The island’s maritime story dates to 1840s, which was a period of heightened economic rivalry between the nations of Europe and the United States in the Pacific. This situation drove the United Kingdom to seek an outpost for maritime activities in the region.
Surrounded by deep water, Cockatoo Island – then a convict gaol – was deemed ideal for this purpose by the Governor for NSW, George Gipps. He successfully argued to the Imperial administration that the island’s convicts could be employed in the construction of a dry dock. Subsequently, Gother Kerr Mann, was hired to design the dock and oversee its construction with convict labour.
Fitzroy and Sutherland Docks
Construction of the dry dock began in September 1848. It was anticipated the dock would take only 470 days to complete; however, it would not be completed for nearly a decade as the convict labourers were unruly and poorly treated. In 1854, midway through the dock’s lengthy construction phase, it was christened Fitzroy Dock to honour Charles Fitzroy, who had superseded Gipps as Governor of NSW.
On 1 December 1857, Fitzroy Dock accepted its first vessel, the HM Surveying Brig Herald, signalling the end of its drawn-out construction. Until the 1860s, the dock was used exclusively for the British Navy and, from 1870, shipbuilding was undertaken on the island. It is both the earliest graving dock commenced in Australia and the only surviving example, nationally, of a dry dock constructed by convicts.
For a time, Fitzroy Dock was – alongside Mort's Woolwich dock and the ASN works in Pyrmont – one of the most important dry docks in the country. In 1882, however, construction began on a second dock, to enable the island to accommodate larger naval and merchant ships. Christened Sutherland Dock, it was completed in 1889, and shipbuilding and repair activities on Cockatoo Island grew steadily from this point.
Royal Australian Navy
By 1913, the island had become the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. Due to the First World War, dockyard processes evolved to accommodate an increase in naval activity. Later, during the Second World War, the island served as the main ship repair facility in the Southwest Pacific. For further information on shipyard activities during both World Wars, see: Defence of Australia.
The end of an era
Following the Second World War, shipbuilding continued at Cockatoo Island. This included the construction of the Empress of Australia, the largest roll-on roll-off cargo passenger ship in the world. However, the 1960s saw an increase in international competition, and by the 1970s, shipbuilding on the island had sharply declined and the dockyard’s principal role was the refit and maintenance of submarines.
The last ship to be constructed on the island was HMAS Success, which launched in 1984. It was the largest naval vessel built in Australia and could be seen on the harbour until 29 June 2019 when it was decommissioned.
In 1989, the Department of Defence invited formal expressions of interest for the sale of Cockatoo Island. The Cockatoo Island Dockyard shop committee, which represented 13 unions, responded with a strike and an occupation of the island. The dispute was resolved after 14 weeks, and the last project was the refit of the submarine HMAS Orion. Towards the end of 1991, the dockyard was officially shut down. For more information on the role of unions during Cockatoo Island’s maritime era, see: Activism and stewardship.
In 1998, the Federal Government announced it would establish the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (Harbour Trust) to rehabilitate prominent former Defence sites on Sydney Harbour, including Cockatoo Island, and return them to the people of Australia. The Harbour Trust formally commenced in September 2001 and, by 2007, it had concluded extensive remediation works at Cockatoo Island and opened it to the public.
The Harbour Trust continues to pursue ways to amplify the island’s maritime heritage, and visitors can discover historic landmarks and other remnants from the island’s dockyard. These include Fitzroy and Sutherland Docks as well as the Powerhouse, the buildings that comprise the Ship Design and Industrial Precincts and a set of 17 historic cranes.