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Cockatoo Island's history

Cockatoo Island has strong continued ties to the First Nations, having served as a meeting place for the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the region prior to colonisation.

Meanwhile, the heritage buildings and distinctive terrain offer insights into the complex and layered history of the island's former convict penal establishment, naval ship dockyard, industrial school for girls and reformatory.

First Nations

Cockatoo Island intersects the homelands of the Wallumedegal, Wangal, Cammeraygal and Gadigal Peoples who know it as Wareamah. With ample evidence of Aboriginal inhabitation on the surrounding and opposite shores, the first visitors to the island were the First Nations Peoples of Sydney.

Image: Diramu Aboriginal Dance and Didgeridoo, Smoking Ceremony, Sunset Sessions Special: Live Music for National Reconciliation Week 2019


Convict era

Cockatoo Island became a penal establishment in 1839. For the prisoners, life on the island was cruel, but their efforts were crucial to the ambitious building projects of the new colony. The island is still seen as one of the best surviving examples of convict transportation and forced labour and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Convict Precinct Cockatoo Island Sydney Harbour 650x550.jpg

Reform School

From 1871 to 1880, Cockatoo island was the site of an industrial school and reformatory for girls. These institutions were set up to deal with orphans and juvenile delinquents but were badly mismanaged. Conversely, a successful, well-kept training ship for boys was moored nearby as a juxtaposition to the treatment of the young women.


Maritime era

Cockatoo Island’s pivotal role in Australia’s industrial and maritime history began with a large dry dock that was completed in 1857. Many years of onsite shipbuilding followed, and in 1913, the island was the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. During WWII, the island was the main ship repairing facility in the southwest Pacific, with around 250 ships converted or repaired.


Activism and stewardship

The growth of trade unions in Australia was largely due to the workers at Cockatoo Island. These workers fought for improved working conditions that led to reforms across the country. Although the island was shut and the workers left in 1991, their fighting spirit was maintained by activists, whose efforts were key in ensuring the site remained public.



Meet the famous, infamous and not-so-famous people linked with Cockatoo Island and other Harbour Trust sites...

Read informative articles, written by our community of knowledgeable volunteers, acquainting you with notable and obscure historical figures including Captain Thunderbolt, Charles Ormsby and more. 

Image caption: Illustration of Cockatoo Island, Circa 1843, John Skinner Prout, National Library of Australia