Cockatoo Island Penal Establishment

State Records Authority of New South Wales
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In 1839 owing to orders to discontinue transportation from New South Wales to Norfolk Island, and Lieutenant Governor Franklin’s refusal to receive the transportees in Van Diemen’s Land (1), Governor Gipps formed an establishment on Cockatoo Island for the reception of prisoners removed from Norfolk Island. (2) Gipps saw Cockatoo Island as being secure due to the deep waters surrounding it, and he felt that it was still close enough to Sydney to be under the eye of the authorities. (3) The only form of classification practised on the Island was to separate those recently sentenced in the colony to transportation from those doubly convicted and returned from Norfolk Island, by placing them in separate wards at night. (4) The first Superintendent was Thomas Rawson who was appointed February 1841, but he was replaced by Thomas Ormsby in September of the same year. (5)

Initially the convicts on Cockatoo Island constructed grain silos excavated from the solid sandstone bedrock on the Island. (6) In 1845 Governor Gipps recommended to the British Government that a dry dock be constructed using convict labour to service the visiting vessels of the Royal Navy. (7) In 1847 the NSW Legislative Council approved the plan, and construction commenced in 1851. (8) In the early years the dockyard was administered by the Prison Superintendent, who reported to the Governor through the Colonial Secretary. (9) After self government was granted to the colony in 1856, the Superintendent reported to the Legislative Council and the premier. (10)

At this time a number of complaints about the administration of Cockatoo Island were being made to the Government. As a result in 1858 a Report from the Board of Inquiry into the management of Cockatoo Island concluded that problems on Cockatoo Island arose from the endeavour to combine the two objectives of making the island a penal establishment, and at the same time of employing the convicts on public works projects. (11) The Report also recommended that Superintendent Ormsby be replaced, as he had demonstrated disregard for regulations, and had made improper use of the convict labour. (12) As a result Gother Kerr Mann, who was the Civil Engineer at Cockatoo Island, was appointed Engineer-in-Chief and Superintendent of Cockatoo Island. (13) By 1865 only those convicts sentenced to the Roads or Public Works were imprisoned on the Island. (14)

In July 1869 the Executive Council approved the breaking up of the penal and engineering establishment on Cockatoo Island and the transfer of the prisoners to Darlinghurst Gaol. (15) On 21 October 1869 all the prisoners remaining at Cockatoo Island were removed to Darlinghurst Gaol. (16)

Footnotes and References
(1) Kerr, James Semple, Design for Convicts - An account of design for convict establishments in the Australian Colonies during the transportation era, p.75.
(2) Historical Records of Australia (HRA) 1.20.217.
(3) ibid., p.218.
(4) Kerr, James Semple, op. cit., pp.75-76.
(5) Kerr, James Semple, Cockatoo Island - Penal and Institutional Remains, p.6.
(7) loc. cit.
(8) loc. cit.
(9) loc. cit.
(10) loc. cit.
(11) Votes and Proceedings 1858, Vol. 2, p.243.
(12) loc. cit.
(13) Kerr, James Semple, op. cit., p.7.
(14) ibid, p.5.
(15) Ibid, p.10.
(16) NSW State Archives Guide to Convict Records, p.31.

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