The Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island c1875. By John Lane Mullins. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, A1939028/PXA 420, 13a Mitchell Library
From an Aboriginal meeting place to prison, reformatory, shipyard and now one of the key locations for Sydney’s Biennale, Cockatoo Island has a long and fascinating history of use and reuse. This morning Lisa joined Sophie Ly on 2SER breakfast to talk about Sydney’s largest harbour island. You can listen to the segment here and explore some Dictionary links below. Thanks Lisa.
Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. It’s located off the shoreline between Birchgrove and Woolwich.
Reshaped, levelled, cleared and used for a range of social and industrial purposes, the island is now a historic landmark, administered by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, and open to the public.
Before the British came along it was an uninhibited rocky outcrop covered in trees that was called Wa-rea-mah by the Wangal and Gadigal Aboriginal people. The British called the island Cockatoo Island because of the flocks of noisy parrots that once perched in its sinewy red angophoras that grew on the island.
It’s not clear what precise use Aboriginal people made of the islands, beyond exploiting access to fishing and shellfish.
In 1839, Governor Gipps chose Cockatoo Island to build a new prison for convicts who had re-offended in the colony. The convicts carved seventeen silos out of the solid sandstone cliffs to store wheat and other grain for the colony. In 1847, they were put to work excavating a dry dock for the repair of Royal Navy and other vessels.
Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island 1849. By Vidors, Phillipe de. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A928881/SSV/39, Mitchell Library
Frederick Ward (otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt) is the only prisoner recorded as having escaped from the island, swimming to Balmain one night in 1863 and absconding to the bush with the aid of his Aboriginal wife, Mary Ann Bugg.
The island closed as a convict prison in 1869, only to become a reformatory for young girls and boys. It became a prison again afterwards for the overflows from Darlinghurst gaol.
In the early 1870s, shipbuilding began on Cockatoo Island. Dredges, barges and tugs were built. In 1913, the island was transferred to the Commonwealth and became the naval dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy.
Throughout the twentieth century, the demands of shipbuilding continually modified Cockatoo Island. The skyline was distinguished by cranes, chimneys and water towers.
During WW1 at its peak about 4,000 people were employed on the island and they belonged to more than 21 unions for trades such as boilermakers, blacksmiths, ship painters and dockers, gas fitters and plumbers, electricians, shipwrights, storemen and packers, timber workers and the biggest group of all, ironworkers. During WW2 it was the main ship repair facility in the south-west Pacific.
Are you a former dockyard worker? Did you complete your apprenticeship on Cockatoo Island? Did your relative work on Cockatoo Island?
Our colleagues over at the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust are building a long-term exhibition on Cockatoo Island that documents the history of the island’s dockyard workers – and they need your stories.
The exhibition will focus on the hard-working men and woman who made Cockatoo Island a powerhouse of industry for over a century. From photos of dockyard life to yarns of larrikin mateship, they would love to document your experience. You can share your story and help write history. They are after photos, oral histories and memorabillia.
You can find out more about the history of the island in Patrick Fletcher’s 2011 entry for the Dictionary as well as listen to some oral histories on the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust website or check out a book published by former worker John Jeremy, Cockatoo Island: Sydney’s Historic Dockyard, 2005.
Dont’ forget to join Lisa again next week for more Sydney history on 2SER.
Cadet Ron Whelan from the Snapper Island sea training depot at the wheel of the Canadian five-masted schooner City of Alberni on its visit to Sydney c1940. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, A H98.105/2225
How many islands in Sydney Harbour can you name?
There were once 14 islands in Sydney Harbour - Shark, Clark, Fort Denison, Goat, Cockatoo, Snapper and Rodd islands, Spectacle (two into one), Garden, Bennelong, Darling, Glebe and Berry islands. If you just counted, you’ll notice we’ve only named 13 and that’s because Spectacle island has been reclaimed and formed from two outcrops.
The islands in Sydney Harbour were once the outcrops and the peaks of steep hills and they were basically left uncovered as the sea level rose, between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago, flooding an ancient river valley and forming the harbour that exists today. We also have an inkling about some of the Aboringinal names for the islands. The early colonial record suggests that the islands were called Boambilly (Shark Island), Billong-olola/Be-lang-le-wool (Clark Island), Ba-ing-hoe/Booroowang (Garden Island), Mat-te-wan-ye (Pinchgut/Fort Denison), Me-mel/Milmil (Goat Island), Wa-rea-mah (Cockatoo Island), Ar-ra-re-agon (Snapper Island) and Gong-ul (Spectacle Island).
