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St Helena Island today

Several kilometres from the mouth of the Brisbane River lies the small island of St Helena. For more than 60 years from 1867, St Helena Island was home to thousands of society’s outcasts, for here was located colonial Queensland’s foremost prison for men.

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During those years, and in the decades following its closure in 1933, the lovely little island gained a fearful reputation as ‘the hell hole of the Pacific’ and ‘Queensland’s own Devil’s Island’, where men were reputedly ‘kept chained by day and night’, ‘flogged to death’ and ‘hurried under the sod while their oppressors turned on those still living’. It was a place to dread for the colony’s murderers, rapists, bushrangers, rebels, thieves and men of like violence and mayhem. They were subjected to the lash, the dreaded black hole, the gag and straight-jacket, and energy-sapping shot drill. Life could be tough on St Helena. It was a secure prison – but dozens of men were desperate enough to attempt escape. Few succeeded.

But St Helena also gained a reputation as a self-sufficient model prison, held in high regard by visiting interstate and overseas penologists, churchmen and journalists, for here men could be rehabilitated through learning such trades as tailoring, bootmaking, tinsmithing, saddlemaking, and farming pursuits. Indeed, it was claimed that the prison was for the inmates ‘a perfect paradise... In fact they often want to get back there’.

Where does the truth reside? Was the St Helena Island Penal Establishment ‘living hell’ for society’s miserable outcasts or was it ‘a remnant of old Eden’?

You can decide by exploring Jarvis Finger’s bestseller – The St Helena Story.

In 1979, St Helena Island became the State’s first historic national park, for here, in the ruins of that old prison, slumbers a fascinating chapter in Queensland’s history.

This website is dedicated to that chapter. Its contents are extracted from The St Helena Story.

Begin your journey into this captivating story now

Do you want a brief account of the island’s history?

Would you prefer to explore a fascinating selection of brief episodes from the book?

Or browse a collection of photographs, documents and relics?