South West Rocks in mid-Northern NSW is one of the most beautiful spots on the east coast of Australia but its beauty hides a dark history. 5km to the east of the town lies Laggers Point. It was here in the 19th century authorities wanted to build a breakwater at a logical point half way between Port Stephens and Moreton Bay. It was not to be a new port, as locals might have wished, but just a handy sheltering point for ships caught in storms.
In 1861 the NSW parliament, fresh from the horrors of the convict era, wanted to usher in a more enlightened form of incarceration for its prisoners. Two good ideas came together with the building of the Laggers Point breakwater by convict labour. A new prison built in 1877-1878 of exceptionally hard local granite was constructed at what would be called Trial Bay.
Prisoners were not to be sequestered away in their cells but would be employed by Public Works to build the breakwater. By all accounts it was a success at improving prisoner morale (though would end up back in the justice system after completing their sentence. Several prisoners near the end of their sentences were allowed to become “licence holders” allowed to leave the prison on occasion and able to collect weeks.
But Trial Bay was less successful as an engineering project. The dual control between prison officers and public works officers led to friction and the prevailing sea conditions meant that after 10 years only one seventh of the breakwater had been built. Washaways and washbacks in storms were a particular problem constantly eating in to existing work. In 1893 a large storm caused a new opening of the Macleay river at South West Rocks and silting up the old mouth further north at Grassy Head. This contributed to the growing irrelevancy of the project.
Authorities pressed on until 1901 though with no great success. By then events had overtaken the project with improvements in shipbuilding meaning they were less prone to sinking in storms and there was no longer a need for a safe haven at South West Rocks. In 1903, the NSW Government decided to close Trial Bay jail. The experiment was over.
The prison lay abandoned until 1914. When war broke out, the Federal Government passed the War Precautions Act which created a new class of illegal and enemy aliens who were to be detained indefinitely. These included naturalised citizens and those whose fathers and grandfathers were subjects of a country “at war with the King”. Over 6,000 people were rounded up including German merchant seamen in Australia or some other colony when war broke out. It also included German families, many Jewish, who had settled in Australia and had no love for the Kaiser’s regime.
They were to be sent to an Australian ‘zivil lager’ for the duration of the war. The vast majority were held at Holsworthy Barracks in western Sydney but some were held in Berrima, in southwest NSW while Trial Bay was also re-opened in 1915. Those sent here would be the “upper 500”, citizens of “higher social status” who would be kept away from the rifffaff. This did not mean an easy ride for the detainees. The first batch took 24 hours to get from Sydney to Jerseyville by car and then a forced three hour march for the final 8km to Trial Bay. When they got there, they found their luggage had been looted.
But the inmates made the most of conditions. There were chess, boxing and bowling clubs. There were two choral societies and there was a theatre club with ornate designs and costumes made by inmates. Theatre club president Max Herz was also one of Australia’s foremost child physicians and was the highly competent camp doctor. Interned life was also made more bearable with the terrific weather of the region meaning the coast was centre of most activities year-round with fishing and a café on the beach. There was a carpenter’s shop, chair factory and even a newspaper publisher.
The inmates stayed at South West Rocks for three years. They erected a monument overlooking the jail to commemorate the five lives lost during their incarceration (three drowned, two died of TB after leaving the prison). In 1918 with the war nearing its end, authorities decided to shut down the jail and moved the 500 back to Holsworthy. There was to be no happy ending for the detainees Most were refused permission to stay in Australia, dividing families.Only 306 out of 5,600 were allowed to remain in the country. Worse still in 1919 as authorities prepared to repatriate the thousands to Germany, Spanish Flu devastated the camp killing hundreds.
Meanwhile Trial Bay remained unloved and neglected. The German monument was vandalised and the cairn knocked over in 1919 when local heard about desecration of Australian war graves overseas. In 1922 the local council held an auction to sell off the roof and other valuable components.
It was until after World War II that this important part of Australian history began to be cherished. A local history heritage group worked with the Kempsey Shire Council to restore the cairn and the prison itself. Finally in 1991 the site was declared on the register of National Estate and the Public Works took it over, just as they did 100 years earlier. This time however, as a museum rather than a prison.