Boggo Road Gaol and Brisbane’s dark side will be heavily featured in the Netflix production of the Boy Swallows Universe

Sprawling across Brisbane’s southern suburbs is a red brick building that was once part of Queensland’s “most famous” prison.

The watchtowers and gallows used to hang murderers and rapists stand as reminders of the country’s history as a penal colony.

Former officer John Peel, 67, remembers Boggo Road Gaol as a place where “anything can happen”.

“Every day, you don’t know if you’re going to make it out and go home,” he said.

“If you hear a whistle, it means someone is in serious trouble.”

For decades after it opened in 1883, the maximum-security prison held some of the country’s most brutal and longest-serving criminals, including convicted Whiskey Au Go Go firebomb and fugitive artist Arthur “Slim” Halliday.

A man in an old photo stands indoors in a prison.
John Peel said prison guards carried no weapons, not even clubs, when he worked on Boggo Road.(Provided: John Peel)

Kevin Hayden, 66, was a guard in the men’s “Two Divisions” when the Boggo prison drew national attention for a series of riots, hunger strikes, and rooftop protests in the 1980s.

“The conditions are disgusting. There are no toilets in the cells, no running water. They have buckets and water jugs,” he said.

“And there were bird fleas and rats. It was a terrible place.”

Now, more than 30 years since the prison closed in 1992, the Dutton Park-listed heritage site will be featured in the Netflix adaptation of the Australian blockbuster novel Boy Swallows Universe.

Outside the watchtower of the Boggo Road prison in Brisbane in 2015.
The Boggo Street Prison closed in the early 1990s.(ABC Brisbane: Saskia Edwards)

Inspired by writer and executive producer Trent Dalton’s own childhood in Brisbane, the TV series will tell the story of 12-year-old “semi-fiction” Eli Bell, who tries to break into Boggo Road Gaol on Christmas Eve.

“Boggo Road, to me, is Brisbane’s most significant historical site,” Dalton said.

I have to enter [the story] … it speaks volumes about the rise of Brisbane.

“We should not shy away from our dark side as a city because it is our dark side that makes us such an amazing city.”

With filming starting this month, Dalton said Brisbane’s first production for streaming giant Netflix has generated excitement from the local community represented in the Boy Swallows Universe.

A smiling man leans against a pole with a night view behind him.
Trent Dalton remembers “Slim” Halliday from his childhood.(Provided: Lyndon Mechielsen)

“More than 200 local Vietnamese in the tent where I used to live – Darra, Inala and those areas – came out and said, ‘I want to be a part of this television series’,” he said.

“And then Sunnybank High — the most multicultural school you can find in Brisbane — wanted to be where we shot the school scene.

“Even the restaurant where my wife and I dined in Darra wanted us to shoot inside. I was really emotional thinking about that fact.”

Dalton wouldn’t reveal the names of the main actors in the series, but he confirmed it would include some familiar Hollywood names.

“Seeing this amazing Hollywood actress play my mom, paying homage to her, and seeing it come full circle is very, very neat,” he said.

The Brisbane-based production also attracted former guard and aspiring actor, Mr Hayden.

“I look forward to being in [the series] … they will see if I can be somewhere,” he said.

“We should never lose our history. I think it gives you more insight into how we got to where we are today.”

Tour director Jack Sim stands holding the cell door in Brisbane's old Boggo Street Jail.
Jack Sim hopes the show will encourage the preservation of Brisbane’s cultural heritage.(ABC News)

Jack Sim, who operated Boggo Road Gaol tours for 25 years, said he hoped the show would encourage the preservation of Brisbane’s cultural heritage.

“Our life stories aren’t always fun or easy, and Boggo Street Jail covers all the darkest and hardest things people have to go through,” he said.

“Some of them rose from that with a new life, started over and never looked back.

“And others pay great penalties for their mistakes and crimes.”

Before Queensland became the first part of the British Empire to abolish the death penalty in 1922, 42 people were executed in prison.

Child killer Ernest Austin was the last person to be hanged, and he is buried at South Brisbane Cemetery with other executed prisoners.

Mr Sim said prison history captures how attitudes towards criminal justice have changed over time.

“We no longer have ‘prisons’ in Queensland, we have ‘correctional services’,” he said.

“The idea is to try [to] rehabilitating people, so they don’t go back to prison, not to punish them.”

What makes a man good?

In the case of the art of imitating life, the Boy Swallows Universe grapples with the question of what makes a “good” man.

“I have vivid memories of a family friend who played with me all the time, and his name was Slim Halliday,” Dalton said.

“He was a very sweet guy to me when I was little, and then I started to realize it, before I knew him [in the 1970s]he’s known as Houdini of Boggo Road.”

A Halliday's photo capture.
Arthur “Slim” Halliday is one of the most famous convicts on Boggo Road.(Provided: John Oxley Archives)

Arthur “Slim” Halliday was originally sent to prison in 1939 to serve a five-year sentence for breaking into a house, but he ended up doing more time after he made a series of dramatic escapes.

He was finally released from Boggo Road in 1949, but soon after he was sent back to prison in 1952 for the murder of a taxi driver.

I just thought it was too interesting not to introduce that guy in [Boy Swallows Universe]said Dalton.

“I want to pay homage to my memory of a man who was, at the same time, a good and a bad man.

“That’s the point of the story I wrote. It’s about a boy who tries to find the good in the people around him.”

Just like protagonist Eli, who grew up around drug dealers and ex-convicts, prison guards on Boggo Road spend most of their lives around inmates.

“You really know those people,” said Mr. Peel.

“It’s not like today, when they are separated by bubbles – you have to be in contact with them all the time,” Hayden said.

“So you have to earn their respect, because if you lose their respect you can get in trouble.”

A man in uniform stands in front of an old prison.
Former Boggo Street Prison officer John Peel has many stories of his time working there.(Provided: John Peel)

Mr Peel said prison guards did not carry weapons, not even batons, when he worked on Boggo Road.

“Whistles. That’s the only weapon you really have,” he said.

Mr Hayden also carried no weapons: “All we had were hands and feet,” he said.

“You learn to be a very good conversationalist, very quickly, because you have to talk out of situations, rather than have to struggle.

“But, sometimes, we have to fight. You have no choice. That’s what life in prison is for.”

Entrance to Boggo Road Gaol, ca.  1936
Entrance to Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane, circa 1936.(Provided: Queensland State Library)

Mr Hayden recalls having to deal with James Finch and John Stuart, after they started the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire in 1973, killing 15 people.

“Finch was a model prisoner, really. He didn’t cause any trouble,” he said.

“Stuart is a different kettle of fish. He’s just a terrible troublemaker along the way. He’s a terrible human being.

“He fights with everyone, every day, so he’s locked up in his own cell, in his own yard, in his own cage.”

Mr Hayden also tackled “Colossus” from Boggo Road’s Nathan Jones, who is now a Hollywood actor and best known for his role in Mad Max: Fury Road.

“You can’t handcuff him because his wrists are too big,” he said.

“So we have a special belt for him when we have to move him anywhere.”

A tall bald man on a movie set.
Nathan Jones is known as the “Colossus” of Boggo Road.(ABC News: Thuy Ong)

Hayden said the legend that Jones had ripped open his cell door was true.

“He did it because he has claustrophobia and doesn’t like being locked up,” he said.

“But he’s harmless. He’s pretty easy to handle.”

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