Cockatoo Island

Transport: Parramatta River Ferry from Circular Quay
Allow half to full day. Accommodation available for extended stays.
Points of Interest: Ride on Parramatta River ferry; harbour and river views; convict era relics; industrial heritage relics

Location: Sydney Harbour
Cockatoo Island is Australia's most unusual urban park - a heritage-listed island in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Where else can you pitch a tent and camp so close to the city, or get such a magnificent view of the harbour bridge, the city skyline and the wonderful juxtaposition of headlands, suburbs and water?

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. Located at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers, Cockatoo Island has been put to a number of uses since colonisation, the remnants of which can be seen today. It has been a convict prison, industrial school and girls reformatory. Many buildings from this era remain and can be visited.

Cockatoo Island is also the site of one of Australia's biggest shipyards during the twentieth century. The first of its two dry docks was built by convicts and was completed in 1857. Large sections of the shipyard facility remain, including the two dry docks, the shipbuilding slipways and many of the buildings within the shipyard.

When the shipyard closed in 1992, Cockatoo Island lay dormant for a decade until the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust was established and given the responsibility of revitalising this significant corner of Sydney Harbour. The Trust's rehabilitation of the island resulted in the creation of one of the most unusual places to visit in the city.

There are plenty of things for visitors to see and do on Cockatoo Island, mainly revolving around the convict era buildings, and the shipbuilding and repair facilities. You can do your own self-guided tours by following an informative brochure, or hire a digital audio player and take your guide around with you in your pocket. Alternatively, a guided tour of the relics from the island's convict and shipbuilding years is also available. A transit tunnel which passes under the centre of Cockatoo Island at close to sea level was cut many years later when the island was used as a dockyard and shipbuilding facility. The tunnel gives easy access from one side of the island to the other.

Since 2005, Cockatoo Island has hosted a number of major events and continues to do so. They range from collaborations with the Sydney Writers' Festival to an international freestyle motocross competition.

Visitor facilities include shower facilities for campers, toilets, a visitors centre, a cafe and a waterside bar.
  • More information

  • Convict era relics

    Cockatoo Island is significant as a site that includes the only remaining dry dock in Australia built using convict labour, as well as buildings and fabric related to the administration, incarceration and working conditions of convicts. Between 1839 and 1869, Cockatoo Island operated as a convict penal establishment, primarily as a place of secondary punishment for convicts who had re-offended in the colonies.

    In February 1839, under direction of Governor Sir George Gipps, an initial contingent of sixty commuted prisoners from Norfolk Island was sent to Cockatoo under military escort. The initial establishment was a convict stockade, worked by men in irons, with "no indulgence beyond the strict Government ration" to construct the convict establishment. By May, convict numbers had increased to 167. The island had ample supply of sandstone for quarrying and more permanent prisoners barracks commenced. Convicts constructed a wharf to receive essential supplies of goods and provisions, extensive terraced gardens and walling and with no fresh source of water, cut water tanks in the rock above the escarpment. In response to drought, fluctuating wheat prices and infrequent shipments of grain to the colony, Governor Gipps ordered convicts to excavate up to 20 grain silos by hand in solid rock to store grain for future use in the colony.

    Sections of a grain silo

    Disturbing reports concerning the harsh treatment of prisoners had caused considerable public concern for years and in 1869 the penal settlement was disbanded and prisoners were transferred to Darlinghurst. The name was changed to Biloela  (Aboriginal for cockatoo) in order to try to present a new image. In 1864 the island was split between the NSW Department of Prisons and the Public Works Department, which expanded the dockyard around the foreshores. The prison complex then became an Industrial School for Girls and also a Reformatory.

    Overcrowding elsewhere in the colony forced the return of prisoners to Cockatoo Island in June 1888, when it became a temporary establishment to hold habitual petty offenders, vagrants and prostitutes. Although considered unsuitable  and temporary  they were to remain in penal use for a further 20 years. Men were accommodated in convict barracks and females housed in buildings in the lumber yard. By 1889, Biloela housed 85 male and 106 female prisoners, with approximately two thirds in some form of employment. By 1896 Biloela could claim to the be the oldest establishment reformatory in Australasia, with 560 prisoners. The male prison section was closed in 1906 and prisoners were transferred to the new Long Bay Gaol. In 1909 female prisoners were similarly relocated to Long Bay.

    Most of the convict buildings of the Cockatoo Island prison complex are still intact, and are the largest group of convict-built structures on the Australian mainland. On the eastern end of the plateau can be found the prisoners barracks and hospital (1839-42), a courtyard and the mess hall (1847-51). West of the barracks a formal lawn encloses the roofless military guard house (1842), and the military officers quarters (1845-57). The central part of the plateau has the two Free Overseers Quarters and evidence of the Prison Quarry area. The latter has been built over by a group of six large dockyard buildings.

