The 'Proserpine' Prison Hulk

This history of the prison hulk 'Proserpine' is abridged from the Sunday Mail of 4 August 1940.


Save for very old departmental records nothing remains of the story of the prison hulk, Proserpine, which once was anchored at the mouth of the Brisbane River off Lytton.

Established as an overflow prison for the crowded Brisbane Gaol not long after Separation, the hulk, in its years of service, housed many major Queensland criminals. Other confinees would be regarded, historically as victims of the times. Among this latter, the most numerous class, were rebellious sailors from the mercantile marine.

The water police, who lived aboard the hulk, were delighted when a batch of disobedient sailors from a visiting clipper were ordered a few months on the hulk. It was part of their duty to provide a boat's crew for the quarantine doctor, who then was stationed at Lytton.

Moreton Bay has its difficult moments, and a pull to a distant ship against wind and tide called for expert oarsmen. Not that the water police had any real worry over providing good crews. In the sixties and seventies the conditions in the British mercantile marine, as on the ships of other countries, were as near to hellish as could be imagined.

It was in this period that British and American ships in their competition for the China tea trade and the Australian wool trade reached the zenith of craftsman-ship and beauty. Built for fast passages, their hulls were triumphs of the streamlining art, and their enormous sail areas enabled them to take advantage of both the lightest and the strongest winds. Conditions aboard were in distinct contrast to the loveliness of the ships.

The sailors were half-starved, overworked, paid miserable wages, lived in forecastles which air could not enter nor water, once shipped, entirely depart. On most of the ships the crews were com-posed of "shanghaied" men, dropped aboard while insensible from crimp boarding houses. On a very great many the discipline was brutal in the extreme. Sometimes the men took the initiative, demanding better grub; and sometimes, too, they actually preferred a short term in gaol, then freedom in the Colonies. Whichever way it went the records of Brisbane's prison hulk in the sixties provide an indelible story of the treatment of the crews of clipper ships in the hey-day of their romance.

In June and July of 1863 we find that, herded with the criminals of all shades and sorts, aboard the hulk, were 15 members of the British ship Ariadne, then anchored in Moreton Bay. There were also 16 members of the crew of the full-rigged ship, Prince Consort, then in Hervey Bay, men sent down by the Mary-borough bench. Ten seamen from the ship Vernon, nine of them on cumulative sentences, one seaman from the ship Salamander, two deserters from the ship Legion of Honour, kept all these company on the Proserpine.

Nor is the tale finished. They were shortly afterwards joined by 14 members of the ship's company of the Earl Russell and 17 from the Queen of the Colonies! About the time the sentences of all these sailors had finished - and they ran from a month to six months or more - the water police had no dearth of quarantine boat's crews. The 17 men from the Queen of the Colonies, having preferred even the prison hulk to their ship, came back - which speaks volumes for the way they were treated on their ship!

Many charges of embezzlement against individual sailors were made in those days. These embezzlements which led to imprisonment aboard the hulk were mainly raids by the starving crews on the steward's pantry or the cook's galley. Sometimes the object was grog, and we see that a seaman from the Earl Russell was given six months for broaching a bottle of whisky.

Three dauntless souls on the hell-ship, Queen of the Colonies, made nautical history when they returned from a stretch in the hulk to the ship, which was waiting in the bay to load wool. They stole 30 bottles of ale, had a roaring night, assaulted the chief officer, and went back to the prison hulk!

Even one of the world's fastest and most stately clippers, the romantic American Flying Cloud, could not enter Brisbane without depositing some human cargo in the Proserpine. So much for the supply of quarantine boat's crews. Of the other inmates of the floating prison it could be said that they were a very mixed lot, from the wife-beater to the bushranger. There were men on board for failure to fulfil contractual labour under the Masters and Servant Act; others for failure to pay wages due. A bush publican was carrying out a sentence for stealing squatters' cheques from his shearer customers, and another for distilling his own particularly atrocious brand of rum. Easily the most frequent visitors to the hulk were horse thieves. As an old judge once said of these days: "It's a wonder there's a horse left in the colony." On such offenders the judges were particularly hard, giving - particularly at Roma and Rockhampton - sentences of from two to five years for stealing a horse.

As a curious sidelight on judicial impartiality in the early seventies we find the hulk records giving two consecutive entries as follow: Smith, aggravated assault on a woman, six months' imprisonment. Jones, wounding a mare, 5 years' imprisonment. Cattle and sheep thieves were also a numerous part of the harvest garnered by the hulk, and, in an age where station orders and cheques had but lately been the sole currency, it was not surprising to find that forgers and utterers abounded.

Robbery under arms was rife in the days following the discovery of the Gympie and other goldfields, and the Queensland judges of those days showed the gentry of the road no mercy. Fifteen years was the customary sentence. Years of imprisonment were spent on the old Proserpine by a famous character of the sixties. He was James McPherson, alias McAlpin McPherson, alias the Flying Scots-man. He was a somewhat humorous bushranger from the Burnett district, and when he was caught in 1866 the bench showed a distinct lack of humour in dealing with him. He was sentenced to 25 years' gaol. The Flying Scotsman helped to build what afterwards became St. Helena prison. For years he was one of a large party of prisoners taken from the hulk to the island, and there employed at scrub clearing, well sinking, and the building of the old stone jetty."