Cockatoo Island Shipyard

Cockatoo Island (New South Wales)

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Located at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers, Cockatoo Island is a former imperial prison, industrial school, reformatory and gaol. It is also the site of one of Australia's biggest shipyards during the twentieth century. The first of its two dry docks was built by convicts and was completed in 1857. The island's maritime industrial activity ceased in 1992.

In late March 2005 the island was re-opened to the public for the 'Cockatoo Island Festival', after two and a half years of planning. The island is currently managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust who are currently revitalising the island as a landmark harbour attraction, with commercial maritime activity operating alongside interpretation of the island's heritage. Today Cockatoo Island retains many remnants of its past. Its prison buildings have been nominated for World Heritage listing, along with other convict sites around Australia. Large workshops, slipways, wharves, residences and other buildings retain the texture of the island's industrial past.

Always a Sydney landmark, Cockatoo Island commands magnificent views of Sydney Harbour. A regular ferry service to the island allows visitors to explore this intriguing place at their leisure. The island boasts a campground and a cafe. Soon a bar is expected to open. Regular exhibitions and art installations are a feature of the island. From April 2007, the island has been open to the general public with daily ferry services from Circular Quay.

Early history

The history of Cockatoo Island is emblematic of Australia's history. Before the arrival of Europeans, it was undoubtedly used by the first Australians, the Aboriginal tribes of Sydney's coastal region.

In 1839 it was chosen as the site of a new penal establishment by the Governor of the colony of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps. Between 1839 and 1869 the island was used a convict prison. The initial prisoners were transferred to Cockatoo Island from Norfolk Island, and were employed constructing rock-cut silos for storing the colony's grain supply. By 1842, approximately 140 tonnes of grain was stored on the island.

An (in)famous prisoner on Cockatoo Island was the Australian bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt, who notoriously escaped after being incarcerated there to begin the crime spree which made his name. His wife had swum across to the island with tools to effect Thunderbolt's escape, following which they both swam back to the mainland.

Later, quarrying on the island provided stone for a group of penal buildings on the island and for construction projects around Sydney, including the seawall for Circular Quay. Between 1847 and 1857, convicts were used to dig the Fitzroy Dock, Australia’s first dry dock, on the island. An estimated of rock was excavated with forming the dock itself.

Cockatoo Island Dockyard

In 1864 the island was split between the NSW Department of Prisons and the Public Works Department, who expand the dockyard around the foreshores. In 1869 the convicts were relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol. In 1890 the Sutherland Dock, a dry dock large enough to take ships of 20,000 tonnes, was opened.

In 1913 Cockatoo Island become the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, but in 1933 it was leased to the Cockatoo Island Docks & Engineering Company Ltd. During World War II, Cockatoo Island's importance to the Allies was enhanced by the fall of Singapore and its shipyards. At least 20 ships were built during the war. The dockyard continued to work on both naval and commercial vessels until its closure in 1992.

Significant vessels built or worked over the life of the dockyard include:

Cockatoo Island Festival

From March 25 to March 27 2005, a music and arts festival was held on the refurbished island, utilising abandoned buildings and warehouses as exhibition rooms, concert halls and shopping/food venues. The festival was headlined by local and international musical groups and artists, including:

The festival drew over 20,000 people and featured over 120 musical acts, as well as stand-up comedians, performance artists and more. A dedicated ferry service ran day and night to take ticket holders to and from the island. Due to large amounts of red tape the festival never returned and instead was reborn as The Great Escape in 2006.

Planning and Projects

Stewardship of Cockatoo Island was handed to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust in 2001 to plan a new chapter for the island as publicly-owned urban park. In 2003 the Harbour Trust completed a Comprehensive Plan for Cockatoo Island and its other sites around Sydney Harbour.

The Comprehensive Plan proposed the revitalisation of Cockatoo Island as a landmark harbour attraction with the revival of maritime activities, the interpretation of its rich colonial and industrial heritage, and the creation of parklands and spaces for cultural events.

The Harbour Trust has now produced a management plan for the island to provide more specific details of the proposals for the island.

Biennale 2008

From 18 June to 7 September, Cockatoo Island was a venue for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia's Festival of Contemporary Art, with 35 artists utilising buildings and sites across the island to display contemporary art.


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