The Federal Senate Speech About the BRGHS

One of the proudest moments in the history of the BRGHS was when our patron, Senator Claire Moore, delivered a speech about us in the Australian Federal Senate in June 2005. 

Claire had visited the Boggo Road Gaol Museum several times prior to this, and had got to know the staff and the work that we did there. We know that Claire has a reputation for hard work and has been involved in many community issues over the years, so it was something of a surprise to us when we were informed that Claire would be speaking about the BRGHS during her maiden speech. It was even more of a surprise when Claire delivered another speech about the BRGHS on the following day.

At a time when our future and that of the site were looking uncertain, Claire's words were a vindication that of all our efforts over the years had been worth it.

Senator Claire Moore, Queensland, Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society patron
21 June, 2005: 10.38pm
Australian Federal Senate

Senator Claire Moore
'Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society'
This evening, I want to make some comments about an amazing group of people who work in Brisbane at the site of the former Boggo Road jail ... Queenslanders would know that Boggo Road is the site of one of our first prisons and is in the centre of Brisbane. The site, which is on prime real estate land now, was first surveyed in 1863. In 1880 it was designated as a prison reserve. In 1898, the Queensland government began building a prison at Boggo Road. It is an extremely beautiful building in a very confronting way, as all old prisons are.

In 1992 this prison was decommissioned as an active prison. So often, we hear that community action is formulated by volunteers, and a group of volunteers got together to form a historical society and use the site for effective education and historical purposes. Four ex-officers - people who had worked at the prison - got together to plan this project. I want this evening to particularly mention Don Walters, who was the guiding light of this particular project. He worked tirelessly for the Boggo Road museum and historical society from 1992 until his death in 2003. The people in this group are mates as well as volunteers and, with his mates John Banks, Bill Eddowes and Steve Davies, Don Walters put together a project which would use the site to educate people, hold artefacts, enable art processes and generally use this part of Queensland's history.

The president, John Banks, is now known as president for life because of his commitment to the process. He is at the prison site regularly and conducts most of the tours. Whilst the tours have been going since 1992, recently the society has moved slightly beyond the first step project of visitation and education. Two particular projects that have been organised recently have had particular import for me because they have been looking at the issue of the death sentence. Queensland was the first state in the Commonwealth to repeal capital punishment - that is something of which I am very proud. The legislation was passed in 1922. It is something that we are educating the current generation about, because there is some concern that there is increasing discussion across Australian communities as well as internationally about the issue of the death sentence. At Boggo Road they have commissioned a special display at the prison site which talks about the history of capital punishment, the various people who were executed on site - who they were, their backgrounds - and the very process of something which is very confronting. The only way that people can come to terms with their own views on this issue is to learn more and try and understand the whole background to it.

A few weeks ago, there was a special function at Boggo Road to launch the site of the capital punishment education project. At that function we were able to mingle with a number of people from schools, historical societies and libraries who had a genuine shared interest in finding out more about the topic and also specifically about Queensland history. It is a very chilling experience not just in terms of just visiting the prison site, which still has an amazing ability to cause me to feel great fear and a sense of isolation when I go there and see the structure and architecture and also the size of the cells and the various conditions under which prisoners existed at the time, but in terms of capital punishment issues - actually seeing the pictures of and learning the histories of the various people who were executed in Queensland at that time.

At that very place, Boggo Road , 41 men and one woman were executed and then buried down the road. There were over 90 people executed in Queensland , and their histories are shown on that site. So many of them came from Indigenous backgrounds. In fact, at the time, capital punishment was only actually carried out in Brisbane , although the court processes were conducted across Queensland . So we learnt the stories of the men and the one woman: where the crimes took place and what type of crime it was. So many of the prisoners were so young - there was one who was 17.

Whilst that alone is only part of the whole experience, at the prison site, with some support from the State Library of Queensland, they have exhibited the actual gallows. You can stand beside it and see the actual timber that was used. It is chilling enough to visit the site, but to actually stand there and recreate the feelings that would have been around at the time is something that most people should experience. Only after you have experienced those feelings can you then consider the import of exactly what capital punishment means.

