndham tree was hollow and they cut a person-sized opening so they could use it as a lockup for Aboriginal prisoners they were transferring to Wyndham. This was no mean feat as the walls of the tree are about 60cm thick. The entrance was said to have been fitted with an iron grille.

The internal capacity was around 9 square metres, reasonably roomy for inside a tree but probably not enough to accommodate 26 men, as claimed in this 1923 article, or 30 prisoners as suggested in this 1931 Queenslander article. This claim of 30 was also made by Ernestine Hill in her 1940 book The Great Australian Loneliness. A 1940 article makes the more realistic claim that some prisoners were chained to the outside of the tree when the hollow was full:
‘Some years ago a trooper was bringing into Wyndham a party in chains when at dusk they arrived at the baob-tree. As there wasn't room inside for everybody the trooper chained two of the prisoners to the tree. One of the pair was a magnificent specimen of a man well over six feet high with well shaped arms and legs and a blacksmith's chest. At daybreak that native was missing and so was the chain. But an iron bolt to which the chain had been padlocked was left bent back in the form of a hairpin.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 1940)
It was also claimed in the Mirror (Perth) in 1936 that ‘the Queerest Gaol in All Australia’ had a huge bolt fastened into it for chaining prisoners to.

The boab has soft bark which allows people to carve graffiti into the tree, and a photo taken circa 1917-23 shows the words ‘Hillgrove Police Station’ cut deeply into the Wyndham tree (it can be seen here). Of course a bit of graffiti does not prove anything – I could carve the same words into any old tree – but it does show the lockup story had currency at the time. Hundreds of other names and initials have been cut into the tree since then and the Hillgrove graffiti has all but disappeared.

(Argus, 4 February 1950)

Not as much was written in the newspapers about the Derby boab, and a 1966 article on boabs in that esteemed academic journal Woman’s Weekly even suggested that the Derby tree was probably never used as a lockup, although they did add the rider ‘unlike the other well-known hollow baobab at Wyndham’.

Despite this, the two trees were heritage-listed in the 1990s. It is claimed in the State Heritage Register entry (under ‘Prison Boab Tree’) that the Wyndham tree was used as a lockup, and there is also emphasis on the Indigenous significance of the tree, although all uses are part of ‘a long oral tradition history of use’.

The entry in the same register for the ‘Prison Boab Tree’ of Derby makes the more ambiguous claim that the tree was ‘believed’ to have been used as a lockup. Despite this, it is noted that the tree is significant as ‘a symbol for the town of Derby as for the history associated with it. It represents the harsh treatment prisoners often received in the north of Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’. It is also noted that the tree is a ‘well established tourist landmark’, but then boabs in general have attracted sightseers since the 19th century. Indeed, the popularity of the prison trees and the resulting stream of people climbing into them and carving names in the bark has resulted in the trees being fenced off.

'Prison Boab Tree', Wyndham, 1960 (Wikimedia Commons)

This popularity shows no sign of diminishing. Numerous images of the trees, many taken by tourists, can now be found on the Internet, and dozens of websites feature the ‘prison tree’ claims. Some of these websites are travel blogs, others are dime-a-dozen travel advisory sites, and others (including local and state government websites) use the trees to promote local tourism. Worst of all are the 'Amazing Top Ten' sites that infest the Internet with unoriginal information. Look up some of the website types named above and you will instantly notice the unfortunately common practice of cutting-and-pasting entire blocks of text from one website to another. And so the legend spreads…

Behind the Stories
The fame of the Boab Prison Trees is well established in national folklore and it is easy to see why. A string of occasional newspaper articles - especially from the 1930s onwards - pretty much repeat similar stories of Aboriginal prisoners being confined within the boabs. Various authors mentioned the Derby boab tree elsewhere. JK Ewers wrote about the boab tree that was used ‘for a gaol’ for a 1949 edition of Walkabout magazine. In his 1961 book The land that sleeps, Gerald Glaskin mentioned the ‘famous’ tree having been ‘hollowed out and used as the township’s jail’. Mary Wilcocks similarly wrote of the ‘famous prison bottle tree’ in a 1966 article for Walkabout.

