However, this is not the island, nor the Napolean, that you might think; rather, the little known story of one of Australia's more fascinating gaol ruins.
An Island Gets a New Name
In 1828, a young aboriginal man held at the penal station on Stradbroke island became a handful for the warders. The aboriginal man named 'Napoleon' was soon exiled to one of the Green Islands, which became named St Helena thereafter ( after 'Saint Helena' island in the Atlantic Ocean where Napoleon Bonaparte had been exiled and died). However Napoleon (the aboriginal) did not die within his exile but rather constructed himself a canoe and made his escape.
Starting in 1865, a quarantine station was built on the island in order to seperate cases of disease and pestilence brought over on sailing ships before they made it to the mainland population. The construction of the quarantine stations buildings and facilities was done with prison labor. The prisoner work details were accomodated in the off shore hulk 'Proserpine', anchored just off the island and were ferried to the island in the morning and back to the hulk at night. Under the supervision of tradesmen the prisoners were set to work sinking wells, cutting and shaping stone, clearing scrub and erecting the buildings.
However, with overcrowding in Brisbanes Gaols the plans for the quarantine station were scrapped and soon the prisoners on the Proserpine set to work converting the buildings and constructing new ones for a gaol instead. In May, 1867, the Governor of Queensland signed a proclamation declaring the island a place for the detention of hard labour prisoners. This included men convicted of Murder, manslaughter, rape and violent crimes.
A Hard and Cruel Life
There were other 'non prescribed by the book punishments' that tended to be more personnal in nature. Although at times guards and warders would be put up for charges of misconduct and neglect towards the prisoners, it is accepted that there was much more of that type of activity going on than was brought forward. If a prisoner complained or spoke out about his treatment by a guard, but the charge was dropped, that prisoner would be marked and life became much harder.
With life being so punishing on the island, also claimed to being a top model for prisons, there were many attempted escapes. Around fifty prisoners attempted escape through the islands life as a prison, but very few went uncaptured and of those who were never seen again it is assumed they perished in the attempt.
Being as St Helena was a maximum security prison it was very well guarded. Even if the prisoners could escape their cells, climb the palisade walls and avoid the guards they still needed to cross approximately 5kms of shark infested waters.
Frederick Sven Hamilton was one man who attempted escape. On Thursday, 26th March, 1914, he was reported missing and a mass search of the island and the mainland was carried out. Although newspapers reported he was seen in the Brisbane Area the following Saturday, this turned out not to be true. In fact he had been hiding out on the island and was finally ready to set off out over the water on the Sunday when he was recaptured. His method of transport over the shark infested waters; a bathtub and dressing table. Frederick Hamilton was subsequently returned to his cell.
In January, 1921, Peter Burketown also attempted to make the water crossing on a rudimentary raft but did not fare as well as Hamilton. Peter went missing from the island but was soon spotted by the captain of the ship 'Pumba', two and a half miles out to sea. The captain brought his ship close to Peter and offered him a hand to which Peter refused. The crew of the Pumba then attempted to catch hold of the escapee with a boat hook, but upon seeing this Peter jumped from his makeshift raft into the water.
A boat was lowered into the waters but Peter, having difficulties staying afloat, slowly went under. One of the men on the boat reached over to grab a hold of peters hair but it was too short: he had had it cut earlier that week!
Peter Burketown was lost to the depths.
A Prison Closes
In 1933 the island was opened to the public as it still is to today. If you take the ferry from Moreton Bay you can visit the ruins of the buildings that still remain, many having been demolished, once again through prison labour. On the south end of the island are located several cemteries. One for the prisoners and one for the warders children. There are more than sixty burials that are known on the island but chances are there are many more.
As for ghosts, St Helena Island has the typical trappings of a haunting one will find in many early Australian gaols. The odd out of place sounds, the feeling of being watched, the sensation of having unseen people brushing past you... There really are not too many stories of ghosts to be found, however, you can take in a theatrical ghost tour of the island. Regardless, many of those who have visited have experienced the despair and sadness the prisoners felt being held on 'Queenslands Inferno'.