Fort Denison – A Harbour Fortress

When people think of Sydney it is usually the Bridge, or the Opera House, that comes to mind, however the one thing that has always fascinated me with the place is the fortress that sits slap bang in the middle of the harbour. Okay, I have to admit that I usually don’t think about the fortress (and along with everybody else usually think about the Bridge or the Opera House, though the pubs at the Rocks also crop up occasionally) however everytime I land up here, particularly if I am standing on Bennalong point, I look out across the harbour and see this fortress and a part of me wanders how you actually get over there to have a look around.

Well, you can’t get there by one of the public ferries, meaning that you have to go for a private operator. From what I gather there are two private companies that offer harbour tours, and the one that I ended up going with was Captain Cook Cruises. As well as the other cruise they run a hop-on hop-off tour of Sydney Harbour, which includes some guy that tells you all about the various parts of the harbour as you pass them. While that visit various points around the harbour, including Manley, Taronga Zoo, and Shark Island, the only place I wanted to go to was the fort.

Captain Cook Ferry
They have a fleet of some really slick cats

Harbour Cruise

As I mentioned as I was heading out to the island the captain began blathering on about the history of Sydney and as we passed the Opera house he began to tell us all about it (as well as all the tourists piling over to one side of the boat to take photos of it – fortunately the boat was a catamaran, meaning that it wasn’t going to tip over, but then again I was sitting on the other side so I guess I provided a bit of stabilisation). I’ve already been on an Opera House tour in my pre-blogging days, and I’ve already written a post on the Harbour Bridge, but what I will mention is that as with most big projects, the Opera House ended up going way over budget and ended up taking much longer to build than anticipated and the only reason the Liberal Government didn’t can it half way through was because it has cost enough to get there anyway that they might as well finish it (trust the Liberal Government to want to can projects of national significance simply because ‘it costs too much’).

The captain also told us about Bennelong Point, the bluff upon which the Opera House is built (which I must admit was quite interesting). It is named after this Aboriginal named Bennelong who was really curious when the first prisoners settlers arrived that he would hang around outside the camp watching them (or he could have just drawn the short straw and was told to go and watch them and make sure they don’t get up to any mischief). He ended up being welcomed into the colony (I’m surprised he wasn’t shot – apparently there was nothing here but bush before the convicts settlers arrived) and became the first aboriginal to learn the English language (sounds more like he was a spy).

Sydney Opera House
Obligatory Opera House Photo

Before we reached the fort we passed another place that the captain thought we would be interested it – Macquarie Point. The point is named after the wife one of the dictators pro-consuls governors of the colony Lauchlan Macquarie. In the words of Wikipedia, he served as the last autocratic (yep, they use that word) governor of the colony of New South Wales. Anyway, his wife use to go out to that spot and sit in the shade so he decided to carve a seat into the rock for her to sit upon. Mind you, saying he carved the chair is a bit of a misnomer because he actually used slave convict labour to build it, but then again I guess that is what is to be expected – people always seem to take credit for other people’s labour (and anyway I don’t think he made a record of who actually carved it, so we will just say it was Jack, Harry, and Peter).


We finally arrived at the fort and those of us who wanted to go and explore it all piled off the boat where we were met by one of the curators of the site. She told us that we could wander around the place however if we wanted to go into the tower we have to pay for a tour (which I had already done so). The fort consists of the tower, a museum in the old soldier’s barracks, and an incredibly fancy restaurant (apparently if you want to have a meal here on New Years Eve you have to be willing to fork out $1000.00, and that is if you are lucky enough to get to the front of the queue – I think I have much better things to spend my money on). They also fire the cannon at 1:00 pm, however for them to do that they actually need some gunpower (which unfortunately they were lacking at the time.

Fort Denison is what is called a Morello T(pic - Story) Fort Denison - Tower Shotower, which was originally developed by the French. Apparently with only three cannons they managed to hold off two ships bristling with 100 guns. The British were so impressed with the design that they decided to go and build them all over the empire – and this was the last one that they ever built (and the design is slightly different as the soldiers’ quarters are located on the outside). The tower comprises of three levels with the lower level being the magazine (where the ammunition is stored), the middle level where the soldiers are generally quartered (though as I mentioned they were quartered outside in this one) and the upper level is where the cannons are located. The entrance to the tower is located on the middle level, and is usually only accessible by a ladder (meaning that when everybody is inside they raise the ladder and close the door), however it wasn’t necessary for Fort Denison because it happens to have been built in the middle of the harbour.

