History of Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour in New South Wales. Originally a meeting place and fishing spot for the Eora, its is known also known as War-rea-mah.

Cockatoo Island served as a convict establishment for the punishment of secondary offenders between 1839 and 1869. It was established to replace Norfolk Island penal station, more than 1500 km off in the Pacific. Captain Alexander Maconochie was going to trial his new disciplinary method (the mark system), which allowed men to earn time off their sentence, and they wanted to experiment on newly arrived convicts.

In May 1839 sixty men were transferred from Norfolk Island to Cockatoo to serve commuted sentences. In a letter dated July 1839, Gipps described Cockatoo Island merits as being “surrounded by deep water” and  “under the very eye of authority” with good quality building stone.[1] Over the course of they year, they were joined by a 100 more men from Norfolk Island and neighbouring Goat Island, where they had finished building an arms magazine.

In 1840, convict transportation to New South Wales ceased, and governance of Norfolk Island passed to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). In 1841, the governor of Van Diemen’s Land refused to accept any more ‘doubly convicted’ transportees from New South Wales, leaving them in need of a replacement site of secondary punishment. Governor Gipps argued to the Colonial Office that Cockatoo Island should become a permanent secondary punishment site, rather than a temporary convict stockade, describing it in 1841 as ‘the place of greatest security within the colony, not actually a prison’.[2]

[1] National Archives (UK), CO 201/286, Gipps to Glenelg, 8 July 1839, Sydney, p. 249. [2] George Gipps to Lord Russell, 13 Oct. 1841, Sydney, in British Parliamentary Papers 1843, vol. XLII, no. 158, Convict Discipline, pp. 11-13.

Who were the prisoners?

From the 1850s, increasing numbers of prisoners arriving on Cockatoo Island were people who had arrived free or been born in the colony. On the evening of 31 December 1852, a quarter of Cockatoo Island’s prisoners had come free to the colony. This included a small number of Chinese immigrants, many arriving to seek their fortunes in the gold rush.

Some of the prisoners had been born in the colony: around 5% of the total were white Australians and 1% were Aboriginal men.

However, most of the inmates were former-convicts: two-third were “free by servitude”, having earned their ticket-of -leave before being convicted of a crime in the colony, and 3% were ‘expirees’ (around 3000 ‘expirees’ had been transported to Port Phillip and Moreton Bay between 1846-50, though transportation to NSW had ceased)

NSW State Records & Archives, X819.

Hard Labour

The vast-majority of these prisoners were sentenced to “Hard Labour on the Roads or Public Works”, in or out of irons.

In 1839, convicts were set to work quarrying 17 grain silos out of the rock. The silos were up almost six metres deep and seven metres in diameter, with a sealed manhole on top. Each could hold almost 5000 bushels (or 140 tonnes) of grain.The silos were bottle-shaped holes measuring 5.8 metres deep and 6.7 metres wide, with a sealed manhole at the top, and could hold up up to 140 tonnes of grain. 

Convicts were lowered down a manhole to dig into the sandstone with hand tools, and were not raised back up to daylight unless they had reached their daily quota. Severe fluctuations in grain prices in New South Wales was the reason for silo-building, but Gipps had acted without permission from London. In 1842, he was ordered by the Colonial Office to stop building siloes and leave the grain in, to protect the interests of the East India Company.

Cockatoo Island convict grain silo, Wikimedia Commons, October 2012, by Harryp2.

In the early 1840s, convicts deforested Cockatoo Island and quarried the island’s high quality standstone reserves. These were used for building projects in Sydney, and to construct a number of buildings on the island, including barracks for 500 guards, accommodation for 56 soldiers and 12 underground solitary cells.

In 1845, Governor Gipps put forward a proposal to the Colonial Office in London that convicts build a Dry Dock on Cockatoo Island to repair military sailing vessels, suggesting ‘advantages would accrue to this Colony and to the Empire at large’.[1] The Admiralty refused to finance the project, and it took two more years, until 1847, for the Colonial Treasury to approve a budget of £4000 for 100 men to work for 470 days. They vastly underestimated the scale of the task, it would take a decade before the first ship was docked at Cockatoo Island.

[1] HRA, ser. I, vol. XXIV, Gipps to Lord Stanley, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, 12 Nov. 1845, Sydney, no. 185.

Work began the same year, 1847 under the supervision of Royal Engineer Gother Kerr Mann. Explosives were used to blast out the cliff-sides and convict gangs quarried the dry dock down into the sandstone base. Equipped only with handtools, ‘guttering’ crews had a daily quote of 1 metre long, sixty centimetres wide and thirty centimetres deep. Work was slow as convicts encountered a layer of shale underneath the sandstone.

In 1849, to motivate the convicts, Mann suggested the introduction of task work which meant convicts who exceeded their targets would reduce their sentence incrementally. This system was instituted in 1851, with indulgences such as tea, sugar and tobacco awarded for any work completed over 8 ¼ hours. In 1853, convicts were divided into three classes and 61 categories of trade to ensure that healthier, skilled workers did not benefit disproportionately. However, work continued to progress slowly, with delays receiving specialist equipment from Britain and a lack of skilled free labourers who refused to work alongside convicts.

In 1852, the completion of work was further delayed when the planned proportions of the dry dock had to be extended to enable larger steamships to be docked. By 30 September 1857 the dock was ready to use for the first time, to receive the colonial steam dredge, the “Hercules”. The following year the dock was extended still further, involving the excavation of more of the cliff face. The island continued to operate as a prison while receiving vessels for repair. The convicts built twelve workshops and an engine house. They also assisted with the daily operations of the dry dock, drawing coals, pumping dry dock and cleaning machinery. In the punishment books, there is evidence that convicts often socialised with and illicitly traded tobacco with ship’s crews, contrary to regulations.

