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St Helena Island - Hell hole of the South Pacific


The crudely-dressed officer in tatty blue overalls, gun slung around his waist and feet shod in cracked leather boots, marched us two by two, across the island.

It was 1904 and we were marooned in a place known as “The Hell Hole of the South Pacific.”  We were insulted, humiliated and whipped by our unrelenting taskmaster, and the strange thing was, we were enjoying the experience.

Few people would imagine spending their Sunday afternoon in such a way, let alone paying for the privilege. But it's all part of the experience on a fascinating historical tour of St Helena Island in Brisbane's Moreton Bay.

Established as a penal colony in 1867, St Helena Island functioned as a men's high security prison for more than 60 years, and housed some of Australia’s hardest criminals.

Now, thanks to A B Sea Cruises, visitors are taken back 100 years, as the history of this former prison is brought to life. The dramatised, interactive tours give day-trippers an exciting insight into Brisbane's gruesome penal past.

St Helena Island, now a National Park, sits peacefully in the glistening waters of the bay, a pleasant 30-minute cruise from Manly Harbour.

The undulating and verdant landscape with its inquisitive Droughtmaster cows, its peacocks and crumbling buildings, provides a peaceful respite from the rush of city life.  It's hard to believe that a place this beautiful hides such a harrowing and brutal history.  However, with the skill of trained actors, and a little imagination, the island's past springs to life before your eyes.

Warder Montgomery (aka Brad Ainsworth), commanded us around Australia's Alcatraz, pronouncing us 'maggots' and engaging us with grisly anecdotes. From the moment we stepped on board until the time we returned to Manly Harbour five hours later, Brad Ainsworth played his character with ease, demonstrating various punishments and relating tales of murder, drowning convicts and their endeavours to escape.

Overcrowding in Brisbane's gaols resulted in St Helena being used as a penal colony. The first criminals there constructed the prison buildings themselves from coarse beach rock quarried on the island. Prison labour was used for all activities such as agriculture, tailoring, book-binding, and carpentry, making the island virtually self-sufficient.

The St Helena Penal Establishment was, at one stage of its operation, considered to be the best prison of its kind in the world.  The high perimeter walls, the armed guards, barred windows, and leg irons weren't the only reason the prison was high security.  Being an island surrounded by shark-infested waters certainly helped.  Fresh blood and offal from the island’s cattle was regularly dumped into the ocean to tantalise the taste buds of hungry tiger sharks waiting to sink their teeth into any escapee foolish enough to attempt the 8km swim to the mainland.

A B Sea Cruises' tour boat, christened The-Cat-o'-Nine-Tails, shares its name with a knotted whip used on the island to punish unruly prisoners.

Skipper Jeff Simpkins, an accredited National Parks and Wildlife Services guide and former Environmental Education teacher, has been coming to St Helena for 20 years and has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about the island.

For Jeff, the best part of operating A B Sea Cruises is bringing history to life. “I think teaching with drama is a very powerful and effective way to help people understand the past. History should be about learning what people were like and how they interacted with their environment, not about learning dates,” he said.

As well as day tours, A B Sea Cruises also offers night-time Ghost Tours which are a theatrical portrayal of 19th Century prison life amongst St Helena's floodlit ruins. For school groups there are a variety of day trips such as Time Travellers, Defenders of the Past, and Moreton Bay Investigators.

The company will also host the Festival in the Ruins from the 20th-21st May to coincide with the launch of Archaeology Week.

But back to 1904! We were marched to the island's cemetery where the unclaimed bodies of prisoners lay beneath modest gravestones. Each stone was simply inscribed with the prisoner’s number, rendering them anonymous in both life and death.

A phlegmy rendition of The Song of St Helena from our uncouth warder ended our tour and we were forced back on the boat; the lucky ones who got away.

However, we vowed to risk coming back to the island to experience the thrill and chill of the Ghost Tour with its tales of death and dismemberment.

As we cruised back to the mainland, to the forest of white masts bobbing up and down in Manly Harbour, we were accompanied by a small pod of dolphins who welcomed us back into the 21st Century.

Travel Access
Tours to St Helena Island with A B Sea Cruises depart from the William Gunn jetty in Brisbane's bayside suburb of Manly.  Bookings are essential.

St Helena by day
Adults $69, Concession $59, Children $39
Weekdays, departs 9:15am, returns 2:15 pm
Weekends, departs 10am, returns 3pm
Lunch is provided as part of the tour and includes freshly baked muffins made by Jeff’s wife, Gay.

St Helena Ghost Tour
Adults $79, Concession $74, Children $44
Departs on various Saturday nights throughout the year, depending on bookings.  Price includes Cruise, Dramatised Tour, Buffet Dinner and Dessert as well as National Parks fees.

The island has a museum with official photographs and memorabilia dating back to its early days, and a model replica of the prison when it was running at full capacity. There are picnic facilities and public toilets.

For more information:

A B Sea Cruises
Tel +61 7 3893 1240
Fax+61 7 3393 3726

About the author
Faye Lillie wrote this article

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  this is cooooll.. thanks for itt. I AMM 500 YEARS OLD!~!!!!!!! hahaha

Posted on Nov 01 2009 at 12:34

  For a great website which has all the colourful historical background to this former colonial prison on St Helena Island, check out
Posted on Jan 31 2011 at 11:55

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