Saving Boggo Road Gaol and the matter of history

The quadrangle of Boggo Road Gaol, photographed in 1912 (courtesy QldPics).
The quadrangle of Boggo Road Gaol, photographed in 1912 (courtesy QldPics).

History is essential to the task of making sense of ourselves. It provides a narrative that helps us understand where we come from and guides us where we are going. I felt that strongly in Ireland, and am now feeling its pull as an Aussie of 25 years standing. It was Australia’s geography that attracted me in 1988 not its history. My earliest memories of Australia were the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef in a book at my auntie’s place from relatives who moved to mysterious Sydney. I was also fascinated by a second memory, a boomerang which thrown would mysteriously return to the thrower, probably from some incorrect episode of Skippy. The boomerang reminded me Australia was the home of Aboriginal people who lived there first. “Aborigines” was a whitefella word and they were non-existent in Melbourne where I lived for nine years. They were visible when I moved to Brisbane, though not to be admired as the “Aborigines” there were drunks, beggars or both. 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 the wider story of Australia and it is a story under threat. Most prominently seen from Annerley Road I’d never been there until yesterday because as a northsider I’d never been down that far south Annerley Road.  I’d been thinking about visiting for over a year, but my desire was quickened by media reports suggesting developers are hovering. I believe it is essential the site is kept and preserved by the State of Queensland, because part of its history was made here.

Annerley Road was always an important thoroughfare on the way to Ipswich (if neglected by us dreadful northsiders) but had a reputation for its terrible condition. Initially called Bolgo Road, it became by association “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 seemed to better capture the immobility of its inmates.

Brisbane began as a jail, but the convict era was over by 40 years when Boggo Road was built. The prison had one link to the convict era. Its executioner’s bell was forged in 1838 in the Moreton Bay penal colony. The bell was a mournful reminder for convicts of every era and at Boggo it was rung three times before an execution and three times 15 minutes afterwards. Patrick Kenniff heard the bell as he went to his death in 1903. Kenniff was a cattle duffer hanged for the murder of a policeman out west. He was the first white man to be condemned to death on the word of an Aboriginal, police tracker Sam Johnson. Kenniff went to the gallows proclaiming innocence, and the crime may have been committed by his brother or father.

Ernest Austin was hanged a decade later for the murder of a young girl, the last to be executed at Boggo. Doubts over the effectiveness of capital punishment led Queensland to become the first state in Australia to abolish it under the Labor government of EG Theodore in 1922. That Queensland was humanitarian in the 1920s may come as a surprise, but Boggo remained no place for a liberal. The prison was state of the art in the 1880s but showed its age in its golden years; filthy, overcrowded and with a fearful reputation. It held Queensland’s worst murderers but also held many people on lesser crimes, jailed for their sex, their colour or their poverty.

The worst cells were chicken wire sheds in the open. These horrible small and exposed enclosures were home to recalcitrant prisoners or those the gaolers hated. They had no bed or blankets and the latrine bucket would blow over in the wind. It was no more fitting than Changi and the gaolers denied its existence for years. Finally photos emerged forcing authorities to close it down. An underground dungeon continued 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 by the same method. The irregular shape of the prison enabled blind spots on the wall that guarders could not constantly observe. Halliday took advantage of a 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 prison officers did not like being made to look like fools by “the Houdini of Boggo Road”. When Halliday was finally released he was framed for the murder of a taxi driver and he didn’t get out until the late 1970s.

By then the building was dating horribly. Care of prisoners were rarely front in the attentions of hard-line Nationals leader Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His tough on crime approach was geared to filling prisons rather than change conditions in them. While the government presented a forward-looking Queensland at the expo in 1988, Boggo Road gaol just down the road remained a model of inhuman Victorian-era punishment.

The prisoners had the last laugh. The Nationals government booted Joh out of office amid corruption controversies. Five prisoners took to the roof of Boggo Road. For two days prisoners smuggled up food to the five. After they were stopped, it became a hunger strike. Three days later 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 in from of news cameras their people were among the worst affected by incarceration.

The UN hammered Australia on the atrocious treatment of prisoners in Queensland and the state government finally agreed to close Boggo Road. The rooftop protesters came down in victory, with one additional condition they had got from their jailers: a bucketload of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Twelve months later in 1988 remaining prisoners moved to Wacol and 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 (freeing up the view) leaving the remaining blocks 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 welcomed Leighton Properties plans to redevelop the site retaining the oldest buildings which date from 1903. But tour operator Jack Sim is unhappy saying his business is on the line.

The remaining buildings are heritage-listed but that may not be enough to save them. I don’t trust Leighton Properties to do the right thing by Boggo Road. Like most developers they are capable of killing the goose that lays their golden egg while honouring history (think Oaks Festival Towers).  Boggo Road must remain recognisable as a place of state internment, and its history faithfully recorded. Its ghosts and memories must not be demolished for financial gain. Our history and our sense of self as Queenslanders, Australians and people demands nothing less.

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