When I first saw photo’s and understood where it was located, I was quite bemused by this place. When I had recently visited Trial Bay and the Trial Bay Gaol, I still had this feeling, but also impressed and proud (as is often when you research Australian history) that government and people, would actually tackle a task of such scale. I was also very confused as to why on earth would they put a Gaol, so far from any decent population centre and next to the beach! No criminal deserves to wake up with the sounds of the ocean and watching whales pass by now do they…
In the 19th century one of Australia’s busiest shipping routes was Sydney to Moreton Bay (Brisbane). Some 90 ships and 243 lives were lost along the East Coast, of NSW by the mid 1800s, so something had to be done urgently.Trial Bay, named after the ship lost out to sea nearby, was thought to be the perfect spot. It’s geographic location and deep bay made it ideal for ships to stop off, resupply and take refuge from southerly storms on an often treacherous voyage from Sydney to Brisbane. There was no doubt of the suitability of Trial Bay, but all it needed was a break wall to prevent waves interrupting the boats at bay. The small settlement of nearby Arakoon was tipped to be one of Australia’s most prosperous cities once this 1.5km wall was constructed.
This venture needed a much bigger workforce than the small farming communities around the Macleay River could supply, so it was decided to build a gaol, for the specific use to house convicts for the construction of this huge wall. Once construction on the gaol began in 1877, they met with difficulty, dressing the strong local stone. Even with a large team of contract labourers and skilled stonemasons, it would take 9 days for a mason to finishing dressing the stone. The Gaol was finally completed some years later in 1886. It sounds like such a bizzare concept to me, to build such a grand gaol, just to build a seawall. It is the only large scale gaol built for a public works project in Australia and was only ever used to house well behaved convicts approaching the end of their terms and in the years to follow, the prison more or less had an open door policy and minimal security. The only escapes they had in years to follow were for small misdirections (people getting lost or late on day release) Not only were these well behaved convicts not going to risk eventual release by escaping, but they would surely perish (or have trouble with native aboriginals) while trying to escape the region.
-Gaol upon completion, with superintendents homestead in the foreground (now a coffee shop)
After a few engineering debates and a budget issue, construction on the wall began in 1889. Progress was slow, not only due to the quarrying of rock, but constant storms, gales and wash-aways. After 10 years, it was only one seventh of what it’s final length would be. In 1903 and after a change in engineering methods, holes in the wall between larger rocks were filled with smaller ones. After yet another large southerly storm, they accepted defeat and the break wall was left as a 300meter long mess and was abandoned before the year was out. The last few years of construction were in vain really, as with the use of newer style ships (that could be anchored out to see during storms), it made the break wall an unfortunate waste of time, effort and all at an astronomical cost, of a total of £150,000! (Along with 500,000 tonnes of quarried granite!)
– Original planned length of break wall
– The very cool, creepy mess that remains
So with the government giving up on this failed task by the end of 1903, the building remained dormant for the next decade or so. When until the outbreak of World War 1, it was used to house a little more then 500 men of German descent as Prisoners of War. Since it was impossible to intern all those of German descent in Australia, the men were usually academics, teachers, craftsmen and religious leaders and declared as ‘enemy aliens’ of the Commonwealth. They lived a fairly peaceful, easy going life here considering the circumstances in the remoteness and beauty of Trial Bay. Six months before the end of The Great War, they were moved to Holdsworthy army barracks in south western Sydney. It was a major concern, having the Gaol so isolated from any real help or support and with German war ships occasionally looming off the east coast, a possible attempted rescue by the Germans was not worth the risk.
Four years after the war, Trial Bay Gaol was completely stripped of every that wasn’t bolted down and also many things that were, in a mad cash grab from the government to claim back as much as they could from any losses. For years the old gaol remained dormant, till shorty after it became a popular destination for tourist (most of whom had absolutely no idea what this place ever was or why it was there) and in the years to come would be declared a public reserve, before being restored in the late 50’s. Now, it’s is still an amazingly eerie, awesome place to visit and camp.
It’s a bit of a recurring theme in Australian history and just like the Charlotte Pass Chairlift story I did recently, it is a very similar story of a great expense and engineering venture failing absolutely miserably. History though, wherever you are can often be like that. It can be quite depressing when you look at it like that though, so best we don’t! 🙂