The Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island c1875. By John Lane Mullins. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, A1939028/PXA 420, 13a Mitchell Library

From an Aboriginal meeting place to prison, reformatory, shipyard and now one of the key locations for Sydney’s Biennale, Cockatoo Island has a long and fascinating history of use and reuse. This morning Lisa joined Mitch Byatt on 2SER breakfast to talk about Sydney’s largest harbour island. You can listen to the segment here and explore some Dictionary links below. Thanks Lisa.

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. It’s located off the shoreline between Birchgrove and Woolwich.

Reshaped, levelled, cleared and used for a range of social and industrial purposes, the island is now a historic landmark, administered by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, and open to the public.

Before the British came along it was an uninhibited rocky outcrop covered in trees that was called Wa-rea-mah by the Wangal and Gadigal Aboriginal people. The British called the island Cockatoo Island because of the flocks of noisy parrots that once perched in its sinewy red angophoras that grew on the island.

It’s not clear what precise use Aboriginal people made of the islands, beyond exploiting access to fishing and shellfish.

In 1839, Governor Gipps chose Cockatoo Island to build a new prison for convicts who had re-offended in the colony. The convicts carved seventeen silos out of the solid sandstone cliffs to store wheat and other grain for the colony. In 1847, they were put to work excavating a dry dock for the repair of Royal Navy and other vessels.

Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island 1849. By Vidors, Phillipe de. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A928881/SSV/39, Mitchell Library

Frederick Ward (otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt) is the only prisoner recorded as having escaped from the island, swimming to Balmain one night in 1863 and absconding to the bush with the aid of his Aboriginal wife, Mary Ann Bugg.

The island closed as a convict prison in 1869, only to become a reformatory for young girls and boys. It became a prison again afterwards for the overflows from Darlinghurst gaol.

In the early 1870s, shipbuilding began on Cockatoo Island. Dredges, barges and tugs were built. In 1913, the island was transferred to the Commonwealth and became the naval dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy.

Throughout the twentieth century, the demands of shipbuilding continually modified Cockatoo Island. The skyline was distinguished by cranes, chimneys and water towers.

During WW1 at its peak about 4,000 people were employed on the island and they belonged to more than 21 unions for trades such as boilermakers, blacksmiths, ship painters and dockers, gas fitters and plumbers, electricians, shipwrights, storemen and packers, timber workers and the biggest group of all, ironworkers. During WW2 it was  the main ship repair facility in the south-west Pacific.

Are you a former dockyard worker?  Did you complete your apprenticeship on Cockatoo Island?  Did your relative work on Cockatoo Island?

Our colleagues over at the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust are building a long-term exhibition on Cockatoo Island that documents the history of the island’s dockyard workers – and they need your stories.

The exhibition will focus on the hard-working men and woman who made Cockatoo Island a powerhouse of industry for over a century. From photos of dockyard life to yarns of larrikin mateship, they would  love to document your experience. You can share your story and help write history. They are after photos, oral histories and memorabillia.

You can find out more about the history of the island in Patrick Fletcher’s 2011 entry for the Dictionary as well as listen to some oral histories on the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust website or check out a book published by former worker John Jeremy, Cockatoo Island: Sydney’s Historic Dockyard, 2005.

Dont’ forget to join Lisa again next week for more Sydney history on 2SER.

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