Chief Warder – William Corbett
William Corbett known as Bill, was an experienced warder of thirty-six years in the Queensland Prison Service when he retired aged 67 in 1934. His retirement celebrated on the King’s Birthday was held with great pomp and ceremony. His celebrated career required him to look after some of Queensland’s most notorious prisoners including bushranger and murderer James Kenniff.
Irish by birth, he emigrated from his native County Cavan to Queensland at the age of twenty-one on the immigrant ship Jumna. A sturdy lad he gained employment on the Darling Downs as a labourer and later as a groom and coachman. He met and married Eliza Clarke, his wife in 1897 their son having been born the following year, Bill realised he needed more reliable work. He joined the prison service as a probationary warder on the 22nd of March 1898 and was sent to the Moreton Bay island of St Helena. Bill worked on the island with the long-term male prisoners being sent from Brisbane.
Bill served twelve years on St Helena, with some of the most notorious prisoners in Queensland History, one of them, a name you would be familiar with; James Kenniff, bushranger and brother to Patrick Kenniff. Patrick Kenniff was executed at Boggo Road Gaol (HM Prison Brisbane) in 1903 for the murder of Doyle and Dahlke at Lethbridge’s Pocket. After numerous appeals, James Kenniff’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. His sentence was served at St Helena Island initially.
When interviewed by the Sunday Mail in 1940, shortly before his death. Bill Corbett had this to say about James Kenniff: –
‘Jim Kenniff was an exemplary prisoner,’ states Chief Warder W. Corbett, of Highgate Hill, now retired after 36 years’ service. ‘A quiet, unassuming man. He gave us no trouble and was one of the most skilful men with his hands I ever met in prison. He could be taught anything. ‘As were all his family Kenniff was a thorough bushman skilled in all the arts of the bush. For many years he acted as slaughterman and butcher at St. Helena. Afterwards he entered the tailor’s shop and became an expert cutter who could make a suit with any skilled craftsman in Brisbane.’ So highly regarded was he that, by special request of the warders who had been transferred from St. Helena to Brisbane Prison, Kenniff was brought to Boggo Road to become the warders’ cook. It was in this capacity that he served the last portion of his sentence.
Transfer to Brisbane Gaol
After twelve years on the island it was time to move upward again in position for Bill, He had been promoted warder second class and this resulted in his moving back to the big smoke of Brisbane. He entered the service in the men’s division (number 1 gaol) in 1914 and after some time transferred to the new men’s division (number 2 gaol) (the former HM Prison for females) before eventually rising to the rank of chief warder in 1927.
Bill was regarded as a kindly and humane man amongst the prisoners. On his retirement a special ceremony was held in which he was presented gifts from the prisoners, and staff. Perhaps to best illustrate the esteem in which he was held was to share the article.
A cosy armchair, a carpet at his feet, an illuminated address on the wall, and a brass tinder box will all serve to remind Ex – Chief Warder William Corbett of his thirty-six years’ service in the Queensland Prisons Service. He retired yesterday and received the gifts mentioned from officials, chaplains and surgeons and from the prisoners of the Brisbane Gaol.
The illuminated address was executed and presented by the prisoners in token of the ‘kind and humane way you have treated the men under your jurisdiction’ they also have him the tinder box a reminder of twenty years ago, before, the prisoners were allowed matches. The superintendent Mr J. F. Whitney made the other presentations including a handbag for Mrs. Corbett.
He spoke of Mr Corbett’s loyal and trustworthy service and referred to the happy relations which had always existed between the chief warder and the staff.
In his retirement speech, Bill Corbett thanked the superintendent and other staff for their kind words. Stating that in his time in the prison service he had witnessed so many changes and good reforms in contrast to the bad living conditions and severe discipline in the gaols years ago. There are now roomy cells, beds, books, electric light and good food of today. In addition, the prisoners nowadays had up to date and hygienic shops, in which to work and they were given greater facilities in regard to correspondence and visits from family and friends.
William ‘Bill’ Corbett retired to his Highgate Hill home with his wife, he remained involved in the public service for years, frequently being interviewed for his opinion on various initiatives being peddled by the powers that be. One such instance, he was interviewed in relation to the safety of children at St Helena Island. After the decommission of St Helena as a prison, its likelihood for reuse was debated for many years. In 1937, it was to be converted into a holiday reserve with a causeway to be built from the mainland, and a harbour for yachts erected. As such it would need to be safe for families to visit. There was some debate that it was unhealthy there and that many children had died. William Corbett (who had raised his own children there) greatly disputed this.
William Bill Corbett died just six short years after his retirement aged seventy- three. He was survived by his wife Eliza (nee Clarke) and three grown up children. The esteem in which he was held in the prison service was again put on display at his funeral. The prisoners of Boggo Road sending a cross made from flowers from the prison garden.
This remarkable officer is just one of many that entered the big green iron gates each day. This Sunday, you too can get locked up by one of our former officers! Come inside and find out some of the fascinating aspects of life behind bars. If you are on good behaviour you might even get early parole! You can book your tickets here
This article was contributed by Research Coordinator Sue Olsen as part of the ongoing research program for Boggo Road Gaol Pty Ltd. The aim of the program is to bring to light and share articles relating to Boggo Road for the purposes of review and study. Do you have a story to share or something you would like us to know about? You can contact the research team here