The year was 1839. Thousands of miles from home and only 20 minutes from the shore of Sydney proper, a group of convicts arrived on Cockatoo Island. These weren’t the newbies condemned to the fledgling Australian colony for stealing bolts of cloth; they were the secondary offenders, the ones that took to salvation like a cat baptized in the Parramatta River.
Whatever their infraction (and it didn’t take much to be a serial offender), they were punished with long hours at the Cockatoo Island quarry. Stone by stone, the prisoners built the guardhouse that watched over them and the various other official buildings needed to run an isolated penal colony.
In fact, the prisoners built their own jail and until it was completed they slept in locked wooden boxes. Even less beguiling were the isolation chambers they dug themselves around the Military Guardhouse.
Bill Day, a misunderstood soul, once found himself in an isolation chamber for spearing a fellow inmate with a piece of timber. Years down the road, an official investigation would declare the chambers inhumane, but unfortunately for Bill that hadn’t happened yet. He might have counted himself lucky for receiving any sort of nourishment, but then food had a nasty habit of attracting hordes of giant rats.
“In the morning I found my visitors had gnawed their way through my jacket and carried off every particle of eatables. Also they had eaten through the toes of my boots to gain entrance.”
Because the Sydney Harbour is blessed with deep water that runs right up to the shore, it wasn’t long before convicts began construction on a dock. It took ten years to make and once it was finished the island slowly transitioned into a shipbuilding complex.
By 1913 Cockatoo Island was the dockyard for the Royal Australian Navy and employed about 4,000 men during its peak. Following the fall of Singapore during WWII, the island became the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the South West Pacific and only ceased operation in 1991.
Nowadays Cockatoo Island is World-Heritage-listed and open to the public. It’s also the only place where you can go camping or even glamping (deluxe pre-assembled tents) in the Sydney Harbour. The prices range from $45-$310 and as audacious as that sounds, people claw each other to pay that much to camp there New Year’s Eve.
Yes, the view is that good. However if you are not lucky enough to win a spot for NYE, you can always enjoy the historic walks and the Island Bar year round. I definitely recommend soaking up the view with a pizza and a bucket of drinks, it’s what the convicts would have wanted.
About: The Island Bar