Imagine a boating carnival complete with gondolas, paddleboats, a dugout canoe, a houseboat and several pedal powered craft moving across Lake Titicaca. It did happen – at Berrima in February 1916.
Berrima townsfolk’s experience of the war was somewhat different to other Australians when their disused gaol was reopened in March 1915 to house the first of around 400 German internees, mainly merchant ships’ crews and prisoners of war brought to Australia.
The camp was formally controlled by the Australian Army, with a 25-man guard detachment on fortnightly rotations with other detention centres. Monthly rotations soon became the norm, until 1917 when the 29th Guard remained for most of the year. The daily running of the camp was a matter of liaison between the Commandant of the Guard and the internees’ Camp Committee consisting of ships’ captains, officers and sailors, who conducted organised sports to promote health and fitness; established sporting fields and vegetable gardens; and implemented a varied educational program, including the German School for Girls. The wives and families of five men were allowed to accompany them to Berrima, where they lived in rented accommodation in the village.
The internees were detained in the gaol at night, but during the day they moved freely about within a radius of two miles (3.2 km) of the camp. Most of them spoke some English and freely mixed with the villagers, using their own funds to patronise local shops and their own canteen. Excess produce from their gardens was sold in the village. Some passed the time by building elaborate bush huts and boating in a deep pool in the Wingecarribee River (called Lake Titicaca by the internees), while others involved themselves in the production of theatrical and musical entertainments attended by the wider community. The internees left Berrima in August 1919, many having forged friendships with locals that endured long after the war ended.
Bowral photographer David Speer created a lasting visual record of the internees going about their daily activities, and examples of the internees’ woodworking and carvings skills are evident in the several examples held by the Berrima Museum.
Berrima District Historical and Family History Society Inc
Film & sound
German concentration camps: Holsworthy, Trial Bay, Berrima, Molonglo (AWM F00133)