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Cockatoo Island's Convict Precinct Courtyard.

Convict penal establishment

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5 min read
Cockatoo Island wasn’t always a beloved getaway on Sydney Harbour. From 1839 to 1869, it operated as a penal establishment, where convicts endured harsh living conditions and backbreaking work. Today, the island’s remnant convict structures provide visitors with a window into an era when people were exiled to Australia and put to work on the colony’s ambitious building projects.

These structures include Fitzroy Dock – both the earliest graving dock commenced in Australia and the only surviving example, nationally, of a dry dock constructed by convicts. Other landmarks from this period are Cockatoo Island’s Guardhouse, Mess Hall, Solitary Confinement Cells, Grain Silos and Biloela House, all constructed from sandstone quarried by convicts.

On 31 July 2010, Cockatoo Island Convict Site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with 10 other heritage sites nationwide. Collectively known as the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property, these sites feature outstanding examples of convict era structures. The island has also been inscribed on the National Heritage List since August 2007, and several of its convict structures are included on the Commonwealth Heritage List. Since 2001, the Harbour Trust has sought to deliver heritage conservation works and public programs that reveal and amplify the island’s convict legacy.

The solution to London’s prison problem

In the late 18th century, London’s prison system came under strain as the crime rate rose. To reduce congestion and deter criminal behaviour, the British Government resolved to send convicts to the ‘Great Southern Land’. Between 1787 and 1868, approximately 166,000 convicts – men, women and children – were transported to Australia and dispersed across 3,000 different sites nationally; however, convict transportation to NSW ended in 1840. Although most arrived from Britain, several thousands were sent from Canada, America, Bermuda, and other British colonies.

In early 1839, the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, advised the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies that he would establish a penal colony at Cockatoo Island for re-offending male criminals to alleviate overcrowding at Norfolk Island Prison. He reasoned that Cockatoo Island was surrounded by deep water to prevent escape but was easily accessible from the main settlement, meaning prisoners could be easily supervised by the colonial administration.

On 21 February, that same year, Cockatoo Island received an initial contingent of sixty convicts from Norfolk Island. They arrived under military escort and were initially housed in tents. At the time, the island was described as “without water and... abound with snakes”. Before long, the newly arrived convicts were put to work quarrying the island’s sandstone for use in the construction of prison buildings as well as public works, including Sydney’s Semi-Circular Quay.

As the island had no naturally occurring supply of drinking water, the convicts manually excavated large water tanks into the sandstone plateau. Controversially, convict labour was also used to excavate approximately twenty grain silos between 1839 and 1841. Governor Gipps reasoned that storing surplus wheat at Cockatoo Island would safeguard the colony against future grain shortages. The British Government disagreed, claiming unnecessary interference in the free market, and ordered the grain released for sale. How many silos survive from the convict era is not known. It is believed some are concealed under asphalt near Biloela House. Others were destroyed to support the expansion of the island’s ship repair facilities during World War II.

Charles Ormsby and Gother Kerr Mann

On 1 October 1841, Charles Ormsby became Superintendent of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment. His appointment, by Gipps, was controversial due to his recent suspension from the administration of another gaol. Ormsby’s brief tenure as Norfolk Island’s Assistant Superintendent and Magistrate concluded after he stood trial for arranging the culling of sheep by convicts. Although acquitted of the charges, Ormsby was found morally guilty by the Governor of Norfolk Island.

As Cockatoo Island’s superintendent, Ormsby oversaw the construction of solitary confinement cells and employed leg irons and the cat-of-nine-tails to keep convicts in line. He also gained a reputation for treating the island as his personal fiefdom. In 1849, he was reprimanded for running private enterprises from the island. This included keeping pigs, poultry and goats, fed from prisoner rations, and using convict labour to grow cabbages. In addition to pork and eggs, he had been selling up to 40,000 cabbages per year.

Ormsby continued as Superintendent until being ousted in 1859. By this time, there had been five inquiries into his management of Cockatoo Island. The final inquiry, in 1858, revealed widespread corruption and illegal undertakings. These included the pervasiveness of alcohol and other contraband, convict boxing matches, and the poor discipline of prisoners.

Ormsby was succeeded as Superintendent by Gother Kerr Mann, one of Australia's foremost engineers during the 19th century. Mann had served as the island’s Engineer in Chief since 1847. In that role, he had been responsible for designing all civil and corrective buildings on the Island. Mann had also designed and overseen the construction of Fitzroy Dock. The completion of this graving dock in 1857, following ten years of construction, signalled the beginning of Cockatoo Island's storied maritime era (1857 to 1991).

During the 1850s, the island’s dual use as a prison and a dockyard led to management conflict between Mann and Ormsby. Mann’s promotion to superintendent effectively resolved this issue as he became solely responsible for every aspect of island life. Mann continued to run Cockatoo Island until his retirement in 1870, a year on from the penal establishment’s closure.

