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Image: Portrait of George Lucas by The Daily Telegraph, 3 May 1900, page 6.

George Lucas: Controversial superintendent of Biloela Industrial School

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In 1871, the Newcastle Industrial School for Girls closed, and its inhabitants were transferred to Cockatoo Island. In charge of this transfer and the treatment of those incarcerated at Biloela were superintendent George Lucas and his wife Mary Ann. Trigger warning: In this article, Harbour Trust volunteer Michele exposes the horrific mistreatment and abuse the girls arising from the Lucas appointment at Biloela.

Political entrepreneur

George Lucas was the grandson of First Fleet convicts. He was born in Prince Street, Sydney in 1813 at the Trafalgar Hotel, where his father was the publican. George worked as a builder and despite the occupation of his father, joined the Total Abstinence Society in 1835.

Later in 1867, he founded the Sons of Temperance. George also published The Abstainer newspaper, which was the organ of the Sons of Temperance. In 1866, along with his wife Mary Ann, George founded the Sydney Night Refuge in Francis St Sydney.

George was politically active. He was a strong supporter of Sir Henry Parkes [link to DigiTale] and was on Parkes’ first election committee. With other prominent figures in the colony, he convened the first anti-transportation meeting in Sydney.

George was also a staunch advocate for the Public Instruction Act of 1866, which sought to distribute schools more widely across the colony by lowering the number of pupils required for a public school to operate.


Abuse of power

In March 1871, George commenced his appointment as Superintendent of both the Newcastle Industrial School for Girls and the Newcastle Reformatory. His wife Mary Ann was subsequently appointed matron of the Industrial School. George demonstrated a harsher attitude to misbehaviour than the previous superintendent of the institutions. For example, rioting that occurred just prior to and after his arrival was met with court appearances and harsh discipline.

That same year, the institutions at Newcastle closed, and George and Mary Ann were tasked with transferring the girls in their care to Cockatoo Island. The new establishment was divided into two institutions: the Biloela Industrial School for Girls and the Biloela Reformatory.

An inquiry by the Public Charities Commission (1871-73) elicited strong criticism of the Lucas administration on Cockatoo Island. There were details reported of girls being punished by imprisonment in old gaol cells on the Island. Newspaper articles detailing the findings of the second report of the Public Charities Commission, related complaints by girls being beaten and ill-treated by George and Mary Ann Lucas. Girls showed evidence of bruising and independently corroborated stories of violence and mistreatment.

Several girls complained of having been dragged by their hair and having had their heads struck and rubbed against a wall, in an attempt to rub out a caricature of Mr and Mrs Lucas. Eight girls between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were found locked in a dark room without adequate ventilation, as a form of punishment. The windows of the room were boarded up and all furniture had been removed. Four of the girls were in a “half-naked condition, and all without shoes or stockings”. The girls had been confined in the room for five days until visiting members of the Commission recommended their immediate release.

At the time, Sydney newspapers reported that Lucas was of a kindly disposition, had devoted a great deal of his time to a night refuge, and that his appointment was the result of representations from people aware of his charitable work. However, it became clear he was not suited to the role of superintendent. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Royal Commission, found “that beyond the possession of good intentions, Mr. Lucas appears to have possessed no qualification for the post requiring a singular combination of natural and acquired attainments for the successful discharge of its duties. At the time of his nomination to the office no one seems to have been aware of the fact the Mr. Lucas was unable to write the simplest report in grammatical English”.

The end of the Lucas reign

George requested a formal release from his duties as superintendent of Biloela in December 1873, after being asked to show cause why he shouldn’t be dismissed. There was some public support for George and Mary Ann as the girls confined to the Industrial School at Biloela, were considered bawdy, uncontrollable, and were often lampooned in the press.

George continued his involvement in the Temperance Movement until his death in 1900 at the age of 87. His last years were spent at Canterbury in Sydney.


  • The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 2 May 1900
  • The Empire, Wednesday 2 March 1871, page 2
  • The Evening News, Friday 29 May 1874, page 3
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 2 June 1874
  • George and Mary Ann Lucas, The Newcastle Industrial School for Girls:

Article was originally published on 27 January 2023.


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