The Closure of Roma Gaol, 1923

The following article appeared in the Western Star newspaper, 25 August 1923:


Another Landmark to Disappear. Gaol Buildings to be Sold and Removed,

Tenders hare been called by the Works Department for the purchase and removal of the old gaol buildings at Roma, and needless to say no one will regret the disappearance of what has for many years been an eyesore to residents of Roma, particularly those residing in upper McDowall-street. Through the courtesy of Mr. C. W. Conroy, M.L.A. we have been supplied with the following history in connection with the establishment, which will doubtless be of interest to many residents.

It having been decided to establish a gaol at Roma, a notice appeared in the Government "Gazette" dated 21st January, 1871, calling tenders for the erection of a gaol at Roma. The tender of Mr. T. Slaughter was accepted on 25th March, 1871. A proclamation was published in the Government "Gazette" dated 24th December, 1872, proclaiming the buildings recently erected at Roma a "Public Gaol Prison and House of Correction." On 3rd October, 1903, a proclamation was published in the Government "Gazette" discontinuing and closing the Roma Prison, and declaring the building hitherto constituting the prison to be a police gaol. As a result of this proclamation only those persons whose sentences did not exceed a period of thirty days could be detained in the Roma police gaol. A proclamation was published in the Government "Gazette" dated the 24th March, 1923, closing the Roma police gaol, and ordering that any prisoners detained therein be transferred to the Brisbane prison.

The officials were:- Superintendent, matron, senior warder, and two warders. The officials, with the dates of their Respective appointments, were:

Visiting Justices.- George Lionel Lukin, 1st January, 1873; John Murphy 20th August, 1874; Henry T. Macfarlane, 6th June, 1883; William Robert Goodall, 14th August, 1884; Frederick Vaughan, 24th October, 1888; Edmund Filmer Craven, 11th August, 1898.

Visiting Surgeons.- Jacob de Leon, 1st January, 1875; George Comyn, 8th November, 1882; Guy Stuart L'Estrange, 5th June, 1889; Andrew Aloysius Doyle, 24th December, 1901.

Superintendents.- Peter Donnelly, 14th February, 1872; Thomas Smyth, 1st October, 1888; James Ryan, 1st March, 1890; Frank Oswald Schneider, 16th December, 1890.

Matrons.- Ellen Starkey, 24th February, 1872; Margaret Donnelly, 1st January, 1877; Mrs. Ryan, 1st April, 1890; Annie Schneider, 16th December, 1890.

Senior Warders (Principal Turnkey) Robert Starkey, 14th February, 1872; Philip Marshall, 1st February, 1875; Duncan Downie, 23rd October, 1882; Cuthbert John Fetherstonhaugh, 1st October, 1891; John Murphy, 13th October, 1897; Patrick Cahill, 5th November, 1902.

When the Roma prison buildings were declared a police gaol, the sergeant of police from time to time in charge of the police district and his wife were appointed superintendent and matron respectively.

During the thirty-one years from 1872 to 1903 the Roma gaol had many inmates consisting of the law-breakers in the south-west of Queensland convicted of minor offences and sentenced up to a year's imprisonment. In those days punishments were much more severe than at the present time. Perhaps the greatest number of prisoners at one time in Roma gaol was in the early nineties, when this part of the State was in a very turbulent condition owing to the shearers' strike and the results following. There was great bustling of police and defence force being despatched to patrol the western pastoral properties, and Roma's first volunteer or defence force participated in the manoeuvres. They looked a smart force in their red costs and spiked white helmets, and from all accounts acquitted themselves creditably in all engagements.

It was at that time that Superintendent Frank Oswald Schneider was in charge of Roma gaol, and he will be still remembered by old residents. He had been formerly a soldier in the Prussian army, and had been decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Superintendent Schneider was a man of commanding presence, and, according to those who came in intimate contact with him, a typical domineering Prussian militarist, who would have done credit to that product of more recent years. The new superintendent did not believe in making the prison a happy home for those undergoing punishment, and no doubt found the previous system too easy-going for his liking. Accordingly he set the prisoners at work to enable them to return a portion of their keep to the country. It was no uncommon sight for school children 36 years ago to see a gang of men, branded with the broad arrow, and in charge of a warder armed with rifle, drawing a cart to Bungil Creek for sand. They were also employed excavating the dam in the police paddock. A protest was made by residents on the grounds of the unnecessary degradation of the prisoners, and the bad influence such exhibitions might have on the children and after a time the system of labor was practically confined to sawing wood. The saws could be heard going daily by pedestrians passing the gaol, and the sawn blocks were retailed to residents for domestic purposes.

