Monday, June 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The St Helena Story: An Illustrated History of Colonial Queensland’s Island Prison

Title: The St Helena Story: An Illustrated History of Colonial Queensland’s Island Prison

Author: Jarvis Finger

Publisher: Boolarong Press

RRP: $39.95

ISBN: 9781921555442

Release Date: 2011

Pages: 296


An illustrated history of colonial Queensland’s island prison in Moreton Bay

Several kilometres from the mouth of the Brisbane River lies St Helena Island. For more than 60 years from 1867, St Helena was home to thousands of society’s outcasts, for here was located colonial Queensland’s foremost prison for men.

During those years, and in the decades following its closure in 1933, the lovely little island gained a fearful reputation as ‘the hell hole of the Pacific’ and ‘Queensland’s own Devil’s Island’, where men were reputedly ‘kept chained by day and night’, ‘flogged to death’ and ‘hurried under the sod while their oppressors turned on those still living’. It was a place to dread for the colony’s murderers, rapists, bushrangers, rebels, thieves and men of like violence and mayhem. They were subjected to the lash, the dreaded black hole, the gag and straight-jacket, and energy-sapping shot drill. Life could be tough on St Helena. It was a secure prison – but dozens of men were desperate enough to attempt escape. Few succeeded.

But St Helena also gained a reputation as a self-sufficient model prison, held in high regard by visiting interstate and overseas penologists, churchmen and journalists, for here men could be rehabilitated through learning such trades as tailoring, bootmaking, tinsmithing, saddlemaking, and farming pursuits. Indeed, it was claimed that the prison was for the inmates ‘a perfect paradise… In fact they often want to get back there’.

Where does the truth reside? Was the St Helena Island Penal Establishment ‘living hell’ for society’s miserable outcasts or was it ‘a remnant of old Eden’?

Of interest to historians, general readers, students and visitors to the island, this profusely illustrated and well-presented 300-page full-colour book, referenced and with index, has 18 chapters:

Off to St Helena!

“An island unworthy of notice”

From prison hulk to island prison

The first year

Rules and regulations

Men at work

Stockade walls and iron bars

A day in the life of a prison

The devil’s own brigade

The wild men of St Helena

Purgatory or paradise?

A unionist remembers

A warder’s unhappy lot


“There’s gold in the trenches!”

The battle for St Helena

“What are we going to do with the darned place now that we’ve got it?”

After the storm


The St Helena Story by Jarvis Finger should be listed as a textbook for all Australian students to study as part of Australian history. I have to admit that before I read this book I knew bugger all about this Penal Island, just off the Queensland coast, close to the capital city of Brisbane. It is amazing that a similar establishment in the US, Alcatraz, would be known to more Aussies than this one so close to a major city.

The rich illustrations accompanying the text gives the reader a visual overview of many elements of the narrative, through copies of documents and photos. I did not realise how close to Brisbane this prison was until reading this book. Each chapter gives a vivid account of the history of the life and death of many hardened criminals unfortunate enough to be “guests” at this rough and harsh jail.

While only around the 300 page mark, the seventeen chapters cover anything you could possible want to know about St Helena.

The contents include;

Prologue: Off to St Helena

1. 'An Island Unworthy of Notice'
2. From Prison Hulk to Island Prison
3. The First Year
4. Rules and Regulations
5. Men at Work
6. Stockade Walls and Iron Bars
7. A Day in the Life of a Prison
8. The Devil's Own Brigade
9. The Wild Men of St Helena
10. Purgatory of Paradise?
11. A Unionist Remembers
12. A Warder's Unhappy Lot
13. Escape!
14. 'There's Gold in the Trenches!'
15. The Battle for St Helena
16. 'What Are we Going to do with the Darned Place now that We've Got It?
17. After the Storm

This book was exceptional in both the visual presentation and comprehensive research conducted in the content. Highly recommend reading it.

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