Built in 1891, the lighthouse is the most elevated lighthouse in New South Wales. The need for a light at this cape had first been proposed in 1886 by Alexander Kethel, a Scottish-born Australian politician in West Sydney. Australia’s first manned light had been built by convicts in 1791: a wood fired beacon on the south head of Sydney Harbour. That eventually became the site for Australia’s first light tower: Macquarie Lighthouse, built in 1818.
Here at Smoky Cape, you may find glorious coastal views and a magnificent landscape with walking tracks, which is the traditional land of the Dunghatti Aboriginal people, and which continues to have strong cultural significance to them.
With thanks to the Australian government Maritime Safety Authority for information about this spectacular area and its history.
This is the eleventh in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.
In my last post I shared my thoughts about the beautiful, dreamlike seascape and wetlands surrounding the Urunga Heads Boardwalk on the Coffs Coast region of the New South Wales north coast. A short distance down the coast from Urunga, past Nambucca Heads, you may find South West Rocks, and the Hat Head National Park. Whilst there, we visited Trial Bay Gaol and Smoky Cape Lighthouse. Today’s post is about Trial Bay Gaol.
Trial Bay Gaol has a fascinating history which encompasses three distinct stages. Built between the years 1886 and 1889, and now in ruins, it houses a museum which is a popular tourist destination.
Trial Bay offered ships refuge, whilst on their voyage from Brisbane to Sydney. The bay was named after the shipwreck of ‘Trial’. The Gaol was built to house prisoners brought there specifically to build a breakwater, to protect ships during storms. So this was the first stage of the Gaol’s story.
By 1903 the advent of sturdier ships meant that a refuge was no longer needed. The breakwater was abandoned and the Gaol closed.
1914 marked the second stage of the Gaol’s history. It was now used to house 500 men of German descent, classified as ‘enemy aliens’. Today, a German monument and a Powder Magazine may be found a short distance from the Gaol ruins. The German prisoners were relocated in 1918
In the 1930s the third stage of the Gaol’s history began, and continued up until the 1960s. Aboriginal people, for whom the area has long been of cultural significance, camped within the Gaol walls. They roamed around the Gaol ruins, and put their initials on the walls. The legend of ‘Charlie’s Ghost’ is very strong among the local aboriginal people. Widely believed to be a previous inmate, Charlie is a reality to them. They have a strong spiritual tradition and believe the spirit of a German prisoner is still there.
‘There’s a tree down there and if you climb it you’ll get chucked out of it,’ said Gadan Grahame Quinlan. ‘It’s got to do with Charlie the ghost…. he might have been a “fella” there, an inmate of the Gaol… He’s roaming around there, he’s still there, people feel his presence.’
Aunty Shirley Kelly contributed this story:
‘Gloria, my cousin, she was about eighteen months old and they had a tent there. In the night they could hear her crying like something dragged her out, and then she was outside when they found her. You ask Fred, because Charlie grabbed hold of Fred up here.’
Eddie Moran added his own story:
‘So we walked back from the end of the beach where the lighthouse is…. and Charlie the ghost, he used to come out here. The uncles told me that my grandmother used to pin their pyjamas to her night-dress, so she could feel if they were being pulled out of the tent because Charlie used to come out to camp and poke at them…. she’d feel them tugging and think “what’s going on here?”‘
At the end of the 1960s the aboriginal people moved their camp out of the Gaol ruins and into a camping ground some distance away.
Today, the National Parks and Wildlife Service offers guided tours around the Gaol. The area continues to be of cultural significance to the Dunghutti people.
Many thanks to the National Parks and Wildlife Service for their stories of the gaol and of the aboriginal people who camped within the gaol walls.