Brisbane Has A Secret Island: Experience St Helena Island

Warden explaining the story of a historical structure behind him

2.07min read

Published 2 September 2012


The islands off the Queensland coast are world famous - from Hamilton Island and Magnetic Island in the north down to Fraser Island and Stradbroke Island in the south. Most travellers visit the Queensland islands for relaxation and water-based pursuits, however there's one island which is worthy of exploration for an entirely different reason.

St Helena Island is positioned within Moreton Bay, just off the coast from Brisbane. While today St Helena is scenic and can be visited independently with the assistance of a yacht, kayak or motorboat, it is far more beneficial to take a guided tour courtesy of Cat-O'Nine-Tails Cruises. This island has a fascinating yet gruesome history - as a maximum security jail for men.

Here are my thoughts from the tour.

Warden explaining the story of a historical structure behind him
Warder Hall Explaining the Island's History


Skipper Jeff navigates the catamaran against the pier in Manly, a beautiful coastal suburb of Brisbane and welcomes the eager travellers on board. It's only 30 minutes across the Bay to St Helena Island – as we made the journey the family sitting near me took great delight in spotting jelly fish floating in the water. Over the loud speaker we hear a booming voice, its Warder Hall introducing himself as today's guide.

Remaining in character for the next couple of hours – Warder Hall begins by offering a background to the Island once we've disembarked onto the Island proper. The prison was opened in 1867 and was originally called Green Island II. The name was changed after a local Aboriginal was exiled to the Island in the same way that Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena Island in the Atlantic Ocean off the African Coast.

Along the way we hear that this was one of the most profitable prisons in the country – generating around £16,000 profit in its heyday during the 1890's because of the sugar cane harvested on the island. We learn that this was a silent prison, where inmates were not allowed to speak unless spoken to. However, a fascinating original interview that we listen to in the museum with the son of a guard who lived on the island said that the prisoners would often have conversations with the children. Around 7,000 men called the prison home during its period of operation; with around 300 at any one time.

As we stroll around the island, we see the original Lime Kiln built by convicts, we investigate the remains of the original prison buildings and we admire a cannon dating to 1802 that was used on the island for communications but had previously been used during the Napoleonic Wars. The tombstones of the children who died on the island remain, as do the bare crosses of 56 inmates who died - only one prisoner was claimed by their family. The cattle raise their heads occasionally as the tour group approaches, while the wallabies either dart away or continue grazing on the obviously delicious grass produced by the volcanic soil.

After lunch, Warder Hall, whose commentary is both entertaining and informative, engages the services of Prisoner 86 to demonstrate the various punishments prisoners experienced should they be deemed in violation of the Island's rules. Flogging with a cat-o-nine-tails was common, as was solitary confinement and being forced to carry a cannon ball for 30 minutes after a day's hard labour. Make sure you have your camera ready for the slow motion demonstration of a whipping that Warder Hall and Prisoner 86 kindly demonstrate.

The prison was formerly closed in 1932 after a dismantling process which began in 1922. Luckily for visitors today, not all the buildings were taken down – so that we can gain a sense of what the layout must have been like a century ago.

Ask your local Flight Centre consultant to arrange your St Helena Island Tour with Cat-O'Nine-Tails Cruises.


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