Cockatoo Island page 3

Convicts and transportation


Sydney Morning Herald July 6th 1852

Inquest details

—An inquest was held yesterday at Cockatoo Island upon the bodies of James Holloway, Daniel Torpay, and John Williams, who met their deaths on Monday morning, whilst engaged in removing wheat from one of the silos in the Island. The jury returned the following verdict: “We find that the deceased came to their deaths by the accidental inhalation of noxious gas, and we desire to express our sense of the praiseworthy conduct of the several prisoners who exerted themselves in endeavoring to save the unfortunate deceased.”—

Maitland Mercury Oct 3 1853

Grain silos

SILO WHEAT. The authorities have determined upon selling a great quantity of wheat, which has been underground in the silos at Cockatoo Island for many years, to the Sydney millers. About a year ago a similar attempt was made to throw the article into the market, but very wet weather interfered with the operations, and three of the men serving sentences of hard labour on the island lost their lives through the foul air. As the Government has come to the determination to empty the silos, it is very probable that a temporary reduction of the price of wheat and bread will ensue.-Herald, 31 of October.

Escape from island – an observation

NB Escape from Cockatoo Island was rare. The prisoners were confined to Barracks at night and carefully supervised during the day. The public was prohibited from landing on the Island.
Frederick Ward escaped in September 1863 when, with another prisoner, he slipped into the supposedly shark-infested waters and swam towards Balmain. His companion drowned however Ward made it ashore where, aided by his Aboriginal wide Mary Anne Bugg, he absconded to the bush. Taking the name Thunderbolt he terrorized the New England district until shot dead by police in 1870. WF

Mr Inspector Lane…. Who has been in charge of the police on the Island for the last 13 months, says he has paid much attention to the condition of the prisoners at night. He has seen them at the iron gratings gasping for fresh air from without and he ‘wonders how they live’. The brutalizing effect upon the prisoners is admitted by all, and it is described by some as terrible in depravity. Crimes of the deepest dye are committed.

1861 Report of the NSW Legislative Assembly’s Select Committee on Public Prisons in Sydney.

NB: nothing changed despite the Report – until, in 1869, the prison was closed and inmates transferred to Darlinghurst Gaol.

Louis Becke, writer, recalling the Cockatoo Island of his boyhood, 1899.

A personal memory

“As a lad of ten years of age , I well remember the place with its gloomy prison buildings perched high upon its treeless sides, the ever-pacing, red-coated sentries, the sonorous clang of the prison bell, and the long lines of wretched convicts marching to and from their toil in the dry dock or among the sandstone quarries.”

Sydney Evening news, 1891.

Gruesome memory of Island William Derrincourt, prisoner.
(Swan was a stonemason at Cockatoo Island Prison).

“I saw Swan sitting in a recess….. I thought it a grand opportunity for settling old scores with my tormentor. Walking quickly to where he was I sprang at him, seizing him by the two ears, and in a death-like grasp, with the full strength of my powerful arms, dashed his head against the stone wall. The blood spouted in torrents from his mouth and nostrils. I dragged him forward, and, as a finisher, dealt him an upper cut under the chin, almost breaking his jaw.”

Cockatoo Island/Book:
Biloela and Vernon report

The prison complex was soon put to other uses. In 1871, an industrial
School for Girls and a separate reformatory took up residence following
riots in Newcastle where the two institutions were previously located and
incompetently managed. The Industrial School housed orphans and
neglected girls while the Reformatory incarcerated girls convicted of

In the same year, an old ship Vernon was anchored off the north-east corner of the Island as a training shop for up to 6500 homeless or orphaned boys for the next 40 years. Vernon 1871-1890 and her successor Sobraon (1891-1911) taught boys trades such as tailoring, carpentry, shoe and sail making as well as nautical skills such as compass, lead line, sail drill, reefing, splicing and rowing.

The Argus Sept 1871.

Biloela fire

A girl in the Industrial School at Biloela Island has been committed for
trial on a charge of attempting to burn down one of the rooms in the
institution. Mary Meehan

The Argus 29 Sept 1871

Female prisoners and treatment

When the viragoes formerly domiciled at Newcastle were housed on Cockatoo Island, it was thought that they would be beyond that kind of public notice which tended to disorder, but the contrary is the fact. On Sundays, numbers of boats pass near the island, and it is found that the place is not so secluded as would be desirable. One of the inmates of Biloela (native name for Cockatoo), as that part of the island is called, endeavored to escape by burning the door of her apartment. She has since been committed for trial. The old barracks at Newcastle, in which these depraved girls were formerly kept, is to be converted into a temporary lunatic asylum. About 160 persons are to be sent immediately-adults suffering from chronic dementia, and idiotic children, Our public asylums are dreadfully overcrowded, and will remain so when the draught has been made to Newcastle, and yet the Government have removed a number of patients from the private asylum of Mr. Tucker, at Cook’s River (which is perfect in all its arrangements, and has many beds vacant), and returned them to their old quarters in the Government buildings, where the difficulty is to know how to accommodate them. The people of Newcastle are very irate at the barracks being turned into a lunatic asylum, and a sort of indignation meeting, at which some very curious opinions were expressed, was held a few days ago. One of the speakers objected to the arrangement because he regarded it as likely to develop lunacy in some of the inhabitants who might be “slightly tainted;” and a reverend gentleman caused some scandal by speaking of the location of these unfortunate people at Newcastle as “a nuisance.” Weighty reasons were given to show that the place was unsuitable for the purposes of a lunatic asylum, On the other hand it was urged that good order would be preserved inside, perhaps better order than that which prevailed “among the incurables outside.” Representations have been made to the Government in the hope that the intention to send 200 lunatics to the Newcastle barracks would be abandoned. The Colonial Secretary has replied to the effect that the persons to be sent would be rated imbeciles and idiots than lunatics, and consequently not so objectionable as ordinary lunatics might be.