Another community project which the Boggo Road Gaol Museum people have been involved in is also linked to this issue of capital punishment. There was concern that, after the prisoners were executed at Boggo Road, their remains were taken in ignominy down to the local cemetery and buried in an unmarked grave. Over the last few years, there have been people working in the community and studying the whole aspect of what was happening in our community at that time. They thought that perhaps we could use some further education about who the people were and that we could raise awareness by having some form of public notice about the spot at the local cemetery where these prisoners were buried. So, in a cooperative arrangement, the people from the Boggo Road museum, local community members and the Brisbane City Council put together a community project, the intent of which was to have some kind of marker in the cemetery that listed the names of the people who were buried there - not celebrating or giving these people any extra kind of dignity but just to note that that was the place where people who had been executed were buried.

When this project was being considered, there were some serious debates in the community about whether this was an appropriate thing to do when these people had been found guilty of very serious crimes - having been through the justice system and the final result being public execution - and whether there was any benefit to be gained by having such a project in the Brisbane area. There were community meetings where this was discussed but, by and large, there was an agreement that somehow having this acknowledgment would once again raise awareness of the starkness of the community at the time and the very confronting issue of exactly how the justice system operated and what occurred.

The project was finally concluded, and I was very fortunate to be able to attend the ceremony that was held in the cemetery with a very strong sense of respect and sorrow. We were able to have at that ceremony the descendants of a person who was a victim of one of the crimes for which one of the people had been executed. He was at the ceremony to acknowledge the fact that the person who had murdered his family member had finally been put to rest. There was a sense of closure in the whole process. In that process, we were also acknowledging that, in 1922, the Queensland government became the very first government in the British Empire to abolish capital punishment. That is something that I am not really convinced that a lot of people know.

There was a special stone placed in the cemetery at the very quiet central place where these prisoners were buried. The stone was formally placed there by the Brisbane City Council and the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society on 6 May 2005. The sandstone block was carved by convict labour for the construction of the Boggo Rail Gaol. They used the sandstone that was actually used in the construction of the jail to mark the place. Two broken pieces that have come back together mark the commemoration. We believe that actually represents reparation - the fabric of imprisonment reappropriated to commemorate a humanitarian shift in social policy. By being part of that project, we were hoping that the executed prisoners and their victims could now rest in peace.

I applaud the work of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society. They are under threat at the moment because Boggo Road is now very attractive residential land. We hope that their work will continue. I believe that the education aspects of the kind of work that I have described must benefit the current generation and give us greater knowledge to learn in the future.

Wednesday 22 June, 2005: 7.43pm
'Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society Part 2'
Yesterday evening I began making some comments about a group of volunteers who have given up their time to look at the preservation and educational aspects of a Brisbane city icon - the Boggo Road Gaol precinct ... I have been given the opportunity to continue these remarks this evening. What I wanted to bring home to the community through the discussion yesterday evening was the double value of the involvement of volunteers looking at a valuable historical aspect combined with the genuine ability of an educational process to draw people's attention to the particularly horrific and very personal issue, in many ways, of capital punishment.

As I said, this group of volunteers was stimulated by some work of some ex-officers who had worked at Boggo Road in the capacity of prison guards. They had learned through their own experiences about a range of issues to do with incarceration and its forms and also questions about the whole value of the justice system. They thought that, by sharing their knowledge and skills, they would be able to work together to encourage people across the state of Queensland and those people who are able to visit the area to widen the debate and, at the same time, maintain the quite extraordinary physical presence which is the Boggo Road precinct.

Last evening I mentioned John Banks, who has now been given the title of president for life. He is an ex-officer and gives extraordinary amounts of his time to the gaol, working with people and trying to develop ways to keep the whole project going. He has been joined by his son - I suppose these things are family occasions - Michael, who is the treasurer on paper but who tends to take on a lot of the PR aspects. He has developed a fine range of public speeches whilst he has been involved in PR exercises to draw attention to the precinct, as well as the various projects, such as the very effective and quite traumatic project of making some kind of marker for the graves of prisoners who were executed at the precinct.

Added to this is the skill of a volunteer anthropologist who is able to look particularly at the historical aspects of the justice system, and also at the history of the precinct. Chris Dawson takes on that role, and he also brings a family aspect to his job. Very often when you go to the precinct you meet Chris, who is there doing whatever anthropologists do, and he is accompanied by his small son. There is something particularly affecting about the very large, awesome physical site and watching a two-year-old run quite happily, laughing, in an area which has seen so much pain and trauma. The echoing laughter of Chris's boy as he runs around somehow even makes the experience of being there more poignant. One thinks about the families of previous people who walked there as prisoners - in some cases very long-term prisoners - and also of those people who were caught up in the horrors of the various forms of capital punishment: not only hanging but all the other forms of punishment that took place.

