It’s a fairly well-known fact that the first Australian colonies were largely composed of convicts and criminals who were shipped over to avoid overcrowding in British prisons. The continent’s relative isolation simply made it an ideal location for a penal colony, especially after Britain lost its American colonies in the 18th century.
It’s precisely this bit of Australian history that makes the Old Windmill in Brisbane a bit different from all the other places we’ve covered so far. To the untrained eye, it looks just like any old windmill that’s been converted into a signal station: the circular brick walls taper about five stories to an observation deck crowned with a wind vane.
Weather-beaten, seemingly ordinary, and fairly innocuous, hardly anyone could imagine the dark and somewhat creepy story behind it.
The Old Windmill was built in 1828, in what is now called Wickham Terrace. Prior to the windmill’s construction, it took over a month for maize flour to arrive in casks all the way from Sydney, so the first Queensland settlers often had to contend with food shortages.
Unfortunately, they chose the wrong location for the windmill since there was hardly any wind blowing on the hill. The Penal Commandant Patrick Logan then had a treadmill constructed beside it so that convicts could be put to work keeping the windmill’s arms turning.
It was a brutal punishment. With 8kg weights on their legs and only a rough leather hat for protection, convicts often worked 14 hours straight in the blistering sun. Grasping at an overhead rail with both hands, they had to walk up steps that were about 23 cm wide in a steady, punishing rhythm lest they get hit on the shins by the next step.
Those fitted with heavier leg irons suffered the most, and many of them found it so unbearable that six out of ten prisoners were said to prefer hanging to the punishment meted out at the windmill. It’s even been said that a handful resorted to killing a fellow convict or a prison overseer just to get the death sentence and thus avoid a day on the treadmill.
The story gets creepier still. On May 1840, three Aboriginal men were tried for the murder of two men and two of the convicts were hanged from a beam on an upper window of the windmill. Their spirits are said to still hang about the place, and lights appearing on the long-unoccupied premises are often attributed to them.
Today, Australia’s oldest windmill and longest surviving convict building has been proclaimed a heritage site. The building itself is closed to the public, but its grounds aren’t, and there’s even a lovely spot for picnics nearby, complete with a large-sized chess board. With lots of leafy trees providing shade in the area, it’s certainly a nice and quiet place to sit and contemplate what sort of happenings the windmill has been privy to over the centuries.