Cockatoo Island’s Dark History: From Convicts to Orphans Part 1

Today, Cockatoo Island is a tourist attraction in Australia. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1800’s people came to the island against their will. The island’s early history is as fascinating as the men, women and children who were captive there.

What started as the largest desolate island in the Sydney harbor, Cockatoo Island became the dwelling place of outlaws and criminals in February of 1839. The first 60 men who came weren’t welcome in Norfolk Island or Van Diemen’s Land. Too many convicts were already being held in those locations and Britain needed a new site to house prisoners.

Chosen for its proximity to Sydney and the deep waters surrounding it, Cockatoo Island seemed like the perfect choice. The distance was close enough for the local colonial administration to keep an eye on the men, but far enough away for the safety of Sydney residents. The waters surrounding the island were full of sharks and a deterrent for escape attempts.

Long Sentences for Small Crimes

The men sentenced to confinement on the island were unfortunate souls who had a record of repeated criminal offenses, dubbed the worse of the worst. Sent there for what would be considered minor crimes nowadays, convicts spent many years imprisoned for things like stealing shirts, rabbits, or taking lead. Others lost their freedom for “housebreaking” or fighting. Because they were repeat offenders, their punishments were harsher, and the men viewed as a lost cause – unfit for society.

One such man, Frederick Ward, (Captain Thunderbolt) was sentenced to ten years for trying to drive 45 stolen horses to the sale yard with his partners. He was released on parole after four years, only to return once more.

This time, for being three months late to a muster meeting with officials. He took his lady to her family farm to give birth to their child. When returning, he was caught riding a stolen horse, although the validity of that claim is unsure. Fred later escaped from Cockatoo Island and lived as a bushranger for the rest of his short life.

Hard Labor

When the first sixty men arrived, the island was in its native state, covered with trees and stones. There was no place for the men to take shelter, besides portable tents and temporary prison boxes. Right from the start, the convicts worked long, hard days of forced manual labor.

The first job required of them was making their prison building from the stones on the island. Next, they had to excavate large water tanks by hand. Soon after, the men built underground grain silos from the sandstone bedrock of the isle.

In 1845, the governor suggested to the British government that the convicts build a dry dock for the Royal Navy. The plan was approved, and construction started in 1851. Excavated from solid rock sandstone cliffs standing 45 feet high, the Fitzroy Dock took nine years to complete.

Today, many of these original buildings still exist on the island. You can visit and experience them first-hand. The barracks, guard house, docks, and grain silos are still standing, a testimony to the building skills of the convict crew. See part two of this series to learn more about Cockatoo Island history. Get a glimpse into the misfits, convicts, and orphans that lived there.

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