The legendary escape of Frederick Ward

Cockatoo Island’s most infamous convict is arguably Frederick Ward. In 1856, he was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour on the island for moving stolen horses. Four years into his sentence, Ward was released from Cockatoo Island, having received a ticket-of-leave for good behaviour. His pardon was conditional on him checking in for muster at the police station in Mudgee every three months.

Soon after his release, Ward fell in love with and married Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg. Later, he accompanied Bugg to her father’s farm near Dungog for the birth of their child. In doing so, he missed his muster. Consequently, Ward’s ticket-of-leave was revoked and, owing to changes to the penal regulations in 1863, he was required to serve out the remaining six years of his sentence. For attending muster on a ‘borrowed’ horse, Ward’s sentence was extended by three years.

On 11 September 1863, Ward cemented his place in Australian folklore when he escaped Cockatoo Island with fellow convict, Fred Britten. According to one legend, Bugg was instrumental in this feat. Namely, she swam to the island from Balmain and left a file for Ward and Britten to remove their chains. After a swim through shark-infested waters, Ward made it to shore where Bugg was waiting with a horse and they rode to freedom. Ward subsequently gained notoriety as the outlaw Captain Thunderbolt and embarked on a bushranging spree that culminated in his death in 1870.

The conditions endured by convicts

Cockatoo Island’s convicts lived in a cramped, poorly ventilated, and foul-smelling quarters. Wards intended to accommodate up to 300 prisoners were, at times, occupied by nearly 500. Further, the communal tubs that functioned as toilets were often left standing for hours. This lack of hygiene led to bed bugs, fleas, rats, and disease. On top of this, convicts were required to complete backbreaking work, such as excavating sandstone, to earn two meals a day. Breakfast was a serving of bland porridge, and dinner consisted of meat and bread. If a convict didn’t complete their work, they went to bed hungry.

On 1 June 1858, new regulations came into effect, making it mandatory for prisoners convicted from that date to work the entire period of their probation to qualify for tickets-of-leave. Consequently, some prisoners gained nothing by their work while others could earn remission. This situation led to insubordination amongst convicts and, by the end of 1860, many refused to work.

Subsequently, Cockatoo Island was subject to an investigation by a Select Committee into the public prisons of Sydney in 1861. Chaired by Henry Parks, the inquiry brought to light the appalling prison conditions as well as the grievances convicts had about the 1858 regulations. Despite the committee’s unfavourable assessment of the penal establishment, no discernible improvements were made.

The prison’s closure and revival

In the years leading up to the closure of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment in 1869, the prisoner population declined significantly. When the penal establishment ceased operating, the remaining prisoners were transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol; however, Cockatoo Island’s prison buildings weren’t vacant for long. In 1871, they were repurposed for an industrial school for girls and a separate reformatory.

In 1888, the former prison buildings at Cockatoo Island reverted to housing criminals to alleviate overcrowding at Darlinghurst Gaol. By the time of the prison’s closure in 1908, it housed only female prisoners. When all remaining prisoners were relocated to Little Bay, that year, the island’s function as a gaol ended for good.

[Note: The video on this page was produced by the Australian Convict Sites Steering Committee and is reproduced here with their permission.]

Want to learn more?

Read the Australian Convict Sites - World Heritage Property Booklet which tells the story of the convict sites, including Cockatoo Island, that make up the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. 



Historical people

Meet some of the historical figures associated with Cockatoo Island's convict era.

Sir George Gipps: Ninth Governor of NSW

During his eight-year term as the Governor of New South Wales (1838-1846), Sir George Gipps withstood criticism and took a stand against ‘squattocracy’. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a prison at Cockatoo Island. 

Charles Ormsby: The Convict King

During his nearly two-decade reign as Cockatoo Island’s Superintendent (1841 to 1859), Charles Ormsby gained a reputation for his willingness to bend the prison system to his will. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper canvasses the colourful life of the enterprising Irish expat and prolific cabbage farmer – arguably the most controversial figure from the island’s convict era.

Gother Kerr Mann: Colonial engineer

One of the nation’s foremost engineers during the 19th century, Gother Kerr Mann played an instrumental role in the development of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment. Today, the remnant convict structures, including Fitzroy Dock, are a testament to his enduring impact.

Captain Thunderbolt: Legendary bushranger

The most famous figure from Cockatoo Island’s convict era (1839 to 1869) is arguably Frederick Wordsworth Ward. A convicted horse thief, Ward cemented his place in Australian folklore when he escaped Cockatoo Island and embarked on a bushranging spree that culminated in his death.

Mary Ann Bugg: Breakout mastermind

As the old saying goes, ‘behind every great man is a great woman’; however, in the case of bushranger Fredrick Ward and his First Nations wife Mary Ann Bugg, it could be argued the latter was always a few steps ahead. Here, Harbour Trust volunteer Karyn Johnson makes a case for why Bugg is entitled to a fairer share of her husband’s thunder.

Sir Henry Parkes: The Father of Federation

As Harbour Trust volunteer Michele writes, Sir Henry Parkes was instrumental in exposing the mismanagement of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment and paving the way for at-risk boys to receive education aboard nautical school ships, including vessels moored off the island.

Helpful links

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