There is this myth that the tower was actually a prison, however that was not quite correct. Sure, the island used to be where all of the naughty convicts were dumped (sort of like a maximum security prison) but that was before the fortress was built. Mind you the island itself has quite a sordid history in that in the early days a convict had done something really bad and as a result was executed and his body was hung on a jibbet on the island. Because of this the Aboriginals refused to go to the island believing that it was now haunted, and as the body was left hanging there so the first thing that the convicts saw when then entered Sydney Harbour was this body hanging on the island. I suspect it would have sent chills down their spine as if it were a sign that literally read ‘welcome to hell’ (though Sydney was nowhere near as bad as Port Arthur or Norfolk Island).

Into the Tower

After our guide had finished unlocking the island (why she didn’t do that before we arrived is beyond me) she then led us through the gate and to the front of the tower where she showed us a 150 year old fig tree. To say this blew my mind is an understatement. While I suspected that tress live an awfully long time I never realised that after two hundred years a fig tree could still produce fruit. Okay, there is one in Sri Lanka that was originally planted in 288 BC, however since it was grown from a branch of a tree that was grown from a branch (and so on) I am hesitant to say that it is the oldest (since I generally don’t consider clones to be the original tree). Anyway, even though it is 150 years old (or more) it still produces figs, which she told me that you can still eat.

Old Fig Tree
It’s not dead, it’s just sleeping.

Our first stop was the magazine, the place where they stored the gunpower that would be used to fire the cannons (not that the cannons were ever fired, but just in case). The room was on the lower ground and behind a secure door, and it was also quite cool (no doubt to stop the gunpowder from catching fire). There were a couple of interesting things that she told us, one of them had to do with the cement. Apparently the cement that they used never actually sets really hard, meaning that if you place heavy objects on it in time they will begin to sink and leave an indentation. The other thing was that since this room was underground, they needed light and this was before Thomas Edison graced the world with somebody else’s invention. What they had was a little alcove just above the door that was large enough to put a lantern in, and it was shielded by glass, which meant that they could have light without worrying about the lantern falling into the room, breaking, and setting the gunpowder alight – which would have resulted in an almighty boom. The walls were also white washed so that the light would be reflected, and the floors spark resistant (to once again prevent an almighty boom).

Magazine Magazine Floor

When then ascended back up the really narrow stairs (which are narrow for a reason – namely if the fort is breached it makes the structure incredibly defensible) onto the second level which was where the cannons were housed. The thing about these cannons was that when the fort was built they were positioned into the room before the room was completed, which means that it is now nigh impossible to actually remove them. Apparently these cannons required ten men to fire, which meant that you would have had to have squeezed 30 men into the room. She also gave us a detailed run down of what was required to fire the cannon, however in total, from cleaning the cannon to firing it, would take about 90 seconds. The cannons had a range of up to 1 mile.

Cannon Room Fireplace Cannons

Okay, the photos may not be the best but then again I’m using a really basic camera and a smartphone. You will also notice that I took a photo of the fireplace. She explained that this level was initially the soldier’s quarters which is why the fireplace is there, however this was based on the initial plans. This part of the fort was never meant to be a living quarters – it was always meant to have cannons. It is just that the fireplace was put in without thinking. However if you have a look at the fire place you will noticed that on the side is the insignia of Queen Victoria, indicating the monarch who was on the throne when the fort was built. You will also see a date on the ceiling, which is the date that the tower was completed.

The final stop was the roof, where you get a pretty decent view of Sydney harbour. Also on the roof is a lighthouse. The reason for this is that the fort, and the cannons, became obsolete with the invention of the ironclad. Another problem came with the rise of the United States (which were slowly moving across the Pacific) and the threat posed by Russia, who was at war with Britain and France in the Crimea. As a result a series of fortifications were built along the coast making this fortress of little use. As such the fort was later turned into a maritime facility which would guide ships into the harbour and also measure the tides. Despite the fort having never fired a shot in anger, or even being involved in a battled, it did suffer some damage in World War II when a US ship was attempting to blow up the mini Japanese submarines that had entered the harbour and accidentally hit the fortress instead.

Barracks Lawns

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check out the museum because the boat back to Circular Quay was due to dock at the island and if I missed that one I would be waiting ages for the next one to arrive. So I made my way down to the dock and jumped onto the boat, once again listening to the captain blathering about Admiralty house and how Tony Abbott (who was still Prime Minister at the time) lived in the smaller house closer to the harbour. He also pointed out that before the Harbour Bridge was built if you wanted to cross the harbour you had to go all the way down to Parramatta, which is why there is a lot more greenery and bushland on the northshore than on the south (it was settled much later).

Cannon Room Roof
And this is on the roof of the Cannon Room.


Creative Commons LicenseFort Denison – A Harbour Fortress by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me



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