Saturday, 29 May 2010

Prison wardens and mounted police

PHOTO: The SA Mounted Police in John Martin's Christmas Pageant.

It may be a coincidence but I find it interesting that both my grandfather Charles Vangelios and my great-uncle Chrysantheous Christus should have worked as gaol warders for a time and great-uncle Spiros Andrew should be a policeman, rising through the ranks to become a superintendant.

My brother Ken also joined the police force after leaving school but decided, after a couple of years it was not for him and instead went to university to do a social work degree.

Was there a ‘policing gene’ in Charlie Ross’s family? Or in the ancestors of Mary Atkins for that matter. Charlie was a seaman and may well have served in the Greek, or even English navy. Two of his sons joined the Australian Army during World War One although that hardly counts as exceptional since that was what men did at such times. I have not yet found any evidence that Constantinus (Jack) the eldest son joined the army and given the nature of the times there may well have been a reason for that. Spiros would have been too young for the 1914-18 war having been born in 1901 and probably too old for the Second World War, or perhaps too senior by then in the SA Police to be spared.

But perhaps it is all co-incidence and circumstance. From what I can see there are no warders or policemen in subsequent generations. Growing up in Gladstone it is hardly surprising that my grandfather found work at the gaol. The Gladstone Gaol first opened in 1881 and was used to house ‘inebriates, debtors and offenders.’ Gladstone was chosen for the site of a major regional prison because it was a railway hub and prisoners could easily be taken there by train from either Adelaide or Port Augusta. The Mid-North however remained a pretty peaceful place, as it was when we lived there in the early 70’s, and throughout its ninety-four year history the gaol was only ever half full. It never housed more than 86 prisoners and in its 100 year history only ever had 26 escapes.

The longest stay in solitary confinement was sixteen days and that was served by a woman named Mary Shipp, who, in 1911 was found guilty of three counts of misconduct. Charles Vangelios may well have been one of her warders. He would have been 19 at the time and while I do not yet have the actual dates that he worked at the gaol it is most likely he was a warder at this time. I know he worked there before joining the army and leaving for the Western Front.

Male prisoners worked in market gardens just outside the gaol walls and the females worked in the laundry. During World War Two it was used as an internment camp for Italian and German internees and briefly functioned as a military prison. These days the cells are used for backpacker accommodation. For a few dollars a night you can get a bed in one of the 125 cells and you can also get breakfast before you leave. The only difference between being a prisoner and a backpacker is that you probably get a better breakfast and you do get to leave.

And perhaps it was Charles Vangelios, who, through his former prison contacts, helped his younger brother, Chrysantheous to get a job at Yatala Labour Prison in 1921. Spiros would only have been 20 at the time and probably so junior in the South Australian Police that he would not have had the contacts to help his older brother get work. Then again, he could have heard there was a job going at Yatala and suggested he apply. Another possibility is that my grandfather helped him out. I have been told that Charles Vangelios also worked as a warder at the Adelaide Gaol but do not yet know exactly when that was. Another question for Auntie Jessie or time spent tracing records at Adelaide Gaol.

I wonder what sort of warders my grandfather and great-uncle were? I have heard that Spiros Andrew was highly respected as a police officer and can only hope they also discharged their duties as well as he was said to have done. From what I have been told, my grandfather was an easy-going person  with a great sense of humour so perhaps the prisoners in his care did not have such a hard time of it. As for Chrysantheous, or ‘Dan’ as he was known, he sounds like a bit of a trickster and so was probably not too officious as a warder. Then again, perhaps in those days warders, because they were not professionals, brought a more human touch to the prison system than there appears to be today. It’s all conjecture on my part but then a lot of this work is and therein lies the fascination.

There’s also the chance that my grandfather and his brother were feared and hated as prison warders often were. But I am prepared to discount that possibility. Neither of them seemed keen to stay on in the job so it doesn’t sound as if they liked it very much.

Spiros on the other hand made a career as a policeman and quite successfully too from what I know so far. I am sure that for someone to come from the backblocks of Gladstone; the son of a Greek sailor turned fishmonger and an illiterate mother and to rise to become a superintendant of police was no mean feat in those days. It indicates a level of commitment, intelligence and suitability to the job. Then again, he was a Virgo, like myself and probably more suited to the nit-picking nature of a lot of police work. He started as a mounted constable and certainly moved around a lot in the early years of his career.

Father Joachim’s sister, Sally, has been helping out with more information about her grandfather although she admits that because their father never talked about his family, the details are meagre. She thinks in the early years that Spiros worked in the Hawker and Laura area in the mid-north.This isn’t far from Gladstone and no doubt it meant he got to visit his widowed mother frequently. Sally has a copy of her grandfather’s record of service as an MC in Hawker and a ‘very small faded photo of a young Spiros in civi’s on a horse.’ I am looking forward to seeing both of these pieces of archival material and adding them to the collection. I am also wondering if a photograph of a boy on a horse which I posted earlier and which remains un-named, could be of Spiros. It will be interesting to see a copy of Sally’s photo to make a comparison.

There is also the possibility of finding some photographs with the SA Police Historical society since Auntie Jessie tells me that Spiros took part in the John Martin’s Christmas Pageant which began in 1933. He was a member of the contingent of Mounted Police and I have already found one photograph although I have no idea if he is one of the four. I know Father Joachim would be interested to see any photographs that we can find because in one email he wrote:

‘I can remember (as a child) coveting Grandpa Ross’s shiny ceremonial sabre in its scabbard which he had in a cupboard, and the white pith helmet with chrome spike sticking out the top which had been part of his ceremonial uniform.’

I wonder where the sabre and helmet went. Perhaps they are sitting in a dusty second-hand shop somewhere in Adelaide waiting to be found. In times past people valued the possessions of their ancestors and had a sense of family history. I wonder why such things have become less important. Perhaps the dramatic growth in genealogy is a sign that we are regaining respect for our ancestors and their stories.

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