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Image caption: Aerial of Cockatoo Island Dockyard, 1944.

The history of Cockatoo Island / Wareamah

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During the 60,000 years prior to European settlement, Cockatoo Island was a meeting place for Sydney’s First Nations peoples, who know it as Wareamah. From the mid-nineteenth century, it was reshaped for different uses.

The island was the site of a convict gaol from 1839 to 1869 and a major shipbuilding and repair facility from 1857 to 1991, and dock workers supported the Allied powers during both World Wars. Additionally, between 1871 and 1911, the island hosted educational institutions for boys and girls. These included an industrial training school for girls, a reformatory for young women and nautical school ships for boys.

The island features heritage objects, landmarks and structures that offer insights into bygone times. Scroll to learn about the different layers to Cockatoo Island’s narrative and become acquainted with historical figures synonymous with the destination.

First Nations

Wareamah is a place of enduring significance for Sydney’s First Nations peoples, who were the first visitors to the island. It connects to the waterways and homelands of the Wallumedegal, Wangal, Cammeraygal and Gadigal peoples. In 2000, an Aboriginal rights group established a camp at Wareamah to support a land claim.

Convict penal establishment

Cockatoo Island’s Convict Site is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with 10 other convict sites nationwide. Remnant structures from the island’s former penal establishment (1839–1869) offer insights into a period when criminal offenders were transported to Australia and put to work on the colony’s building projects.

Educational institutions

In 1871, the former penal establishment was repurposed for an industrial training school for girls and a reformatory for young women. That same year, the Vernon – a nautical school ship for boys – found a new home, moored off the island. The Vernon was later succeeded by a second nautical school ship known as the Sobraon.

Working harbour and industry

Cockatoo Island has a remarkable history as a shipbuilding and ship repair facility, contributing significantly to Australia’s maritime affairs across 134 years. This celebrated era commenced in 1857 with the completion of Fitzroy Dock – the only surviving example of a dry dock built by convicts.

Defence of Australia

In 1913, the island became the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. Due to the First World War, dockyard processes evolved to accommodate an increase in naval activity. During the Second World War, the island served as the main ship repair facility in the Southwest Pacific.


Activism and stewardship

The growth of trade unions in Australia during the early twentieth century can be traced to Cockatoo Island, where dock workers fought for improved conditions. Although the dockyard closed in 1991, the fighting spirit of its workforce was kept alive by activists who lobbied for the former defence site to be returned to the people of Australia.

Heritage accommodation

In 1914, the Naval Board of the Federal Department of Defence approved residences at Cockatoo Island for essential dockyard staff. This development saw the construction of a limited number of residential buildings, including dwellings that survive to this day and are now maintained as holiday accommodation by the Harbour Trust.

Helpful links

Looking to visit, stay at or tour Cockatoo Island? Here are some useful links.