History and mystery at the Marrinup No.16 POW camp just outside of Dwellingup, WA - an interesting and educational short hike for families in Peel #famlyhike #westernaustralia #hike #familydayout #dwellingup #prisonerofwar #history #educational

A Hike Through History at Marrinup Prisoner Of War Camp

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If you are looking for an outdoor adventure not too far from Perth then Dwellingup is the best place to go. With hundreds of kilometres of hiking and mountain bike trails to explore, several campsites along the winding waterways of Lane Poole Reserve and numerous swimming holes to escape the Western Australian summer heat, you can relax enjoying the native forest or even swing through the canopy at the Tree Top Adventure. The town has a rich and long history as a timber town and you can visit the Dwellingup Discovery Centre or take a ride on the Hotham Valley Railway steam train. But did you know that amongst this outdoor playground are the ruins of a Second World War prisoner of war camp?

It may sound a little depressing, and not the most uplifting destination for a family excursion, but I assure you POW No.16 at Marrinup is a mysterious place with an interesting and surprising history.

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wooden sign reading Marrinup number 16 POW camp with a trail through the forest leading into distance

Arriving at the prisoner camp

The POW camp is not well signposted from town and you need to know roughly where to go. Heading west a few kilometres out of Dwellingup along Pinjarra-Williams Road keep an eye out for a right turn with a small sign for POW camp. Turn onto the dirt road and follow it until you cross the railway tracks. You will pass the Marrinup Campsite and come to a clearing under the power lines. Here you can turn left to visit the Marrinup Falls or continue on to the POW camp. After a short distance the road swoops around in a loop and you will pass a few parking spots and space for coach parking. 

A short walk along the path will take you to the drop toilet and a sign marking the start of the walk. 

barbwire wrapped around a timber pillar and stretching off into distance

Family Hike at POW No.16

Although not your typical fun family day out, we did quite enjoy our morning at the Marrinup Prisoner of War camp. The walk was short enough for Maddie to stay in her carrier the whole time, even having a little nap as we walked.

My only concern here would be keeping our toddler from climbing on the ruins. Signs around the camp politely ask visitors not to climb on or around the foundations to prevent damage. For older children this short hike just outside of Dwellingup could prove an interesting and educational day trip. It certainly brought back memories of my school trips to The Somme and trenches in France – though graciously without the horrors of the front line. 

close up of Jed and carrying Maddie in her carrier. The rain cover is covering most of maddie and she is peeking through the small opening at the front

An imposing facade

After only 5 minutes of walking we approached an imposing fence and entry gateway, an intimidating construction of timber and barbwire. An engraved sign marked the entrance to the POW camp. The fence only continued a few metres in either direction and appeared new. It was an impressive welcome but somehow didn’t feel quite as daunting as I would have expected.

Passing through the opening we stopped to read 4 informative signs describing the camp and its inhabitants. Unfortunately this would be the most information we would attain throughout the hike. I guessed the entrance and these signs to be a recent addition but the rest of the signposts throughout the area were degraded, sometimes enough to make them illegible. 

a timber and barbwire fence with entrance gateway in the forest

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Life as a POW

Operating for three years between 1943 and 1946 Marrinup No.16 POW camp housed, in total, 3500 Italian and 300 German prisoners of war. Mostly captured in the Middle East, only prisoners considered low risk were send to Marrinup and put to work cutting wood or sent off to work unguarded as farm hands in the local community. The camp covered 15 hectares and could house up to 1200 men at a time. 

Contrary to how we imagine life on a POW camp to be, the men were only expected to work for 8 hours a day, allowing for some down time. Sundays were a day of supervised walks and sports outside the camp walls. To deter prisoners from escaping they were paid in tokens that they could exchange for luxuries such as chocolate and cigarettes. Despite the relatively humane conditions, escape attempts did happen. Escapees were found having a drink at the Dwellingup Pub on more than one occasion. 

Working on farms or woodcutting meant the prisoners were free to interact with the local population. Stories of wartime romance abound and many life long friendships were formed. After several years in the peace of WA, many were reluctant to return to war-torn Europe after the war. In fact, when the camp closed in 1946, some 30 of the men due for repatriation to their home country escaped to avoid leaving on the last ship out of Fremantle. Many more applied back in their home country to immigrate back to Australia. Many of the men settled in the region, getting married to locals and starting families.

the foundations of a building all broken as a tree has grown through it

Stepping back in history.

Following the path the forest opens to a large clearing. We were surprised to find the foundations of many buildings intact and clearly visible. Many of the trees in the surrounding forest were smaller than other parts of the region owing to only 70 or so years of re-growth, but the forest was far from completely reclaiming the land. 

