A blog about the frustrations, adventures, brickwalls and ultimately rewards of someone searching for their origins. Some Irish (Shamrocks), Scottish (Shortbread) and Shenanigans (English) all mixed into one!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Souls of St. Helena

I’m a huge history buff. American Civil War sites, Lincoln’s tomb, his home prior to the Presidency, Washington; all thrilled me during my travels abroad. Thanks to my passion for family history, I have also visited several historic sites in Brisbane, especially cemeteries and ancestral homes of my family.

I’m a Brisbane girl, born and bred. Perhaps this is why I began asking myself last Saturday night, “Why I haven’t experienced more of Brisbane’s historic past? Why do I travel tens of thousands of kilometres to visit other historic sites and ignore the treasures in my own back yard?”
Full moon at Manly Jetty

These questions came to me as I began a moonlight tour of St. Helena Island, a 15-minute boat ride from the Brisbane suburb of Manly. I have seen tours advertised for St. Helena before, but due to work shift commitments I have never participated. Last Saturday however, my shifts were completed, and so I decided to treat myself to a belated (by 2 days) birthday present of a St. Helena Island tour. I had also transcribed over a decade of Qld Police Gazettes for the Qld Family History Society. All these Gazettes had a fortnightly list of prisoners about to be discharged from St. Helena, including their age, nationality, physical description, and crimes committed. My interest in St. Helena had a solid base.

St. Helena Island was a penal establishment which ran between 1867 and 1932. It was not a convict prison. Convicts had ceased being transported from Britain by then (the early 1850’s to be precise). It was made up of ‘home grown’ prisoners, those who mostly were born in Australia and committed crimes in Queensland. The mix mostly included whites, Aboriginals, British, Chinese, and Europeans. Being an island (think Alcatraz) there was no means of escape, lest a prisoner attempt to swim to the mainland in shark-infested waters. It was also a hard labour prison, so the inmates were mostly incarcerated for serious crimes.

I didn’t know what to expect as I waited at the jetty. Was it an excitement-packed fun tour, with actors and spooky stories to entertain us? The kind of tour that is usually light on historic facts (after all, we all know how truth gets in the way of a good story)?

May I say, here and now, if you want to experience the kind of tour that I have just alluded to, this is NOT the tour for you. The tour guide, Lauren Penny, has over 20 years experience in St. Helena Island history. She has also written a book, titled “St. Helena Island Moreton Bay, An Historic Account”. St. Helena is her passion, and it showed during the tour. She has a reverence for the island.

On arrival on St. Helena, Lauren explained the Aboriginal historical connection, which I found fascinating, as the Aboriginal people have laid no claim to the island. They have laid claim to nearby Peel Island, however (another fascinating place, as it was the leper colony of Brisbane for many years).

Lauren on a moonlit night
Torches were not required as the moon was spectacular, and perfectly set the mood for the evening. We toured areas such as the storehouse, the newly-renovated museum, the bakery, blacksmith shop, with Lauren providing commentary along the way. The museum is a treasure trove of St. Helena artefacts, including prisoner uniforms, work tools, descriptions of their daily lives, and also descriptions of punishments given for various infringements of the rules. I found the most amusing punishment to be the banning of tobacco rations for some infringements! Tobacco must have played a very important part of their lives for it to be used as a punishment tool.

For me, the cruellest punishment, had I been a prisoner, would have been to look out over to the mainland of Brisbane, never knowing if I was going to set foot on its soil again. The mainland looks so close, but it would have been so far for those inmates.

There were two re-enactments during the tour. The first was a monologue from a ‘prisoner’, detailing how he murdered a warder (unfortunately, it wasn’t the warder he intended murdering, but murder one he did, nevertheless) and his punishment for the crime. The other monologue was from the ‘warder’ murdered by the prisoner, describing how he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and how his death affected his family. Both re-enactments emphasised the human aspect of the prison. The tour guide, Lauren, also stressed several times that this was the home for many people, both prisoners and warders. People who had friends, family, loved ones; people who were missed; people who mattered.

The tour ended at the St. Helena cemetery, which was gloriously moonlit. Again, Lauren recalled a few stories of men who ended their days on the island. To my great surprise, one of the stories concerned a relative of mine (related by marriage to my maternal Aunt). I had known of his crime, and had searched his burial place for several years, to no avail. I was shocked to find that he was buried on St. Helena, but in finding out such information, I can now put his death “to rest”, so to speak!
 The stories that Lauren recalled were not high-suspense, scandal-filled tomes. They portrayed the prisoners and warders and normal people who, had fate dealt them a different hand, may have never set foot on the island.

I have toured some areas in the past that have left me feeling spooked or uneasy, but I didn’t have this feeling when visiting St. Helena. I did feel a sense of sadness, but I strongly felt peace all over the island. I wasn’t expecting that. Tours through Port Arthur left with me physical feelings of depression, but St. Helena did not have this affect on me.

I will have to re-visit St. Helena for a day tour, so as to put all the buildings into daylight perspective. The moonlight tour was thoroughly enjoyable, and I recommend anyone who is interested in visiting St. Helena to do this tour. The numbers were intimate and personal (about 12 visitors in all), the guide, Lauren, was extremely knowledgeable, and could answer any query thrown at her. I purchased her book and look forward to reading it during the cold nights ahead.

For further details of this great tour, email Lauren Penny at qppha@bigpond.com

For details of Lauren’s book, go to http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/prisonstory and http://www.sthelenaisland.net/

Don’t think about it, like I had my whole life. Do it!


St Helena Island National Park Historic Area
St. Helena today (by Dr. M Pearson, from Picture Australia website)