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.

Where Sydney - - Contents -

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.

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