Day 95: A great escape

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IN San Fancisco there’s Alcatraz, Tasmania has Port Arthur, there’s old Melbourne Gaol and I’ve even been to the Prison Gate in The Hague, yet I’d never made my way to Brisbane’s Boggo Rd.

Boggo Road jail
Three big old Victorian cellblocks in a semi circle

Until now. And it’s up there with the best, thanks to the brilliant tour company which tells the stories of this  historic prison that found itself in the middle of suburbia.

First, the name. While Boggo Road sounds  mean enough to give a place of incarceration, it’s actually much simpler.

boggo rd gaol
The front sign for the original women’s prison was amended when it was opened for men.

When it was time to build a new prison in the late 19th century, some bright spark nominated a good spot on the south side of town.

Boggo Road jail
Inside ground level of the cell blocks. They rise to three storeys

It was on a well known old track, a short cut between Ipswich Rd and Stanley St, that always got boggy when it rained. And thus Boggo Rd was to become synonymous with  Brisbane prison for more than a century.

Punishment is very much part of Brisbane’s history. The city began as the  Moreton Bay Penal Settlement  and from 1824-42, a decade before Port Arthur and Melbourne, it was known as the most evil convict outpost of the British Empire.

Women were sent to the Female Factory on the site of the GPO in Queen St and the worst of the men were banished to St Helena Island in the Brisbane River before Boggo Road, but that’s all another story.

The Brisbane prison opened at Boggo Road in 1883, with just one cell block.

It grew to have two divisions. The first and largest was closed in 1992 and demolished in 1996.  In the 1960s, an underground tunnel, now filled, linked it to the second division.

Boggo Road jail
Second level rows of cells where prisoners were kept 7pm-7am until 1989

Division 2, which started as a women’s prison in 1901 and ended as a maximum security block for men in 1989, is heritage listed – and  the site of the Boggo Road Gaol tours.

Known as HM Prison for Women, it  could hold 82 females. It was opened in 1901 to contain the women who were running amok in Fortitude Valley – drunk and disorderly, soliciting, assaulting and swearing at police, a crime punishable with three months behind bars. Sentences were usually between two and 60 days.

The women were moved out in 1903 and male prisoners from  St Helena island moved in. The entry sign  reflects the change:  “HM Prison for (Wo)Men”.

Thanks to the women who were first imprisoned here and tended the gardens, it became the most beautiful prison in the country after it opened in 1901.

Things changed when the men arrived. The gardens had to go because the male prisoners were using the brick edging as weapons. And the tin buckets provided in the cells had to have an inner circle added to stop the men jamming the poo buckets over other prisoner’s heads.  Boys will be boys.

The tour starts at the gatehouse entry, where entry and exit of people and supplies could be controlled.  Officers and their families lived here above these main gates.

There was also an armory and a space for the bell that organised the prison’s day, starting with the wakeup call at 6am. This bell was so accurate that local residents could set their watch by it and they protested in 1968 when it was replaced with a buzzer.

Boggo Road jail
Inside a cell

Another bell in Division 1 had a much more sinister use. It announced an execution.These were always held on a Monday at 8am.

On the bright side, there were only ever 48 hangings at Boggo Rd (The gallows beam is now held at the Commisariat in William St) and Queensland was the first state to abolish execution, the last being in 1913.

The tour then moves into The Quadrangle and then the Circle, where three big old brick cell blocks – labelled D,E and F – stand in a semi circle with exercise yards between them.

They are of such a foreboding Victorian appearance, built from bricks imported from the  UK, that it’s hard to imagine they were still being used in 1989.

There are plenty of stories within these walls and fortunately, the  knowledgeable tour guide is willing to share them and knows just what visitors want to hear.

Boggo Road jail
The exercise yard between the cellblocks where prisoners spent their days. The TV was in the big metal box above the table

There are stories of executions and great escapes, of terrible suffering and great kindness, of great crimes and tough sentences, from the Longreach Cinderella case of the early 1900s to the Boggo Rd Houdini of the 1930s and the torture that Whiskey Au Go Go accused killer John Stuart inflicted upon himself while protesting his innocence in the 1970s.

The graffiti on the cell walls – 99% of it added by inmates in the 1980s – makes fascinating reading.

There was a time when prisoners here cooked food for patients at the nearby Princess Alexandra Hospital. They also cooked for the guards, who must have been very brave to eat it.

Boggo Road jail
An extra inner circle of metal had to be added inside the sanitary buckets so they couldn’t be placed over the heads of other prisoners.

Boggo Rd gained some notoriety in 1988 when, with World Expo in town, protesting prisoners took to climbing on to the roof of cellblock F to gain attention. Although it must have taken a lot of courage to climb up the front of the building, it was even harder to get them down and the fire department had to come to the rescue.

As well as the stories, the tour goes into the cell blocks and into the cells and exercise yards and gives a very real glimpse of prison life.

Prisoners loved to watch Days of our Lives on the old TV encased in metal above a table in the exercise yard; all escapes were in broad daylight; lashings were still handed out until 1931; the longest sentence in the totally black solitary confinement cell was 30 days and it was still being used  in the late 20th century.

So many stories and that was only the history side of things. I plan to get back for the Escapes Tour, a night Ghost Tour and the tour led by ex-inmates and guards.

A Boggo Road visit is the best value 90 minutes around. There are regular tours and it’s easy to join one. Visit www.boggoroadgaol.com for  more information.

Boggo Road jail
The mildest of the graffiti

5 COMMENTS

    • I had also been there in the days when it was a prison but it’s quite different now and the guides are excellent. There are some great stories inside those walls.

  1. What is wrong with people when they want to ruin history would this happen over seas where there are buildings hundred of years old no So why should it be allowed here

    • Yes, you really have to wonder why it would even come up, much less why we should have to fight to keep it. So many other cities have turned old prisons into places worth visiting and yet even though Boggo Road has its own notoriety and so many stories to tell Brisbane wants to turn it into yet more modern soul-less cityscape.

  2. I would like to know who the person or persons are instigating this so called refurbishment of the Cell Blocks or should I say vandalisation of the Cell Blocks. What are they thinking?? Why are they wanting to do this.?? They are obviously clueless as to the historical value of the buildings. Why destroy our history for the sake of installing air conditioning equipment in the upper cells and removing the walls between cells which is full of prisoner graffiti and is an integral part of the history of the Gaol. All of this just to change the cell blocks into coffee shops and eateries. Have these people actually taken a tour of the Gaol, listened to the tour guide tell the stories of the history of the cell blocks, and stories about the inmates male and female and daily running of the Gaol, the guards and duties they performed, escaped prisoners and how they managed to escape and were recaptured. There is so much fantastic history to the Gaol, who would want to destroy all that. Brisbane needs these buildings to give the City some intrigue into its history and importantly, be referred to as a City of Character.

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