From the headlines…War work inside Boggo Road

From the headlines…. War Work Inside Boggo Road.

This week we commemorate ANZAC Day; the solemn reminder of all those good soldiers that have served for the freedoms that we enjoy today. It is also a time to remember those that are still serving in places over the globe.   The prisoners of HM Prisons Brisbane (later known as Boggo Road Gaol) did their bit for the war effort.   ANZAC Day was commemorated in Gaol just as it is in the freedom of society.  Perhaps the most unknown fact is the war work which was undertaken by prisoners in Boggo Road.

From the headlines of the Truth Newspaper we share that five of the worst murderers in Queensland were engaged in war work.   The article tells in remarkable detail the work that they are undertaking and a little detail about their individual crimes.

It’s their war too! Gaol lifers on the job – Truth newspaper Brisbane.  Sunday 14th of May 1944.

Prisoners of Boggo Road Gaol are on the warpath! They’re in an all-in battle to lick Hitler and his offsider, the scrawny little Tojo. The toughest of them – like mail train killer Herbert Kopit, hammer slayer Percy Airs, Cunnamulla killer James Callaghan, boy gunman Derwent Arkinstall, and murderess Vera Staines, are working for the United Nations – and working well.
Valuable war work is being done as is shown by figures made available by the State Controller-General of Prisons, Mr. J. F. Whitney.

Goods manufactured, treated or repaired by the prisoners – mostly by long term men- include:  Many thousands of military trousers and tunics. More than 87,000 arm bands. Sand mats.  Flags.  Army and Air Force boots and shoes. Tents and Tarpaulins.  Hurricane lamps and boilers.  Matting. Socks.  Literally a score and one other military requirements.

Aerial View of HM Prison – Men later 2 Division Boggo Road Gaol. 1969 Showing Workshops

Chief Controller J.F. Whitney

“We think the prisoners are doing a real good job Mr. Whitney told Truth.  It is most encouraging to the officers of the department to see the


enthusiasm with which they go about their war jobs. “

“They are honestly pleased with the knowledge that although they are social outcasts- some for life- they are doing something to help the war effort. “

Figures showing value of items produced per department for the year to date:

Tailoring Shop: £15,000

Bootmakers Shop: £3,000

Tinsmith’s Shop:  £1,000

Carpenter’s Shop: £300

Bookbinders, Mat makers and Brush makers too all excelled themselves.

Sports gear for diggers

RAAF Cricket match on the airstrip in New Guinea in 1944

Many a digger playing cricket in New Guinea or in one of the forward areas, has wielded a bat made by prisoners in Boggo Road! That bat has been shaped from wood on one of the prison farms.  The timber was felled by prisoners, it was hauled to sawmills and cut up by prisoners in prison mills! Cricket Bats, stumps and bails by the hundreds have by gaolbirds from prison grown and prison treated timber.

The Lifers

  1.  Vera Staines – Dutton Park murderess

  Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1942 she has become a model prisoner. She particularly  asked to   be allowed to go on ‘war work’. She has been seamstress and maker of military shirts.



  2. Herbert Kopit – Bundaberg mail-train killer.

  Kopit’s job has been on a button holing machine. He has been commended for the way              he   turns out military tunics.  He seems to genuinely appreciate them.



  3. Derwent Arkinstall – Southport road Taxi Driver murderer

  Record keeper for war work done in the prison




  4. James Callaghan – Cunnamulla bore-drain murderer

  Works in the tinsmith shop principally repairing hurricane lamps, tin mugs and plates.




  5 .Percy Airs – Former Policeman murdered his employer near Dalby.

  Airs works hard with cutting-out scissors.  He likes the job.   Airs never misses a news session    on   the gaol wireless. He follows every act of the war drama with the closest interest.



They’re making shirts, shoes and shovels, mending boots, blankets, trousers and tunics.  Every metal sprig they drive into leather, every stitch they insert into a piece of cloth is just another blow delivered for the Allies. They’re a strange mixed lot these Boggo-road lifers. But they’re helping to fight this war for us.

Mat Making shop

Some would say it is a prisoner’s duty to contribute to the war effort.  After all, they were criminals and should work for their keep.   Some would say it is good to see that they volunteered to help produce items that would be used in the war.    Whichever way you look at it, it was a remarkable achievement. Remember these were not tradesmen.   They learned their trade through practice.   The sheer number of items produced is astounding.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning; we will remember them.
Lest We Forget.

Want to know more about these lifers?  You can find their stories in the Gaol Shop! Many wonderful publications are available for purchase. These publications are written by Director Jack Sim in conjunction with other local authors. You can order in person or online.  So why not visit the Gaol Shop today?

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


Boggo Road Gaol
Boggo Road Gaol