One of the things that Sydneysiders have traditionally done over the summer period, and particularly on Boxing Day, is to descend upon Sydney Harbour and have a harbour picnic. The Dictionary of Sydney has entries on all the harbour islands, so as you travel around the harbour by ferry, or sit on a vantage point waiting for the fireworks, you can find out about the history of all the islands.
Today I wanted to share with you the history of Goat Island or Me-mel. Goat Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour, lying to the west of the Harbour Bridge between Balmain and Millers Point. It is a sandstone outcrop and the island covers an area of 5.4 hectares. It stands guard at the entrance to Darling Harbour and it is now part of Sydney Harbour National Park.
Bennelong told the British that Me-mel/Goat Island ‘was his own property’, given to him by his father. For David Collins, who recorded this and many other aspects of Aboriginal social structure in the years immediately following colonisation, Bennelong’s claim seemed to be evidence of Indigenous ‘real estate’. Certainly, there was proximity to the Wangal lands which Bennelong was from.
Collins recorded that Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo frequented the island to feast and ‘enjoy themselves’. Me-mel, or Goat Island, is one of the few islands where a shell midden has been recorded; many others were probably destroyed by lime-burners who exploited the shell deposits. There is only one defined shell midden on Me-Mel, which contains the remains of Sydney cockle and hairy mussel, evidence of harvesting of shellfish and feasting. Me-mel was also said to mean ‘the eye’; and with its prime position in the harbour with views east and west, we can see how this descriptor may have applied to the island.
In 1833 Goat Island was chosen as a safe and suitable place to house the colony’s large stocks of gunpowder, required for public works. Convicts were put on the island to clear the island of trees and build the magazine. By 1837 the powder magazine had been built, together with a wharf and cooperage. The following year the officers’ barracks and kitchen had also been constructed, together with a sentry box, a stone wall around the magazine and a blacksmith’s shop. These remarkable and rare early stone buildings remain on the island today and bear witness to convict period structures and features.
In 1901 the island became the headquarters of the Sydney Harbour Trust, which was set up (in response to the bubonic plague) to modernise Sydney’s wharfage. The Trust was in charge of dredging the harbour and all its tugs, barges and dredges were moved to the island. Later firefighting tugs also used the island as a depot. The Trust kept two scavenging boats. In 1904 the scavenger boats retrieved an astonishing assortment of debris from the water including 2,189 dogs, 1,652 fowls, 1,033 cats, 29 pigs, 9 goats and 1 monkey. In 1936 the Trust was replaced by the Maritime Services Board.
By the 1940s, Goat Island was home to many members of the Board’s Fire Brigade and their families, and was also the site of the first water police station. There is a music connection with Goat Island, that is worth remembering. Nearly 30 years ago, Midnight Oil performed a concert on Goat Island – on 13 January 1985. The concert – known as “Oils on the Water” – was filmed, and is one of the iconic performances of the band. Goat Island has another popular culture connection. Between 1995 and 2001 Goat Island was the set and location for the popular Australian television drama Water Rats.
Goat Island is now part of the Sydney Harbour National Park and you can explore the history and heritage of of Goat Island on a guided tour. For more on Me-mel/Goat Island check out the article written by Catie Gilchrist for the Dictionary. And to answer all your questions about our habour islands as you sit at your vantage point and count down to New Year, take a look at our Islands of Sydney Harbour entry written by Ian Hoskins.