Cockatoo Island Convicts

This research project investigated Cockatoo Island, Sydney’s most notorious 19th century prison. I created a database of prisoners incarcerated at Cockatoo Island between 1847-69. You can use it to trace your criminal ancestor, or to research the history of punishment in post-convict era Australia.

The Database

Find your criminal ancestor in a database of more than 2500 prisoners incarcerated at Cockatoo Island between 1847 and 1869

Cockatoo Island prison opened in 1839, a year before convict transportation to New South Wales ended. This island in Sydney Harbour replaced Norfolk Island, 1500 km away in the Pacific, as the main site of ‘secondary punishment’ for convicts in the colony.

Norfolk Island was known as a ‘hell-on-earth’. Cockatoo Island was tarnished by association and its prisoners believed to be the ‘worst’ kind of criminals. The island was seen as a relic of the convict-era that had passed.

“Cockatoo Island. The confines, comprising the scum and dregs of colonial society”

Empire (Sydney), 21 June 1861, p. 2

This was far from the truth. Cockatoo Island prisoners were largely convicted of minor property crimes at lower courts, or breaking regulations that meant they lost their ‘ticket-of-leave’ (right to freedom in the colony).

Cockatoo Island was more diverse than is usually recognised. Alongside British and Irish convicts, its inmates included Aboriginal Australians convicted at the frontier, Chinese immigrants, Black and Asian sailors from across the British Empire and the USA. Read more about these convict lives here.

The project ‘Criminals incapable of Reform’: Cockatoo Island Prison (Sydney), 1839-69 was funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council.

It was completed at the University of Liverpool by historical-criminologist Dr Katherine Roscoe.