1. The History of Cockatoo Island Dockyard

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Cockatoo Island, 1927. NAA: C1419, 6
The development of the city of Sydney, from the convict period to the growth of industrialisation in the twentieth century, is reflected in the history of Cockatoo Island.

Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour, has been used by various colonial, state and federal administrations, first as a penal facility and later as a dockyard, since its initial European occupation in 1839.

From at least as early as 1870 the island was referred to as ‘Biloela’, an Aboriginal word for ‘black cockatoo’. The dockyard’s official title was ‘Government Dockyard – Biloela’ until its sale to the Commonwealth in 1913. From 1913 the official name of the dockyard was changed to ‘Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, Cockatoo Island’, and the use of ‘Biloela’ was confined to such items as the name of several vessels built at the dockyard (although one was named after the Queensland town, not the Island),[1] and the staff magazine 1976–91, Biloela Bulletin.

New South Wales Government

The first construction occurred on the island in 1839 under the orders of Governor Gipps and consisted of a prison for convicts transferred from Norfolk Island.[2] Today five of the original buildings are intact, with varying degrees of modification. Among the notable achievements of the convicts was the construction of approximately twenty grain silos excavated from the solid sandstone bedrock, fourteen of which still exist today. Although the penal establishment was abolished in 1870, the island continued to be used as a reformatory for women until 1888. From 1888 to 1908 it was a prison for petty offenders, vagrants and prostitutes. In addition, a training ship for delinquent and orphan boys – the Vernon, followed by the Sobraon was moored at the island between 1871 and 1911.

In 1845 the Governor, Sir George Gipps, recommended to the British Government that a dry dock be constructed using convict labour to service visiting vessels of the Royal Navy.[3] In 1847 the NSW Legislative Council approved the plan, and construction commenced in 1851. Fitzroy Dock, as it was named, took six years to construct and was 300 feet in length (later extended to 474 feet). The first ship to be docked was the brig HMS Herald in December 1857. This date is taken as the commencement of the operations of the dock, although the construction of the dock was still incomplete.

In the early years the dockyard was administered by the prison superintendent, who reported to the Governor through the Colonial Secretary. After self-government was granted to the colony in 1856, the superintendent reported to the Legislative Council and the Premier. From 1870 the Fitzroy Dock and associated workshops came under the control of the NSW Harbour and Rivers Department. Many small vessels required for the Department’s operations, such as dredgers, barges, tugs and punts, were produced for the NSW Government in addition to work undertaken for the British Government.[4]

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RAN Collier Biloela under construction, 1918. NAA: C4150, 23
By 1870 it was clear that a larger dock was needed to service the ships visiting Sydney. By the time the last extension of the Fitzroy Dock was completed in 1880, the NSW Parliament had decided to build a new dock, suitable for the largest ships of the time.[5] Construction of the Sutherland Dock commenced in 1882 and was completed in 1890. It was built by free labour under the guidance of a young engineer, Louis Samuel, who died in 1887 at the age of 26. The work was completed under the supervision of his younger brother Edward.

For a short period Sutherland Dock was the largest dock in the world. It was lengthened in 1928 from 635 feet to 680 feet.[6]

Between 1904 and 1908 extensions were made to the shops and yard plant, new slipways were built, and cranes and other machinery were acquired. The formation of the Australian Navy (the Royal Australian Navy from 1911) opened the way for local construction of warships. The first Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warship built at Cockatoo Island was the destroyer HMAS Warrego, completed in 1912. Warrego was built in pieces in Scotland and re-assembled in Sydney.

Commonwealth Government

The island was purchased from the NSW Government by the Commonwealth with effect from 31 January 1913, although the agreement was not signed until 1915. Construction facilities were expanded to undertake additional naval work, particularly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. In December 1919, the workforce consisted of 4085 people, the highest number in the history of the dockyard.

Major shipbuilding activities during the Commonwealth period included construction of the torpedo boat destroyers HMAS Huon, Torrens and Swan (sister ships of Warrego); Town class cruisers HMAS Brisbane and Adelaide; cargo ships Dundula, Eudunda, Fordsdale and Ferndale; lighthouse steamers Cape Leeuwin, Cape York and Cape Otway; and the seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross. In addition, many other smaller vessels were constructed.

While under Commonwealth control, the dockyard was administered by the Naval Board (also known as Naval Board of Administration) from 1913 to 1921; the Shipbuilding Board of Control, Williamstown and Cockatoo Island from 1921 to 1923; and the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Board from 1923 to 1933.

By 1929, however, the Dockyard was finding it difficult to obtain sufficient work and by 1931 was struggling to recover costs. The Commonwealth tried, unsuccessfully, to lease the island to private industry in 1929.

Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Co. Ltd, Vickers Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Limited and Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Limited

Finally, on 3 February 1933, Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Co. Ltd and the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Board signed an agreement, effective from 1 March 1933, to transfer dockyard operations to the company.[7] The lease was signed on 16 February 1935. The Cockatoo Island Dockyard Agreement Act 1933 stated that:

the Board will grant to the Company the island situated in the harbour of Port Jackson (including all accretions thereto by way of reclamations) and containing an area of approximately thirty-seven acres one rood and twenty-three perches together with the dry docks, wharves, buildings, plant machinery, machines and apparatus…

The Australian Commonwealth Shipping Board’s copy of the agreement is today held at the National Archives, Sydney.[8] The Prime Minister’s departmental copy of the 1935 lease is held by the National Archives, Canberra.[9]

During the 1930s a modest naval shipbuilding program helped the new company build up the dockyard’s operations. World War II was a very busy one at the dockyard, and many vessels were constructed and maintained, particularly for the Royal Australian Navy. A wartime agreement was signed in 1941 setting out the respective roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth Government and the Company during wartime. The agreement remained substantially effective until 1954 when it was replaced by a trading agreement (signed on 16 May 1956). This was subsequently superseded by new agreements in 1963 and 1972.

In 1947 Vickers Holdings Pty Limited (the Australian holding company of Vickers Limited, UK) purchased Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Co. Pty Ltd. In 1972, the lessee company’s name was changed to Vickers Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Ltd, and in 1978 Vickers Holding sold the company to their Australian subsidiary Vickers Australia Pty Limited. In 1984 Vickers Australia and the Commonwealth Steel Company Limited merged to form Comsteel Vickers Limited, and dockyard’s name was changed to Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Limited. The company was often referred to simply as Codock, after the telegraphic address adopted in 1933.

On 1 January 1986, Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Limited was acquired by Australian National Industries Limited (ANI), a group of companies with a diverse range of holdings, primarily in the heavy engineering sector.

In April 1987, following an extensive review of defence facilities, the Minister for Defence, the Hon. Kim Beazley, announced the long-term restructuring of the Australian naval shipbuilding and ship repair industries which included the decision not to renew the lease of Cockatoo Island Dockyard after its expiry at the end of 1992. Cockatoo Island was listed in May 1987 as a Commonwealth asset to be sold.[10]

In June 1990, the Government reaffirmed its decision to sell the island and announced that no further Oberon class submarine refits would be placed with the dockyard. The Government’s decision represented a continuation of its broad objective of rationalisation and modernisation of defence support industries. Much of the machinery at the dockyard was old and in need of replacement, and the cost of modernising the dockyard was considered prohibitive.

Cockatoo Island Dockyard was decommissioned on 31 December 1991, but Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Limited continued to exist for administrative purposes. On 1 January 1992, a new company, ANI Engineering Services Pty Limited, was formed to undertake care and custody of Cockatoo Island, and to liaise with the Commonwealth on matters related to the handover and sale of the island.

Dockyard activities

After 1913 Cockatoo Island Dockyard had been involved in the construction, maintenance and refit of a large variety and number of both naval and maritime vessels. Notable among vessels constructed were:

1912–16HMAS Huon, Torrens, Swantorpedo boat destroyers. These ships were the first warships wholly built in Australia for the Royal Australian Navy.
1913–16HMAS BrisbaneTown class cruiser
1917–22HMAS AdelaideTown class cruiser
1918–20Dundula, Eudundacargo ships
1922–24Fordsdale, Ferndale refrigerated cargo steamers, the largest merchant ships ever built in Sydney.
1924–25Cape Leeuwin, Cape York lighthouse steamers
1926–28HMAS Albatrossseaplane carrier, Australia’s first aircraft carrier.
1930–31Cape Otway lighthouse steamer
1934–36HMAS Yarra, Swan – escort sloops
1938–41HMAS Kookaburra, Koala, Kangaroo, Karangiboom defence vessels
1938–40HMAS Parramatta, Warregoescort sloops
1940–42HMAS Bathurst, Goulburn, Bendigo, Wollongong, Cessnock, Glenelg, HMIS Madras, Bengal minesweepers
1938–42HMAS Arunta, Warramunga, Bataan Tribal class destroyers
1941–43River Clarence, River Hunter cargo steamers
1942–46HMAS Barcoo, Barwon River class frigates
1944–50HMAS Tobruk Battle class destroyer
1946–59HMAS Voyager, Vampire Daring class destroyers. These were the first all welded warships built in Australia (with HMAS Vendetta, built in Victoria). Today Vampire is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.
1947–49Wonga, Yelta steam tugs
1951–63HMAS Parramatta, Stuart Type 12 frigates
1962–65Empress of Australia passenger/vehicle ship, the largest ship of its type built in the world at that time.
1964–68HMAS Stalwart escort maintenance ship
1964–71HMAS Torrens destroyer escort
1974–77A S Mayne bucket dredge
1979–86HMAS Success fleet underway replenishment ship (AOR). Success is the largest naval vessel built in Australia to the beginning of the 21st century.

In addition to shipbuilding, a major task of Cockatoo Dockyard was ship repair and refitting. Between 1857 and 1991 some 12 000 vessels were docked or slipped at Cockatoo Island for repair or maintenance.

