Cockatoo Island’s Dark History: From Convicts to Orphans Part 2

In part two of our article about the dark history of Cockatoo Island, you’ll learn how it shifted from a place of confinement for men to that of children. The careless regard for the lives of the convicts led to investigations of caretakers, overseers and medical professionals that lived and worked on the island. The consequences brought about a complete change.

Brutality and Mistreatment of Convicts

The island eventually gained a reputation as a brutal and hopeless place to be. The convicts lived in extremely harsh and overcrowded conditions. Sickness was a regular occurrence for the men, while snakes and rats were commonplace among them. They slept in barely ventilated rooms on three-high bunk beds. Stories say that breathing at night in such hen cages was torture in itself, leaving many gasping for breath while they slept.

The prison caretakers punished men who had a strong will by throwing them in solitary confinement. It became a regular practice at the prison. Solitary confinement meant sitting in a narrow hole in the ground, scooped out of solid rock, with a flagstone rolled over it; essentially an underground tomb. Captain Thunderbolt, mentioned in part one of this article, was sentenced to 21 days in the hole for trying to escape the first time.

The Death of Daniel Dunmore

On one occasion, a gravely ill convict named Daniel Dunmore was tied to a rock in an outlying area of the island for three consecutive days during stormy March weather. His diagnose of inflammation of the lungs caused severe chest pains and he was coughing up blood. He requested to stay in the hospital, but the medical official denied him.

Sent to sit on the hill with other men exempt from working meant exposure to cold, wet conditions. Not exactly how someone in his state should have been treated. When he died because of it on the night of the third day, those in charge didn’t bat an eye.

Rumors say that Daniel had plans to escape by swimming across the shark-infested waters. He evidently shared his idea with the wrong person.

Had prison officials found out and decided his punishment? Or was it just fate?

Daniel was only 21 years old.

This type of continual maltreatment eventually led to the closing of Cockatoo Island Penitentiary. Due to reports of cruelty and abuse, on October 21, 1869, all remaining prisoners were relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol. Although, nearly twenty years later the island would once again become a prison for men and women. But first, it became a place of confinement for children.

Rebellious Youth and Orphans

In 1871, the island was turned into a reform school for rebellious girls and a place to send innocent orphans. Officials didn’t want the prison stigma associated with their new operation for the young, so the establishment was renamed Biloela.

The prison building was converted to a reform school for troubled female youth on one half and a place for little orphan girls on the other. Unfortunately, the orphans and the criminals got mixed together. Biloela Reformatory and the Industrial School for Girls were both an equally cruel place for children.

It was ran by a man known for his cruelty, George Lucas, who ruled without kindness and with much violence. Living in convict cells, they weren’t allowed to use eating utensils with meals and lapped water from a shared trough like dogs. On at least one occasion their beds were taken away, and they were forced to sleep on the damp, cold, stone floor.

Girls that refused the superintendents orders were thrown into the solitary confinement cells that once served as punishment for convicts. Many times, they remained in solitary confinement for weeks. Once again, like the prison before it, the building and its operations were investigated by royal officials and shut down.

Cockatoo Island was created by, and for, the outcasts of society. Its story is both fascinating and sad. We can only learn from the history and hope never to repeat those same mistakes. Educational activities, such as Cockatoo Island convict tour, or even a profound dig into the infamous past allows us to experience the untold truth first-hand.

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