It has been a penal colony, a dockyard, and a major ship-building site. But for a time, it was also the site of an industrial school for girls, a girls’ reformatory, and a training ship to accommodate wayward teenage boys.
In 1869, the penal settlement at Cockatoo Island was closed, and the prisoners were relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol. The prison buildings weren’t vacant for long, however, and were soon repurposed as an industrial school for girls and a separate reformatory.
The industrial school and reformatory became necessary because of the fast-growth of New South Wales cities, and associated problems like poverty and overcrowding. Many men had left their families for the Victorian Gold Rush and the numbers of orphans and juvenile delinquents grew rapidly.
The Government dealt with this by establishing reformatories across the state, including the Newcastle Industrial School for Girls. The Newcastle school was in an inconvenient location, and became known for terrible conditions and frequent rioting.
In 1871, the girls from Newcastle were moved to Cockatoo Island, which had been renamed ‘Biloela’ (Aboriginal for white cockatoo) the previous year. It soon became obvious that this attempt at distancing the island from its image as a prison did not reflect reality.
When the institution was set up, it was split into two parts: the Biloela Public Industrial School for Girls and The Biloela Reformatory. The reformatory was for girls who had broken the law, and the industrial school was meant to be an orphanage. The reality was that the orphaned girls were housed with the petty criminals, leading to unpleasant situations in squalid conditions.
In 1871, a school ship for neglected boys, the Vernon, was docked off the island. The Vernon was an initiative of Henry Parkes, and its function was to teach the boys nautical skills.
The Reformatory and The Vernon operated simultaneously, but were vastly different. The Vernon was run by people who had faith in the idea of reform, but the girls’ reformatory was cruelly mismanaged.
The boys learnt nautical skills, shoe-making and general maths and English, whereas the girls did domestic labour and were often left for hours in their cells with nothing to do.
Other reports show that the girls lapped water from a common trough and were not given cutlery to eat with. Sometimes their beds were taken away as punishment and they slept on the cold floor. This inhumane treatment caused frequent unruliness and rioting, and despite high fences, there were reports of fraternising between the boys and the girls.
Eventually there was a public commission and an investigation took place on the Biloela Industrial School for Girls, the Biloela Reformatory for Girls and the Vernon. From 1880, the Reformatory and Industrial School was split, the girls from the industrial school went to Parramatta Girls Home, and those in the reformatory were sent to Shaftesbury Reform School at Watsons Bay.
The Vernon, on the other hand, stayed moored on the island until 1890 when it was replaced with a second school ship, the Sobraon. The Sobraon continued in the tradition of a school ship until 1911, when it was acquired by the Commonwealth and used by the Royal Navy as a training vessel.
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