This repetition has been amplified a hundredfold on the Internet, but all these sources seem to contain a lot of hearsay and no direct evidence.

It is telling that the earliest written references to the prison trees only appeared in the 1910s, especially as the use of trees as chaining-posts is well established and recorded elsewhere in Australia. Early police stations in the Bush usually had no built structures outside of a canvas shelter, and it was common to chain prisoners to strong trees or heavy logs. This practice is known from official records and numerous newspaper accounts of the 19th century.

It does seem possible that the Wyndham and Derby boab trees were used as chaining-posts, and news articles of the 1930s and ‘40s mention this happening (although a huge chain would be needed to surround the tree). It is also quite possible that chains were affixed to a bolt in the tree. There is, however, no contemporary mention made of the inside of the tree being used, although the reminiscences of the Reverend Andrew Lennox - who lived in the region 1897-1907 - mention that the Wyndham boab had 'a door... cut out of it, with a lock and key on it, the decayed pith cleaned out was used as a temporary locker by the police, ventilated by slightly porous ceiling'. This memoir was completed in 1958.

On the other hand, this 1894 article about the treatment of Aboriginal prisoners being marched to Derby makes no mention of the boab, and neither does this 1894 story about Aboriginal prisoners escaping from Wyndham lock-up. Even fairly descriptive articles about Derby and Wyndham in the 1900s make no mention of the prison trees (such as this one from 1905) and, more tellingly, neither does this very long 1907 article.

The boab is particularly conspicuous by its absence from a 1905 state government report on the appalling treatment of Aboriginal prisoners in the area, despite the report giving a very detailed and damning account of the gaols and the transportation of prisoners to Wyndham and other local towns. A stockman who appeared before this inquiry was questioned:
'Have you seen natives being brought under escort by the police?'
'Have you noticed whether the chains are attached to the constable's saddle, or held in his hand?'
'No. The chains were fastened round the blacks' necks, and they marched along in front of the policeman's horse'.
'Are the women put in chains?'
'Yes. This is done as a safeguard because they are witnesses against the male prisoners.' (Western Mail, 25 February 1905)
A police constable also described transporting female witnesses:
'How do you detain. them, with neck-chains?'
'They are chained by the ankles.'
'Do you mean that their two legs are chained together?'
'No. I fasten the gin to a tree, with a handcuff and then fix the chain to one ankle with another handcuff - one handcuff, for each prisoner.'
'Is it only at night that they are chained like this?'
'It is necessary to detain them sometimes in the day when going through scrub or. rocky country, where they might get away; It is very rare that they have to be secured in the day time.'
(Western Mail, 25 February 1905)
Prisoners in chains outside the Roebourne Gaol, Western Australia, 1896.

While the non-mention of any boab in these reports doesn't prove that the trees were not used as lockups, it does show that if they had, then the newspapers of the day would certainly have reported such things.

There is much doubt about the Derby tree in particular. The subject is explored in Gerald Wickens’ book The Baobabs* with the conclusion that there is zero official evidence for any use as a lockup, and that the tree is close enough to Derby (16km) that the police would have continued on to the town anyway (a gaol had been established there in 1887). Moreover, overland marches with prisoners tended to be long enough to cover several days and nights and as prisoners were chained together (by the neck) there was little need for makeshift lockups elsewhere, so why have one so close to Derby?

