South West Rocks is located on Trial Bay. The Bay was named after the brig Trial which was wrecked there in 1816 after it had been stolen by convicts who were attempting to escape to south-east Asia. When Captain Thomas Whyte found the wreck in 1817 there was no trace of the convicts and it was assumed they had all perished either starving or being killed by the local Aborigines.
Shipping along the coast ensured that the Trial Bay area was well known. Today there is a monument on the headland at South West Rocks to the people who were drowned when the Wooloomooloo ran aground in Trial Bay in 1864.
In the 1870s it was decided to build a deepwater harbour at Trial Bay (see Things to See - Trial Bay Gaol for more details) and a breakwater. Subsequently a prison was established and the prisoners began to build the breakwater. However the plan was not a success. Heavy seas washed parts of the breakwater away and the plan was abandoned.
The actual township of South West Rocks was established in 1896. It grew as a result of a new mouth to the Macleay River being established. This resulted in the construction of the Pilot's Station in 1902 and the town slowly grew up around this activity. The name of the town is a result of the pilot officer instructing vessels to anchor in Trial Bay so the rocks would be south-west of their anchorage. The locals decided upon the name for the town in the 1910s.
In January 1972 the tug Polaris put into Trial Bay with a showboat ('the Sydney Queen') and two vehicular ferries (the 'Koondooloo' and 'Lurgurena') in tow. The ferries had been used on Sydney Harbour and, later, around Newcastle. Polaris was hauling them 4000 km from Newcastle to Manilla where they were to be converted to scrap or barges. A third ferry, the "Kooroongabba', was also being towed but had sunk off Crowdy Head and further problems necessitated the stopover at Trail Bay for repairs. The three remaining vessels were moored to the buoys used by oil tankers but a gale caused all three to break away and drift ashore where they became entrenched in deep sand and were subsequently left to decay. All that remains today are the loading ramp supports which protrude from the sand.
Today the township of South West Rocks is strictly a tourist destination. It has a modern and attractive centre with lots of accommodation, good foreshores, pleasant beaches and good fishing. The town also has some particularly beautiful stands of Norfolk pines.