The islands have a rich history that reflects the Aboriginal, colonial, industrial, scientific, naval and social developments of Sydney. And there are many fascinating facts to discover about what’s gone on at these places. For example, Shark Island sits in Sydney Harbour, just 1km from Rose Bay. In 1945, the first Sydney to Hobart race was launched from its banks. Rodd Island became the centre of scientific experiments in the 1880s to try and control the rabbit population.
There’s been convict hard labour, the water police, shipyards, and picnics on the various islands. Cockatoo Island is pretty fascinating, and that’s one island you can visit, especially with the Biennale of Sydney happening at the moment.
Over the next few weeks we will be looking at some of the different islands and their histories. In the meantime, check out our essay about the islands written by the talent historian Ian Hoskins for the Dictionary and supported by the Australian National Maritime Museum.
And if you missed my segment with Sophie yesterday, you can catch up here.
Lost at the Royal Easter Show, Moore Park 18 April 1938. By Sam Hood. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, hood_17093 / Home and Away 17093, Mitchell Library)
Sydney’s Royal Easter Show is the nation’s largest annual agricultural show. For generations it has brought ‘the country to the city’, and it continues to be important, especially for children, in Sydney’s cultural life.
The show dates back to 1823 when the newly established Agricultural Society of New South Wales held the first competitive display of animals and produce at Parramatta Domain. Prizes included the best rams, cheeses and beer, as well as for high performing servants!
The show got a new lease of life when it moved in Prince Alfred Park in 1869. The agricultural grounds at Moore Park were established in the 1880s and the first show at Moore Park was in 1882. The move to Moore Park enabled the development of a diverse range of educational, entertainment and commercial activities at the Royal Easter Show.
The introduction of electrical lighting in 1894, with full electrification in 1916, expanded its operating hours and meant that elaborate entertainments could be held in the evening. While entertainment was always a component of early colonial shows, the move to the Moore Park Showground meant an expansion of amusement rides and carnival attractions.
By the 1930s the event ran for 13 days. In the 1990s the decision was made to relocate the showground and society offices. The first Royal Easter Show held at Homebush Bay was in 1998 – 16 years ago!!
As always we’ve got some great images in the Dictionary, such as the Clyde Engingeering Co pavillion at the turn of the century and the District Exhibits from the 1930s – that’s one of the displays I always have to go and see, along with the cake baking and jams competition, and the wood chopping. Ooh – and I always get a Bertie Beetle showbag!
What’s your favourite memory of the show?
If you missed Lisa’s spot on 2SER breakfast this morning, you can catch up here. Set yourself a reminder for next week – 8:20am, 107.3 – tune in!
South Sea Whalers boiling blubber c1876. By Oswald Brierly. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A128893 / DG 366 Dixson Galleries
There’s been more than one shift in the chair this week with our guest historian, Nicole Cama, joining Sophie Ly for Breakfast on 2SER this morning.
In light of the International Court of Justice’s ruling delivered yesterday against Japan’s whaling program, Nicole thought it would be interesting to remember how integral the whaling industry was to the Australian economy during the 1800s when it was our major export commodity. In fact, the main whaling port of Australia at the time was a city that we all know and love – Sydney!
Thanks Nicole for our guest post today.
British whalers and sealers were the most frequent visitors to Port Jackson during the first decade of European settlement. At least a third of the convict transports and store ships sent to the new colony before 1800 were British whalers.
Over time, Sydney became a natural place for British and American whalers to stop in port, as whales would migrate along the east coast of Australia. There was also a real sense that the industry could aid the new colony; American author Herman Melville, who famously wrote Moby Dick, noted that the colony was ‘saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale ship dropping anchor in their waters.’
By 1805, the first Sydney-owned vessel set sail to go whaling and the trade reached a peak in the 1830s. Eventually whaling stations popped up in Mosman and even one at the Heads. But just to give you some stats to demonstrate just how major the industry was – by 1850, the commodities exported through this industry amounted to £4.2 million. Sydney alone had a fleet that produced whale oil and baleen valued at £2.6 million between 1825 and 1879.
And it wasn’t just the money made from whale products, which could even include ointments made from whale blubber, that made the industry so lucrative. It provided opportunities for the shipping industry, it employed around 1,300 seamen, the government made money through port charges and customs duties.
Sadly, as Sydney whalers took an average of 81 barrels of whale oil per month during its peak period, the years of wholesale slaughter had a dramatic impact on the whale population.
But on a nicer note, it’s important to point out that Australia completely transformed its attitudes toward whaling. Although it took a long time, in 1979, whaling was totally banned. And so began the country’s campaign to protect the species and as we’ve seen, our efforts have produced some optimistic results.
You can read more about our whaling history in Mark Howard’s article for the Dictionary, Sydney’s whaling fleet, 2011.