Aboriginal Perspectives
It is important to note that there are no Indigenous accounts of such a use. Researchers in Wyndham found that:
'... the indigenous interviewees revealed alternate perspectives regarding the accepted historical wisdom of prison trees in the Kimberley. The tale commonly told is that Aboriginal prisoners were imprisoned within the hollow in the tree overnight on multi-day trips to take them to the nearest Kimberley gaol. Aboriginal perspectives of the prison trees revealed the belief that prisoners were actually chained to the outside of the tree while their police custodians slept in the dry hollow (away from monsoonal rains and mosquitos).'
Boabs feature extensively in Aboriginal social, material and spiritual culture. As a Department of Environment and Heritage report on the Kimberleys noted:
'Some trees are believed to harbour extremely severe and potent powers, like Jilapur, a boab on the outskirts of Derby, more commonly known as the Derby Prison Tree. This tree is believed to be about 1,500 years old, and it has an opening into its hollow trunk large enough for a man to enter. There is speculation that prisoners were locked inside, and other accounts recall prisoners being chained around the outside of the tree. This tree is also a camping place for the Nyikina Creation Being Woonynoomboo.'
It was a practice in many Aboriginal cultures to place the bodies of their deceased on tree platforms and later put the bones inside trees or other concealed places. Confining living Aboriginal people inside trees that had been used in this way would have been unspeakably horrific from an Indigenous viewpoint. An account written in the 1910s noted the presence of human bones in the Derby tree:
'It has even been suggested that the Derby tree was used by Aborigines as a resting place for the dead. The natives have long been in the habit of making use of this lusus naturae as a habitation; it is indeed a dry and comfortable hut. Some bleached human bones were lying upon the floor, which suggested that the tribe had also made use of the tree for disposing of the dead. A frontal bone of a skull clearly bore evidence that the individual had fallen a victim to the bullet of a rifle.'#
Such a use was also mentioned by author Ernestine Hill in 1934:
'At Mayall's Well, outside Derby, there is a tree-vault 25 feet in diameter, a native burying-ground from which they have taken the skeletons of a whole dynasty.'
'Boab Prison Tree Derby' by Jack Dale, 2012.

Who 'they' were and why they took the skeletons is not elaborated on. Mayall's Well is very close to the prison boab. Also writing in 1934, author Ion Idriess claimed that the tree hollow was 'littered with aboriginal bones' and that a ‘fragmentary skeleton’ was still there but word was that ‘sightseers from the irregular steamers had souvenired others’.

In 1999 the 'Boab Prison Tree also known as Kunamudj' was registered under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. It is recognized as a ceremonial and mythological site associated with Kunamudj, the shark. The tree was also fenced off and a sign placed there reads thus:
'Site of Significance
The significance of the Prison Boab Tree derives from its reputed use as a rest point for police and escorted Aboriginal prisoners en-route to Derby, and principally, its prior but less publicly known connection with Aboriginal traditional religious beliefs.
The Prison Boab Tree attracts many visitors. The fence was erected out of respect for the religious significance of the Prison Boab Tree and to prevent pedestrian traffic from compacting the soil around its roots.
The site is protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. Please be advised that unauthorized entry beyond the perimeter fence is prohibited.
Note that snakes are known to inhabit the tree.'
The Verdict?
Widespread repetition of sensational stories without recourse to historical research is a key factor in urban myth-making. Newspapers and websites have certainly spread it far and wide over the last century, but these situations are always made worse when businesses have a vested interest in propagating myths. The tourist industry has to exploit whatever local resources/attractions it can to promote itself, and in this case the local industry around Derby and Wyndham certainly feature the prison trees prominently in their marketing.

From the dozens of ‘prison tree’ references on the Internet it would be very easy for a non-skeptical person to assume they must be true. Despite this, there seems to be little evidential basis for the lockup stories. There is none for the Derby tree, and only the writings of Rev. Andrew Lennox provide any eyewitness reference to the Wyndham tree as a lockup. It is quite likely that the trees could have been used for chaining people to, but not actually being confined inside. The stories have all the appearance of an urban (or in this case, rural) myth. What is more, this would be a myth that overshadows a much more interesting Indigenous perspective on the trees. Still, as the heritage-listings point out, their reputation as 'prison trees' does act as a useful reminder of the historical treatment of Aboriginal prisoners.

All that being said, if any reader out there knows of any direct evidence that these boabs actually were used as prison trees, I’d love to hear it.