The most amazing group of volunteers has gathered around these people. It is really interesting when you talk with them about what stimulates these men, who all have different backgrounds - and their families, because their partners and kids become involved as well - and about what is the attraction of working on such a project. That is the kind of question that we often ask of volunteers in many community activities: what draws them to this kind of work? And of course you get a wide range of responses. There are some people who have worked in the criminal justice system, who have learned, as part of that experience, about the different things that have occurred and the way justice operates, and who have developed a real interest in looking at and sharing the history.

At the Boggo Road site they have developed a living art museum made up of artwork created by prisoners over a long time. There are different paintings, different leatherwork and messages that have been scrawled on walls: poignant messages that talk about the feelings of people who have been locked away. There is various prison regalia, both uniforms worn by the officers who worked there and the various 'uniforms' that were worn by prisoners. When you look at a historical project that covers a period of over 100 years, you see almost a living history of the Queensland community.

As I said last evening, just walking through this building and its grounds creates enormous personal conflict. You can wander through the area and the very large, impressive buildings which are now open to the public. You can wander through and see the size of the cells in which people lived for very long periods. In the history of the Queensland justice system, and seemingly at Boggo Road , there were very few short sentences. We have on record histories of men - because the Boggo Road site that is now open to the public was exclusively a male prison - who were imprisoned for periods over 20 years.

Somehow, when you walk into the building, there is a coldness about the place. You see the thick bars, wire and the various forms that were designed specifically to imprison. This is the kind of experience that the volunteers want to share with the wider community for a whole range of reasons. For some it is just interest in how it works, in how long people were there and in notorious prisoners or people who are famous in our history for various reasons - not always good. But one of the key groups of people who take the opportunity to visit the gaol is school groups. There is a mixed message there as well. There certainly is a very strong view that if you see exactly what breaking the law can lead to it might lead to an understanding of rights and wrongs and living in the community. If we look at the way the prison service has changed over the years, we can see the way that community attitudes and understanding have been affected.

One of the other things that come out is the sorry statistics of the unduly large numbers of people from Aboriginal and islander backgrounds who are currently incarcerated in the Queensland justice system. This is not new. In fact, as I said last evening, looking at the range of prisoners who were executed in Queensland before we removed the capital punishment process in 1922, the large majority of those people were of Aboriginal or islander backgrounds. That very point creates a discussion point which, as always when you have the opportunity to work with schoolchildren, creates excitement and interest in knowledge, from which we can all benefit because somehow.

When you are involved in a group discussion with kids, they make you think differently about issues you thought you knew. Hearing children ask questions about why people from one particular race are more likely to be imprisoned and why there is not a more inclusive justice system must improve the knowledge and experience of the wider community of Queensland. That is the kind of argument from volunteers who work together at Boggo Road when they are talking about why their work is important and what they can do to improve general information sharing across our state.

As I mentioned last night, Queensland was the first state, and the first place in the whole Commonwealth, that abolished capital punishment. That is something we have to keep talking about because, if we do not, we might somehow lose the advantages we have obtained by reaching this fine position in Australia. I want to quote from a Queensland parliamentary debate. This was a two-hour speech, but I am not doing the whole one tonight. You look disappointed, Senator Colbeck! It is from a Queensland MLA, Joseph Lesina, in the Queensland parliament in 1889. Boggo Road was already there. This gentleman got to his feet in the beautiful Queensland parliament building and made the following comment:

"The criminal is not a wild beast ... he is an erring brother whose feet have wandered from the narrow path which we all weakly strive to follow. To take his life is not the way to cure him; you only brutalise him. It has been condemned by history as a failure ... If I should fail it is only I who have failed for somebody else, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, will take the matter up where I leave it. I feel perfectly sure that it will not be many years longer before the humanitarian feeling which is now spreading through this colony, and all civilised countries, will demand once and for all the abolition of the death penalty."

It took a while, not until 1922, before Queensland followed through with the sentiments in that speech. What we need to do, and what we need for the children who are visiting places like Boggo Road now, is to ensure that never again will that particular horror of the death penalty happen or be discussed in our community.

Transcripts of these speeches can also be viewed at:

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