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Photograph of young boys from training ship “Sobraon”, 1898, source: State Library of New South Wales

Educational institutions

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In 1869, the penal settlement at Cockatoo Island ceased operating and its convicts were transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. After 30 years, the island was no longer a place of incarceration; however, the prison didn’t remain vacant for long.

In 1871, the prison buildings were repurposed for an industrial training school for girls and a separate reformatory for young women. That same year, the Vernon – a nautical school ship for boys – found a new home, moored off the northeast corner of the island.

To distance the island from the stigma attached to the former prison, the authorities renamed it ‘Biloela’. The Reverend William Ridley had suggested the name, which is a First Nations word for cockatoo, to Somerset Lowry-Corry, the Governor of New South Wales.

This exercise in rebranding, however, did not reflect the reality for the girls housed on the island. Their experience was often a cruel contrast to the rights and privileges afforded the boys of the Vernon and its successor, a nautical school ship known as the Sobraon. 

A solution to the youth crisis

The establishment of industrial schools and reformatories in NSW was deemed necessary during the 1860s due to problems associated with population growth in cities, including poverty and overcrowding. Many men had left their families to pursue the gold rushes, and the number of orphans, young vagrants and juvenile delinquents was growing rapidly.

Politician (and future NSW premier) Henry Parkes resolved to reform the legislation regarding vagrant children and juvenile delinquents. Consequently, two acts were passed; namely, the Industrial Schools Act 1866 (aka the Act for the relief of Destitute Children) and the Reformatory Schools Act 1869 (aka the Act to establish Juvenile Reformatories).

Children who committed criminal acts were held in juvenile reformatories. Under the Reformatory Schools Act, any child under the age of 16 who had been convicted of a criminal offence and received a sentence of 14 days or more days in prison, could be sent to a reformatory school for between one and 5 years.

Meanwhile, children who appeared to be 16 years or younger but had not committed any crime, could be detained and admitted to an industrial school if they had engaged in ‘at risk’ behaviour – for example, begging, loitering, sleeping in the open air, and having no lawful accommodation.

Children were most often detained for living and wandering the streets in the company of thieves, prostitutes, or people with no means of support – even if these people were relatives. Parents could not request that their uncontrollable children be sent to an industrial school.

The plight of the Biloela girls

In 1871, the Newcastle Industrial School for Girls closed, and its inhabitants were transferred to Cockatoo Island. The new establishment was divided into two institutions: the Biloela Industrial School for Girls and the Biloela Reformatory.

The reformatory housed girls who had broken the law and the industrial school was for girls who were considered at risk. Although the reformatory and the industrial school were in separate buildings, in practice the girls were not separated. The industrial school usually held up to 120 girls – ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years – and was managed by a superintendent and a matron. By comparison, the number of girls in the reformatory was much smaller.

At the industrial school, the girls were given domestic duties to perform by the matron. Although part of the day was set aside for education, they were not taught by qualified teachers and the curriculum centred on cleanliness, industry, and diligence. They were taught how to cook, do laundry, and perform needlework.

The living conditions were poor at both the industrial school and reformatory, and the girls responded to harsh treatment by engaging in unruly behaviour. An enquiry into rioting by the ‘Biloela girls’ in 1871 revealed head shaving and solitary confinement had been used as forms of disciplinary action. Two years later, the Public Charities Commission identified the use of straitjackets to subdue girls. It was also reported that some girls had visible bruising and that others had been confined, barefoot and semi-clothed, to unlit rooms without furniture, and fed only bread and water.

In 1880, the Biloela Reformatory School was closed and the girls it had housed were transferred to the Shaftesbury Reformatory located at Double Bay. The Biloela Industrial School for Girls closed seven years later, and its inhabitants were transferred to the Roman Catholic Orphan School at Parramatta.

'CORNERED’ (BILOELA FURIES), SYDNEY PUNCH (22 July 1871). From the collection of the National Library of Australia (ISSN 22096744)
The Vernon and Sobraon boys

A vessel christened the Vernon was converted to a nautical school ship for boys in 1867 and found a permanent home, moored off Cockatoo Island, in 1871. The boys were from all over New South Wales, but primarily from Sydney and were between 5 and 16 years of age.

Although some of the ‘Vernon boys’ may have engaged in some petty crimes previously, none were deemed criminals. Indeed, the Captain of the Vernon, Frederick Neitenstein, posited that the Vernon should not be considered a gaol but rather a home for the ‘waifs’ and ‘strays’ of the colony, and that its objective was to prevent at-risk boys from succumbing to criminality.

Consequently, Vernon boys benefited from structured education with qualified teachers and trainers  aboard a well-appointed vessel whereas their less fortunate neighbours, the Biloela girls, were subject to boring and unstimulating tasks in an oppressive prison setting. Further, the boys were rarely subject to corporal punishment. In addition to receiving a general education and being taught nautical skills and trades, the Vernon boys enjoyed activities such as swimming, gardening, rowing, and music. Further, they were afforded apprenticeships, normally four years in duration and often in seafaring positions.

In 1892, the Vernon departed Cockatoo Island and was superseded by a second nautical school ship, christened the Sobraon. Being a larger vessel, the Sobraon was able to accommodate an increased number of boys at Cockatoo Island. By 1896, the Sobraon housed more than 400 boys, and they had access to a piano, a music box, and several pets including an emu.

By 1909, the school ship was winding down and the ‘Sobraon boys’ had begun being transferred to state institutions at Brush Farm and Mittagong. The Sobraon eventually closed in mid-1911. Afterwards, the vessel was towed to Mort’s Dock in Balmain, where it was renamed the ‘Tingira’ and repurposed as a naval training ship. 


  • Kerr, James Semple (1984), Cockatoo Island and Institutional Remains, National Trust of Australia
  • Luke, Sarah (2020) Like a Wicked Noah’s Ark. The Nautical School Ships Vernon & Sobraon. Arcadia, North Melbourne.
  • The Newcastle Industrial School for Girls http://nis.wikidot.com/
  • Williamson, Noeline, (1979) Reform of Repression? Industrial and Reformatory Schools for Girls in New South Wales, 1866-1910. Honours Thesis. University of Newcastle.

Historical people

Meet some of the historical figures associated with Cockatoo Island's educational institutions.

Joseph William Melrose: The Sobraon Boy

One of the boys enrolled with the Sobraon was Joseph William Melrose. In this article, written with the help of Joseph’s surviving family members, we offer insights into his time aboard the Sobraon as well as his later years.

Captain Harris: The Biloela raid stopper

Volunteer researcher Michele Harper shares the story of Captain Harris, an American ship master who literally fought for the women of the reformatory.

Barney Kieran: The Water Wunderkind

Between 1871 and 1911, Cockatoo Island was used to provide boarding and education for wayward or homeless boys and girls. Although many children endured poor treatment, talented swimmer Barney Kieran was one of those who thrived, writes Harbour Trust volunteer Jane W.

George Lucas: Controversial superintendent of Biloela Industrial School

In charge of the treatment of those incarcerated at Biloela were superintendent George Lucas and his wife Mary Ann. Trigger warning: In this article, Harbour Trust volunteer Michele exposes the horrific mistreatment and abuse of the girls, arising from the Lucas appointment at Biloela.

James Gorman: Respected Vernon Officer

From 1871 to 1892, the NSS Vernon – a nautical school ship for at-risk boys – had a permanent mooring at Cockatoo Island. A person charged with supervising and educating the youth who’d been placed aboard the vessel was James Gorman.

Sir Henry Parkes: The Father of Federation

As Harbour Trust volunteer Michele writes, the British expat 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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