* Full title: ‘The Baobabs: Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar and Australia: The Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar and Australia.’

# Herbert Basedow, ‘Narrative of an expedition of exploration in North-Western Australia’, Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australia Branch, vol. XVIII, session 1916–1917, pp. 105–295.

04 July 2014

Colonial Queensland Prisoners: Where Were They From?

Unlike the glossy, spin-manipulated brochures that pass for government department reports today, annual prison reports used to provide frank warts-and-all assessments of the system. Even better, they were full of massively detailed statistics on thousands of inmates including - among other categories - their ages, occupations, educational background, nationality and religion. Need to know the number of Presbyterians held in Roma Gaol during 1888? It's all in the reports (the answer is 8, by the way).

These reports are a mine of data on the population of late-19th-century Queensland (or at least on those people who broke the law), and the nationality tables demonstrate the true multi-racial nature of the colony.

The nationality classification system for the reports would change periodically, so what I have reproduced here are the figures for 1888-97 when prison reports consistently used the following categories:
Table showing prisoner numbers 1888-97 according to nationality categories in  the annual reports for Queensland prisons
Table showing prisoner numbers 1888-97 according to nationality categories in the annual reports for Queensland prisons (C. Dawson).

The more detailed tables in the annual reports show regional variances. The prisons near the northern goldfields, for example, were more likely to hold Chinese inmates. The heavy Japanese involvement in the pearl diving industry is also reflected in the northern prison numbers. Unfortunately other Asian residents such as Malays and Filipinos were lumped together in the 'Other Asian' category, but would have still figured prominently in the north.

Indians were also a significant minority although many were indentured agricultural labourers and were not permitted to stay in the colony once their work was done. The Queensland Aliens Act 1861 excluded most Asians and Indians from naturalisation and freehold titles, and these groups suffered under restrictive and inequitable workplace laws that resulted in many prison sentences.

This period was also the height of the South Sea Islander presence in the central coast sugar plantations and they were the biggest non-white demographic in the prisons during this time, even outnumbering Aboriginal peoples. Most of their crimes were petty, but the imprisonment rate was fuelled by racial paranoia in the sugar areas.

The Germans were a significant immigrant group that were allowed to settle and left their mark in Queensland placenames, but despite their relatively free legal status they still made up a large percentage of the prison population.

It was a surprise to find the Danes singled out from the 'Other Countries' category and featuring prominently. The poor Danish economy and Queensland government incentives contributed to this, and by the 1890s about half of the Danes living in Australia had entered via Queensland. 18% of all non-British people naturalised in Queensland before 1903 were from Denmark.

There are a few curios of the age in the nationality categories, such as 'British America' which referred to the Caribbean states and Canada. It is also clear that a sizeable population of Africans were in the colony at the time.

The groups at the top of the table provide no surprises. Aborigines had felt the sting of British law since 1788, and the huge numbers of British and Irish immigrants in the 19th century is also well reflected in the prisoner numbers, as was the ever-increasing demographic of native-born Australians.

Queensland prisons of the 1880s-'90s were a potpourri of nationalities, a result of proactive mid-century immigration policies and the demands and attractions of specific industries such as sugar and gold. Ethnically-targetted laws resulted in some groups being overrepresented in the prison population where, as will be discussed in a later article here, racial tensions were high and created problems for the prison authorities.

30 June 2014

A Damned Good Flogging

Flogging, Darlinghurst Gaol, NSW, 1880s.
‘BRING BACK FLOGGING!’ We hear it often enough, and there would be plenty of volunteers to carry them out, but it’s been a very long time since anybody saw one happen in a Queensland prison. As with hangings, it is something that has disappeared from public memory and little is known about what it was actually like. Despite this, we do have some surprisingly graphic accounts of 19th-century prison floggings in Brisbane thanks to the relative transparency of the prison authorities and the news media of the time.

