1934: Boggo Road Warders & the Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw Queensland public servants take big cuts in wages and conditions. This article - adapted from The Truth, July 1934 - details how this situation affected the warders at Boggo Road and led to strike talk: 

'Disaffection Prevails at Boggo Road Gaol.
Not Among Prisoners This Time!
Warders’ Wages Whittled, Clothes Clipped
Luxuries Ladled Out To Lags

A colony of tattered and disgruntled men, soured against authority and shivering as the chill winter winds blast through their threadbare clothes and whistle round their shanks, is in the making at Boggo-road Gaol. Rebellion is in the air, and something must be done quickly if an open insurrection is to be avoided. 

Group photo of Brisbane's Boggo Road Gaol male staff, 1930s (The Truth)

The prisoners? Not this time. Warders are the potential rebels. Scrimping and pruning of their privileges, to say nothing of their rights, has caused a condition of affairs which demands urgent action, for the mutterings of discontent are earnest, and intervention by Home Secretary Hanlon is imperative.

While the prisoners in the cells recline satisfied amid a surfeit of sudden concessions, the equipment of the men who guard and control them has been drastically curtailed. And the warders claim that their deprivations are meeting the cost of the extras given to the prisoners.

The position is really serious, for the latest edicts of the department have come on top of a series of wage reductions which have brought the screws of the 'screws' down to a pittance. Consequently, the general secretary of the State Service Union (Mr. T. Bolger) intends to wait upon the Home Secretary. Mr. Bolger will endeavor to acquaint the Minister with the state of unrest which has existed for some weeks among the warders at the Gaol, and will try to persuade Mr. Hanlon to restore some of the perquisites which have been taken away from the gaol staff. It is understood that he will urge upon Mr. Hanlon that unless remedial measures are authorised immediately, the simmering discontent will reach critical proportions.

In addition, annual increments for wages reduced by rapidly-successive cuts, the recent cancellation of certain equipment, including overcoats, mackintoshes, and cap covers, is regarded as acid poured into their wounds.

Warders' wages, which have never been munificent, have, like more princely civil service salaries, been subject to a series of reductions under the Salaries Act. These reductions now amount to 15 per cent - first they were 6 per cent as from August 1930; then 10 per cent from September in the same year; and finally 15 per cent, which took effect in July, 1931.

In addition, annual increments, formerly given according to length of service, were suspended, to be partially restored afterwards when these increases, originally made every three years, were regulated for every four years. This was called the 'one year lag,' and represented a considerable saving to the Home Department.

How hard the warders have been hit can be judged from the fact that all these cuts were made on wages which ranged only from £230, after one year's probation, to £253, after 15 years' service. Increases allotted every three years ranged from £10 to £25.

Other worlds to conquer, however, are revealed to the traveller on the prison service escalator after he has completed 15 years’ service. If Providence is good, and society has not crumbled, he may be appointed a senior warder at a wage of £295 a year!

And those who, having climbed so far, can still keep a steady head in contemplation of such Government glories, may shield their eyes with their hands and gaze at the glistening spires of the remotest financial citadel - £340 for chief warder, first class, and £310 second class.

But there is a catch in it. The catch is that chief first-class warders have in the past been as scarce as unicorns in Boggo-road. Shekels numbering 340 are not lightly shovelled into pay envelopes by the department. Even the spendthrift junior scale has been shown to have its drawbacks.

A few years ago the supply of warders’ boots was stopped. Sensing; that barefootedness might be all right for Devil’s Island but no good for Boggo-road, despite this move by the authorities, the warders bought their own footwear, and proceeded to wear out part of their princely salaries on the cold cobblestones of the quod. And two years ago the blue serge uniform was lopped from their issue.

The most recent edict is that warders must buy their own great coats and mackintoshes, which will cost from £4/10/- and £4/15/- respectively, and waterproof cap covers are to be discontinued. These decisions mean further inroads upon the warders’ scanty finance.

A striking anomaly is provided by the fact that the treatment of the prisoners has been bettered by the provision of luxury lines. Instead of the plug tobacco that was given to them formerly, they now get a ration of two ounces of fine-cut each week, and, moreover, they have the choice of light or dark. They have also been allotted an extra coat each, and extra blankets. The increase in these latter making the total five or six each.

No wonder the warders are complaining! Those whose coats are worn are not relishing the prospect of buying new ones out of their meagre wages yet they must do so unless they are to go on patrol duty in wet weather and at night without adequate protection.

Theirs is an arduous job. Every hour of their working life they are in constant contact with the roughest element in the community, and are in actual physical danger. Only by the weight of the authority delegated to them are they, a tiny minority, able to keep the prisoners in subjection, and it is obvious that if their grievances are neglected, and indiscipline is germinated, the function of the institution will be affected.

Therefore, it behoves Mr. Hanlon to listen carefully to what the union secretary, Mr. Bolger, will tell him. The gaol superintendent, Captain Whitney, is quite capable of dealing with any situation which fall within his powers, but there is no reason why he should be handicapped by disaffection among his staff due to irritating factors arising as the result of a short-sighted external policy.'


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