Shipbuilding was undertaken from 1870 and, in 1913, the island became the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. During World War I, the dockyard facilities were expanded to facilitate increased naval activity and, during World War II, the dockyard became the main ship repair facility in the Southwest Pacific. During the dockyard’s final 20 years, its principal role was the refit and maintenance of submarines.
During the 19th century, there was an increase in rivalry between European nations and the United States, and this meant that Britain needed an outpost for building and repairing ships in the Pacific. The Governor of NSW, George Gipps, argued that Cockatoo Island, with its supply of convict labour, was the ideal location. He was granted permission by the Imperial Administration and soon the Fitzroy Dock was commissioned and designed by Gother Kerr Mann, the island’s Directing Engineer.
Construction of the dock began in 1848, and was only meant to take 470 days to build. It ended up taking nine years due to unruliness and unrest amongst the poorly treated convict workforce.
Eventually, Fitzroy Dock was completed and accepted its first vessel, the HM Surveying Brig Herald, on 1 December 1857. The dock was used exclusively for the British Navy until the 1860s.
Despite Fitzroy Dock being the third most important dry dock in the country after Mort's Woolwich dock and the ASN works in Pyrmont, it soon became clear it wasn’t large enough to accommodate the largest ships in the navy and merchant services.
In 1882, construction work began on a new dock, and 1889, the Sutherland Dock was complete. For a short time, it was the largest single graving dock in the world, and shipbuilding and repair activities on Cockatoo Island grew steadily from this point.
When the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was formed in 1911, a naval dockyard was needed to service their fleet. In 1913, the Commonwealth Government bought the freehold title to Cockatoo Island for £96,500. They paid an additional £350,000 for the Sutherland and Fitzroy Docks and another £400,000 for the buildings, workshops, houses and equipment.
Despite this huge sum, the dockyards were disorganised, there was no continuous power supply, and there was a shortage of skilled workers. However, with the advent of World War I, there was high demand on the dockyard, and processes had to evolve to accommodate the increase in naval activity.
When HMAS Huon was built on the island in 1916, it represented the first modern warship to be wholly completed in Australia. During World War I, nearly 2000 ships docked on Cockatoo Island, and the workforce rose to 4085 by 1919. However, the utility of the island was questioned after World War I ended. A Royal Commission was held about whether the Cockatoo Island Dockyards should remain open. The consensus was ‘yes’, and in 1933, the shipbuilding and repair facilities were leased to a private company, Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co.
On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australia was at war, and Cockatoo Island once again rose in importance.
By 1941, Japan had entered the war, and the Pacific was the stage for much naval war activity. After the fall of Singapore, Cockatoo Island became the only dockyard in the south west Pacific where major repairs could be carried out.
At the height of World War II, 400 people were employed on the island. Australian, US and British ships were coming to Cockatoo Island for conversion and repairs, and some of these ships arrived heavily damaged.
During World War II, there were major repairs on 15 US ships, nine British ships, and 11 Australian ships. By the end of the war, 250 ships had been repaired on Cockatoo Island and 750 ships had docked there.
After World War II, shipbuilding continued on Cockatoo Island, including 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.
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 Commonwealth Government announced that it would not be awarding a contract for a second supply ship to Cockatoo Island.
In response to the imminent end of dockyard, the workers on the island went on strike. The strike 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.
After extensive remediation works, Cockatoo Island was opened to the public in 2007. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust continues to actively rehabilitate the island, and the site has been reimagined in the public eye as a major cultural precinct.