During World War II the dockyard was, for a time, the main ship repair base in the South Pacific. Early work during the war included the conversion of merchant ships for military service as armed merchant cruisers, supply and hospital ships. The Cunard liners Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania and Mauretania were converted into troop ships by the dockyard during 1940. The work on Queen Mary was completed in only two weeks. Many other famous ships were worked on during the war years. Major repairs were completed to the US cruisers New Orleans, Portland, Chester and Chicago. In 1943 the Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart was torpedoed near Espiritu Santo. Severely damaged, the ship was repaired and modernised at Cockatoo Island between 1943 and 1945.[11]

After World War II Cockatoo modernised the destroyer HMAS Arunta, and converted two Q class destroyers to Type 15 anti-submarine frigates. Naval refits continued for the remainder of the dockyard's operation and the yard was particularly busy with refits during the Vietnam War, including the troop carrier (ex aircraft carrier) HMAS Sydney. On two occasions, in 1964 and 1969, new bows were fitted to the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne after her collisions with HMAS Voyager and USS Frank E Evans.[12]

Cockatoo Dockyard had a long association with submarines, starting as early as 1914 when HMA submarines AE1 and AE2 were docked in the Fitzroy Dock. Regular refits of Royal Navy T class submarines began in 1960, and after 1968 the main task of the dockyard was the refit, modernisation and maintenance of the RAN Oberon class submarines. New facilities (amongst the best in the world at the time) were built on the island for this work. Between 1968 and 1991 Cockatoo Dockyard completed 14 major refits (including major modernisations) and 68 dockings of these submarines.[13]

In addition to these activities, a wide range of heavy engineering work was undertaken. This included the manufacture of boilers and turbines for ships constructed at Cockatoo Island Dockyard and elsewhere. The dockyard also manufactured equipment for mines, dams and the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, and it even constructed part of Centrepoint Tower in Sydney. The repair of steam turbines for power generation authorities and other industries in Australia and the Southwest Pacific was a major activity.

In 1930 Wing Commander (later Sir Lawrence) Wackett resigned from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and transferred to Cockatoo Island the design and construction activities formerly undertaken at the RAAF Experimental Station, Randwick. In the unit headed by Wackett, the aircraft Southern Cross was rebuilt, many early aeroplanes were designed and a few were constructed. Among these were the following aircraft types: Codock, Warbler, Widgeon I and Widgeon II, and Warrigal I and Warrigal II. Several speedboats and high-speed ferries with aeronautical engines were also designed. These included the hydroplanes Century Tire II and Cettien.

Personnel and administration

Many thousands of people have worked at Cockatoo Dockyard during its long history. Under NSW operation, the numbers were in the hundreds, but the expansion of the Dockyard during World War I increased the number employed to over 3000. Employment fell during the 1920s, and during the Depression the number of employees fell to only a few hundred. By the early 1940s employment reached over 3000 once more, and it remained over 1300 until the late 1980s when the run-down to closure began. The last peak in employment was in the early 1980s when some 2600 people worked on the island.

Training was also an important undertaking at Cockatoo Island, and many thousands of young men (and a few young women) completed their apprenticeships at the Dockyard, in a wide range of trades. Many went on to successful careers at all levels in industry throughout Australia.

The organisation of the management of the dockyard changed over the years reflecting the level of activity and changing management styles. Before the closure of the dockyard, the administration, under the Chief Executive, John Jeremy, had been divided into sections headed by a Financial Controller, a General Manager, Technical, a General Manager, Personnel, and a General Manager, Production.

The Financial Controller was responsible for Administration Services, the Contracts Department and the Accounting Office. Under the General Manager, Technical were Quality Control, Ship/Hull, Mechanical and Electrical Drawing Offices, and Supply, Estimating and Planning Departments. The General Manager, Production was responsible for the Production Departments which carried out all production work on the island and included health and safety functions, as well as dockyard services and maintenance on the island.

Before the closure of the dockyard, the administration, under the Chief Executive, John Jeremy, had been divided into sections headed by a Financial Controller, a General Manager, Technical, a General Manager, Personnel, and a General Manager, Production (this position was not filled during 1991).

The Financial Controller was responsible for Administration Services, the Contracts Department and the Accounting Office. Under the General Manager, Technical were Quality Control, Ship/Hull, Mechanical and Electrical Drawing Offices, and Supply, Estimating and Planning Departments. The Production Office included health and safety functions, as well as dockyard services and construction on the island.

The Commonwealth maintained a permanent representative, the RAN Principal Naval Overseer, and his staff on the island as a liaison between the Company and the Navy. From 1950 to 1983 the Navy Office administered the lease through the Cockatoo Island Lease Supervisory Committee. Until 13 December 1984 the lease was administered through the Shipbuilding Division within the Department of Defence Support, and from that date by the Logistics Division within the Department of Defence.[14]