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. Mid 19th century authorities wanted to build a breakwater at Laggers Point 5km east of the town, half way between Port Stephens and Moreton Bay. It was not to be a new port, as locals wanted, just a handy shelter for ships in storms. Meanwhile in 1861 NSW parliament, fresh from the horrors of the convict era, wanted more enlightened incarceration for its prisoners.
These two ideas came together with a proposal for a Laggers Point breakwater, built 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 kept in cells but employed by Public Works to build the breakwater. It improved prisoner morale though most would end up back in the justice system after completing their sentence.
Trial Bay was less successful as an engineering project. The friction between prison officers and public works officers led to arguments and the prevailing tough sea conditions meant it was just one seventh complete after 10 years. Washaways and washbacks in storms constantly ate away existing work. In 1893 a large storm caused a new opening of the Macleay river at South West Rocks and silted up the old mouth further north at Grassy Head. The new estuary contributed to the breakwater’s growing irrelevance. Authorities pressed on until 1901 with no great success. By then improvements in shipbuilding meant ships were less prone to sink in storms and there was no longer a need for a safe haven at South West Rocks.
In 1903, NSW closed Trial Bay jail. The experiment was over and the prison lay abandoned until 1914. When the First World War broke out, Australia passed the War Precautions Act creating a new class of illegal and enemy aliens 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 6000 people were rounded up including German merchant seamen caught in the colonies when war broke out. It also included German families, many Jewish with no love for the Kaiser’s regime, who had settled in Australia.
They were to stay in an Australian “zivil lager” for the entire war. Most were at Holsworthy Barracks in western Sydney with some in Berrima, in southwest NSW. Trial Bay was re-opened in 1915. Those sent here were the “upper 500”, citizens of “higher social status” kept away from the riff-raff. This was still no easy ride. The first batch took 24 hours to get from Sydney to Jerseyville by car and then forced to march three hours the last 8km to Trial Bay.
At the jail, they found their luggage looted. Nevertheless, the inmates made the most of conditions. There were chess, boxing and bowling clubs, there were two choral societies and 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 a highly competent camp doctor. The favourable climate made life bearable with year-round activities including fishing and a café on the beach. There was also a carpenter’s shop, chair factory and even a newspaper.
They stayed at South West Rocks for three years. In that time five people died. Inmates erected a monument overlooking the jail to commemorate their lives (three drowned and two died of TB). With the war nearly over, authorities shut down the jail and moved the 500 back to Holsworthy. There was no happy ending in November 1918. Most were refused permission to stay in Australia, dividing families. Only 306 out of 5,600 stayed on. Worse came in 1919 when Spanish Flu devastated Holsworthy as authorities prepared to repatriate them to Germany. Hundreds died.
Trial Bay remained unloved and neglected. The German monument was vandalised and the cairn was knocked over in 1919 when locals heard about desecration of Australian war graves overseas. In 1922 the local council held an auction to sell off the jail’s roof. The building became a half-way house for dispossessed Aborigines from Jerseyville.
Its history wasn’t cherished until after the Second World War. A history heritage group worked with Kempsey Shire Council to restore the cairn and the prison. 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, Trial Bay Jail is a museum not a prison.