• Dr Tony Brady

The Teachers of St Helena - Part 1

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

In 1875, Queensland introduced The State Education Act and established the Department of Public Instruction. This heralded the beginning of free, compulsory, and secular primary education for children from six to twelve years of age. Although the compulsory provision of the Act was not fully implemented until 1900, the department did take action to deliver education to as many eligible children as was possible. However, the vast area of the state, the widely and thinly dispersed population, the dearth of transport infrastructure, and the daunting physiography all proved obstacles to the delivery of education. Queensland’s unique circumstances provide a wealth of opportunity for fascinating studies, most of which remain largely unexplored. One remarkable example is the difficulties the novice Department of Public Instruction faced in delivering education to the children of the warders at St Helena Penal Establishment.


The Picture: St Helena Island in Moreton Bay, Queensland


HM Penal Establishment St Helena Island, 1916. The Schoolhouse can be seen at the end of the line of warders’ homes. It is the last building on the bottom right-hand side of the photograph. [1]

The 1000 Words: (Part 1 of 3)


St Helena, Moreton Bay.


St Helena Island is located five kilometres out from the mouth of the Brisbane River in Moreton Bay. The island, originally known as Noogoon, received its European name in 1828 when an Aboriginal man known locally as Napoleon, due to his resemblance to Emperor Bonaparte, was exiled to the island for stealing an axe. The name St Helena endured, unlike Napoleon’s exile, which ended shortly after he built a canoe and paddled home (Meston and Archive CD Books Australia, 2007 p. 126.). Other than as a place of fishing and hunting for the indigenous, the island remained relatively untouched until being utilised for a short time in the 1860s as a dugong station. Then in 1866, prison labour from the prison hulk ‘Proserpine’ constructed buildings on St Helena to provide a quarantine facility for the expanding sea trade entering Brisbane through Moreton Bay. The island’s time as a quarantine facility was short-lived, in 1867, overcrowding of Brisbane’s jails and hulks prioritised the use of St Helena as a prison.


A Prison Island


Originally, St Helena was manned by warders and a military guard. A police guard replaced the soldiers in March 1869 and the police worked in conjunction with the warders until 1872, when the warders took sole responsibility for guarding the prisoners. To begin, all of the warders on St Helena were single men; however, married men gradually filled the warders’ numbers, so that by 1878 reports stated that most of the warders were married men and that seven of these lived with their families on the island. The prison storeman and warder, John North, conducted a part-time school for the fifteen children considered old enough to attend classes. Despite the children all being very young, it was reported by a visiting journalist that they were ‘well up in the rudiments of a plain education’. [2] By 1881, fifteen families resided on the island, including two families using tents for their homes. Four new cottages were constructed on the eastern side of the island to accommodate the rising number of warders living with their families. At the southern end of the line of warders’ cottages was a schoolhouse, built in 1874, that doubled as the church on Sundays. Measuring four metres by seven metres, the schoolhouse had four tall windows on each side with an iron roof and an entry via the porch on the inland end of the building. At first blush, it appears the educational needs of the children on St Helena were well catered for; yet, they were still excluded from the State education system: there was no set curriculum, the instructor was not a qualified teacher, and there was no scheme of inspection or reporting.


More disturbingly, the group accommodation the prisoners lived in forced the exposure of young, inexperienced first offenders to the ‘promiscuous depravity’ of their career-hardened cellmates. Children on the island could hear screams emanating from the prison as well as the foul language and abuse prisoners regularly hurled at the guards. Lashings were a common sight, with prisoners receiving up to fifty lashes with a cat-o-nine tails from one of their fellow prisoners. An inmates would be ordered to administer the lash and would receive extra rations or a reduction in their sentence based on the veracity of their effort (Penny, 2010). These barbaric surrounds desperately required a distraction for the children and tools to provide them the means not to proceed down the same path as the majority of their surrounding community. The situation raised some serious concerns for the future wellbeing of these children.