    The eastern end of the plateau is the residential area comprising the remaining convict era structures of the Superintendent s residence substantially enlarged in 1860, the Clerk of Petty Sessions residence is adjacent to Biloela house. A second free overseers quarters was converted to an air raid shelter in 1942. The rock hewn silos are visible only as covers at ground level and two half silos are exposed from prior quarrying. The symmetrical silos are bottle shaped, and an incision on the surface of the rock indicates the diameter of the silo below ground, averaging 19 feet (5.8 metres) deep and 20 feet (6 metres) in diameter. Additions were made to three Federation style residences constructed by the dockyard in 1915-16.
    Shipyard relics

    The lower part of the island, which surrounds the central area, has been mostly levelled and developed for dockyard purposes and still accommodates over 80 industrial buildings, concrete pads from demolished buildings, cranes, dry docks and wharf related structures. Many buildings and wharves were demolished after the closure of the dockyard, and this has resulted in large open areas on the northern and eastern foreshores. Nevertheless, the island still holds a vast array of facilities - managers' houses on the hilltop (now available for accommodation hire), a powerhouse, immense workshop buildings, some with lathes and other machinery still intact, cranes, water towers, rail tracks, tunnels, and two magnificent graving docks. During World War I, the dockyard built, repaired and refitted many ships. At its peak during the war, some 4,000 men were employed on the island.

    In 1933, Cockatoo Island was leased to the Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Company Ltd for 21 years. The lease was renewed in 1954 for a further 20 years and again in 1972 for 21 years. During World War II, Cockatoo Island was the main ship repair facility in the south-west Pacific. Some 250 ships were converted or repaired on the island. The Cunard liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth were converted into troopships by Cockatoo Island staff. In the eight months between August 1942 and March 1943, Cockatoo repaired four cruisers of the United States Navy: USS Chicago, USS Chester, USS Portland, and USS New Orleans. Many ships of the Royal Australian Navy were repaired. The cruiser HMAS Hobart suffered torpedo damage in the New Hebrides and limped into Sydney in August 1943 for major repairs and modernisation. From 1971 to 1991, Cockatoo completed 14 major refits of Australia's Oberon-class submarines and many mid-cycle and intermediate dockings.

    Shipbuilding relics

    Launch of HMAS Success, 1984

    Shipbuilding began on Cockatoo Island in 1870. In 1913, Cockatoo Island was transferred to the Commonwealth Government to become the Naval Dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. Over a period of several years prior to the First World War five slipways were either upgraded or constructed in the island, with Numbers 1 and 2 still retained today. The torpedo boat destroyer HMAS Warrego was the first naval ship launched at Cockatoo Island, after being built in the United Kingdom, disassembled, then sent to the Australian shipyard for reassembly.

    After the war, shipbuilding continued on the island. Orders were placed for two Battle-class and four Daring-class destroyers, the building to be shared by Cockatoo Island and Williamstown dockyards. In the 1950s, the government approved the construction of six River-class anti-submarine frigates, again shared between the two dockyards. Cockatoo Island also modernised and refitted many naval vessels. In 1962, Cockatoo Island won the tender to construct MS Empress of Australia, which on completion in 1965 was the largest roll-on roll-off cargo passenger ship in the world. In 1963, the island won the contract to build the escort maintenance ship HMAS Stalwart. Construction of HMAS Success, the largest naval vessel built in Australia, began in 1979.

    Convict Grain Silos (1838-41)

    On the summit of Cockatoo Island, near the remains of a convict prison built by Gov. Bourke in 1833 and used for that purpose until 1909, are twenty of Australia's earliest public grain silos, some in original condition but empty as they have been for over 150 years. Built as the colony's first government grain silos by convicts stationed at the island's prison by Gov. Gipps, the bottle shaped silos were chiselled down by hand out of the island's bedrock. each cavern is 9 metres deep and 6 metres in diameter at its base and held 3,000 - 5,000 bushells (84 to 140 tonnes).

    Completed in 1841, they were an engineering marvel of their day. Amazingly, the British Government ordered their closure just months after they were brought into use and they have remained empty, apart from discarded rum bottles thrown in by soldiers stationed on the island to guard the convicts, which were removed in the 1980s. Half of the silos disappeared when part of the island was excavated to make room for the shipyard facilities. Of those that remain, three were cut in half by the excavations, and can be inspected at close range on a specially built platform.

    Fitzroy Graving Dock

    The dock was designed by Gother Kerr Mann, the island's Civil Engineer, and built between 1847 and 1857 utilising convict labour. The foundation stone of its ashlar lining was laid on 5 June 1854 by Governor Charles Augustus FitzRoy, with the dock being named in his honour. When completed in 1857, the dry dock was 96 metres in length and 23 metres in breadth, with an entrance 18 metres wide. HMS Herald was the first sailing vessel to enter the dock in December 1857. The Fitzroy Dock was lengthened in 1870 and 1880 to be 196 metres (643 feet).

