Trial Bay Gaol by Alan LucasOne of the most bizarre – not to say careless – situations ever to unfold in Trial Bay happened during January 1972 when no less than three large ferries blew ashore within days of each other. Their ill-fated story started in Newcastle when the tug Polaris took in tow Sydney’s old showboat, Sydney Queen (ex-Kalang) and the vehicular ferries Koondooloo, Lurgurena and the Kooroongaba, their destination being the Philippine Islands where they were to be scrapped or recycled as working barges.
Sydney Queen on the beach after carrying away from a tanker mooring in Trial Bay. She was one of three ferries wrecked there in January 1972.Off Crowdy Head, Kooroongaba sprung a plate and sank in 65 fathoms while the three remaining vessels also threatened to give trouble. The tug continued to the open roadstead of Trial Bay and moored them to tanker buoys off South West Rocks (up until the early 1990s there was an oil tank-farm ashore here, fed by an underwater pipeline from these buoys).
Two days later, a powerful northerly wind parted Koondooloo’s lines and drove her onto the beach where she became too embedded in the sand to shift.
During a special display, a dummy echoes the solitude of a Trial Bay Gaol cell. A couple of days later Sydney Queen joined her just 100 metres away on the same beach, followed soon by Lugerena, which was successfully pulled free until things went wrong and she rejoined her sisters to become part of a 2,000-ton steel scrap-pile destined to rust in peace in the shallows of a lovely coastal bay. The full story of this sorry mess is told in a small booklet written by Graeme Andrews and available at the Trial Bay Gaol.
Trial Bay is one of New South Wales’ most commodious ocean anchorages, lying as it does under the lee of Smoky Cape, named by Lieutenant Cook in 1770 when he noticed “a great quantity of smoke” from nine miles offshore. Smoke was the best evidence of occupation in those days and Australian aborigines produced it prodigiously to coax evening meals out of the bush. Since then Trial Bay has proven to be a popular southerly anchorage midway between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour.
A spare-time occupation for one of the German internees during World War One was the making of this wooden chair.In September 1816, the bay was named after a ship stolen from Sydney by a bunch of convicts keen to try an alternative lifestyle. She was the brig Trial, stolen complete with master, crew and passengers, none of whom were destined to survive.
The colonial vessel Rosetta was dispatched in hot pursuit with a party of the 46th Regiment aboard, but she returned without finding the runaways or any evidence of the ship. However, word filtered back via the native grapevine that there was a wreck ‘on a beach north of Port Stephens’. This inspired a second search to be instigated by Governor Macquarie.
In January 1817, he ordered Captain White and six soldiers to sail north in the Lady Nelson to seek the wreck, which they found on ‘the beach of a deep bay’, but there were no signs of her occupants. Local natives claimed that a small vessel was constructed from parts of the Trial on which a good number of people put to sea but they all perished.
Trial Bay is midway between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour. During southerly winds it offers fair haven to await the tide for the Macleay River bar on the western side of the bay, or the dinghy can be landed for a visit to the historic gaol.Other survivors, it was assumed, also perished while trekking overland. It is believed that during the search for survivors, Captain White found the mouth of the Macleay River in the bay’s western corner. Decades later, Kempsey, situated 25 miles up this river, became the largest town between Maitland and Grafton.
Today on Laggers Point, Trial Bay’s eastern headland, a large, sprawling historic building attracts thousands of tourists annually. It is known as Trial Bay Gaol and is close to where the town of Arakoon was expected to blossom by early town planners. In fact, the ‘town’ became little more than a collection of urban dwellings south of the now long abandoned prison.
In the bush above Trial Bay Gaol is this explosives magazine, used during the quarrying of stone for the breakwater. It is one of two, the other being reduced to rubble over time.Trial Bay Gaol was conceived as a means of rehabilitating criminals by getting them involved in public works. Their therapy was to build a breakwater out from Laggers Point to better protect the bay’s anchorage from northerly winds. Edward Moriarty, chief engineer of the Harbours and Rivers Branch of the Department of Public Works was asked, in 1866, to report on its feasibility at a time when 10 steamships, 79 sailing vessels and a total of 243 lives had been lost along the coast in just four years.
Interestingly, prior to committing to a properly built gaol, one idea was to accommodate the prisoners in hulks – a hellish form of accommodation used in England to incarcerate our first settlers before being banished to Sydney. Fortunately, commonsense prevailed and a substantial and rather attractive group of masonry buildings resulted.
This is all that remains of what was to be a 1500-metre breakwater designed to turn Trial Bay into an all weather harbour. This view is from the prison wall.After a period of stalemate and years of lobbying, the Parkes Government set a sum of money aside for the project in 1874, which got under way after Sydney-based contractor Dan McQuarie was awarded the job a few years later.
Its occupants were to be those prisoners serving the last few months of their term who would be paid for their labour on the breakwater without the obligation of wearing prison clothes. Within the gaol they were answerable to prison authorities; on the breakwater they were overseen by officers of the Department of Public Works. The gaol was ready for occupation in 1886 after officially being handed over to the Justice Department.
In the prison museum are scraps of the railway used to carry quarried stone along the breakwater during its construction.Building a 1500-metre breakwater proved so difficult that the idea was eventually scrapped and the gaol fell into disuse by 1903, remaining that way until World War One when it was re-opened to accommodate German internees, the first arriving in August 1915. In all, 500 German prisoners and 100 guards beavered away on the breakwater until the whole project was finally abandoned in May 1918 after word filtered through that the German raider Wolf might attempt a rescue.
This proved to be a knee-jerk reaction, Wolf having long gone, after laying mines near Gabo Island nearly two years earlier. Nevertheless, Trial Bay Gaol was abandoned and the internees were marched back to the wharf at Jerseyville to return by steamer to Sydney barracks.
A bonus to visitors of Trial Bay Gaol is the lovely Smoky Cape Lighthouse three miles south of Laggers Point.Erected in 1918 by German internees and dedicated to five of their comrades who died during imprisonment, this monument was blown up in 1919 by resentful local residents. The graves around its base were not damaged but the monument was flattened. It was later rebuilt.All in all, it can be said that Trial Bay, as a port of refuge and a site for a gaol, was an abject failure and a waste of money on a project too creative for its time. But its legacy is New South Wales’ answer to Tasmania’s Port Arthur, the gaol buildings being a magnificent tourist target where one can wander through roofless corridors and almost hear the echoes of a brief but fascinating past when rehabilitation was encouraged and German was the last dominant language.
As well, there are a scattering of historic sites to visit, all interconnected with bush walking tracks between Trial Bay Gaol and Smoky Cape Light.
If visiting by boat, stand clear of the breakwater’s remains when entering from the south, and if northerly winds are blowing stay at sea lest you join the ghosts of those hapless ferries.