• Dr Tony Brady

The Teachers of St Helena - Part 2.

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

The Image:

Graveyard on St Helena Island marking the last resting place of the people that never left the island. People to die and be buried on the island included some of the children of the warders that guarded the prisoners.

The 1000 Words:


William Mahon


On 6 April 1881, the Colonial Secretary, Arthur Hunter Palmer, wrote to the Department of Public Instruction requesting a teacher for the children of warders on St Helena prison island. Undersecretary of the Department of Public Instruction, John Gerard Anderson, replied to the request, recommending William Mahon for the position. He stated:


‘Mahon is a teacher of considerable ability and some training who has taught for several years in New South Wales and Queensland’.

He added, Mahon’s last teaching position was at Maroochy, where he had ‘given great satisfaction’. [1] Mahon had completed his college studies in Dublin, Ireland before migrating to Australia. A former pupil recalled he had a ‘genial disposition and was well liked by all — even the scholars’. He was very fond of music and singing and each day he would play his concertina as the pupils sang along. [2]


Mahon was appointed as the teacher on St Helena, and the schoolhouse was officially designated Provisional School No. 12 on 8 April 1881. On taking up the position, Mahon was required to sign an agreement stating he would act as a warder. Assurances were given that acting in this capacity would only be necessary in the event of an emergency, such as an escape or a riot, in which case he would be required to take up arms and defend the armoury.


To ensure he would be proficient with his rifle, Mahon was required to participate in regular practice at the firing range. Signing the agreement also bound Mahon to the warder’s code of conduct. He could not leave the island without permission and all correspondence beyond the island required the Superintendent’s approval. Furthermore, the Prisons Act of 1890 prohibited alcohol on St Helena and the Act made it an offence to smoke, argue, or use improper language in the presence of a prisoner. The isolation of island life also necessitated rationing and Mahon received the same allocation of flour, meat, tea, sugar, and vegetables as the warders. [3] Accounts from some warders indicate their rations were less than the prisoners were receiving; forcing them to purchase additional supplies from the Superintendent at prices they believed were inflated (Penny, 2010, Ba Pe et al., 1975). The imposed conditions excluded anyone employed as the teacher at St Helena from most of the rights and benefits enjoyed by teachers in other State schools. Furthermore, these conditions imposed a reliance on fair treatment from the Prison Superintendent.


The isolation intensified shortly after Mahon arrived on the island. Anderson informed him although he was employed by the Colonial Secretary’s Office, he would be required to ‘conduct the school in all respects as an ordinary State School’. This meant, a district inspector would assess the school and Mahon was required to keep the normal school registers and furnish the school returns to the Department of Public Instruction. [4] However, the Colonial Secretary directed Mahon that all future communication concerning education:

‘shall be forwarded through Mr McDonald, the Superintendent of the Penal Establishment and shall bear his initials’.

Furthermore, any correspondence from the Department to Mahon would need to transit via the Superintendent. [5] The total authority of the Superintendent ultimately brought about Mahon’s demise. Despite District Inspector Platt noting that ‘a better appointment could not have been made’, subsequent school inspections identified that the school was not progressing at an acceptable rate and described the pupils as ‘raw, free’, and ‘almost rude’.


In April 1882, William Townley succeeded McDonald as the Prison Superintendent and tensions between he and Mahon were immediately apparent. Following an argument between the two men in December 1882, Mahon was suspended and subsequently dismissed from service.


John Brown


John Brown filled the position vacated by Mahon’s dismissal. Brown was no stranger to teaching positions outside the traditional education system. Following eight years as a pupil teacher at South Toowoomba, Brown was appointed, in 1879, to the Colonial Secretary’s Office to instruct boy’s at the reformatory school on the hulk ‘Proserpine’; though his one hundred pounds salary was still taken from the Education Vote. Brown continued teaching at the reformatory school when it relocated to Lytton Stockade in September 1881. During this time, District Inspector Platt noted that Brown was enthusiastic, set high standards, and was capable in the performance of his duties with the boy’s institution. [6] Brown began teaching on St Helena on 1 January 1883. The position should have been ideal for him, and he had requested the posting, yet, just three months later, Brown resigned from his teaching position and consequently from the service. By requirement, he submitted his resignation to the Superintendent, Captain Townley. In his resignation Brown stated:


'I have been compelled to take this step as I object to live where I am deprived of the same freedom as teachers in outside schools possess. It appears to me that I am absolutely under the control of the Superintendent of the establishment, who informs me that I am a warder and schoolmaster. I object to being termed a warder… as I fully thought myself a free person employed on the island'.

Brown further noted, he was never considered a warder or policeman during his service as teacher at the Lytton Reformatory School. He continued his objections stating:


'I was of the opinion that my duties were only to teach the Warders’ children, but I am now of opinion that I will shortly have to spend a few hours at night, or whatever time may be fixed, with instructing the prisoners inside the Stockade'.

Brown added that the additional teaching duties were compulsory and came with no addition to his salary. Furthermore, he stated he had only just been informed his employer was the Colonial Secretary and not the Department of Public Instruction. Brown was particularly irked that he could not get his ‘cooking or washing done in a manner suitable to [his] tastes, and I am sure’, he wrote:

‘that any person outside can imagine what my clothes may be like after being ironed by a man who is thoroughly inexperienced in that art’.

