January 31st – Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island overlooking Sydney

It’s hard to sum up Cockatoo Island in a photo, but I thought this came close – rich with local history you can still touch, and location.

From the moment you step off the ferry and walk through the red-brick entrance, you get the impression you’re walking through a three-dimensional time capsule. What you learn in the next couple of hours is simply mind-blowing.

There is a walking map which will take you through all the features on Cockatoo Island, and the strategic placement of a number of small cafe’s on the island brings timely relief.

The original purpose for Cockatoo Island was a prison for “secondary offenders” in colonial NSW from 1839. At the time the convicts slept in a wooden box, only to wake and excavate the sandstone to build their future goal cells.

There was also an Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls on the island. Basically this means young miscreant women (a large number were orphans) were housed here to work. Further offence would effectively see them jailed as convicts.

There is rich evidence of the colonial life on the island, with numerous structures including grain silo’s excavated in to the rock, and archaeological discoveries as recently as 2009 of ‘solitary confinement’ cells concealed under some of the buildings.

Sandstone from Cockatoo Island was used throughout Sydney, including such landmarks as Circular Quay.

However by 1857 the relevance of Cockatoo Island had shifted to ship building.

Again it was convict labour that was used to create the Fitzroy dock, a 300 foot long dock that could be pumped dry for extensive ship maintenance. It took 10 years to design and build the Graving dock before being opened in 1957. By 1880 its capacity had been doubled to more than 600 feet. The Sutherland dock was opened in 1882, and by 1927 was expanded to contain Royal Australian Navy ships.

One of the more memorable sites on Cockatoo Island is this photo, on display at the information office. Taken in 1944, it shows Cockatoo Island’s wartime industrial transformation. Note the ferry entrance on the right side of the picture, and the Titan Crane on the left.

The floating crane Titan is another memorable ‘story’ from Cockatoo Island. Titan was commissioned in 1917, after being delivered in pieces from the UK. Titan was vital in wartime ship repairs but other duties included construction of the Iron Cove and Gladesville bridges, and in 1984 lifting the stricken Karrabee from the sea floor at Circular Quay following the Australia Day ferry race.

When ship construction ceased on Cockatoo Island in 1991, Titan was sold to a private company. In an attempt to take Titan to Singapore, the new owners hadn’t made Port Macquarie before losing Titan in 33 metres of water.

Oddly enough, we didn’t see or hear any Cockatoo’s while on the island.

Here’s another image from the day, an HDR image of one of the many steam powered cranes on the island. This crane sits at the eastern end of the Sutherland dock.

Steam Crane HDR


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