FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cockatoo Island

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

The highlight of our day trip to Australia was a visit to Cockatoo Island, a remarkable island in Sydney Harbour packed with a fascinating history that has seen it used as a prison, naval dockyard, industrial school and film set. The dockyard closed in 1991 but was opened to the public in 2007 following remediation work by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Today, it is one of Sydney’s newer sights and clearly still one of its best kept secrets if its relatively low position in the Tripadvisor rankings is anything to go by.

Administrative Building ‘Brindabella’ (1930) forms the entrance to Cockatoo Island for arrivals by ferry

The island is just 21 minutes by ferry from the crowds and bustle of Circular Quay, yet we hardly saw a soul for most of our three hour long wander around the island. There is no charge for admission and maps are freely provided in the visitor centre, though you can rent an audio guide for a fuller experience. It’s a very photogenic place so a camera is a must, especially to capture the dark and brooding silhouettes of the restored cranes that you can find around the island.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to Cockatoo Island is that it has been left in a state of apparent industrial abandonment since its last use as a commercial dockyard. Although there has been plenty of demolition (around 50 buildings disappeared between 1991 and 2010), mass disposal of industrial machinery and site clean up you can still get some sense of the past life of the island as you wander the vast industrial turbine hall, machine shops and workshops thanks to the informative panels located throughout.

If my sense of imagination failed anywhere, it was at the slipways as I simply couldn’t fathom the scale of the ships that were being launched here until I saw some pictures in the excellent museum in Biloela House. Some of the largest vessels built in the world (in their time) were launched here, such as the 12,037 ton Empress of Australia and the 18,221 ton oiler HMAS Success. To be fair, my impressions might have been affected by the relatively small wooden vessel currently sitting on the slipway.

The mess hall in the convict precinct (c. 1847-51)

The upper level of the site holds the historic convict precinct. The first convicts, who arrived in 1839, were set to work constructing their own prison from sandstone quarried on the island. As galling as this may have seemed, it was preferable to the wooden boxes the convicts were locked in each night until the work was complete. The prison was soon home to the worst of the worst, a combination of hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

There are so many fascinating stories to be uncovered on the island, but my favourite would have to be about how the sheep on the island had come to learn that the four o’clock end of shift siren was the signal for the workers to go home. Apparently, the sheep would make their way down the steep steps from the top to raid the bins for goodies!

Today, Cockatoo Island offers a wonderful slice through the history of Sydney and Australia. It’s also an interesting place to stay (options include luxury camping and heritage houses) and an occasional film set (recent films shot here include Wolverine and Unbroken). I loved every minute of my time on the island and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in Sydney.


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