The following tale of prison floggings follows the punishment of three so-called 'larrikins'. They were Daniel Carmichael, James Toohey, and William Phillips, who one July night in 1885 garroted and robbed Bill Campbell near the Exchange Hotel in Charlotte Street, Brisbane. They were soon caught and convicted of the assault. Toohey got two years’ hard labour, with two floggings of 40 lashes each, and Phillips received two years and two floggings of 30 lashes each. Carmichael (who had also attempted to use a knife on the arresting constable) got two years and three floggings - the first with 50 lashes and the other 20 with 40 each.

Floggings were of course nothing new to Brisbane, and the original Moreton Bay Penal Settlement of the 1820s was notorious for the ferocity of the lashings ordered by Captain Patrick Logan. The convict days, however, were long over and floggings of the late 19th-century were handed out only occasionally and privately in limited amounts and care was taken to provide on-hand medical supervision.

The first round of the floggings of the three garrotters happened in an exercise yard at the still-newish prison off Boggo Road on a Saturday morning in September 1885, just a week or so after sentencing. Two other prisoners joined them for similar punishment that day. One was Johnny, an Aboriginal man from the Dawson River, sentenced to 25 lashes for attempted criminal assault on a young girl, and the other was a Townsville youth named Miles, sentenced to 25 lashes for criminally assaulting a young girl.

Cat o' nine tails.
Cat o' nine tails.
Such men were transported to Brisbane to receive their punishment because that was where the hangman was based. It was part of his job requirement and not one he relished, because in contrast to his more fatal line of work his flogging victims might meet well bump into him in the street in time to come. The hangman was 1885 was a new one, Henry Flude, a Fortitude Valley greengrocer. He was described that morning as being ‘a powerfully built muscular man of middle age, bareheaded and stripped to a light jersey and pair of trousers’. He held the dreaded cat-o'-nine tails, comprised of a lightweight handle about 75 cm long and covered in green baize, attached to nine thick pieces of whipcord 90 cm long with four knots in each.

Also present that day were reporters, three parliamentarians, prison warders, the under-sheriff and two doctors. Carmichael, the first to be flogged, was tightly lashed by the warders to the timber ‘triangle’ on the side of the punishment yard. He was stripped to the waist and his arms were stretched above his head and lashed to the top of the triangle with cord, with strips of blanket wrapped around his wrists to prevent the cord cutting into the flesh. His legs were stretched apart and strapped just above the knees to the framework, and another strap around his waist bound him tightly to the crossbars of the triangle. Once again blankets were placed between him and the apparatus, with one stretched across for him to rest his head against. He was now only capable of very little movement.

The hidden executioner was then beckoned from a nearby room and carefully measured his distance, took up a position to the left side of Carmichael, drew back his arm, and waited for the signal from the chief warder. This was Woodward, who called out each stroke in turn from ‘One’. The first lash left a red trace on Carmichael’s back and he howled out in pain. Flude laid the cat with the regularity of clockwork in various parts of Carmichael’s back and each time Carmichael yelled out. As one reporter wrote:
‘By the twentieth stroke the red scores of the different strokes could hardly be distinguished, and the prisoner's back was one red quivering mass. At the twenty-ninth stroke the dark blood, which had made its appearance in small clots after the first few lashes, began to ooze from the lacerated flesh and trickle down his back, but still the blows fell one after another with pitiless regularity.’ (Brisbane Courier, 14 September 1885)
By the 40th stroke Carmichael was close to fainting, only capable of uttering quiet moans, and his limp body hung by his arms. After Woodward called out ‘fifty’ he was untied and cut loose and two warders supported him while water was poured over his head and down his throat, although he could not hold his head up to drink. As he was led away he murmured ‘Oh, I'm innocent ; I'm innocent’. The executioner quietly walked back to his room before his next victim, Toohey, was brought into the yard. The other prisoners had been in an adjacent yard waiting their turn, and could hear but not see what was going on over the yard wall.

'Bring back flogging' is a common refrain, and these reports from 19th-century Queensland prisons show us what it was like to really be flogged.
The flogging triangle displayed at Old Melbourne Gaol.