Wisely, prison life has been made much more humane of recent years, and many altruistic experiments are being made to reclaim men to the paths of rectitude. If only a proportion of the prisoners are reformed the experiments will be justified.

There was a lot of mild excitement for Roma youths in the early 90's. Trains from the west frequently carried prisoners, or persons committed for trial to Roma, and the yarns would be circulated amongst the elder schoolboys that a rescue would he attempted from the "Black Maria" by sympathisers. The boys "in the know" often sneaked out, when supposed to be in bed, at the rattle of the Black Maria going to meet the train, but no rescue was ever attempted. Perhaps on another night the train would be stopped before pulling into the station, and the boys would be waiting in the vicinity also. It was wonderful how the "good oil" circulated in those days. Some excitement was caused in later years by the escape of two prisoners one afternoon. They managed to scale the gaol wall, but were recaptured almost immediately.

Recollections or reminiscences of a prison cannot be expected to be a cheerful or entertaining subject, but one of the writer's happiest memories of boyhood is connected, not exactly with the gaol itself, but with one of the warders and his good wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Coakley. Mr. Coakley lived in a cottage some distance from the gaol, and some 30 years ago amongst my tremendous responsibilities was that of delivering the "Star" in the early hours of Wednesday and Saturday morning. When in the vicinity of the prison's awe-inspiring surroundings, the sight of a warder armed with rifle perched up in the lookout doing his vigil was always sufficient to hasten loitering footsteps, and it was always with a feeling of thankfulness when Mr. Coakley's residence nearby was reached. If luck was in, the paper boy would be fortunate enough to deliver the "Star" just as the good wife had prepared a cup of tea for her husband either before he went on duty or had just come off. The little chap was invariably invited into the kitchen to join in the repast, and on the frosty winter mornings the cup of tea and slice of bread and butter were particularly welcome and cheering, and helped considerably to lessen the remainder of the distance, which in those days included the hospital and up the Northern Road to Mr. Spencer's residence. The cheery and hospitable couple somehow made the lad realise it was a mutual disappointment when something occurred to interrupt the usual routine. Anyhow, during the intervening years there has never been anything experienced quite so appetising as that early morning snack.

The prisoners in those days had a kindly and sympathetic custodian in Mr. Coakley, and his cheery disposition would go a long way towards amelorating the discomforts that arose from their unhappy lot. One recollection of Superintendent Schneider might be interesting. Mr. Schneider walked into the "Star" Office one afternoon when the same lad was in charge, and inquired the cost of inserting a casual advertisement. Upon being told sixpence a line, he produced a piece of paper about 18 inches long and an inch wide, with two closely written lines, and planked down his shilling. The lad had just enough experience in those days to know the "ad" when set up would make at least eight lines in type, but, with visions of a diet of hominy ahead, did not dare do more than meekly point this out to the august presence across the counter. He, however, was too dense to understand, or else insisted on the agreement (his own interpretation) and bounced out leaving his "bob" on the counter. The advertisement appeared in next issue, and when the transaction was explained to the "Boss," he saw the joke, and quietly remarked that in future he would have to deal with Mr. Schneider himself. Needless to say the imposition was never attempted again.

The writer had his first experience of the inner precincts of Roma gaol some weeks ago, when kindly shown over by Sub-inspector O'Hara. The whole buildings are in a dilapidated condition, but the outside walls are the worst. Inside everything was solidly constructed, and the cells particularly so. These and the stockade are surrounded by rows of logs which were inserted vertically in the earth to prevent prisoners digging their way underneath buildings or the stockade. There was also a smaller yard and cells for the female prisoners. In another portion can still be seen evidence of the visits of the medical officers in the shape of medicine bottles and a large array of dental instruments.

The decision to remove from the otherwise pleasant surroundings of one of the State's most important country towns an establishment that for many years has been a useless disfigurement will be joyfully hailed by the community of Roma.'