Discover Cockatoo Island
Sydney is renowned for its sparkling harbour and breathtaking beaches. Delve a little below the surface however, and you’ll find 200 years of fascinating history ready for exploration. Words and photos by Christine Knight.
SITTING IN THE MIDDLE of Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo Island is a destination that ticks all the boxes: stunning scenery, an intriguing past, and plenty of photo opportunities. For a truly unique day trip, hop on a ferry and journey back in time to discover Sydney’s convict past.
Long before the First Fleet arrived in Australia, Cockatoo Island was home to the Eora people, Indigenous Australians from Sydney’s coastal region. They called the island Wareamah and it was a place for them to fish and use the island’s Red Gum trees to build their canoes.
The British renamed Wareamah “Cockatoo Island” when they arrived in 1788, inspired by the sulphur-crested cockatoos that frequented the island. In 1839 it was chosen as the location of a new prison by the Governor of the colony of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps. Convicts built the prison barracks, a military guardhouse, official residences and a dry dock for the repair of Royal Navy and other vessels, quarrying stone by hand.
Convicts who had been sent to Australia as punishment were jailed on Cockatoo Island if they reoffended, giving it a reputation for housing the “worst of the worst”.
In 1869, Cockatoo Island was transformed from a prison complex into a Reformatory and Industrial School for girls, with the last of the convicts sent to Darlinghurst Gaol. It was renamed “Biloela”, to give it a fresh start, but it was only a
few years later, in 1879, that the girls in the Reformatory were moved to a residence at Watsons Bay, with the Industrial School closing in 1888.
After the closure of the Industrial School, the former prison site was used to temporarily house prisoners to alleviate overcrowding at Darlinghurst Gaol. Biloela finally closed in 1908, marking the end of its time as a prison and the beginning of its glory days as an industrial site for shipbuilding and repairs; in 1913 the island became the dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy.
The last ship dockyard closed in 1992, with the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust restoring the abandoned island and opening it to the public in 2007.
Restored to its previous name of Cockatoo Island, in 2010 it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with 10 other historic convict sites in Australia.