    Sutherland Dock

    The dock was constructed under the supervision of the engineer Louis Samuel between 1882 and 1890. The dock was named after John Sutherland, the Secretary for Public Works at the time and was large enough to accommodate ships of 20,000 tonnes (20,000 long tons; 22,000 short tons). The dock was modified in 1913 and in 1927 to accommodate Royal Australian Navy ships.
    History of the Island

    Cockatoo Island c 1862. Artist unknown. National Archives (UK), CO 201/286

    The sandstone knoll which is Cockatoo Island rises to a height of about 18 metres above sea level. Originally only 12.9 hectares in size, the island has been expanded over the years to its present size of 17.9 hectares. It has undergone extensive cutting and filling so that today it has distinct upper and lower levels. A variety of woodland vegetation and shrubs would have once covered the island. Almost all of this has been removed to make way for development. Today, some ferns, mosses and hardy shrubs grow between layers of rock on the cliff faces. The undulating plateau and northern slopes have many exotic species including large Moreton Bay Figs and Camphor Laurel trees. The island has become a popular nesting ground for seagulls.

    There are no known records of Aboriginal use of Cockatoo Island prior to European settlement, however it is believed to have been a meeting place and fishing spot for the Eora, to whom it was known as War-rea-mah. After the colonisation of New South Wales, he isolation and central location of the island made it ideal for the construction of a prison in 1839 to house convicts withdrawn from Norfolk Island. From 1839-40 convict labour was used to cut deep into the rock and construct a series of silos for storing the colony's grain supply. Quarrying on the island also provided stone for other construction projects around Sydney, including the reclamation of the head of Circular Quay and the seawall.

    Prisoners hand cut the large Fitzroy Dock and built the machine shop for the Royal Navy from 1851 to 1857. The stone remains of the shop are now part of later industrial buildings on the island. In 1864 the Public Works Department took over and expanded the dockyard around the foreshores. Cockatoo Island prisoners were relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol and the island's prison buildings became the Industrial School for Girls and a reformatory from 1871 until 1888. In an attempt to give the island a new image, it was renamed'Biloela' (Aboriginal for cockatoo) in 1870.

    During the late 1880s the Sutherland Dock was completed. Shipbuilding and repair activities on the island expanded steadily over the years; including the construction and refurbishment of vessels, painting, galvanising and foundry operations. Cockatoo Island became the Commonwealth Dockyard in 1913. The first steel warship built in Australia, HMAS Heron, was completed in 1916. Shipbuilding and repair facilities were leased to the private company, Cockatoo Island Docks and Engineering Co. in 1933.

    During World War II the island became the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility in the Pacific following the fall of Singapore. Repairs and fit outs included work on the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and major vessels of the Australian and US Navies. Two tunnels were constructed under the plateau of Cockatoo Island and a new road provided access to the upper level. Vickers Cockatoo Docks and Engineering took over the island in 1947 and built two concrete water towers on the upper level. Additional buildings were constructed during the 1950s.

    The Tasmanian car ferry Empress of Australia was custom built at Sydney's Cockatoo Island Dockyards in 1962 for Australian National Line, to provide a ferry service between Sydney (the terminal was at Morts Bay, Balmain) and Hobart via Devonport and Burnie. With a gross weight of 12,037 tonnes, it was the largest vessel of this type in the world when built.

    A program to service and refit Australia's O-class submarines on Cockatoo Island commenced in the early 1970s and operated up until 1991 when the Australian Navy decided to purchase Collins class submarines from overseas. This decision, combined with the decline of shipping in Australia and the size of new container ships, meant the dockyard was no longer viable. Control of the island came back to the Commonwealth in 1993. It has recently been re-developed and opened for public recreational use. In July 2010, at the 34th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Cockatoo Island and ten other Australian sites with a significant association with convict transportation were inscribed as a group on the World Heritage List as the Australian Convict Sites.

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  • Visiting the island
    Sydney Ferries currently operates services to Cockatoo Island via the Balmain/Woolwich service and the Parramatta River service. Ferries depart from Circular Quay. Some services also connect to Darling Harbour or to Woolwich and Balmain. There are guided tours for anyone who wants an in-depth introduction to the island s history. Or if you prefer to discover the island at your own pace, there is an audio tour that offers a dramatic account of convict days and the shipbuilding era.

    Facilities: Muster Station cafe; toilets.
    Accommodation: camping and holiday houses.
    Free admission to island.

    Submarine J4 in dry dock, 1942

    Launch of Australia's first trans-Tasman roll-on/roll-off ferry, Empress of Australia, 18th January 1964
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