01 February 2020

Queensland Cemetery History: A Varied Body of Work

Despite the name, we in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery have a long history of engaging with other cemeteries around Queensland. After all, once you know how to 'read' old cemeteries and understand the shared framework of their histories, they are all interesting. We can't even drive past an old cemetery without having to pull over and investigate it, working out the local population demographics, excitedly noting new symbols or original monument designs we haven't seen before, identifying local stonemasons, etc. Once you've got the bug...

Apart from our very extensive work within South Brisbane, our not-for-profit activities in other Queensland cemeteries over the years include:

  • Writing books and conducting day and night tours at Ipswich General Cemetery (our In Heavenly Garb book about that cemetery was a winner of the 'Viva Cribb Bursary Award');
  • having been employed by the Ipswich City Council as researchers on the Ipswich Historical Cemeteries Project;
  • working with the the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society to run the monthly Liam Baker 'Haunts of Brisbane' tours and occasional 'Hangman's Walk' tour at the Toowong (aka Brisbane General) Cemetery;
  • being engaged by the Brisbane City Council to run twilight tours at the Mount Gravatt Cemetery;
  • being consulted by BCC for their 'Brisbane Open House' tours at Toowong Cemetery;
  • being consulted by other groups on establishing 'cemetery Friends' groups at Moggill and the Gold Coast;
  • undertaking numerous study trips to cemeteries at places such as Stradbroke Island, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe, Gold Coast, Nundah, Nudgee, Scenic Rim, etc;
  • supporting other history groups' tours and activities at places such as Lutwyche, Balmoral and Toowong cemeteries;
  • writing articles such as the 'The Dead Outside the Fence' (Paddington Cemetery) for the scholarly Queensland History Journal
  • Liam's original research and publishing on graves at St Helena Island;
  • researching and published books on Toowong Cemetery (The Prisoners of Toowong Cemetery; Hong Kong to Toowong

With Tracey Olivieri receiving the 'Viva Cribb Bursary Award' for In Heavenly Garb: The headstones of Ipswich General Cemetery, 2011. (FOSBC)

As you can see, our cross-cemetery credentials are very broad and well established. We have also been a leading advocate of the 2015 Brisbane City Council decision to encourage the public to better 'engage' with municipal cemeteries (which are classed as ‘parks’ under council laws), and a lot of the above work has supported that aim. Most cemeteries in Brisbane have no Real History tours (i.e., featuring nothing but factual historical information), and we have filled the void where we can and introduced thousands of people to the quiet joys of their local burial grounds. Being not-for-profit, the tours have also raised valuable funds for a number of upcoming cemetery history projects which will emerge over the next 12 months or so.

I guess the point of all this is to say that - as a professional historian myself - I would encourage other historians and volunteer history groups wherever they may be to utilise these resources to share their research and stories of our city, increase public appreciation of these special places, and generate funds for their own history projects. After all, Brisbane's municipal cemeteries have a shared history and are funded by and belong to the people all around Brisbane. 

29 October 2019

Thoughts on the Boggo Road Plans, October 2019

New plans for redeveloping the land to the side of the Boggo Road heritage prison have been made public fairly recently. The idea is to build retail and hospitality facilities between the prison and the Ecosciences building. The plans can be seen here, and basically look like this (pink):

This would involve demolishing some structures on the eastern wall of the prison, namely the heritage-listed remnants of the No.1 Division (1970s), including a watchtower and Detention Unit (containing six punishment cells). This would be a loss as they are entirely unique structures within Queensland, and could be adaptively reused as interesting spots fairly easily.

However, I was prepared to accept structural changes in previous redevelopment proposals, and can accept this one too, albeit reluctantly. Having said that, those earlier proposals did involve rejuvenating the interior of the prison, while this one focusses on the exterior. I have been involved in over a hundred meetings about Boggo Road redevelopments since the early 2000s, and am now inclined to let things pass. I'm pretty tired. Something new needs to happen with Boggo Road. It cannot be left to stagnate forever.

My primary concerns actually relate to what will be happening INSIDE the heritage prison, which is currently underused and overpriced. I have long argued that Boggo Road needs to be transformed into a professionally-managed community/arts/education/tourism/heritage hub, a view shared by professional organisations I have worked with in developing a common vision.

Visitation needs to be of a higher level and better quality than is currently achieved by what is sadly marketed as little more than a ‘haunted house’ attraction. It could be so much better than having what is often just a handful of people attending a ‘ghost tour’ on weekend nights, or tiny history tours during weekdays. And it should go without saying that more patrons in a thriving heritage/arts centre would be of more benefit to the retail and hospitality businesses leasing space in the new development.

The state government still seems to be undecided on the subject of what will happen inside the prison which is an unfortunate position to have after about 20 years thinking about it. I would say that what is needed is more government investment, an approach taken by other state governments in developing such world-class heritage prison sites as Port Arthur, Fremantle Prison and Old Melbourne Gaol. Boggo Road needs real government backing in order to become as good as those places.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the project.

UPDATE: I've just seen a news article on this subject. The tour company manager at Boggo Road supports the demolition of the detention unit and other structures because they're overgrown and decayed anyway. Where the hell has he been for the last six years? Standing by letting that happen, not speaking up and protecting the place or drawing public attention to it? Too busy inventing ghosts to bother with the prison itself, obviously.

(I am the secretary of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society, but my comments do not necessarily reflect the position of that group on this matter.)