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Industrial schools and reformatory (1871 to 1911)

In 1869, the penal establishment at Cockatoo Island ceased operating and its convicts were transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. After thirty years, the island was no longer a place of incarceration; however, the prison didn’t remain vacant for long…

In 1871, the prison buildings were repurposed for an industrial training school for girls and a separate reformatory for young women. That same year, the Vernon – a Nautical School Ship for homeless and orphaned boys – found a new home, moored off the northeast corner of the island.

To distance the island from the stigma attached to the former prison, it was renamed ‘Biloela’ – a North Queensland Aboriginal word for Cockatoo. Unfortunately, in the case of some of the island’s young wards, this exercise in rebranding did not reflect their reality.

Industrial school and reformatory for girls

The establishment of industrial schools and reformatories in NSW was deemed necessary due to problems associated with population growth in cities including 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 school at Newcastle was in an inconvenient location and became known for terrible conditions. Following frequent rioting, the girls were moved to a new institution at Cockatoo island in 1871.

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.

The Nautical School Ships Vernon and Sobraon

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 1892 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.