St Helena Island: Colonial Prison Island Where Escape Is Almost Impossible

Thirty minutes away via boat ride from Manly’s bayside lies the infamous former high-security colonial prison. Queensland’s first penal settlement, St Helena Island, was considered Brisbane’s version of Alcatraz where escape is almost impossible.

Much like the notorious Alcatraz, St Helena was meant to be an escape-proof prison for the worst of offenders from 1867 to 1932. Although today, little is left of the prisoner-built original structures – approximately 7 per cent remains – the stone ruins offer a glimpse into the former prison’s dark past and 19th-century prison life.

During the prison island’s early years, several construction works were undertaken using building materials quarried from the island and bricks made from clay sourced onsite. Some of the structures built include two cell blocks, a kitchen, a bakehouse, a hospital, underground tanks, and the Superintendent’s house. 

Then a lime kiln and a sugar mill were also added and soon after workshops were built where prisoners engaged in bootmaking, tailoring, candle making, and bookbinding, among others, whilst the trustees kept themselves busy with animal husbandry and agriculture.

Prisoners making boots on St Helena Island
Prisoners making boots on St Helena Island | Photo Credit: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as ‘Noogoon’ by local Australian Aboriginals, St Helena Island flourished as a prison during its lifetime which at one point was considered the world’s best prison of its kind. Despite the limited area of just 166 hectares, the prison has been well-managed, self-sufficient and profitable primarily due to its established enterprises.

Its Ayrshire dairy cattle, at the time, won awards at the RNA show whilst the olive groves produce award-winning oil at shows in Italy. The residence of the Superintendent of the prison is known to have had expansive gardens surrounding it, and for many years have been considered among the state’s best gardens.

Prisoners making boots on St Helena Island
Prisoners making boots on St Helena Island | See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, prison life wasn’t as ideal with stories of constant floggings, torturous isolation in solitary confinement and mistreatment particularly for the Aboriginal prisoners, earning St Helena Island the reputation as “Queensland’s inferno”.

Despite being a secure prison, there have been several attempts to escape the iron rule at the penal establishment. Most of the about 50 men who attempted escape were recaptured, some drowned whilst others were caught years later.

There is one particular prisoner, though, that was never recaptured: a notorious gunman by the name of Charles Leslie who, with help of accomplices, escaped the prison island in 1924 using a motorboat.

By the 1920s, the island prison began showing signs of deterioration. And during its final years, many of the prisoners were moved to the Boggo Road Gaol and buildings were demolished, with the work also done by the prisoners themselves. The prison ceased operation in 1932.

In October 1979, St Helena Island was established as a national park, becoming Queensland’s first historic national park although the idea was originally put forward as early as 1910 by the then Mayor of Brisbane.