Toohey was a young man and approached the triangle with a confident swagger, but his attitude changed as he was strapped to the frame. He managed to keep his eyes fixed on Flude for the first three lashes but cried out after the fourth. That said, he did take the punishment with ‘great fortitude’ and even though this flogging was somewhat more severe than the previous one, Toohey generally managed to stifle his groans. Despite this the pain he was suffering was evident by ‘the trembling of his flesh and convulsive quivering of his legs’. At the end he was given water and led away in a semi-conscious condition.

At this point the blood-soaked knots on the cat-o'-nine tails were becoming loose so Flude swapped it for a new one.

As Phillips, the third garroter, was being strapped up he complained that it would ‘cut right into his bones’. He put on an air of youthful indifference and bore the punishment quietly, although a piece of leather and metal in his mouth was spat out as he gasped at the third stroke. Blood appeared with the 14th stroke. At the end Phillips refused water and assistance with walking. The next man was brought into the yard:
‘Johnny was next and he, a short thick-set aboriginal from the Dawson River, was next tied up and received twenty-five lashes, howling and yelling vigorously all the while, and rendered almost frantic with the pain. He kicked his legs about and remained suspended by his hands, and when the flogging was finished was in a fainting and exhausted condition. Though his skin was tough he seemed more susceptible of pain than his fellow-sufferers, and screamed out in his own language, ‘Oh, mai-mai mai-me.’’(Brisbane Courier, 14 September 1885)
Miles, the last of the prisoners, generally behaved as though nothing was the matter, although his arms and legs trembled violently. He said to Flude, ‘Don't hit me on the ribs, old man; hit me fair on the back’. At the ninth stroke he called out a reminder, ‘Hit higher up, not underneath the ribs’, as he did with the fourteenth. Apart from that he was quiet during the punishment. Once untied he refused assistance, saying, ‘You needn't hold me; I'm not going to faint for 25 lashes; I don't want any of your water’, and left the yard calling out, ‘I could take 200 lashes; it isn't the first time I've had a taste of the cat’.

The original Boggo Road prison at it looked in 1887.  The floggings took place in one of the yards near  the central cellblock. (BRGHS)
The original Boggo Road prison at it looked in 1887. The floggings took place in one of the yards near the central cellblock. (BRGHS)

Each prisoner afterwards received treatment from the doctors, who laid spermaceti plaster on their back wounds. The three garroters were said to be ‘now as meek as children’. Carmichael sat cowed on his bed, while Toohey was semi-conscious, suffering intensely and feeling faint. Phillips, who had refused assistance from the warders, was now lying face down on his bed at full length ‘in a half-fainting condition’. He attempted to appear indifferent but was betrayed by his continual twinges of pain.

Johnny was weak and suffering acutely but Miles leapt to his feet and walked about as the doctors entered the cell. He told Dr Hobbs that ‘I feel right enough, doctor. There's nothing the matter with me, only a stinging on the back.’

The three garroters were handed their second installment of pain in November. As the time approached they were reported to have an ‘uneasy demeanour’ and Phillips, the first to the triangle, was ‘pale but firm’. He screamed or groaned every time the cat flayed his back, and when they reached 21 of his allotted 30 lashes the doctor raised his hand to stop the proceedings. He judged Phillips to be too exhausted to take any more and he was assisted back to his cell.

Toohey was next and appeared determined to not cry out, and he held out until the fourth lash but then screamed his way through the next 36. Carmichael would have unwillingly heard every one of those cries and when his turn came he was clearly terrified. He was strapped to the triangle, the scars of his previous flogging still fresh, and even before the scourger’s arm was raised for the first time Carmichael ‘gave vent to a piercing yell’. This continued until his 13th lash before the doctor intervened again and Carmichael was taken back to his cell, where he broke down and ‘sobbed piteously’, obviously horrified that a third flogging was yet to come.

All three prisoners were given a small drink of brandy both before and after their punishment, and even now still protested their innocence.

Carmichael’s final flogging took place in late February 1886. By this time he was apparently ‘completely unmanned’ and afraid that the third flogging would be too much for him. As he was conducted to the triangle he reportedly ‘looked the picture of abject terror, his face pale and contorted, and the muscles of his back and legs quivering with fright’.

Once strapped up he turned to Dr Hobbs and said, ‘O, doctor, tell him to be quick about it, tell him to be quick about it; oh God! oh God!’ He leaned his head against his arm and began moaning. Hobbs ordered that brandy be given to Carmichael. Although Flude applied the lash with regularity and rapidity it was clear that he was ‘laying it on very lightly’. Despite this, Carmichael groaned with every stroke and for the 15 kept calling out ‘Oh, have mercy, have mercy!’ Then his head sank between his arms and he groaned until the 40 lashes were up. At the end he was taken down and given more brandy and water.
‘He was completely broken down, and still moaned as two warders supported him across the yard back to his cell. Halfway across he stopped and retched violently, although he seemed unable to vomit. But though weak from exhaustion, and smarting with pain, there was a look of relief on his face as though he realised that he had endured his last flogging, and had nothing worse to look forward to than rest and imprisonment until his term had expired.’ (Brisbane Courier, 1 March 1886)
The kind of corporal punishment frame used in  Queensland prisons in later decades.
The kind of corporal punishment frame used in Queensland prisons in later decades.

(FOOTNOTE: The use of the triangle had more or else or died out in Queensland prisons by the end of the 19th century although corporal punishment continued. One of the last men to be flogged here was an Aboriginal man called Joe Sullivan, who received 18 lashes (and two years) in Townsville in 1930 for an ‘attempted serious offence’ against a small girl. This was reportedly carried out with a ‘cat’ at Stewarts Creek prison. In 1934 another Aboriginal man, Herbert Miller, was sentenced to 20 strokes with a leather strap on his bare buttocks for a similar offence in Cairns. Corporal punishment was long since been abolished in Queensland prisons. The only place that corporal punishment is now legal in Queensland is in private boys' schools.)

08 June 2014

Celebrating the Trees of South Brisbane Cemetery, & Killing Their Children

Learn why the trees in the South Brisbane Cemetery are so important for the local ecosystem, but so dangerous for the heritage-listed headstones.

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

A large fig near the main entrance to South Brisbane Cemetery (C Dawson).

26 May 2014

The Mysterious Escape of Fingers & Bluey

It was very difficult to escape from Boggo Road’s No.2 Division, thanks to the high red-bricked walls and internal layout. A handful of prisoners did manage to get out of there by various means over the decades, but the modern No.1 Division, built in the 1970s, proved to be so much leakier. Instead of having cellblocks on grounds within a perimeter wall, as was the case with the older prison structures, the cellblocks in the new prison were the perimeter wall. It was only in later years that high wire fences were erected outside that wall.

Aerial photo of Boggo Road, 1980s.The layout of No.1 Division, with cell windows on the external wall, can be seen here (BRGHS).

A long series of high-profile escapes from No.1 Division during the 1980s helped to bring on the eventual closure of Boggo Road (and the demolition of 1 Division). In most cases it was quite obvious how the breakout was effected, but every once in a while there was a head-scratcher. The escape of Bateman and Russell in June 1973 was one of those mysteries.

They got out of Boggo Road following a cell fire in C Wing, the No.1 Division maximum-security block. There was also a small disturbance in the wing before the fire was extinguished. It was only on the next morning, when officers were unlocking the cells, that they realised that convicted murderer Ronald Russell, aged 29, and Trevor Bateman, a 28-year-old armed robber, had broken out. The escapees had typically ironic nicknames. Red-haired Russell was known as ‘Bluey’, while ‘Fingers’ Bateman was missing almost all the fingers from his right hand.

