Cockatoo Island – A Shipyard and a Prison

(pic - Story) Cockatoo Island - Title

I have to say that I wasn’t all that sure what I would find here. All I knew is that was that Cockatoo Island was an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour at which the ferries stopped. For some reason I quite like islands – maybe it has something to do with them being difficult to get to, or rather that on an island you are effectively cut off from the rest of the world. It’s not like you can easily jump on a bus and go shopping (unless the island happens to be connected to the mainland by a bridge, or a tunnel). Okay, while islands are also quite defensible, that can be a bit of a double edged sword because getting off an island, especially if you don’t have a boat, can be quite difficult, which is probably why governments like building prisons on them (though I do note that they did end up closing Alcatraz down).

A Gaol Within a Gaol

Speaking of prisons, that is one of the things about Cockatoo Island – it used to be a prison, at least back in the colonial days. Then again the entire continent of Australia, at least back then, was one gigantic prison (which happens to be an island). What better way of dealing with the dregs and trouble makers of society than sending them halfway around the world to a dry and barren land where you don’t actually need fences, or walls, because you’re unlikely to survive all that long if you run away anyway (though there are stories of people who have, such as some guy named Buckley who fled Tasmania for the mainland and ended up living with the Aboriginals – which goes to show that before the Europeans arrived there was more to Australia than ‘just bush’).

Prison Building
One of the old prison buildings

Mind you, when I talk about colonial Australia being one giant prison, it wasn’t the type of prison that you get in films like Escape from New York, where they simply put a wall around an area and dump all of the criminals in there to fight or die (though I have to admit that it was a pretty cool concept). Actually, I’m not sure if there are many prisons like that since most that I know of (which would generally be in the Western World) tend to have a pretty strict regime for the prisoners to follow, as well as guards to keep them in line (the guards do more than just prevent them from escaping, though they do turn a blind eye to some fights). The same was the case for Australia. In fact the original settlements (all of the colonies, with the exception of South Australia, began as prison colonies) used convict labour to establish the colonies, and not only where they a place to send prisoners and political dissidents (since the gaols in England were becoming way overcrowded, and they had just lost the American colonies), but they also served as military bases to provide supplies for the navy. In fact that is one of the main reason that the colony at Perth was established.

Australian Convicts
Not sure if these guys were getting paid – at least in anything other than rum.

Anyway, just because the convicts were sent halfway around the world to forcibly start a new life did it mean that they had a revelation and decided that they would behave themselves – not really. Okay, they probably weren’t the worst of the bunch (mostly thieves and political dissidents – I suspect the nastier lot would have been kept back in England – can’t have a bunch of murders running around the colonies can we?), but they were convicts none the less. As such they needed ways to deal with those who didn’t tow the line, and as such secondary prisons were set up in places like Cockatoo Island (another is located at Norfolk Island, and a third is at Port Arthur in Tasmiana – and they were all pretty bad places to find yourself).

Mind you, just because they were located on an island didn’t mean that people couldn’t escape. There is a story about a guy who took the name ‘Captain Thunderbolt‘ after his wife swam across Sydney Harbour and rescued him. He then went on to become a famous bush ranger, though nowhere near as famous as Ned Kelly (it probably has something to do with his armour – Australians seem to think Ned Kelly’s armour was pretty cool, as well as his final words as he was standing on the gallows in Melbourne Gaol – such is life).

Convict Ruins
These ruins look like they’re in pretty good shape, with the exception of the roof.

I could probably continue rabbiting on about the convict settlement, particularly since I suspect that the reason that this place is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Register is because of the links with the convict past, but there are other things about Cockatoo Island that also attract people. I should mention though that when I read the little spiel at the entrance, I couldn’t help but think that it was written by some left wing agitator – they described Australia’s colonial past as being a period of forced repatriation and convict labour. It gave me a great idea for a story, basically how Earth becomes so overcrowded that they decide to build massive spaceships, fill them with prisoners, and fire them off to distance stars that might have planets around them. It probably wouldn’t work because people would raise the issue that it is a pretty expensive way to deal with prisoners, but then again considering the cost of keeping somebody in gaol, one wanders whether our current system works.

Anyway, here are some more pictures of the convict settlement.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sydney’s Shipyards

In the 1880s Australia had grown significantly as a colony, and with the growing influence of other European powers to the north the government saw a need to established a dockyard, and they decided to use Cockatoo Island. From this beginning it grew to be one of Australia’s major shipyards (the other being Williamstown in Melbourne). During the wars the island became one of the major places where ships were retrofitted and repaired. The island continued as a shipyard up until 1991 when the facilities were then closed down.

Admin Building
This is where the ferry stops

Since you can’t get there by car (it’s an island) and it is unlikely that the people working on the island had their own private boats, a ferry was run between Circular Quay and the wharf during shift changes (though I’m sure the administrators of the island probably had their own boats – can’t be mingling with the riff-raff on the factory floor, can we). At the height of its operation there were 4000 people working at Cockatoo Island, and many of Australia’s naval ship were built there. However, after 1991 pretty much everybody packed up and left, leaving the place to rot and ruin.

Rusted Machinery
The weeds always win


A Tourist Trap

Sometimes I wonder why people would go out of their way to visit an old factory, but for some reason they do. In fact when I was on the ferry I noticed that there were quite a lot of people here, and many of them piled off the ferry when it reached it’s destination. There are two ferries that stop here – the Parramatta River Ferry and the all stops ferry (which terminates here). This means that the island is quite well serviced. Okay, people probably come here because in 2010 UNESCO decided to list a bunch of Australian convict sites on the world heritage register, but another reason is probably because they have a heap of brochures that tell everybody that this is a tourist attraction, and they all come here to see what this tourist attraction is about.

Pre-made camping

The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that there were all these tents scattered across one of the lawns. Okay, I don’t mind camping, and you can obviously stay here over night (and maybe play some live action roleplaying games – I must admit that an old abandoned factory would be an awesome setting for such an event – or maybe you could just spread a rumour that the island is haunted and then get your friends to sleep here overnight for a dare). Mind you, there is this rather large, and empty looking, building at the wharf that seems to be screaming out for somebody to come along and turn it into a hotel.

The White House
This place could do with a coat of paint as well.

There are also three cafes on the island, one near the wharf, one on the southern side of the island, and a third that only Google Maps seems to know about (I can’t quite remember where it was). Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to sit down at any of the cafes for a cup of tea because I wanted to catch one of the ferries back (though I’m sure I could have spent another hour pottering around here.

(pic - Story) Cockatoo Island - White House Back
This house is so cool it deserves another picture

Anyway, this island isn’t just a convict settlement with a bunch of abandoned factories, namely because the each of the factory buildings are labelled with what they used to do, such as the engineering factory, the electrical factory, and so on and so forth. From what I could see there were three main docks on the islands where the ships used to be parked, and there were factories on the upper and lower levels. Instead of just talking about them, I’ll post the photos that I took.

So, here are some photos of the docks:

and here are some photos of the factories:

As it turns out, one of the X-Men movies (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) had some of the scenes filmed in one of these abandoned factories. Actually, you could even go inside some of them.

If there was one really cool thing about this island though, it was the tunnels that went under the central hill, and I will finish off with a photo of a couple of them.

Okay, I know that I said I was going to finish off with those photos, but I probably should say that after spending a brief period here on the island, I made my way (rather quickly mind you) back to the fairy so I could continue my adventure in the suburb of Balmain.

Creative Commons License


Cockatoo Island – A Shipyard and a Prison by David Alfred 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s