07 December 2016

The Short Life of Marburg Prison Farm

During World War 2 the small town of Marburg (about 60km west of Brisbane) had a brief but somewhat confusing role in the Queensland prison system. A new prison farm for women was established there in 1944 to help relieve the overcrowding problem at the female division of Boggo Road in Brisbane, caused by the strict policing of local women's sexual contact with Australian and American servicemen. The female division at the time was a bit of a ramshackle timber-and-tin affair with a capacity of 24, and the rising crime rate among women meant that the facility was often overcrowded. At one point it contained 50 inmates.

One particular problem was the number of women being kept in prison because they kept escaping from the Lock Hospital, a place where women with STD’s were forcibly detained for treatment. This was in the days before Penicillin, a drug that would render such facilities obsolete during the following decade.

The state government announced in April 1944 that a former private hospital in Marburg would be converted into a new prison farm for women, similar to the recently-opened male State Farms at Palen Creek, Numinbah and Whitenbah (a fifth Queensland prison farm opened in late 1944 at Stone River, near Ingham). These were low-security facilities based on the ‘honour system’, whereby the inmates would engage in agricultural work and promise not to escape. The one at Marburg was designed as a poultry farm with four fowl-houses and four laying sheds.

Palen Creek Prison Farm, 1936. (State Library of Queensland)

Obviously the prisoners had to be sufficiently low-risk to be considered for such a move. Also, for practical purposes, female inmates who were serving short sentences, or were on remand or requiring specialist treatment, were still to be kept at Boggo Road.

The Marburg hospital had been owned by the splendidly-named 90-year-old Dr Euchariste Sirois, who was subsequently appointed as visiting surgeon to the new facility.

The newly-opened hospital at Marburg, c.1912. The larger building was later converted into a prison farm facility (Picture Ipswich, Ipswich City Council).

The Marburg prison farm had only been open a few months when the male prison at Boggo Road was hit by an overcrowding crisis, caused in part by court-martial military prisoners housed there. A number of low-security men were transferred to Marburg from Brisbane in August 1944, while ten women prisoners were returned the other way. This was only intended to be a temporary move, and it remained a male-only prison until November 1945, when it reverted back to being a female prison again. The men had made a success of the vegetable gardens there and tended up to 174 fowls.

Probably the most notable inmate to be held there was Cecil Bates, who was sentenced to two years' prison in 1944 for attempting to kill an American serviceman (yes, it was over a woman). Bates was suffering from advanced and incurable tuberculosis and it was thought that serving his time at Marburg would be better for his health than being confined in Boggo Road.

In October 1946, the government ordered that facility become the ‘Institute for Inebriates, Marburg’, much to the consternation of the local residents. This replaced the recently-closed institute at Dunwich, and remained open until 1965, when it was replaced by a new home at Wacol. The Marburg buildings were demolished in the 1980s.

Due to the short amount of time it was actually open, Marburg prison farm is no more than a footnote in prison history (it doesn't even warrant a mention in the Corrective Services history website). It does show, however, that the Queensland prison system was not a monolithic beast, and as times changed it could be what certain modern politicians might even call 'agile' and 'innovative'. 

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