Inside the Collection

Cockatoo Island: From industry to art

Photograph of Cockatoo Island', Kerry and Co, Sydney, Australia, c. 1884-1917
Looking across to Cockatoo Island’, Kerry and Co, Sydney, Australia, c. 1884-1917. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This image from the Museum’s Kerry and Co collection shows Cockatoo Island in the late 1800s. Now one of the venues for the Sydney Biennale, the island has had a diverse past, as a home to convicts, ship builders and now artists.

Cockatoo Island is now a world heritage site and is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. It’s located at the intersection of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers.

In 1839 the Cockatoo Island was a prison colony, it was bare and rocky and the inmates built their own gaol using the sandstone of the island. The islands only successful escapee was bushranger Captain Thunderbolt (Fred Ward), who escaped on 19th September 1863.

As well as a gaol the island has been a graving dock (a large dock from which water can be pumped out so ships can be built or repaired below the waterline), a site for reformatory and industrial schools, and a major shipbuilding and heavy machinery site.

It was in the the twentieth century that Cockatoo Island became one of Australia’s most important industrial sites. It built, repaired and modified ships, manufactured innovative machinery and employed thousands of men and women. During this time many specialist buildings and workshops were built on the island, many of which remain today like the Turbine Shop  and the Mould Loft.

Photograph of Imperial Squadron in dry dock on Cockatoo Island
2008/165/1-9 Glass plate negative , HMS Curacoa of Imperial Squadron in dry dock on Cockatoo Island photographer possibly Arthur Phillips, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1900. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

2008/165/1-9 Glass plate negative , HMS Curacoa of Imperial Squadron in dry dock on Cockatoo Island photographer possibly Arthur Phillips, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1900. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.This black and white glass plate negative HMS Curacoa of Imperial Squadron in either the Fitzroy or Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island.

Photograph of Balmain from Cockatoo Island
85/1285-159 Glass negative, full plate, ‘Balmain from Cockatoo Island, Sydney’, Henry King, Sydney, Australia, c. 1880-1900. Collection Powerhouse Museum.

The Museum has some remnants from the islands industrial past like these workplace signs.

Photograph of Instructional sign Cockatoo island - How to use the telephone at Cockatoo island
How to use the telephone at Cockatoo island
Photograph of Instructional sign Cockatoo island
Instructional sign Cockatoo island. Collection Powerhouse Museum. 85/1285-159 Glass negative, full plate, ‘Balmain from Cockatoo Island, Sydney’, Henry King, Sydney, Australia, c. 1880-1900

Since 2005 the island has been the site for many art events including a set for the filming of Wolverine and since 2008 Sydney’s Biennale where art mingles with industrial heritage and seagulls.

Written by Anni Turnbull, curator

5 responses to “Cockatoo Island: From industry to art

Leave a Reply to emmajapan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *