History is essential to the task of making sense of ourselves. Our history provides a narrative that helps us understand where we have come from and guides us where we are going. I felt that strongly as a native Irishman, and am now beginning to feel its pull as an Aussie of 25 years standing. As an immigrant it was Australia’s geography that attracted me here in 1988 not its history. My earliest memories of Australia as a child were the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef though I was also fascinated by a second memory, that of a boomerang that when thrown would mysteriously return to the thrower. The boomerang reminded me Australia was the home of Aboriginal people. “Aborigines” was a whitefella construct as was “Aboriginal behaviour” which was non-existent in Melbourne where I lived for nine years. It was visible when I moved to Brisbane, though not to be admired as the “Aborigines” there were drunks, beggars or both. It was no surprise to find Indigenous people were over-represented in jail. Brisbane’s jail (or gaol to use the spelling here) for over a hundred years, was Boggo Road, an imposing and intimidating castle on a mound in Brisbane’s southside where prisoners had some of the best views around.
The story of Boggo Road Gaol is essential to the story of Brisbane, and it is a story that may be under threat. Most prominently seen from Annerley Road I’d never been there until yesterday because as a northsider I’d never even been down that far south on Annerley Road. I’d been thinking about visiting the prison for over a year, but my desire was quickened by media reports that suggest developers are hovering over it looking to make money. I believe it is essential they should be stopped, and the site kept and preserved by the State of Queensland, because so much of its history was made at this address.
Annerley Road was always an important thoroughfare on the way to Ipswich (if now neglected by us dreadful northsiders) but it had a reputation for its terrible condition. Initially called Bolgo Road, it became “Boggo” to users continually frustrated by the poor drainage along the road. When a penitentiary opened here in 1883 authorities called it Brisbane Jail but Boggo Road quickly seemed a better name to capture the immobility of its inmates.
The prison had one link to the long-gone convict era. Its oldest artifact is a bell forged in 1838 when it was still the Moreton Bay penal colony with a hundred mile ban on free settlement around Brisbane. The bell would have been mournful for convicts and still carried a threat in the Boggo era, being rung three times before an execution and three times 15 minutes afterwards. Patrick Kenniff would have heard the bell as he went to his death in 1903. Kenniff was a cattle duffer who was hanged for the murder of a policeman out west. Kenniff went to the gallows proclaiming his innocence, but he was probably guilty as was Ernest Austin hanged a decade later for the murder of a young girl.
Austin was the last to be executed at Boggo. Doubts over the effectiveness of capital punishment led Queensland to become the first state (pdf) in Australia to abolish it under the Labor government of EG Theodore in 1922, some 50 years after Boggo Road was built. That Queensland was capable of such humanitarianism in the 1920s may come as a surprise, but although the bell rang no more, Boggo remained no place for a liberal. The prison was state of the art in the 1880s but was showing its age in its golden years; filthy, overcrowded and with a fearful reputation. It held Queensland’s worst murderers so it was secure but it also held many people on much lesser crimes, many jailed for their sex, their colour or their poverty, and for these people it was hell on earth.
By the 1940s the Nazis had discredited torture but innovations in punishment continued at Boggo. The worst cells were chicken wire sheds out in the open. These were home to recalcitrant prisoners or those the gaolers hated. They had no bed or blankets and their piss-and-shit-bucket would blow over in the wind. It was punishment more fitting for Changi than Brisbane and the gaolers denied its existence for years. Finally photos emerged forcing authorities to close it down. An underground dungeon continued regardless for recidivist offenders.
Boggo Road was not a foolproof prison and many escaped, oddly enough all in daylight. The most notorious escapee was Arthur “Slim” Halliday who absconded twice, and both by the same method. The rough shape of the prison enabled a couple of blind spots on the wall that guarders could not constantly observe. Halliday took advantage of the blind spot to escape in 1940. He was re-captured after two weeks and his gaolers increased the size of the guardhouse on the walls to guard against what inmates called “Halliday’s Leap”. The effect was to move the blind spot further down the wall. Halliday and two others found the new spot in 1946. Halliday was better at escaping than staying free and he was re-captured again after four days. But making fools of prison officers and police by escaping twice did not endear “the Houdini of Boggo Road” to authorities. When finally released Halliday was charged with the murder of a taxi driver, a charge he believed he was framed for, and he didn’t get out until the late 1970s.
By then the prison was dating horribly though the care of prisoners were hardly front and central in the attentions of hard-line Nationals leader Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His tough on crime approach was more geared to filling gaols rather than changing conditions in them. While the government presented a happy, contented and forward-looking Queensland at the expo in 1988, Boggo Road gaol remained a model of inhuman Victorian-era punishment.
The prisoners had the last laugh. The Nationals government booted Joh out of office ahead of Expo as the party became embroiled in corruption controversies. Within months five prisoners took to the roof of Boggo Rd. There they were initially fed by smuggled food from below but after two days it became a hunger strike like some in the cells below. After five days, there were protests outside the prison in favour of the prisoners. A rock band plugged their speakers into a nearby house and played their songs at full blast. An Aboriginal flag flew from the top of the prison, reminding the world their people were among the worst affected by incarceration.
This protest is a good news story. The UN had hammered Queensland on the atrocious treatment of its prisoners and with the government in strife it agreed to close Boggo Rd. The rooftop protesters came down in victory, especially with one additional condition they had got from their jailers: a bucketload of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Just 12 months later, the most notorious place in Queensland was empty. In the 1990s the women’s prison was demolished to make way for an Ecosciences Precinct and park (finally freeing up the wonderful view) leaving the remaining blocks now open for private tours. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society is unhappy about the tours which it is says are expensive (I paid $25 for a 90 minute tour yesterday). The Society says the gaol is a public asset and they have welcomed the plans by Leighton Properties to redevelop the site retaining the oldest buildings which date from 1903. But the tour operator Jack Sim is unhappy saying his business is on the line.
It’s difficult to know who is right. The remaining buildings are heritage-listed but that may not be enough to save them. I don’t fully trust Leighton Properties to do the right thing by Boggo Road as like most developers they are capable of killing the goose that lays their golden egg while pretending to honour history (Oaks Festival Towers, anyone?). Whatever happens, it is crucial Boggo Road remains recognisable as a place of state internment, and its history faithfully recorded. Its ghosts and memories must not be demolished for greedy gain. Our history and our sense of self as Queenslanders, Australians and people demands nothing less.