Life in the 1903 Women's Prison

Oct 28, 2015 0 comments
Upon arrival at Boggo Road, new prisoners had to change out of their street clothes and take a hot bath. Their clothes were then searched, fumigated and laundered, and stored in labelled bags in the storeroom. This was done to keep diseases from entering the prison, which was a real fear after an outbreak of bubonic plague in Brisbane in the early 1900s.

Personal details were then recorded, including photographs, weight and height, and fingerprints, along with information about sentencing and criminal records. A visiting surgeon conducted a physical examination of each prisoner at the first opportunity.

Gallery: Scenes from the Female Division 1903-21.

Female prisoners during a kit inspection, Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane 1903.
Kit inspection, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903. (State Library of Queensland)
Prisoners at work in laundry, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903.
Laundry, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903. (State Library of Queensland)
Prisoners at work in the kitchen, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903.
Dinner preparations, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903. (State Library of Queensland)
Prisoners in exercise yard, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903.
Dinner in exercise yard, Female Division, Boggo Road, 1903. (State Library of Queensland)
The cells in what is now E Wing originally had canvas hammocks, while those in F Wing had plank bedsteads and fibre mattresses. In the corner was a tin quart pot, grey branded blanket, a pillow and a coir mat. The cells had no heating in winter, and electric lights were not installed in the cells until 1912.

There was never any plumbing in the cells in this Division. Water for personal hygiene was cold and came from a bucket kept in a corner of the cell. Another bucket, provided with a lid, was used as a toilet. This arrangement created the need for a disposal and cleaning area in order to maintain a healthy environment. 3A Yard contained this facility.

The daily routine

Boggo Road bell. (Queensland Museum)
The daily prison routine was signalled by the large bell located in the wall above the inner entrance gates:

  • 5.50am: The day started with ten tolls of the bell, when prisoners had to get up, make their beds, and prepare to leave the cells.
  • 6.30am: Cell doors were unlocked and the prisoners filed into 3A Yard to deposit their toilet tubs for emptying and cleaning. 
  • 7.00am: First muster of the day was followed by breakfast, which consisted was hominy (a rough porridge). Each prisoner received a linen bag with a daily ration of bread in it and then returned to their cells where they were locked in to eat.
  • 8.00am: The prisoners were returned to the yards for the work muster. They were counted out of the yards at 8.10 and those prisoners with work set off with supervising warders to the workshops.
  • 11.50am: The prisoners left their work places just before midday to give them time to get to the yards and clean up before dinner. They mustered and the supervising officer marched them to the yards.
  • 12.00 midday: Another roll call followed by dinner.
  • 1.10pm: Time to return to work.
  • 4.00pm: The prisoners finished work for the day before being mustered, searched and marched back to the yards. The numbers were checked again before they cleaned their boots, washed, and used the toilet.
  • 4.10pm: Another muster and general roll call. After this the afternoon meal of hominy was eaten in the cells.
  • 4.30pm: The evening search.
  • 5.00pm: All cells and wings were locked. It was still three hours before lights-out, and some prisoners would read in their cells. Until electric lights were installed in the cells in 1912 the only cell lighting after sunset was by candle. The day shift prison officers were relieved by the night shift officers at this time.
  • 8.00pm: The last bell of the day. This was known as the ‘silence bell’, and it let the prisoners know that it was time to douse their cell lights and settle down for the night.
There was no work on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and the prisoners were allowed to spend more time in the yards, where they could play approved games until 4 o’clock. Gambling games involving cards and dice were not allowed. On rainy weekends prisoners stayed in their cells.

For those with religious affiliations, Divine Service was arranged with the Chaplain. The female prisoners also received regular visits from the Sisters of Mercy, the Salvation Army and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

The prison bell also served as an alarm, and if the solitary warder on night duty in the Female Division required assistance she was instructed to ring the bell to summon help from the Male Division.

Prisoner clothing, 1903
The prisoner's uniforms were numbered and branded, and a badge worn on the right arm of the garment indicated what class of prisoner they were. There were two uniforms - one for summer and one for winter:
  • 1 dress of blue and white stripes
  • 1 petticoat of the above
  • 1 pair coarse white stockings
  • 1 white linen apron
  • 1 white linen mob-cap with strings for tying under the chin
  • 1 pair lace up leather boots
  • 1 calico nightdress
  • Unbleached calico underclothing
  • 1 navy and white cotton neck scarf
  • 1 cabbage tree hat for outdoor wear
In winter, the summer uniform was supplemented with one dress and jacket of brown woollen cotton drill serge, and one brown woollen petticoat. Most of the clothes were made at the prison itself, except for the boots which were made at St. Helena. The prisoners were also issued with a comb, soap, spoon and a towel.

The women had to have a regulation hairstyle, with the back hair divided and coiled up in a knot at the back of the head. The front hair was parted down the middle and worn off the face. Sometimes the prisoner's hair was cut on account of vermin or dirt.

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