Their escape route seemed quite clear. The bars in the skylight of their cell had been spread apart, and makeshift ropes of blankets and bedsheets hung from the end of the block.
Bateman and Russell's escape route (Courier-Mail, 20 June 1973)

Despite this trail of evidence, even today it is unclear as to how they got out of C Wing because there are three versions of the story. An early theory adopted by the police and prison authorities suggested that they had outside help. As the front-page headline in the next day’s Courier-Mail read, ‘ACCOMPLICE BROKE IN, FREED TWO FROM JAIL’. The story went something like this:
  • The cell fire, using a mattress and wooden furniture, was lit to create a diversion. 
  • One or more people climbed onto the roof of C Wing from the outside. 
  • The cell bars were spread open with a jack, either by the people from the roof or by Bateman and Russell working from the inside. 
  • Bateman and Russell were lifted out of the cells and slid down the side of the prison on ropes. Makeshift ropes may have been left on the site to disguise the fact that they had outside help. 
  • A car was waiting for them outside.
This version of events best suited the prison authorities as it would make the escape from the new maximum-security wing somewhat less embarrassing for them.

Despite this, Bateman later maintained that he and Russell had received no outside help. He claimed that the fire was unrelated to the escape and had actually delayed it. He also claimed that they had used bar spreaders to get out. This was a small wooden block, 90mm long and 40mm square, with a hexagon nut set in one end with a bolt running through it. Placed tightly between bars, turning the nut would slowly force them apart.

This story suited the escapees because it would protect anyone who may have helped them in the escape. However, a surprising third theory was offered up by Roy Stephenson, who was superintendent of Boggo Road at the time. He claimed that:
  • The bar spreader was found too easily. If it had been used successfully, it should have been hidden for future use. 
  • Russell was a big man and could not have physically squeezed through the gap between the bars. 
  • Therefore he must have gone through the door. The only way through the door was by unlocking it, requiring two keys to get out of the block – he must have had help from someone on the inside. 
  • The condition of the prisoners upon recapture showed that they had no outside help – they were hungry and dirty.
Stephenson later told Russell that he did not believe they had got out with the bar spreaders. Russell laughed and said, “I will tell you how we really got out one of these days. You are closer to the truth than you think!”

This 'inside help' version would have suited Stephenson because he was locked in a much broader power struggle with the people who conducted the inquiry into the escape. He resigned shortly afterwards.

Bateman was recaptured two days later, drinking a chocolate malt in a Sandgate milk bar, still wearing his blue prison uniform. Russell was out for 35 days before being apprehended near Lake Manchester, northwest of Ipswich. He had been hiding in a pumping shed stocked with tins of food, and was in a dishevelled condition.

The Bateman and Russell escape did lead to changes at Boggo Road, most immediately the commencement of armed patrols around the perimeter. Acting Premier Gordon Chalk appointed Public Service Board Commissioner Pat Bredhauer to head up an enquiry into the escape. The resulting ‘Bredhauer Report’ recommended changes to the design (more watch towers, fencing, floodlighting and CCTV) and the management of the prison, much to the chagrin of Stephenson who recalled the entire episode with some venom in his memoirs Nor Iron Bars a Cage.

So which was it? Did they have outside help, inside help, or did they work alone? Although Roy Stephenson did put forward a good argument for ‘inside help’, no evidence has been unearthed to back up any of the theories. This lack of evidence suggests that Bateman and Russell did indeed work alone. They had worked together in the prison tailor shop, so would have had plenty of time and opportunity for planning.

FOOTNOTE: about ten years ago I just missed out on a chance to ask Russell about the escape myself while I was working at the Boggo Road Gaol Museum. I had been researching escapes (including Russell’s) for an exhibition and popped in to the museum one afternoon and found out that Russell had visited that very morning. He had a long chat with ‘Mr Banks’ (John Banks, the museum manager and former officer) with whom he apparently got along with very well. It is quite common for some long-term inmates to develop friendly relationships with some officers (and I should probably point out for the more suspicious among you that John started work at Boggo Road after the Russell escape).