Harbour Trust: The Sites
Cockatoo Island: About the Site
Cockatoo Island has been greatly altered from its original state.
This largest harbour island dominates a special triangular space bounded by Balmain, Drummoyne, Hunters Hill, Woolwich and Greenwich, with the other two smaller knolls of Spectacle and Snapper Islands nearby.
The landform is distinctive as a drowned knoll (with Spectacle and Snapper) at the end of the ridge following Lyons Road, Drummoyne. The knoll rises to a height of about eighteen metres above sea level and the sandstone geology is similar to the Woolwich and Drummoyne peninsulas.
The island has been expanded over the years from 12.9 hectares to 17.9 hectares. The sandstone knoll that is Cockatoo Island has undergone extensive cutting and filling to create distinct upper and lower levels.
A variety of woodland vegetation and shrubs would have once covered the rocky knoll, and almost all have been removed.
Today, some ferns, mosses and hardy shrubs grow between layers of rock on the cliff faces. There are large Moreton Bay Figs and Camphor Laurel trees on the northern side of the island.
The island has a nesting ground for seagulls and fig trees provide a food source for bats.
History of the site
Pre-1788: Indigenous Heritage
Aboriginal people would have used the island although no record has been found. Further research will be carried out into both pre- and post-European occupation.
The Aboriginal name for the island is Wa-rea-mah.
1830s-1840s: A Convict Prison is Established
The isolation of the island and its proximity to Sydney Cove made it ideal for construction of a prison to house convicts withdrawn from Norfolk Island.
Around 323 convict prisoners would brought to the island in 1839 and remained in varying number up to 1869 when they were transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol.
The conditions for convicts on Cockatoo Island were harsh and the work was tough. From 1839-40 convict labour was used to cut deep into the rock and construct silos for storing the colony's grain supply.
The Quarry on Cockatoo Island. Photo courtesy: Dept of Corrective Services
Quarrying on the island provided stone for a group of penal buildings on the island and for construction projects around Sydney, including the wall for semi-Circular Quay.
A Guardhouse was constructed during this period which primarily acted as a refuge for the soldiers and guards who brutally mistreated the prisoners. The guards, who were stationed on the island for weeks at a time, required this safe haven where they could sleep without fear of convict attack.
The artillery crew known as the 99th Regiment of Foot oversaw the guarding of the prisoners. After an officers order to ration their rum was made, they threatened to mutiny. The commanding officer threatened to arm the convicts on Cockatoo Island if the soldiers didn't return to the barracks. This became known as the 'Grog Mutiny', and took the 11th Devonshire being brought up from Van Diemens Land to settle them down again.
During the 1830s, Governor Gipps ordered the construction of underground grain silos on the island. The convicts constructed these by hand, and by 1842 approximately 140 tonnes of grain was stored on the island.
1847-1870: Building the Fitzroy Dock, Shipbuilding and Repair
The Fitzroy Dock was named after Sir Charles Fitzroy, Gipp’s successor, and was built by convicts in chains between 1847 and 1857.
It was Australia’s first dry dock and Cockatoo Island was chosen as the site because the convicts there could supply the free labour to build and operate it. For around six years some 600 convicts working in leg irons removed thousands of tons of overburden from the cliff face. It was the first time that electrically controlled gunpowder charges were used in Sydney. An estimated 1.5 million cubic feet of rock was excavated with 480,000 cubic feet forming the dock itself.
Convicts also built the machine shop for the Royal Navy.
In 1864 the island was split between the NSW Department of Prisons and the Public Works Department who expand the dockyard around the foreshores.
Training ship, Vernon
1870-1880: Orphans, Wayward Boys and Training Ships
The island was renamed 'Biloela' (Aboriginal for cockatoo) in an attempt to give it a new image.
The training ship, Vernon, was anchored off Cockatoo Island and accommodates wayward and orphaned teenage boys. It is later replaced by the Sobraon.
Cockatoo Island prisoners are relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol and prison buildings become the Industrial School for Girls and a reformatory.
1880-1900: A New Dock
Shipbuilding and repair activities expand steadily and in 1883 Louis Samuel and his brother Edward won the contract to build the Sutherland Dock.
A power house is constructed and operational by 1883 to operate the pumps.
The dock was built to take ships up to 20,000 tonnes - the size of the largest ship in the world at the time.
The dock wook seven years to completed, and was opened in 1890.
The island reverts back to a gaol from 1888-1899 due to overcrowding elsewhere.
