Sydney is always one of our favourite cities on our Aussie shores… there is simply so much to do and diversity aplenty. On our latest trip we decided to truly explore the harbour as much as time permitted and what we discovered were secrets, as only Sydney Harbour can provide. There was one gem though that I would love to share with you and that is Cockatoo Island and what a sparkling gem it is… and what a history.
Cockatoo Island sits smack in the harbour, being the biggest of the harbour islands. It is also strategically positioned where the two rivers of the harbour meet, the Parramatta river and that of Lane Cove river, the later seen more as a tributary of the Parramatta river but both are actually catchments for the beautiful Sydney harbour, also officially known as Port Jackson.
To step back in history we first need to step back some tens of thousands of years. During the last ‘ages of ice’, the last being only 10,000 yrs ago, Sydney was a lush rich valley and the shoreline was some 20klm out to sea. Cockatoo Island stood like a rocky centennial within the deep valley. Linguists tell us that its tribal name, Wareamah, indicated it was a place of bats as was Sydney and Parramatta or the entire ancient valley. Flying foxes as they are lovingly known were a primary a much enjoyed source of food for the Eora (river people) of which there were several tribal family groups. The island was named by the British because of the flocks of noisy parrots and cockatoos gathered in red angophoras which could wrap their roots around the rocks, they once grew tall and proud on the island. You are now hard up finding a tree. You can usually find are sea-gulls however, who are equally noisy if not as loud, particularly in early spring which is the nesting season.
First came the rising of sea levels which no doubt led to the loss of ancient camps, hunting and ceremonial grounds which changed the face of a beautiful and rich valley to what was to become the magnificent harbour.
Cockatoo Island has no fresh water supply so it was never viewed as permanent camp by anyone. However when the Governor decided in the 1830’s to send most of the convict arrivals to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and Port Arthur, Cockatoo Island was then designated as a penal station to house the worst of convict offenders. The prison island was designed for 200 souls but housed hundreds more. The island was considered an excellent source of sandstone for Old Sydney Town. Sandstone which the convicts were to quarry, and Cockatoo Island went on to become infamous for its abuses as a convict prison, of the elk of Norfolk Island and Sarah Island in Tas.
The most remarkable evidence of the quarrying of sandstone can be seen in the grain silo’s the convicts quarried deep into the rock, some seventeen silo’s quarried into solid sandstone, in which to store wheat and other grain for the colony as reserves. Convicts were also put to work excavating Sydney first true dry dock for the repair of Royal Navy and other vessels. As the convict era began to draw to a close the Island, while still a place designated for hard labour where the prison population, consisted of the usual mixture of men common to such establishments, including invalids, lunatics, the lame and the blind and those of ‘doubtful character’.
Volatile prison superintendent Charles Ormsby, (nick named ‘Stomsby’ lorded over the settlement. He was an autocrat with a fiery temper and commandant of the penal settlement (1841-69). He eventually managed the island as his own little fiefdom, complete with entertainments for the soldiers and so called gentry, of illegal bare-buckled prized fighting and other amusements. Full of corruption, secrets and intrigues the island managed to produce the infamous colonial prize fighters John Perry and Patrick Sinclare.
The island carries so much of our early history that it is truly remarkable. Frederick Ward (otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt) is the only prisoner recorded as having escaped from the island and remain abroad, swimming to Balmain one night in 1863 and absconding to the bush with the aid of his native wife, Mary Ann Bugg. The island closed as a convict prison in 1869, but it later became a prison again afterwards for the overflows from Darlinghurst gaol.
Kids were to figure very much also in the history immediately following the closure of the convict settlement. The island became a reformatory or ‘Industrial School’ for girls, with boys being housed on a old ship the Vernon, mored just off Macquaries Point near the botanical gardens. The ship was later moved to be mored off Cockatoo Island, allowing the boys the chance to tend to the Island gardens. The Nautical School Ship Vernon was also established as an industrial school for boys in 1869, with the island being modified for girls in 1871. By 1874 they rethought the arrangements and the Vernon was moved back near its original mooring by the Botanical Gardens. The reasons being that the dock workers who were proverbially noted for having their conversation tangled with ‘frightful oaths and obscene expressions’ lowered the moral tone and provided an unwanted influence on the boys from the Vernon. The girls however remained.
In an attempt to change its convict association, the island was renamed Biloela – believed to be the Aboriginal name for the island. Initially the exercise in converting the island to an school was a disaster due to the cruelty and mismanagement of the supervisors which led to the challenging conduct of the incarcerated children. It was noted as a ‘a sort of pandemonium’. For the eighty or so girls and the handful of infant boys (too young to go to the Vernon) who comprised the school’s population, the surroundings were cheerless. There was no proper water supply, the sanitary arrangements were ‘utterly neglected’ and the treatment of the kids was noted as appalling.
The dry docks however continued to operate with a 10 foot fence to screen the girls from the men workings in the dry docks but it was found that the some of the men on the island were a potential ‘moral hazard’ for the Biloela girls.
Eventually in 1875 Mrs Selina Walker took charge of the institution usurping the slovenly Superintendent of George Lucas and his wife. It was a move for the best and the Industrial School operated up until 1886 with all the challenges of having men working on the dockside with teenage girls overlooking the facility. The boys ship was sent back to be moored off the island around 1877 and much of the work the boys did on the island is remarkable, including levelling the recreation and drill ground with 250 tons of soil brought across by punt from Hunter’s Hill. In 1887 the girls reformatory was moved to Watson Bay, and under the protection of the State Children’s Relief Board the kids were boarded out. Biloela then became a gaol for men and women once more in 1888, eventually housing an average of about 170-200 prisoners (with slightly more men than women) and a staff of twenty.
Visiting Cockatoo Island is an easy ferry ride from Circular Quay and you can roam around the island with a audio guide which will set you back $5 and is well worth it. You will find a fascinating early history of both the convict era and shipping with the dry-docks built to service the war efforts of the two world wars.
Biloela’s prison workforce was unpromising. With a population that included vagrants, prostitutes, the drunk and disorderly and others serving minor sentences of only a few days or weeks, many of its inmates had few skills. Most stayed in gaol just long enough to be returned to health and sobriety, seeing the incarceration as something of a break. Some regarded it as a hospital, preferring treatment at Biloela to other institutions. For a significant proportion, Biloela was a revolving door which they entered and exited several times a year. As a result the prisoner turnover was high, with as many as 60-70 admissions each week, an annual total of more than 3,500
On 14 January 1909 Biloela Gaol closed when the new prison for women opened at Little Bay. After seventy years of occupation for penal and institutional purposes ‘that melancholy medley of stone and wooden buildings, on the heights of Cockatoo Island’ was left in relative peace. The island then became the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, with a proud history as a major shipbuilding and dockyard facility including the maintenance of the submarine class. Cockatoo Island, together with 10 other historic convict sites in Australia, is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Located on Sydney’s doorstep it now serves many civil purposes, including camping and glamping for visitors. It is a great place to visit and its exceptional history is a wonder to uncover.
Jan is a Traveller and an Author. You can find out more about her books on travel on the page dedicated to Oldies at Large, where you will also find a list of her blog postings in topic.
Read Tales of Adventure across Australia in the ebooks
Discovering Australia and Her Lore