The 'Julia Percy' and the 'Proserpine' (1863-67)

Map of QueenslandA new Brisbane prison was opened on Petrie Terrace in 1860, but a few years later it was already full to capacity and the authorities needed another incarceration facility to cope with the overcrowding. The solution was the use of old ships, called ‘hulks’, moored in the Brisbane River.

The first hulk to be used in this way was the brig Julia Percy, purchased by the colonial government from Robert Towns in mid-1862 for use by the water police as a holding place for deserting seamen. The Julia Percy had been built at Portland Bay, Victoria, in 1847 and measured 67 x 19 feet, weighing 61 tons.

Although £871 was spent refitting this hulk, a few months later she was condemned but remained at anchor off Fisherman's Island, housing the water police and prisoners until she could be replaced. The hulks were used to hold both criminals and mutineers, and among the prisoners on Julia Percy in June and July 1863 were 15 crew members of the British ship Ariadne, who had attempted to mutiny during the voyage to Moreton Bay; 16 men from the Prince Consort, then in Hervey Bay; ten seamen from the Vernon, one seaman from the Salamander; and two deserters from the Legion of Honour. They were joined soon afterwards by 14 men from the Earl Russell and 17 from the Queen of the Colonies. Many of these men were charged with such crimes as breaking into their ship’s stores.

The Julia Percy was sold in late 1863 and re-rigged as a brigantine. She was replaced by the Margaret Eliza, an American-built barque of 505 tons which the government purchased in January 1864 at a price of £3000. She was refitted, towed to Fisherman’s Island among the mangroves and mosquitoes, and renamed Proserpine. The official reason for changing the name remains unknown, but in Greek mythology Proserpine was the wife of Hades, King of the Underworld, and is said to have kept a boarding house in hell.

The Proserpine had ten separate ‘cells’ but could hold up to 60 men. In 1864 a total of 104 prisoners were held there. 108 were confined there during the following year – all of them white men. One of the prisoners on board was James Alpin McPherson, the ‘Wild Scotsman’, one of Queensland's most colourful bushrangers, who received a 25-year sentence in 1866.

A Water Police guard lived aboard the vessel, and used the prisoners as oarsmen when the services of boats' crews were required. The prisoners were also taken to St Helena Island each day and employed in scrub clearing, well-sinking, and building the stone jetty and other buildings. The Proserpine was used as a prison hulk until May 1867, when the St Helena Island Penal Establishment officially opened and all the inmates were transferred there. 

A barque.

The Proserpine became a reformatory for about 50-60 boys in 1871. This was done to separate the boys from the corrupting influence of adult prisoners. The hulk was then under the supervision of a Superintendent and a Visiting Justice, and was visited by a medical officer and school teacher who looked after the health and education of the inmates. The Proserpine was used in this way until 1881.

In mid-1881 she was recorded as being anchored in the Milton Reach of the river, for use as a quarantine vessel during a smallpox scare. Around this time she was described in the Brisbane Courier as a ‘leaky, rotten, old tub, fit only for firewood’. This proved to be her fate in early 1882, when she was towed back to St Helena Island and broken up for firewood and scrap metal.

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