Saturday, 10 December 2011

Brisbane's "Gruesome" Courts: when horrible research breeds terrible journalism

The original Supreme Court building, ca. 1879 
This time next year, the current Brisbane Supreme & District Court Building will lay vacant.  The new Brisbane Supreme & District Court building, taking shape across the road from Roma Street Station & due for completion in the middle of 2012, will take its place at a cost of $570 million.  As reported in the Courier Mail on Thursday (8th December 2011), the Queensland Government is about to seek tenders for a new inner-city development on the site including a hotel & cinema complex.  However, fresh talk about the future utilisation of this site brings to mind an article published in the Brisbane Times on the 24 February 2010, "If you ask staff at Brisbane's Supreme and District Court building - the place is haunted."  So, on what collective ghostly evidence has this haunted classification been handed down??

Apparently, according to the article, the Courts building is haunted due to its "gruesome" nature - "It's a place where stories of violence and horror have been heard and ghosts are often drawn to these sort of places. Their spirits get trapped there."  So clearly, there's on ongoing basis of died-in-the-wool haunted activity within the walls of the building, given cases that have been tried within its confines - & in being completely fair (please follow me through the Brisbane Times article to make sure I don't miss anything), here is a list of otherworldly phenomena that are intrinsic to the building in order of publication (similar instances have been amalgamated): 

i)     Unexplained "whooshes" of air. 
ii)    A seemingly-possessed elevator. 
iii)   A Judge's chair that mysteriously spins in the night. 
iv)   Unspecified "spooky and freaky" incidents. 
v)   Unspecified "supernatural incident" in the basement (dealt with below). 
vi)   Isolated hand-dryer starting in toilet. 
vii)  Isolated Exit doors shaking (stiff breeze on the night?). 
viii) Feeling of not being alone? 
ix)   Portraits & dressed dummies that cause apprehension.

Ok...So, let's remove the spooky feeling of not being alone (subjective), unexplained "whooshes" of air (subjective), unspecified "spooky and freaky" incidents (subjective), possible Brisbane City thoroughfare-induced winds shaking Exit doors (subjective), & portraits/plastic dummies that cause apprehension (subjective).  We can also easily dismiss the "unspecified" supernatural incident where "two painters were in a sealed-off room in the building's basement doing maintenance work when, they claimed, a gust of icy cold wind "whooshed" past them."  This not only falls into the "whooshes" of air (subjective) category, but defies logic - how do workers carry out painting (with fumes) in a supposedly sealed-off room...& how did they get into it in the first place?!?  So, what are we left with?  A seemingly-possessed 30 year old elevator, a Judge's chair that mysteriously spins at night & a one-off hand-dryer incident.  As can be seen, the evidence collected for this article is very shaky at best.  Furthermore, the ridiculous notion that the Courts Building is most likely haunted due to its "gruesome" nature goes to show that both the Brisbane Times journalist, & "Jack" Sim of Ghost Tours notoriety, completely failed to do their homework before the article went to publication.

Stories of the resident ghost have been told throughout the corridors of the Courts Building for years now - even yesterday morning (Saturday, 10th of December), whilst discussing the upcoming refit of the building, a cheeky editorial article appeared on p.43 of the Courier Mail, wondering, "what will happen to the famous court ghost?"  However to get to the more likely genesis of this haunting, we need to delve back through 185 years of history - & believe it or not, we won't be placing our bets on the "gruesome" nature of the Queensland Justice System!

According to the Brisbane Times, "Mr Sim, author of the book Haunted Brisbane, has interviewed several staffers who claimed to have witnessed ghost activity in the building, particularly in the basement.  He said the workers believed the ghosts belonged to prisoners who died in the cells of the original court building built in 1876.  The structure was burnt down by an arsonist in 1968 but some of the original basement cells were kept and form part of today's court building, he said."  In truth, only a section of the original building, officially opened on the 6th of March 1879, was damaged by arson on the 1st of September 1968.  By this time, the decision had already been made to clear the site to make way for a modern structure - a further 8 years passed until October 1976 when the remainder of the building was demolished to make way for the current Court District Precinct, with the new Supreme & District Court Building finally opening officially on the 3rd of September 1981.  Period records show that in the mid 1870's, the site was leveled in order to construct the original building, with no mention of cell blocks being constructed below ground level - given the absolute lack of automated earth-moving equipment in the 1870's, the existence of underground cells is highly dubious. Furthermore, given the number of basement levels in the current building, if original cells had existed below the Supreme Court building, they would have been destroyed during construction of the current Courts.