Cockatoo Island becomes one of the first places in Sydney to be lit by electric lights.
1900-1930: A Naval Dockyard
Cockatoo Island becomes the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard in 1913. By 1918 a new power house is built, and is powerful enough to allow the de-watering of the Sutherland Dock in around three-and-a-half hours.
Sutherland Dock under construction
A Scottish steel-hulled ship, HMAS Warrego, is broken up and transported to Sydney where it is reconstructed on Cockatoo Island. The following year the island's workers built their first steel warship, HMAS Huon, on the island.
Over the years of World War I and beyond a succession of naval ships are built, including HMAS Brisbane, HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Biloela and HMAS Albatross - a seaplane carrier.
One of the most notable features of this period is the floating crane, Titan. Originally imported from England, the crane was assembled at Cockatoo Island and became a standard of the island. Steam-driven, and with a lifting capacity of 150 tonnes, Titan became an icon around Sydney Harbour, not only working relentlessly on Cockatoo Island, but later in a range of projects such as the Gladesville Bridge and Spit Bridge constructions, and lifted the mast of HMAS Sydney into place on Bradleys Head.
1930-1945: A Prime Wartime Shipbuilding Facility
The private company, Cockatoo Island Docks & Engineering Company Ltd leases facilities in 1933.
During World War II, Cockatoo Island becomes the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the Pacific following the fall of Singapore.
49 ships were built during World War II, including minesweepers, corvettes, frigates, sloops, freighters, destroyers, and tugs, boom net vessels and Liberty cargo ships.
1945-1965: Bigger Ships and Moving into New Territory
Cockatoo Island Docks & Engineering Co Ltd becomes part of the worldwide 'Vickers Group' in 1947.
Additional buildings are constructed in the 1950s for shipbuilding and repair.
Launch of the Empress of Australia
In 1959 the HMAS Vampire is launched, being one of the most modern warships in the world at the time.
In 1964 the Empress of Australia is launched, being the largest roll-on roll-off cargo ship in the world. This ships' construction was notable as it was built using a modular system, where sections of the superstructure, up to 60 tons in weight, were assembled in the plate yards and fitted out with equipment, then raised into position in the hull. This greatly speeded up completion of the vessel and modular construction has now been adopted throughout the ship building industry.
By the mid-1960s, the dockyards had begun to refit of T-Class submarines.
1965-1992: Coming to an End
The island continued to service and refit submarines - the O Class being the last. Both Australian and overseas warships were regular visitors to the island.
The Navy supply ship, HMAS Success, is the last ship to be built on the island before the dockyard closes in 1992.
The Commonwealth sells off machinery, demolishes some 40 buildings and removes several wharves.
2001-Today: Revitalising a Piece of History
The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust was handed management of Cockatoo Island, and is spending millions of dollars on decontaminating and rehabilitating the island.
In 2005 a highly-acclaimed music and arts festival was held on the island, attracting over 7,000 visitors a day. Click here to read more about this event.
The Harbour Trust is now offering individuals, businesses, community groups and institutions to make their own history on the island through the leasing of buildings and facilities.
Cockatoo Island contains important evidence of the history and development of Australia. Located at the meeting of two rivers, it has magnificent harbour views and is a visual landmark with its distinctive silhouette.
A summary of the island's facilities includes:
Cockatoo Island today
It is close to 10 years since Cockatoo Island was used. The Harbour Trust has been decontaminating the island and rehabilitating many of the buildings and structures on the island.
Electricity, water and sewerage has been reinstated on the island. Four new electrical substations have been installed to handle all future power requirements of the island.
In 2005 the Cockatoo Island Festival was held to announce the rebirth of the island as an active part of the city.
Access to the Site
Access to the island is still currently by guided tour only. The Harbour Trust is working to have the island ready for general open access sometime in 2006, when it is anticipated that a regular ferry service will be in place and businesses shall be operating on the island.
Tours run every weekend, and by special arrangement on weekdays. A popular night tour has recently been added for the more adventurous.
Click here to find out more about guided tours.
Current Projects and Works on Cockatoo Island
The Harbour Trust has been extremely busy with decontamination, restoration and rehabilitation of Cockatoo Island.
Click here to learn about future plans for this site.
Click here to find out what projects and activities are being and have been carried out on the site.
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust · PO Box 607 · Mosman NSW 2088 Australia · Tel 02 8969 2100 · Fax 02 8969 2120 · TTY 02 8969 2152
Business Hours: Mon to Fri, 9am to 5pm
This page last modified 2 May, 2005
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