Cockatoo Island’s heritage buildings and distinctive terrain offer insights into the complex and layered history of this former convict penal establishment, naval ship dockyard, industrial school for girls, and reformatory. The island also has strong continued ties to the First Nations, having served as a meeting place for the Eora People prior to colonisation.
With ample evidence of Aboriginal inhabitation on the surrounding and opposite shores of Cockatoo Island, it’s likely that the first visitors to the island were the Eora people. Prior to European settlement, the Eora would have travelled to the island and used it for fishing, hunting, and women’s ceremonial purposes.
Cockatoo Island became a penal establishment in 1839. For the prisoners, life on the island was cruel, but their efforts were crucial to the ambitious building projects of the new colony. The island is still seen as one of the best surviving examples of convict transportation and forced labour and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
From 1871 to 1880, Cockatoo island was the site of an industrial school and reformatory for girls. These institutions were set up to deal with orphans and juvenile delinquents but were badly mismanaged. Conversely, a successful, well-kept training ship for boys was moored nearby as a juxtaposition to the treatment of the young women.
Cockatoo Island’s pivotal role in Australia’s industrial and maritime history began with a large dry dock that was completed in 1857. Many years of onsite shipbuilding followed, and in 1913, the island was the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. During WWII, the island was the main ship repairing facility in the southwest Pacific, with around 250 ships converted or repaired.
The growth of trade unions in Australia was largely due to the workers at Cockatoo Island. These workers fought for improved working conditions that led to reforms across the country. Although the island was shut and the workers left in 1991, the spirit of island came alive through activists, whose efforts were key in ensuring the site remained public.