1880 Trial Bay Gaol Cell Door

Era: Cultural background: , Collection: Theme:Folk Art Gaol German Internment Internment Prisoners of War Trial Bay Gaol WW1

Gaol Cell Door, c.1880s.
Gaol Cell Door c.1880s. Photograph by Stephen Thompson

Trial Bay Gaol, South West Rocks, Australia

Object Name
Gaol Cell Door

Object/Collection Description
The Gaol Cell Door is made from solid timber with large louvres at the bottom. The names of the occupants W.A. Fetter & F.R. Rensing and number 45 are painted on to the front. The door is 2100mm long x 400mm wide x 30mm high. The object is in a fragile condition and is much worn. One of the louvres is missing. There is evidence of water damage in the bottom right corner.

The outbreak of fighting in Europe in August 1914 immediately brought Australia into the ‘Great War’. Within one week of the declaration of war all German subjects in Australia were declared ‘enemy aliens’ and were required to report and notify the Government of their address. In February 1915 enemy aliens were interned either voluntarily or on an enforced basis. In New South Wales the principal place of internment was the Holsworthy Military Camp where between 4,000 and 5,000 men were detained. Women and children of German and Austrian descent detained by the British in Asia were interned at Bourke and later Molonglo near Canberra. Former gaols were also used. Men were interned at Berrima gaol (constructed 1840s) and Trial Bay gaol (constructed 1889). The internees at Trial Bay Gaol created their own management committees that organised entertainment, sport, culture and arts activities.

The Gaol Cell Door is a part of a collection of objects integral to the fabric of the Trial Bay Gaol heritage site and provides the distinctive character of the place. Its primary significance lies in its relationship to the themes of wartime internment experience, racial antagonism & fear of subversion and Australia’s links to and following of Britain’s wartime foreign policies after Federation. The Collection interprets the story and provides evidence of the experience of the German internee’s life at Trial Bay, the attitudes of the German internees to the war and internment and their relationships to other German communities in NSW both interred and free. The camp newspaper Welt am Montag produced by the internees gave a running commentary of politics, the local German perspective on the progress of the war and an insight to the conditions and grievances of life at the camp. The Gaol Cell Door is a remnant of the building fabric that has been altered to be identifiable to the German Internment Camp occupation.

The object has immense aesthetic significance in that it is fabric of the place and has been marked with two internees that can place them to a specific location on the Gaol at a specific time. It is a design as goal door is a very powerful piece of evidence of the experiences of the German internees.

The Gaol Cell Door provides a research tool for historians to explore the First World War chapter of Australian history and give the story a wider meaning in the context of the History of migration & settlement of Australia. The material culture of the Trial Bay Collection reveals of the diverse skills and backgrounds of the people interned there, including their educational and cultural background. Members of the Trial Bay internee community included wealthy industrialists, doctors, academics, publishers, professionals and entrepreneurs from Australia and South East Asia as well as Australian guards and Soldiers. The background and life story of Fetter & Rensing can certainly lead researchers to these stories.

There is substantial social value in the object as material culture and fabric of a site associated with internment. Internees and guards families have a common link to the place and many local residents have developed a strong attachment to the place. Many local residents are collectors and amateur historians carrying out many years of research and documenting the history of the site and the Collection. A lot of information still resides in the memories of the South West Rocks community. The place is a focal point for both Australians of Germans decent and visiting German nationals. The Gaol Cell Door is a part of a collection that has strong links to the community. It is part of a group of objects that holds pride of place in the Trial Bay Museum as an inherently German object from World War One. NPWS Curator of the Trial Bay Museum has undertaken substantial research on the Collection.

The Gaol Cell Door is well provenanced to the site. The Gaol Cell Door is part of the Gaol fabric. It was removed in from the site in 1922 and was souvenired by a member of the local community. The Door was donated to the Museum by Mr Roy of South West Rocks in the early 1980s.

The Trial Bay Collection is rare in that it relates specifically to the German internee occupation of the site and it is associated with those particular people who emerge as significant participants at Trial Bay and World War One NSW German internment camp history. These people include the camp artists Max Hertz, who was also an orthopaedic surgeon, Kurt Viese, who went onto become head of Animation for Disney Animation and Camp photographer Paul Dubotzki. George Mertens and E. Frolich were prominent collectors of the work of the Trial Bay internee photographers. Frolich donated a considerable collection of Trial Bay photographs to the Australian War Memorial.

The object represents the concentration camp nature of everyday life in the Camp. It is a reminder that the concentration camp was a prison to inter Australians of German decent as it was the Australian Government’s policy of ‘selective’ internment of the leaders of the German Australian Community. The Gaol Cell Door, as part of a larger Trial Bay Internee Collection represents Australia’s strong historic links to Britain and the adherence to British foreign policy after Federation. The Collection represents Australia’s fear of subversion during the war and racial antagonism to cultural minorities in war time. The Collection represents a time when Australia still looked to Britain for foreign policy and held deep suspicions of non British immigrants. This is evidenced in the concentration camp nature of the internment, the isolation of the place, the boredom that resulted in the Collection of detailed and precise photographs of everyday life at the Camp.

The Gaol Cell Door is made from solid timber with large louvers at the bottom. The names of the occupants W.A. Fetter & F.R. Rensing and number 45 are painted on to the front. The door is 2100mm long x 400mm wide x 30mm high. The object is in a fragile condition and is much worn. One of the louvers is missing. There is evidence of water damage in the bottom right corner. It is significant that such a group of objects remain in good condition, intact and at the place it has an historical association with.

The importance of the Gaol Cell Door lies it’s potential to interpret the place a site associated to internment, the internment camp itself and the experience of German communities. The Collection presents the opportunity to interpret the stories of various individuals who were interred at Trial Bay and those who were deported after the War only to return as migrants and become successful members of the Australian community despite their experiences.


Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Was it only Yesterday? Australia in the Twentieth Century World, Longman Cheshire, Sydney, .

Davies, P 2000, Trial Bay Gaol Conservation Management & Cultural Tourism Plan,

Fischer, G.W. & Helmi, N 2004, Internment at Trial Bay during World War One,
unpublished thematic history, Migration Heritage Centre  & Dept Environment & Conservation.

Fischer, G W 1989, Enemy Aliens, Queensland University Press.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
2006 – updated 2011Crown copyright 2006 ©

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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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