- Ward, Samantha
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Reprinted by kind permission of the Surface Force Element Group at Garden Island and originally published in their brochure ‘Birds Away’
Cockatoo Island is Sydney Harbour’s largest. It was named after flocks of cockatoos that used to congregate in its large red gum trees. It is a sandstone mound rising to about 18 metres above sea level. The island was originally only 32 acres in size, but due to expansion over the years is now 44 acres. Its isolation, deep waters and proximity to other industrial sites since the first European occupation of the island in 1839 has led to the island having a dynamic and profitable history. It was first used as a penal facility for convicts transferred from Norfolk Island, then as a dockyard for the construction, repair and refitting of ships.
Governor George Gipps ordered the construction of a prison on Cockatoo Island for convicts transferred from Norfolk Island. Their labour was to be used in the construction of roads and other public works of the colony. The convicts excavated the sandstone rock and constructed underground silos, which were used to store the colony’s grain. These silos proved invaluable to the population of Sydney, as until then they had been forced to rely upon the irregular shipment of grain from England. Furthermore, the grain was not threatened by contamination, as the silos were airtight. The sandstone was also used for other construction projects around Sydney, including Circular Quay.
Construction of Fitzroy Dock commenced. Governor Gipps recognised the advantage of building a dry dock to enable the repair of visiting ships of the Royal Navy. The dock was built entirely by convict labour; gangs of convicts in chains chiselling the sandstone by means of a chisel and hammer, and took six years to be completed. However, before construction of the dock commenced, the sandstone cliffs that lay across the chosen site had to be removed. Large charges of gunpowder, electrically charged, were used for this purpose. It was the first time gunpowder was electrically charged in Australia. Accurate calculations were made to ensure that the sandstone did not simply disintegrate. Indeed, the cliffs fell away in large boulders and the rocks were later used in the construction of various buildings.
The administration of the island was split between the NSW Department of Prisons and the Public Works Department.
The Penal Colony was abolished upon the construction of the Darlinghurst Gaol. The administration of the penal establishment at Cockatoo Island had received a great deal of criticism as the gaol was overcrowded – at one point 500 prisoners were held on the island in housing fit for about 300.
An Industrial School for Girls and a reformatory for women took over the prison barracks until 1888. The island’s name was changed to Biloela (Aboriginal for cockatoo) in an attempt to give it a new image. In 1908, a new prison was built at Long Bay and this finally brought about the end of a prison at Cockatoo Island. During the period 1871-1911 two wooden sailing ships administered by the Department of Education as Nautical School Ships were moored off the island. They were used as training ships for delinquent and orphaned boys. The sailing ships proved a great success and many of the boys became talented sailors.
It became evident that a new dry dock would be needed to accommodate not only the increasing number but the increasing size of ships arriving at Cockatoo Island for repairs. Louis Samuel, a 23 year-old engineer, won the contract to build the dry dock, called Sutherland Dock. Upon its completion it was the largest dry dock in the world and over the years would require further extensions to accommodate the larger ships of the time. It was completed in 1892. Over the years, activity at the dockyard increased.
The Royal Australian Navy was created on 10 July.
Cockatoo Island was sold to the Commonwealth and became a defence establishment. From this time many naval ships were built and refitted at Cockatoo Island. The first RAN destroyer to be built at Cockatoo Island was completed in 1916.
The war years proved to be an arduous time for the dockyard. Repairs and refitting of warships and other vessels such as merchant cruisers and supply ships were in high demand. Around 250 ships were refitted and over 500 vessels were docked at Cockatoo Island during the war years.