Brown did add that the many issues bothering him might not be as aggravating to anyone succeeding him. Although he did warn the Department of Public Instruction that any future teacher on St Helena should have ‘definite instructions and he should be made perfectly acquainted with the office which he will hold on the island’. [7]


Captain Townley wrote to the Colonial Secretary, in light of Brown’s complaints, stating:


'In the event of another teacher being appointed to this establishment, that his position and duties be clearly defined to him in writing, also his pay and emoluments stated when appointing him'.

The Colonial Secretary forwarded the letter to the Undersecretary of Public Instruction. The decision arrived at was that the teacher of warders’ children on St Helena should be appointed by the Colonial Secretary and responsible to that Minister only. [8] The school would however, still be subject to inspection by Inspectors from the Department of Public Instruction. [9]


Filling the role following Brown’s resignation proved difficult, prompting Townley to write the Colonial Secretary in August stating:

there is a ‘great necessity existing for the appointment of a school teacher to this establishment’.

He continued,

‘this is of the utmost importance in a place of this kind where there are so many warders’ children to say anything of prisoners that we should have a teacher’.

There had been applicants for the position, including John Archibald Gibson. His application, send to the Colonial Secretary, listed a bevy of referees that included a judge, a bank manager, a reverend, and John Gerard Anderson, the Undersecretary for Public Instruction. Despite the outstanding references and a willingness to fill the position, Gibson was not appointed to the role. Perhaps the Colonial Secretary was privy to his teaching record, which noted Gibson had been fined for an indiscretion, admonished for another incident, and finally had his service terminated, all within a five month period in 1882. District Inspector McIntyre noted that Gibson was ‘too unstable for a successful teacher’. [10]


John Teed


All the while, John Teed, the head teacher at Baltinglass Provisional School, was fighting a desperate battle to avoid a posting to St Helena. He had come to the Department’s attention following a complaint of ‘misdeeds’ raised by Mr Maloney, the Secretary of the school committee. An investigation saw the accusations dismissed. However, when Teed was posted to St Helena, he felt the accusation had been the cause. [11]


To avoid the posting, Teed solicited assistance from the parents of the children he taught. Twenty-six of the thirty parents signed a petition that was sent to the Undersecretary requesting that Teed stay at their school. [12] In a lengthy supporting letter to the Undersecretary, Teed asserted that District Inspector John Shirley had promised him the position at Baltinglass when it opened as a State School, if he presented himself for the classification examinations and passed. Teed pointed out that he had complied with these conditions and was only awaiting the results of the examinations.

He pleaded: 'My salary has been exceedingly small since my residence here and that nothing but a belief (confirmed by my Senior’s statement) that I should reap the reward of my labours would have induced me to submit, for so long, to the discomforts and disadvantages attendant on my meagre remuneration.

In his letter, Teed clearly outlined the improvements he had made at the school. He had increased the daily attendance average, the overall grades, and he pointed out that he had gained the confidence of the community. [13]


Inspector Shirley’s reply agreed Teed had made improvements at Baltinglass, however, Shirley contested the claim that he had promised Teed the position and he insisted:

‘the statements made in Mr Teed’s letter… are utterly untrue’. [14]

Teed lost the appeal and eventually accepted the posting to St Helena on 9 January 1884. He was offered one hundred and twenty pounds per annum, with board and double rations, although he elected to forego the double rations in lieu of an allowance. Just six months later, Teed was charged with using obscene language; he was fined five pounds, sentenced to three months in gaol, and dismissed from the service. [15]


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


Bibliography and Notes

Ba Pe, S., Ham, C. & McDougall, P. (1975) St Helena: Moreton Bay, Brisbane, Department of Architecture, QIT.


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

[1]. ---, 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.

[2]. "The First School - and Teachers," Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, Friday 22 September 1939, p. 5.

[3]. Queensland State Archives, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Note on the bottom of a hand written letter dated 25 April 1881, beginning; 'Notify to Mr Mahon'.

[4]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Note on the bottom of a hand written letter dated 25 April 1881, beginning; 'Notify to Mr Mahon'.

[5]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Letter to 'Mr Mahon', dated 11 May 1881

[6]. ---, Item ID 987860, Description Register of teachers - male 1876 -1903/1904. Vol. III. ‘John Brown’, p. 9.

[7]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. 'John Brown: Resigns from St Helena', 2 April 1883.

[8]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Townley to Colonial Secretary, Col Sec No. 2315, 8 May 1883.

[9]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Dept. of Public Instruction Memorandum, 30 May 1883.Dept. of Public Instruction, Letter 2544, 7 June 1883.

[10]. ---, Item ID. 987861, Register of teachers - male includes appointments etc. 1876 - 1903/1904. Vol. IV.

[11]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Teed to Undersecretary of Public Instruction, letter no. 6367, 6 December 1883.

[12]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. W.Norris and others to Undersecretary Public Instruction, letter no. 6366, 7 December 1883.

[13]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Teed to Undersecretary of Public Instruction, letter no. 6023, 29 November 1883.

[14]. ---, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Shirley to Undersecretary of Public Instruction, letter no. 6166, 5 December1883.

[15]. ---, Item ID 987858, Register of teachers - male includes appointments etc. 1876 - 1903/1904. Vol. I | "John Teed Dismissed," Brisbane Courier (Qld.), Saturday 30 August 1884, p. 6 | Queensland State Archives, Item ID. 16054, Administration file: St. Helena State School No.12. Executive Council to Colonial Secretary, memorandum from Samuel W Griffith dated 1 September 1884.