“He is coming! He is coming!
Like a bridegroom from his room,
Came the hero from his prison
To the scaffold and the doom.”
~ W.E. Atouyn
Number 1 Division
I arrived at Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol – reputedly one of the most nefarious, hardened prisons of its time – hours before my tour. Thinking I’d do some work beforehand, I crossed the road into the café at the CSIRO Ecosciences Precinct and began. Hours passed, the place emptied and I began chatting with the cleaner. “Ghost are often in here, they are watching”, she told me. It wasn’t until later that I found out the Ecosciences Precinct now stands over what was previously the Number 1 Division of Boggo Road Gaol, home of the gallows, where 42 of the country’s most heinous criminals were hanged.
It was nearly 7:30pm. I left, and wandered over to begin my ghost tour of Boggo Road Gaol, in the only part that now stands.
Number 2 Division
Around 30 of us had amassed out the front of the prison gates, and I was the only one by myself. Sam, our guide, arrived in a black coat carrying what looked like a Sherlock Holmes bag, I presumed for effect. This made me snigger. He then asked us to stand in a single file line and explained a few tour rules for our safety. We shuffled inside. The door was closed.
A pithy history
We soon found out the prison had got its name from the state of the road, particularly after heavy rain. Here, people and things got bogged and an Australian colloquialism followed. It became ‘Boggo’ Road. Inside, the prison’s standards were, we were told, comparatively appalling. Boggo Road Gaol had been opened in 1883 and following an audit, was decommissioned in 1989. Number 1 Division, the original home of the worst criminals, was demolished in 1996.
Number 2 Division was built as a women’s prison and in a lazy and resourceful endeavour, the prison gate’s sign (pictured at top) had the first two letters removed when it became a male facility. In the 1920s, men from St Helena Island’s prison in Moreton Bay were moved into the now named Number 2 Division, which became home to hardened criminals serving life sentences – murderers, rapists and violent offenders.
As we stepped into the dark courtyard beneath the moonlight, I thought I saw a shadow dart quickly from the corner of my eye. I felt a cool spot, followed by a warm spot on my forehead. Then, in a loud articulate voice tailored slightly for effect, Sam began to tell us the ghost stories of Boggo Road Gaol that came from the prisoners of Number 2 Division, where we now stood.
Sam told us various ghost stories, some I found a little long, boring and likely (at least I thought) fanciful, as they stemmed from oral tradition. However there were some that held more sway – like that of Bernard Ralph, a prison warder (Australian term for warden) who had his head fatally smashed in with an iron bar by a prisoner in 1966. In the ’70s and ’80s, there have been various sightings of a ‘ghost warder’ in Number 2 Division that matched Ralph’s description.
One night during the 1970s, prison officer Don Walters was on duty and spotted a night senior ahead of him. He allegedly saluted his superior, who saluted back, remained silent and walked right past him. The next morning when Walters asked the gate officer if the regular night senior had been on duty, he was told he was away on holiday. No night senior had been present that night.
The gallows and the cemetery fog
As we explored various sections of the prison under a partial moonlight, within yards strewn with barbed wire, graffitied walls and the odd prisoner relic – such as an old shit can – Sam relayed more stories. We then moved inside the prison cells, where he told us the odious tales of the gallows from Number 1 Division. Here, between 1883 and 1913, thirty-nine men, one woman and two children were executed.
After the sadistic drop and snap, the bodies of these tormented, violent individuals were carried out to unmarked graves in South Brisbane Cemetery and buried in unconsecrated soil, forgotten. The gallows trap was then welded shut in the 1930s after capital punishment in QLD was abolished, however prisoners swore that on many nights it could still be heard. And – according to prison warder Don Walters – on cold, rainy nights, a mysterious, thick fog would creep into Number 2 Division from South Brisbane Cemetery, making any who touched it deathly ill.
The last man hanged
The ghost of Ernest Austin, who raped and murdered an 11 year old girl and was the last man to be executed in Queensland, has allegedly been seen in number 1 and 2 division, numerous times. Since the Boggo Road Gaol ghost tours began in 1998, both clients and staff have reported seeing the shadow of a man in E Wing cell block, the same place prisoners saw Austin’s spirit in the ‘80s. The ghost of Austin is Australia’s oldest prison ghost tale.
We were now lined up against the walls inside F Wing cell block, some of us with our back to the empty cells while Sam was telling us these stories. Then, for 20 minutes we were allowed to explore the first and second levels. I sat in some cells and thought about this being my home. It was a ghastly place, yet interesting. We carried torches, the cells were dark, cramped, the walls scarred, burned and anecdotes were sprawled across them. One read:
(Somone’s name), kind and carless of thy own
Why suffer thou thy sons, unburied yet,
To hover on the dreadful shore of hell
Make way to lay them by their brethren
On our way out, a lady named Juliette approached me and asked if I’d gotten any good shots (I was carrying my SLR and big flash). “Not really”, I said, and she showed me her shots – one of which had a large, clear orb on it, which I thought was interesting. Of course I captured nothing of the sort, just a strange light emitting from the doorway which I’ve posted here. I felt nothing other than what I’ve already said, and I’m not entirely convinced there are any ghosts at Boggo Road Gaol. There are many, however, who say otherwise.
Should you go on the tour?
To see Boggo Road Gaol, particularly at night (which is atmospheric), yes. Although the most interesting part of the tour I found was the history, and there are day tours for that, when it would be decidedly warmer (it was a cold night). Of course there are more ghost stories of Boggo Road Gaol which I haven’t told. You could discover these yourself by taking the tour, which runs four nights a week and costs $42.50 for an adult entry. Teenagers and school groups cost $27.50 a head, the duration is two hours.