HMS Galatea in Dock at Cockatoo Island (1870), State Records Authority of New South Wales – CHECK COPYRIGHT


Charles Ormsby, an Irish former-policeman, was superintendent of the prison Cockatoo Island from 1842-1859. Ormsby was eager to retain sole power over the island, engaging in petty power-plays against figures who he saw as competing authorities on the including visiting chaplains and especially Gother Kerr Mann, Superintendent of Public Works on the island. He regularly removed large numbers of prisoners from the works to perform tasks like working on his private garden, and held back a number of able-bodied men as ‘convict-warders’ or ‘servants’, in order to organise private boxing matches which guards bet on (usually against pugilist “Black” Perry).

In 1858, a Board of Inquiry, chaired by Edward Merewether, uncovered a host of abuses at the prison. Ormsby was replaced as Superintendent of the Prison by Captain Mann and new regulations were put in place. Under these rules, new arrivals could not work time off their sentence by exceeding their daily targets. This provoked anger amongst convicts, who worked alongside men working up to half-a-day of their sentence everyday. Convicts tried petitioning the Superintendent, downing tools and there were many escape attempts. When 100 men were moved off the island to Darlinghurst Gaol in January 1861 for mass downing of tools and insubordination, a group of seventeen men managed to escape through a hole in the wall on 25 February 1861.

A new Select Committee into Public Prisons of Sydney was set up, this time helmed by MP Henry Parkes a longtime critic of Cockatoo Island penal discipline. By the time they sat in February, three of the escapees remained at large.[1] The committee’s findings were damning, concluding that the discipline was ‘very imperfect’ due to a lack of separation between the different classes of prisoners, with old lags corrupting new, juvenile offenders.  The Commitee described overcrowded and unsanitary prison barracks, with prisoner crammed in “coffin-like apertures”, arranged in double tiers, crowding up to the bars to breathe fresh air due to the stench of the “night tubs”.

The Committee was particularly concerned about rumours of homosexual activity at night in unsegregated barracks, though they largely ignored prisoners’ testimonies about re-instating the task work system to improve morale. Concerns were also raised about Captain Mann’s superintendence, particularly his use of prison labour for private purposes. A few changes were made as a result of the committee’s recommendations, including replacing wooden bed-boards with hammocks and introduction of prison school. However, underlying disciplinary issues remained, and prison numbers began to fall.

[1] Select Committee on Public Prisons (Sydney, 1861), ‘Report’, p. 34; Samuel Whiddon, 28 Feb 1861, p. 76, pp. 91-3.


However, the prison remained associated in the public imagination with its origins as a convict site and “stain” on the cityscape. Operating as a prison and a dockyard, meant ships came and went, presenting ongoing security risks. Furthermore, after May 1859 when merchant P&O ship Benares docked at Cockatoo Island, complaints were raised by commercial dockyard operators about unfair competition from prison labour. By 1869, when the prison was closed, there was only one convict left on the island who had been sentenced in Britain. The island and its dockyard facilities were handed over to the Royal Navy, who went on to construct a second, larger dry dock adjacent to Fitzroy’s. In 1913, Cockatoo Island was transferred to the Commonwealth becoming the first Naval Dockyard for the Royal Australian Navy, until it was decommissioned in 1992.

Cockatoo Island continued to operate as a site of confinement. At the suggestion of Henry Parkes,  the former merchant sailing ship Vernon was moored off Cockatoo in 1871 to house where destitute and “wayward” boys were offered industrial training in nautical instruction, general schooling and ‘moral training’ under the auspices of the 1866 Industrial Schools Act. In the same year, 1871, the Biloela Reformatory and Industrial School for Girls was established on shore. There was less emphasis on reformation for the destitute and “troublesome” girls under 16 years of age who were housed in former-prison barracks and punished in solitary cells. There were problems ensuring full separation between the sexes, despite tall fences. Both reformatories were eventually transferred to new locations, the girls to Watson’s Bay in 1880 and the boys to Parramatta in 1887. Between 1888 and 1909, now rebranded as Biloela Gaol, Cockatoo Island became the main women’s prison in New South Wales. The prisoners were mostly convicted of petty crimes, like drunkenness and vagrancy.

In 2010 Cockatoo Island was placed on the UNESCO world heritage list. As the only surviving imperial convict works in New South Wales, the remains of the silos, dry docks and other convict-built structures are testament to the importance of convict labour to the British Empire. Cockatoo’s subsequent role as a Royal Navy Dockyard and commercial shipbuilder attests to the ways in which convict labour literally laid the foundations for the modernisation of Australia.

Vernon nautical training ship, Prison or Reformatory moored in Sydney Harbour, shows boys being drilled. c. 1870s. Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading

Sue Castrique, Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and convicts on Cockatoo Island, 1839-1869 (Sydney: Anchor Books, 2014).

Kristyn Harman, Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khosian and M­āori Exiles (Sydney: UNSW, 2012).

John Jeremy, Cockatoo Island: Sydney’s historic dockyard (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005)

Ian Hoskins, Sydney Harbour: A History (Sydney: University of New South Wales, 2009)

R.G. Parker, Cockatoo Island: A history (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1977).

Online Resources

Australian Convict Sites, UNESCO World Heritage.

The Convicts of Cockatoo, cockatooisland.gov.au.

Expert Essay: Cockatoo Island, Convict Voyages, by Katherine Roscoe.

Cockatoo Island: Historical Analysis’, cockatooisland.gov.au, created by Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, archived: 28 June 2014.

Cockatoo Island‘, Dictionary of Sydney, by Ian Fletcher.