I headed next to South West Rocks, in Arakoon National Park, to visit the Trial Bay Gaol. The old, abandoned, stone jail sits, handsomely forlorn, surrounded by greenery, on a point of land overlooking the sea. A lovely setting for a resort, but an odd one for a prison. (And for those not familiar with the word “gaol,” it’s the traditional British spelling of “jail.” Pronounced the same.)
I wandered through the museum, which outlines the prison’s history. It started life as a Public Works Prison opened in 1886. It was an experimental prison, one that tried to reform inmates through work. It was believed that humane treatment would be more effective in redeeming the criminally inclined.
The original prison took 13 years to build, which I imagine had as much to do with its isolation as with its impressively sturdy stone construction. It was a fairly extensive complex of buildings, as it would have to not only house but feed and care for the inmates and guards who lived there. It would be home to prisoners who would be doing public works–in this case, building a breakwater on the nearby bay. Despite the presence of a prison, the bay was not named for a day in court, but rather for a ship named Trial that was wrecked there in 1816. (Interestingly, the ship, a brig, had been stolen by a group of convicts, so the name of the ship suited those sailing it when it sank.) The ship was found in 1817, and because there was no sign of survivors, it was assumed that everyone, convicts and hostages, must have perished. It was actually the consistency with which ships were wrecked in this area that led to the attempted building of the breakwater, though that didn’t really work out as hoped.
The jail was expanded in 1900s, and electric lights were added. However, climbing expenses and violent storms combined to derail the breakwater project far short of its intended length. In 1903, the jail was closed, and in 1904, it was auctioned off. Then, during World War I, it was needed again, as an Enemy Alien Internment Camp–a place to keep any Germans or Austrians who were feared to be enemy sympathizers. Finally, in 1922, everything that could easily be removed was taken, leaving only the haunting ruins that are now designated a heritage site.
I hiked around the ruins for about 40 minutes. The buildings were impressive, and I took a fair number of photos. I also chatted for a while with the woman who operates the museum. She was worried about the wild wind that was whipping the coast today. She said it normally doesn’t get windy until well into summer, and this is still winter. Also, she said it’s getting warm early, and it was unusual to have no clouds. Since she lives in the forest nearby, the dry weather and winds have her a bit worried, as fire can sweep through quickly in these conditions.