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Bennelong Point

Bennelong Point c1804, Mitchell Library

The Dictionary of Sydney has launched a new tour! Following on from Convict Parramatta, we can now explore Sydney’s harbour islands on our mobile devices, from the Royal Australian Navy base we know as Garden Island in the east, to the prison-turned-dockyard, Cockatoo Island, in the west. I spoke with Mitch about it on 2SER Breakfast this morning.

I am excited to introduce this new tour in the Dictionary of Sydney’s app. I enjoyed writing the content for each of the 13 islands, drawing from the work of several writers and discovering some quirky facts about these wonderful land masses in our picturesque harbour. For example, did you know that there were originally 14 islands, but two were joined together to form Spectacle Island? And in 1904, scavenger boats retrieved a range of dead animals around Goat Island including 2,189 dogs, 1,033 cats, 29 pigs, nine goats and one monkey!

One of my favourite stops is Bennelong Island. Every day, hordes of people walk across Circular Quay to take photographs of one of Australia’s most famous landmarks – the Sydney Opera House. But I’m guessing few people might stop to ponder what was there before it was built. Before the British arrived in 1788, the area was a tidal island separated from the mainland where Cadigal women gathered and collected oysters. After the British arrived, convict women burned discarded oyster shells to make lime for cement mortar. The island became known as Bennelong Island in the 1790s, after Governor Arthur Phillip built a brick hut there for the Wangal man, Bennelong.

Cadet Ron Whelan

Cadet Ron Whelan from the Snapper Island sea training depot, State Library of Victoria

But there were other, perhaps even lesser known, discoveries to be made around our harbour. Snapper Island, for example, which is the smallest island in Sydney Harbour and is located at the mouth of the Parramatta River, was once nicknamed Flea, Rat or Mosquito Island. It was declared a public reserve in 1879. But in 1891, the Sydney Morning Herald described it as a ‘small, rocky, barren islet, whose only office is to supply standing room for sea fowl – some place where they can meet and deliberate’. It wasn’t until 1921, when it was converted into a place for navy cadet training that its reputation changed. The island was actually reshaped to resemble a ship’s plan and layout, and today is a heritage listed site.

Sydney Punch

Water police repel American sailors attempting to break into Biloela 1871, Sydney Punch, State Library of NSW

One stop I’m sure we’ve all heard of is Cockatoo Island. An amazing site, which though today forms the centre of various cultural activities including the Biennale, it was once a prison. It’s the largest of the harbour islands and it is thought the Wangal people used the island to fish from and use its trees to construct nawi or canoes. A prison was built on the island in 1839, and between 1847 and 1857 convicts excavated a dry dock on the island for ship repairs. In 1871, it became a school for orphans and neglected girls as well as a reformatory for girls who had been convicted of crimes. But in the same year it was also a training base for 500 homeless and orphaned boys aboard the ship Vernon, which caused many problems for the school’s administrators, with one claiming:

…three girls came down abreast of the ship in a semi nude state, throwing stones at the windows of workshops – blaspheming dreadfully and conducting themselves more like fiends than human beings, I was compelled to send all our boys onto the lower deck to prevent them viewing such a contaminatory exhibition.

There’s so much more to discover in the tour with the other 10 islands, so you can download the Dictionary of Sydney app for free on the App Store and Google Play. Enjoy!

Vernon nautical training ship

Vernon nautical training ship, c1875, State Library of Queensland

Listen to my segment at 2SER radio. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.