Our target lies back in early 1827, the Moreton Bay Penal settlement having just been founded. From its first days, the penal settlement began to earn a reputation for its high mortality rate - as published in a an earlier Haunts of Brisbane blog, "What lies beneath: The forgotten souls of Moreton Bay," excessive floggings for minor breaches of conduct oft times proved fatal, whilst malnutrition & tropical disease delivered many more to an early grave.  Over the following years, the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement would record a higher mortality rate than any other penal settlement in Australia, the first year of operation being so brutal that the need for a hospital was vital.  Built aside from the main settlement complex, the hospital functioned in a penal capacity until Brisbane Town was opened to free settlement in the early 1840's, finally becoming a public hospital to cater to the growing free population.  However, as the population rapidly expanded, as did cases requiring urgent medical attention, it became clear that the hospital facilities were grossly inadequate.  In 1867, a new larger hospital was opened in Bowen Park (which in time became the Royal Brisbane Hospital at Bowen Hills), & the old hospital site was handed over to the constabulary for use as a police barracks.

By the early 1870's, the 1828-buit Convict Barracks which was now serving as a makeshift courthouse was also in dire need of repairs - the old hospital site appeared perfect for the construction for a new, purpose-built Court building.  Thus, in 1875 the constabulary were moved to the old military barracks at Petrie Terrace (the currently refitted Police Barracks site at the top of Caxton Street), & the former convict hospital at North Quay was demolished...the next year construction began on the beautiful Supreme Court building pictured at the top of this blog, which would serve the growing metropolis of Brisbane for almost the next 100 years...and as they say, "the rest is history!"

So, the next time someone tells you the Supreme Court building is haunted due to its "gruesome" nature (or because a few prisoners allegedly perished within their cells beneath it), remind them of the hundreds of convicts & free settlers who actually drew their dying breaths on that very same site, many under horrific circumstances, in Brisbane's first hospital 150 years ago.


  1. Is there any record of anyone actually dying in the Supreme Court cells?

  2. Of the many records I have gone through, I've not found mention of any deaths. Regarding alleged cells beneath the original building, given the minimal height above river level, in the 1870's when quality cement & wet-sealing did not exist, it would have been folly to dig down towards the water table below the building to install cells. The current building has two basement levels below George Street, which would have cut through any subterranean level the original building possessed, if it possessed any at all.

  3. Thanks Liam. I was just replying with a long comment about the proliferation of bogus stories about underground cells and tunnels in Brisbane when I realised it could be a good blog topic, so I'll save it for that!

  4. The judge's chair one is quite accurate although I can't explain it - even with modern leather swivel chairs, when the lights were off the judge's chair could be seen to turn back and forth (not spinning in one direction) on its own, not slightly but quite deliberately. It'd do this for a minute or two at a time, even. And then it might not be seen doing it for weeks, months. This would happen in daytime too - without lights, the room was very dark with some illumination from an exit sign, I think.

    The courtrooms didn't feel different. I can't explain it. Court staff were quite proud of the 'ghost', though. It was a good story, 'it' was harmless and many people had witnessed the chair move - i recall eight people saw it move for a good two minutes in one incident.

    The District Court Building was used as the Supreme Courts initially before 1981, and the Fitzgerald Inquiry was held on that side though that was on level 4 in Court 29. In the later years at least, the court was not used for criminal matters as District Court judges could use the Supreme Court side of the building and Courts 21 and 22 were small, with a low ceiling as there was no real public gallery. It was as boring as a courtroom can get. There's no logical link to anything!