Fortitude Valley Police Gaol (1863–1903)

Oct 2, 2015 0 comments
The police lockup at Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, can be included in this series as it was officially proclaimed a prison in September 1863, even though it does not appear to have been used as such, probably because of the existence of a female ward at the Petrie Terrace prison until 1870. It was listed in the 1878 government Blue Book as a gaol, but was referred to as a police gaol in the 1890 Prison Act. Police gaols were used for prisoners serving sentences of less than a month, and for those awaiting trial or transfer to another prison.

Female prisoners in Brisbane in the mid-to-late 19th century were sent to either the prison on Petrie Terrace, the Toowoomba prison (from 1870), or the Fortitude Valley facility on the corner of Brookes and Church streets. It had been constructed in 1860 and consisted of two dirty cells measuring about 10x15 feet. In 1887 the average daily number of prisoners held in these cells was 11, although at one time 23 had been confined there ‘huddled together like cattle and not human beings’ according to one Brisbane Courier report. The prisoners slept on the floor with a pair of blankets underneath and another pair over them. There was a yard outside where they would cook for themselves. These yards were often overgrown with grass and had stagnant water in them, due to poor drainage, and the stench from the earth closets could be overpowering. The gaol was next to a state school, ‘from the playground of which everything said in the yard by the prisoners can be heard’. Children were reportedly kept in the gaol on occasion with their mothers, including boys aged 9 to 11 years old.

Members of the Christian Women's Temperance Union, Brisbane, 1901. (John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)
The prison was regularly visited by the Sisters of Mercy, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Salvation Army officers, who tried to help the inmates back onto the ‘straight and narrow’. These visitors were shocked by the conditions they found, especially with young prisoners ‘packed as close as cattle in a railway truck with creatures so vile that no language at our command will convey an adequate conception of their degradation’. In 1887 a major inquiry into the Queensland prison system was launched. It was found that the ‘old hands’ were using the prisons as recruitment grounds for young prostitutes, and the inquiry heard that one 17-year-old girl held at Fortitude Valley awaiting trial had been approached by a ‘notorious brothel keeper’ who made the ‘most improper overtures to her, and that if she went to a certain address after her release, she would get plenty of flash clothes and $10’.

The authors of a major 1887 report into the Queensland prison system found that keeping the women and girls in common wards instead of separate cells led to the ‘worst evils of indiscriminate association and of mixing tried and untried prisoners’ and called for new facilities that allowed for ‘separation’.
‘It is the system that is at fault, and until that can be altered and female prisoners confined separately, with classification for work purposes, we may regard the gaol as little better than a manufactory of abandoned and criminal women.’ (‘1887 Inquiry into Gaols’)
The dilapidated Fortitude Valley lockup was subsequently demolished and a new facility erected in its place in 1889. Although it was still small, the new building allowed a limited amount of separation of the prisoners. It featured four ordinary cells measuring 8x12 feet, rooms for bathing, storage and cooking, and two yards. Two punishment cells measuring 8x10 feet were erected in 1891, as these were ‘urgently required for enforcing obedience and discipline’.

Ground plan of the Fortitude Valley police station and lockup, ca.1903. By this time there were four regular cells and two punishment cells in the building. (Queensland Police Museum)
Throughout the 1890s the comptroller-general of Queensland prisons, Charles Pennefather, repeatedly requested that a new prison for women be built. A state-of-the-art female prison - with two whole wings containing separate cells - opened on Boggo Road, Woolloongabba in October 1903 and Fortitude Valley was subsequently gazetted closed as a police gaol. All female prisoners were transferred to the new prison.

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