Mass Education


The advent of mass education through the 1800s was driven partially by the belief that education would reduce crime; that idle minds more readily turned to delinquent behaviour, and the theory that education could facilitate a lawful, urbane citizenry still prevailed in the 1880s (Moore, 2005, Karier et al., 1973 p. 12., Grundy, 1972). The skill to read and write was viewed as a major factor in the reduction of crime. Australian newspapers in the mid-1800s regularly proffered statistics comparing the rise in literacy to the reduction in criminal behaviour.


The influence of education in crime is shown by the fact that the class who are unable to read and write contribute proportionally four times as many criminals as the class who both read and write. [3]

Moreover, mass education was viewed as a means to instil a sense of discipline, enhance citizenship, foster an adherence to schedules, and cultivate the expectation of assessment. As Curtis notes:

At various historical moments national unity, civic harmony, and social solidarity have been seen to depend upon the incorporation of populations under more or less uniform and universal political and cultural conditions… through national education… governments sought to encourage national sentiment (Curtis, 2003).

These thoughts must have occupied the minds of the parents of the thirty children living their insular island life in close proximity to serious criminals. It is not surprising then, that in 1881, the prison Superintendent, John McDonald, requested a trained teacher to rein in the children he reported were running wild on the island (Finger, 1993).


A Teacher Requested


On 6 April 1881, the Colonial Secretary, Arthur Hunter Palmer, wrote to the Department of Public Instruction requesting a teacher for St Helena. He stated; ‘I understand that a person of the provisional teacher class would suffice; but he should be a man combining gentleness with firmness and force of character’. Palmer advised the Undersecretary of Public Instruction, John Gerard Anderson, that the selected teacher was required to teach a class of prisoners in the evening in addition to teaching the children at the school. He further stated, the teacher would receive quarters, board, and one hundred pounds per annum to be paid by the Colonial Secretary’s Office. Palmer further emphasised that the Colonial Secretary’s Office, ‘will have entire control of the teacher’. [4] It became a matter of contention whether the St Helena teachers were informed of these conditions, or that their compulsory posting entailed being annotated as, ‘Services dispensed with’ by the Department of Public Instruction and their services transferred to the Colonial Secretary’s Department.


#history #australianhistory #queenslandhistory #historywithheart #colonialaustralia #colonialhistory #colonialteachers #prisons #prisonwarders #sthelenaisland #school #historyofeducation #teaching #colonialsecretary #deptofpublicinstruction #publicinstruction #compulsaryeducation

Bibliography and Notes

Curtis, B. (2003) State of the Nation or Community of Spirit? Schooling for Civic and Ethnic-Religious Nationalism in Insurrectionary Canada. History of Education Quarterly, 43, 325-349.


Finger, J. (1993) The schoolteachers of St Helena: The hazards of teaching warders' children in colonial Queensland's island prison, 1881-1890. The Educational Historians' Monograph, vol. 6.


Grundy, D. (1972) Secular, compulsory and free: the Education act of 1872, Carlton, Victoria, Melbourne University Press.


Karier, C. J., Violas, P. C. & Spring, J. H. (1973) Roots of crisis: American education in the twentieth century, Rand McNally.


Meston, A. & Archive CD Books Australia (2007) Geographic history of Queensland, Modbury, S. Aust., Archive CD Books Australia.


Moore, K. (2005) Bestowing 'Light' upon 'the Moral, Physical and Intellectual Culture of Youth': Promoting Education in the New Colonial Society of Brisbane between 1846 and 1859. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 37, 203 - 217.


Penny, L. (2010) St Helena Island, Moreton Bay: an historical account, Capalaba, Qld., Inspire Publishing.



[1] . “Fiona Pearce Collection’, courtesy of the Heritage Unit, Moreton Bay Region Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service

[2]. The Sketcher (William Lane), "Life at St Helena," Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld.), Saturday 16 March 1878, 13.

[3]. "Crime and Education," Brisbane Courier (Qld.), Monday 11 February 1889, pp. 4-5.

[4]. Queensland State Archives, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Hand written letter dated 6 April 1881. Titled; 'St Helena Hand to the General Inspector', recommendation in red ink on the side margin.