Monday, June 21, 2010

Visiting Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. It will always be part of the story of Sydney. It is mostly known for its maritime heritage being a base for shipbuilding and repairs for both the Royal Australian Navy and other shipping companies. But is also has a rich convict heritage as a penal settlement.

In 2001, the Sydney Harbour Federation assumed control of the island and embarked upon major restoration works and activities to attract the public.

This year Cockatoo Island is one of the major venues for the 17th Biennale of Sydney Festival. Running from 12 May to 1 August 2010, 56 artists are exhibiting 120 works on the island. In 2008, there were 80,000 visitors to Cockatoo Island for the Biennale. This year some 100,000 visitors are expected.

Mary and I visited Cockatoo Island on Sunday 16 May, and of course we were interested in the convict heritage.

(at left - Mess Hall)

[at right - Old Military Guardhouse , site of Serge Spitzer's Biennale Exhibit Molecular (SYDNEY) (2002-10)]

In 1839, Governor Sir George Gipps chose what was then an uninhabited island as the site of a new penal settlement for convicts being transferred from Norfolk Island . They were put to work on building a stone prison barracks, a military guardhouse and official residences.

The convicts also quarried the island's sandstone for building works in Sydney such as Semicircular Quay, and were employed in the construction of the Fitzroy Dock (1847-1857) which was the first of the two dry docks on the Island. They provided all the services to run the island - gatemen, overseers, mechanics, wardsmen, watermen and gardeners.

History Services NSW has some 360 records of convicts who were imprisoned on Cockatoo Island.
One interesting find on the highest part of the island was the remains of the huge grain storage silos that the convicts had carved out of the sandstone.

It had been Governor Gipps plan to conserve supplies of grain in good seasons and minimise price fluctuations during times of drought and shortages.

There were twenty bottle-shaped silos measuring 5.8 metres deep and 6.7 metres in diameter, with a sealed man-hole at the top. They could each hold from 84 to 140 tonnes of grain.

(above left - partially exposed grain storage silo, Cockatoo

History Services NSW
records that two convicts, James Halliwell (per Camden 1831) and Daniel Torpy (Per Eliza 1832) "suffocated in a silo on Cockatoo Island on 4 October 1852".

Conditions in the penal settlement on Cockatoo Island were notoriously overcrowded and it was the subject of regular enquiries into the state of prisoner accommodation and the administration. The settlement was finally closed in 1869 when the convicts were transferred to Darlinghurst Goal.

The prison buildings have been currently nominated for World Heritage listing along with other convict sites around Australia. Archaeological digs are in progress and have revealed important evidence from Cockatoo Island's convict past.

[above right - entrance to two solitary confinement cells and two storerooms, Cockatoo Island)

If you are researching a convict ancestor who was assigned to Cockatoo Island, you should go to our website at:

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