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Convict era

Cockatoo Island provides visitors with a window into Australia’s convict era as it features the nation's only remaining dry dock constructed by convicts as well as buildings and other relics relating to their incarceration.

The island serves as a reminder of the harsh living conditions that convicts endured to support the projects of European colonists in Australia. In 2010, parts of Cockatoo Island were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, along with 10 other historic sites that together form the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. It has also been inscribed on the National Heritage List since August 2007, and other parts of the island are inscribed on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

The solution to London’s prison problem

In the late 18th century, prisons in London were becoming overcrowded as the crime rate rose. The government’s solution to the problem was Australia – the ‘great southern land’.

Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 166,000 adult and child convicts were transported to Australia and dispersed over 3,000 different sites around the country.

In 1839, George Gipps – then the Governor of NSW – advised the Imperial Government that he would establish a new penal colony at Cockatoo Island for re-offending criminals to alleviate overcrowding at Norfolk Island Prison. He reasoned that Cockatoo Island was separated from the main settlement, surrounded by deep water to prevent escape, and that prisoners could be put to work quarrying the island's sandstone for use in the colony's ambitious building projects. 

The hardships of convict life

In 1839, sixty prisoners were transferred from Norfolk Island to Cockatoo Island. Life on Norfolk Island was brutal, but Cockatoo Island offered little reprieve. The prisoners lived in foul-smelling, cramped conditions, and communal wards intended to accommodate no more than 300 prisoners were often occupied by up to 500.

There was little ventilation and the communal tubs used for excrement and urine were often left standing in the halls for hours at a time. The lack of hygiene led to bed bugs, fleas, rats, and disease.

The prisoners were generally given rations of two meals a day, and they paid for their food through the work they had completed. Breakfast was a bland porridge, and dinner was a serving of meat and some bread. If prisoners couldn’t afford a meal, they went to bed hungry.

Compounding these inhumane conditions was the backbreaking work. The convicts excavated tonnes rock to construct their own prison buildings, as well as a cookhouse, mess shed and hospital. They also built granary silos to keep food fresh, and were pivotal to the construction of the historically significant Fitzroy Dock.

Under the rule of Charles Ormsby

Charles Ormsby, the superintendent of Cockatoo Island from 1841 to 1859, was accused of running the island for his own pleasure, and of being a heavy drinker with little regard for regulations. Prisoners’ rations were diverted to his personal stores, and evidence shows that he forced the most able convicts to tend to his gardens and build his house.

One of the most serious allegations against him was his cabbage trading. He apparently used convict labour to grow cabbages on a commercial scale, and sold up to 40,000 cabbages a year to the Sydney Markets for his own profit.

The negligence towards the prisoners led to a Select Committee of Inquiry in 1861. The Inquiry was chaired by Henry Parkes, and inhumane conditions were found. However, no discernible improvements were made.

Frederick Ward: Cockatoo Island escapee

Frederick Ward was a prisoner at Cockatoo Island who had been sentenced in 1856 to sevreal years' hard labour on the island. His alleged crime was receiving stolen horses in a cattle stealing racket.

In 1860, Ward was granted a Ticket of Leave and returned to the mainland. His pardon was conditional on him checking in for muster at the police station every three months. During his prison reprieve, Ward fell in love with an Aboriginal woman, Mary Ann Bugg. When their child was born, Ward missed his regular muster, and turned up after his appointed time on a borrowed horse. This was enough to get him sent back to Cockatoo Island.

Ward was determined to escape his second imprisonment, and in 1863, Bugg swam to the island and left him the tools he needed to break free. Ward and a friend, Fred Britten, escaped the island together, but Britten drowned. Luckily, Ward was able to swim to the shore, where Bugg was waiting with a get-away horse.

In a further show of defiance, Ward became an outlaw after his escape, and was given the moniker of ‘Captain Thunderbolt.’ He was involved in a range of petty crimes until he was shot by police at Uralla in 1870. Ward’s escape from the island and his subsequent crimes were fodder for the media, and upon his death, his corpse was on public display.

The penal settlement closes

In 1869, the penal settlement was closed, concluding the island’s convict era. The island’s prisoners were transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol, and the buildings were repurposed as an industrial school and reformatory for girls from 1871 until 1888.

In 1888, the prison buildings at Cockatoo Island were revived once again to alleviate overcrowding at Darlinghurst Gaol. When the prison buildings were again closed in 1908, 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.

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