Queen Street Gaol, Brisbane (1850-60)

Oct 2, 2015 0 comments
Thanks to government cost-cutting and lack of foresight, the prison that stood on Queen Street in downtown Brisbane during the 1850s was one of the very worst prisons in the history of Queensland. It was constantly criticised in local newspapers and was closed only ten years after it opened. However, the story of this prison reflects the rapid transition of Brisbane from a neglected frontier outpost into the capital seat of a newly-independent colony.

The Queen Street prison building had previously been the ‘Female Factory’, which housed female convicts during the convict years. With the closure of the convict settlement in 1842 Brisbane became a ‘free’ town, but it had no prison. It was still a remote northern outpost of New South Wales, but it grew steadily and it soon became apparent that a prison was needed. Unfortunately the NSW government decided to do the job on the cheap, choosing to renovate the old Female Factory instead of building a new structure. The cost was about £800, a paltry amount compared to the £40,000 that they had recently spent on building Sydney’s Darlinghurst Gaol. The work dragged on for a few years, with the place finally being officially proclaimed open at the start of 1850.

This was the first official prison in what would later become Queensland, as the earlier gaol rooms in the convict settlement had never been proclaimed as a prison.

The white walls of the Brisbane Gaol, Queen Street, circa 1850. St Stephens church is in the background, and the dirt track in front is now Queen Street. (John Oxley Library)
Problems were immediately apparent. The Female Factory, like most buildings of the convict era, had been constructed with weak stone and was already crumbling away when the gaol opened. Inmates could easily scrape away material from the prison walls with little bits of wood, and one reporter called it a 'gingerbread structure'. It was so bad that the editor of the Moreton Bay Courier demanded that a new prison be built just a few months after it opened.

While the weak and insecure buildings raised concerns about escapes, they were also too small for the rapidly-expanding population of the township and overcrowding in the communal wards soon became a pressing issue. Disease was common, ‘harder’ criminals influenced first-timers, and - much to the professed horror of the authorities – homosexual acts were rife.

Layout of the Queen Street prison. (C. Dawson)
By the mid-1850s the NSW government finally recognised the need for a new prison, but political events overtook construction plans. On one hand, the people of Ipswich had aspirations that their town would become the major centre of the region, and campaigned to have the new prison built there. Having a prison was clearly something of a status symbol in the colony! The looming creation of Queensland as a separate colony from New South Wales also delayed construction, as the NSW government were reluctant to spend thousands of pounds on a new prison when, if they waited for a few years, the new government of Queensland could pay for it themselves.

A third factor was the changing attitudes to prison management. The days of herding prisoners into common wards were coming to an end as new methods such as individual imprisonment in separate cells came into practice. A major review of prison operations in NSW was carried out in the mid-1850s, and construction of new prisons was put on hold for the duration.

A new prison was eventually built on Petrie Terrace, and the Queen Street building was closed in September 1860. It was used for a police court before being demolished. The current General Post Office opened on the same site in 1872.

A few facts about the Queen Street Gaol:
  • The gaol contained two male wards, one female ward, and six solitary cells. Figures were disputed, but it could hold between 35-58 inmates.
  • Eight men were hanged at the Queen Street gaol, including Dundalli in 1855. Until 1857, executions took place on the street outside. After the introduction of new private execution laws, the gallows were set up in a prison yard, but they towered over the low walls and had to be draped in black calico to prevent people in the streets from watching.
Dundalli, Sydney Illustrated News, 1854.
  • During 1851 Chinese prisoners accounted for 40% of all running costs. Most were in prison for breaching the Masters and Servants Act.
  • The most famous escapee was alleged murderer Sippey, an Aboriginal, who escaped in 1853. He turned up in the Upper Hunter in 1861 where, under the name ‘Black Harry’, he was convicted of another murder and hanged.
  • In 1857, 400 leading citizens of Brisbane petitioned for a new prison to be built immediately, claiming that conditions inside led to ‘crimes of the most revolting, disgusting and unnatural description’.
  • Stones from the prison were reportedly used to build the Botanic Gardens wall along Alice Street. 
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