Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour, located at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers. In its original state it was 12.9 hectares in size, however, it has been expanded to 17.9 hectares through extensive quarrying. Its landscape is now articulated by man-made cliffs, stone walls and steps, docks, cranes, slipways and built forms.
Cockatoo Island consists of a sandstone plateau up to 24 metres above water level that has been gradually reduced by excavation since work commenced in preparation for the Fitzroy Dock. The surrounding flat apron area is partly created by spoil from the excavation of the plateau.
The convict-built structures are mainly on the plateau area, including the prisoners barracks and hospital (1839-42) and the mess hall (1847-51). West of the barracks are the roofless military guard house (1842), and the military officers' quarters (1845-57). The superintendent's residence (Biloela House) (1841), is at the eastern side of the escarpment. The openings to the silos are visible only as covers at ground level and two silos are exposed from prior quarrying. The symmetrical silos are bottle shaped, and average 19 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter.
The lower part of the island, which surrounds the central area, has been mostly levelled and developed for dockyard purposes and still accommodates a range of industrial buildings, concrete pads from demolished buildings, cranes, dry docks and wharf related structures. Fitzroy dock is 145 metres in length and its sides are stepped with quarried sandstone blocks to facilitate the propping of ships for stabilisation. Twelve of the original 15 bollards remain in place. Sutherland dock is also excavated into the island's sandstone and is lined with concrete. It is 212 metres long, 27 metres in breadth and the depth of the water over the sill at high tide is 9.75 metres.
Management of the island
In 1869 the administration of the prison and dockyard was divided between two bodies. The land above the escarpment remained in institutional use under the newly appointed NSW Department of Prisons, while the foreshores became dedicated to dockyard use under the Public Works Department.
From prison island to reform centre
From 1871 to 1888 the prison barracks became an industrial school for girls and a separate reformatory for girls under 16 convicted of a crime. In 1871 the wooden sailing ship, the NSS Vernon moored at Cockatoo Island for the training of delinquent, homeless or orphaned boys in seamanship. Later the more trustworthy boys were given trade training in some of the dockyard workshops on shipbuilding and repairs. The girls' reformatory was relocated to Watsons Bay in 1879 and the industrial school for girls closed in early 1888. Overcrowding elsewhere in the colony forced the return of prisoners to Cockatoo Island in June 1888.
The development of the dockyards
Following Federation in 1901, the NSW Government retained management of the island. The male prison section was closed in 1906 and prisoners were transferred to the new Long Bay Gaol. In 1909 female prisoners were also relocated to Long Bay. The boys from the training ship were moved to a boys' farm at Gosford. In 1890 Sutherland Dock was completed using free labour. With closure of the prison, departure of the school ship and increased international shipping, the dockyards and shipbuilding activities expanded rapidly and facilities spread over the whole island.
Centre for building naval ships
In 1911 the Royal Australian Navy was formed, and in 1913 the Commonwealth Government purchased Cockatoo Island for the building of major naval vessels as well as for ship repair. Both through shipbuilding and servicing, Cockatoo Island played an important role both in the development of the Royal Australian Navy and during both World Wars.
Convict management and punishment
Cockatoo Island operated as a convict penal establishment from 1839-69, primarily as a place of secondary punishment for convicts who had re-offended in the colonies. In the 1820s convicts provided cheap labour to free settlers and relieved the burden on the British Treasury. For those who committed offences within the colony, or whose crimes were such that they could not be assigned, life was often much harder.
In June 1838 an Act was passed substituting hard labour for transportation to a place of secondary punishment. Cockatoo Island was selected by Governor Gipps as the ideal location for a place of hard labour - it was isolated, easy to provision and secure, but not distant and as a result 'under the very eye of authority'. Convicts sent to Cockatoo Island were subject to harsh living and working conditions.
The main form of hard labour on the island was quarrying, labouring and construction. Convicts excavated 580,000 cubic feet of rock creating 45 feet (14 metre) sandstone cliffs to prepare an area to construct a dock. The Fitzroy Dock was constructed between 1839-1847 and is the only remaining dry dock in Australia built using convict and prisoner labour. Convicts also constructed impressive underground silos to store wheat. These were hand hewn in rock and averaged 19 feet (5.8 metres) deep and 20 feet (6 metres) in diameter. The silos were built in response to the severe drought of 1837-39 and were part of a strategy to reduce the colony's reliance on infrequent grain shipments.
Cockatoo Island is also important to the nation as a pre- and post-Federation shipbuilding complex. It operated for 134 years between 1857-1991. It was Australia's primary shipbuilding facility for much of this time and contributed significantly to Australia's naval and maritime history.
It was Australia's first naval dockyard for the Royal Australian Navy (1913-21) and continued to support and build ships for the Navy through two World Wars, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
It retains extensive fabric associated with shipbuilding (including the Fitzroy and Sutherland docks). The place is significant for its demonstration of the characteristics of a long-running dockyard and shipbuilding complex, including evidence of key functions, structures and operational layout. Cockatoo Island contains the nation's most extensive and varied record of shipbuilding and has the potential to enhance our understanding of maritime and heavy industrial processes in Australia from the mid-19th century.
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