We walked from one foundation block to another imagining how this land must have looked when the buildings were still standing. Signs at each foundation inform you of the use of each building. We passed the German mess, boarding houses, guard tower, latrines, showers, laundry and more. Given how peaceful and still it was, it was hard to imagine this was once home to 1200 men. 

At the far eastern extent of the camp you can see the outlines of the once well-kept flower beds, vegetable garden and pond – perhaps a peaceful place of solace and luxury amongst the isolation of prison life. 

a clearing in the forest with a series of concrete lines in the leaf litter marking out where the walls of the building would have been

Mass in the Italian mess hall.

Life as a prisoner meant limited or completely absent ability to express oneself or practice religion. Red Cross inspectors visited the POW camp from time to time to check on the welfare of the prisoners. It was during one of these visits that one inspector remarked on the captives’ spiritual welfare. All of the prisoners were Catholic but of the several thousand men who passed through the camp, there was not one priest. Efforts were made to find an Italian-speaking priest who would attend the camp once a month to give mass in the Italian mess hall. 

An elevated foundation slab in the bush about two foot off the ground

A prison within a prison

POW No.16 at Marrinup was considered low security, and was a stop-over for many men before being transferred out into the community for farm work or woodcutting. The prison was not exempt from a little turmoil every now and then. Men could be held in small cells with just a door and one small window.

Looking at the foundations we could see that there would barely have been space to lie down without bending their legs. Stays in these cells could range up to 28 days depending on the severity of the crime. 

A small square foundation block with a line though the middle marking where a wall would have been dividing this tiny building into two cells
A small square foundation block with a line though the middle marking where a wall would have been dividing this tiny building into two cells

Don’t wander too far…

Most of the buildings were in a fairly small area with signs informing you of their use. Some of the more prominent sites had tall totem poles with signs – though unfortunately nearly every sign was completely faded. We found that many of the signs were degraded completely and we encountered several different trail markers within the site. There are several paths that lead away from the POW camp but don’t wander too far or you may loose your bearings.

If you are hitting the trail in the spring or summer, remember to check out my blog about how to keep your family safe from snakes!

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The green and orange peeling bark of a tree

POW camp scale model

During your visit to Dwellingup you really should pop in to the History and Visitor Centre. The staff are friendly and always happy to have a chat, and you’ll find plenty of useful information, books and beautiful gifts. Towards the back of the building is a large-scale model of the POW camp. It is fascinating to look down on the model and see just how large the compound was. We visited after our walk and were dumbfounded but just how many buildings had once stood there. It is remarkable how quickly Mother Nature removes almost every trace of human settlement. 

A model with many small buildings arranges into two rough groups with some larger many communal buildings

Lives touched by war and friendship

I recently met with two of my neighbours Wayne and Beverley to chat about any stories passed down from their parents and grandparents who owned a farm in Dwellingup. 

Wayne’s grandfather arrived in Western Australia in the early 1900s, following the work to the goldfields before buying 1380 acres of virgin bush not far from where the POW camp would later be constructed. With just a horse, chains and his own bare hands he cleared the land and established Millbrook Farm. By the time of World War II it was his son, and Wayne’s father, W.G. Morgan who was running the farm. The farm provided meat to the local butcher and meat market. Although Millbrook farm employed no prisoners itself, it did supply meat to the camp.  As a token of gratitude a prisoner built a table from the wood they had and engraved on it “Ger. P.o.W 1945 W.A.”.

The table was passed down to Wayne and then to his son who kindly sentthrough the picture below.

Beverly, whose family resided just east of Perth at the time, spoke of how an Italian POW took a shine to her mother. The love-struck Italian proposed marriage but her father would not allow it. He returned to Italy, presumably a little broken hearted, and was not heard from again.

a wooden table with engraving saying G. E. R., P. O. W 1945 W.A.

Nearby Trails 

Our visit to POW no.16 camp at Marrinup only took around an hour. If you would like you explore further you can head to the nearby Marrinup Falls, another short walk along a stunning succession of small rapids and water falls. 

Marrinup Trail – 8km mountain bike loop 

Island Pool Walk Trail – 2km hike along the Murry River in Lane Poole Reseve

King Jarrah Trail – 18km Loop in Lane Poole Reserve passing by a 300-600 year old jarrah tree

Bibbulmun Track – a short hike north from Dwellingup along this 1000km trail will take you along the historic railway and past more old townsites

Suzy wearing a pink top and black hat holding maddie standing in front of the forest

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