STRANGE where your travels can take you.
Recently, I ended up in the holiday resort of Port Macquarie. Here, amid the modern tourist town, it was very easy to forget its grim origins and how much it has in common with early Hunter Valley history.
For Port Macquarie was founded in 1821 as a convict settlement to replace Newcastle’s original (but no longer escape-proof) coastal penal outpost founded in 1804.
Like Newcastle, Port Mac was designed as a place of punishment for serious villains, those who had committed secondary crimes in NSW.
Never mind that a lot of them might be Gaelic-speaking Irishmen, transported to Australia for rebelling against their English landlords and often not even sharing a common language, or even a religion.
But the convicts were finally taken out of Port Macquarie, because, like Newcastle (once “Sydney’s Siberia”), it was getting easier to escape from and free settlers were encroaching. The place was no longer remote.
And that’s when I thought of another later NSW coastal jail, built even further north, on the picturesque eastern point of Trial Bay, at Arakoon, five kilometres from South West Rocks, near Kempsey.
It’s sometimes overlooked when you’re talking about jails because it’s definitely not in the same category as, say, ‘hard’ prisons at Sydney’s Long Bay, Maitland or the notorious Grafton.
For the substantial Trial Bay Gaol, prominent on a headland, was built in 1886 to use its inmates as labour to construct a 1500-metre breakwater.
NSW prisoners serving out the last few months of their sentence were sent there, but the project proved impossible. The project was dropped and there was little use for the fortress after 1903.
But Trial Bay Gaol is today best remembered for an unusual breed of peaceful inmates 100 years ago. That’s when it held a large number of alleged German sympathisers in World War I.
Before that tale, however, there’s another very good reason for Novocastrians to remember Trial Bay.
That’s where two of three former Newcastle harbour punts, or vehicular ferries, and a former showboat, the Sydney Queen, all under tow north suddenly ended up stranded on the beach in early January 1972.
I was initially reminded of the link on visiting the Mid-North Coast Maritime Museum at Port Macquarie. Here, displayed on the wall were some historic ferry pictures, while below were two ancient, white painted but cracked lifebuoys. One had DMR 38 stencilled on it in black letters while the other carried the legend DMR 39. DMR 38 was the car ferry Lurgurena while DMR 39 was the similarly large punt Koondooloo.
These were rare relics preserved from the Trial Bay maritime disaster of long ago.
These ‘seagoing main roads’, along with sister punt Kooroongaba, had carried more than 4000 vehicles a day, on average, across Newcastle Harbour until the end
Newcastle’s three big, familiar harbour punts became obsolete after the new Stockton Bridge opened on November 1, 1971.
Soon sold, the former Department of Main Roads (DMR) ferries were being towed to the Philippines just over two months later.
The probably damaged Kooroongaba sank off Crowdy Head only days later. The rest of the convoy sought shelter, mooring in Trial Bay. Bad weather though caused the remaining three vessels to all run ashore in less than a week.
The once magnificent Sydney Queen showboat became grounded on this very day, January 12, 1972, some 47 years ago.
It was later set alight, deterring souvenir hunters.
Very little remains of the rusted wrecks today, although the Trial Bay prison museum has a few mementoes of both the ferry disaster and of Germans suddenly interned there for almost three years from August 1915.
I had suspected a once prominent Newcastle businessman, Henry Detlev Hingst, may even have once been unfairly interned there as an enemy alien.
While that now doesn’t appear to be the case, 500 other people of German descent, including doctors and other professionals, did end up were confined there, behind bars, between 1915 and May 1918
(Hingst died on December 11, 1918, after being unfairly persecuted during the patriotic frenzy of World War I. In 1916. He was even stripped of his voting rights because his former homeland was now German territory.
His name now features prominently on an elaborate wall of the old Hill Bowling Club at the top of Watt Street, Newcastle.
In September 1921, the family of the late Mr H.Hingst erected the elaborate wall on the northern boundary of the bowling greens to honour his memory.)
About 7000 Australian residents were interned during World War I in case they attempted to spy on their fellow citizens or somehow disrupt the war effort.
Most, or 4500 of them, were classified as ‘enemy aliens’. Many were kept at Berrima, Molonglo (in the ACT), Bourke in far western NSW and Trial Bay, but the bulk of prisoners were detained at Holsworthy Camp in south-west Sydney.
But let’s return to the Trial Bay Gaol, at Laggers Point, once holding 500 souls in splendid isolation who were suspected of harbouring German sympathies.
It wasn’t exactly a hard labour camp, more like a holiday camp, despite wartime restrictions. For a start, because the South West Rocks site was considered so remote, the internees had a fairly idyllic, even tedious, lifestyle, being able to freely wander about outside the sombre prison walls. After all, where would they go? In every direction there was bush or the ocean.
The German internees were free to swim, fish and play tennis. To beat boredom, some made furniture, studied or took part in camp concerts.
German internees were free to swim, fish and play tennis.
The jail was finally abandoned in May 1918. All the internees (and their 100 guards) were swiftly moved south, back to Sydney, mainly because of a fear the WWI enemy raider Wolf prowling offshore. It was known to be cruising off the NSW coastline laying sea mines.
Earlier there was panic. Might the crew of the brazen German raider secretly land and attempt a mass breakout of their fellow Germans imprisoned at the isolated settlement of South West Rocks?
Such a rescue never occurred, obviously. Although it wasn’t known at the time, the raider had departed ages ago, possibly as long as two years before the alarm was raised.