Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is in Sydney Harbour, 10 km. from the Sydney Heads and 4 km. west of the Harbour Bridge. It faces Balmain and Hunters Hill and its area is 18 ha.

In 1839 excavations were made in the Island’s sandstone for the construction of wheat silos. The stone was also hewn for building works such as the Circular Quay wharf, and over the years the elevations of the island was reduced by about three metres. The island’s area was also increased by about one-third to its present size. In 1839 a penal establishment wa placed there.

Nautical activities gradually displaced the prison, which closed in 1908. In 1857 the Fitzroy dry dock was built, and the Sutherland dry dock in 1890. Workshops for the building and repair of ships were also established. The New South Wales Government installed and added to engine shops, slipways and cranes between 1904 and 1908, and the Commonwealth Navy placed contracts there for ship building. In 1913 the Commonwealth Government took over Cockatoo Island as a defence establishment.

The first world war brought more work, including repairs to submarines. The workforce in 1915 totalled 2,800, of whom 1,550 were in the shipyard. In 1920 it was nearly 3,300. Later during the 1920s ship-building work declined, and by 1933 the workforce was about 300. A court judgement had greatly restricted the Government’s scope to take in private work, so the dockyards was leased to the Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Company Ltd.

The onset of the second world war brought ship-building in addition to repair work, and reconditioning became a major work in the post war years. Vickers Limited obtained a majority shareholding in the lessee company in 1947. In 1962 the world’s largest roll-on, roll-off merchant ship, Empress of Australia (12,037 gross tons), was built at Cockatoo Island. The dockyard continued to be the sole submarine refitting site in Australia.

In 1976 the dockyard was overlooked when tenders were called for the building of naval destroyers, but the workforce stood at 2,250 with 400 apprentices. In 1987 the Commonwealth Government concluded the lease of the dockyards, which was closed down in 1992.

Further Reading:

  • Parker, R.G., “Cockatoo Island”, Nelson, 1977.
  • Stringer, Michael, “Sydney Harbour”, pages 116-130, J.M.O. Stringer and Co., 1984.