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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.