The Argus Dec 19 1871

Rape of female prisoners by visiting American sailors

About 20 seamen from the U.S. war steamer St. Mary’s left their ship at Biloela Dock on Saturday night, and proceeded in a body to the Female Reformatory. Captain Harris, having received information of the intended outrage, speedily gave the alarm, and sent his officers in pursuit. When they arrived at the scene of action they found that a number of the sailors had forced their way into the girls apartments and but for their timely interference some violence would have been committed. The men were arrested and placed in irons, and it is the intention of the captain to make an example of them.

Brisbane Courier Mail 18 November 1873

Behavior at Biloela

I have so enlarged upon the prevailing topic of discussion – unmindful that perhaps what interests us may not interest you-that I have small space left for other matters. It happens, however, that there is not much that is worth chronicling. There has been a great disturbance among the girls of the Industrial School at Cockatoo Island-or, as it is now called, Biloela.  These young ladies, having got possession of a tomahawk and chisel, burst the doors of their dormitories, set fire to their beds, and setting at defiance the authorities over them, proceeded to smash windows, break crockery, and other wise damage the property of the institution. This Industrial School is one of the worst managed institutions in the world. The man who is now there in the position of superintendent is a kind-hearted, but perfectly uneducated  helpless, and shiftless old fellow, who has no more idea of managing a parcel of refractory girls than he has of taming zebras. A Royal Commission appointed to enquire into the working and management of the public charities, has taken a great deal of evidence respecting Biloela, and that evidence, it is said, discloses a state of things which is perfectly appalling. The institution was intended as a means of rescuing young girls from misery and vice. It is, however, a hotbed of iniquity. A child left upon the streets, or in the haunts of vice, may possibly be reached by some pitying hand, and saved from sin, but, for a child sent into that horrible place at Cockatoo Island, there is but little hope-she becomes tutored in foulness, and encouraged to boast of her familiarity with vice. If I were to relate some of the stories current about this institution, you would hardly believe that such depravity could exist.

Argus June 1874

Horrors of treatment at Biloela

Nothing, probably, could be much worse than the system of management which has been hitherto in vogue at the various institutions for the reception and relief of the destitute which are subsidised or supported by the state in New South Wales – for that system was based on the practice of the mother country with respect to her paupers half a century ago, when the old poor laws, with all their misery and abuses, were in force, and the wretchedness of the parish workhouse was, in many districts, so deplorable that even Crabbe’s graphic picture of it was rather under than over coloured. Now, although New South Wales has never adopted a poor law, she has borrowed from the mother country her long discarded methods of organising and controlling public crimes, and the revelations made by the commissioners concerning the state of the Reformatory Institution at Biloela serve to show what honors the system is capable of producing horrors which we thought had ceased to exist in any English speaking community for at least a century.

One of the questions which forced itself most pre-eminently and powerfully upon the attention of the gentlemen who conducted this inquiry was that of the management and care of pauper children The practice of massing them in a large establishment is unequivocally condemned, because, as it is observed, a barrack life is at utter defiance
with the natural or family system

Brisbane Courier Mail 12 June 1874

Harsh treatment at Biloela

Truly a dainty dish to set before the public is the Report of tho Charities Commission into the carryings on at Biloela (formerly Cockatoo), the Reformatory for young girls. Disclosures more horrible and revolting have rarely been made, even in the days of convictism, in which mismanagement and cruelty reigned supreme. The revelations made through the investigation of the Commission as to the conduct of the Sydney Infirmary were disgraceful and revolting enough, but Biloela appears, from the evidence, to have been simply a hell upon earth; the abominations  and acts of cruelty there practised being for the most part utterly unfit for publication. Not only had the superintendent, Mr. Lucas, no control over the inmates, but acts of riotous insubordination, requiring the assistance of the police to quell, were of almost daily occurrence. Windows were broken, clothes torn, furniture destroyed, and attempts even made to fire the building. The measures resorted to by Mr. Lucas for controlling the girls were – instead of being, as at Mettray or Redhill, and other Reformatories, firm and judicious – are alleged to have been harsh, violent, and cruel. Black eyes, the result of blows, appear to have been exhibited by several of the girls, and canings by the superintendent, leaving black marks for days on tall, grown girls, with the physique of women, are spoken of as matters of common occurrence.

One witness describes a girl with the blood streaming from her nose, and handfuls of hair torn out in a violent struggle that took place on her resisting a caning; others speak of the use of gags, and putting on of straight waistcoats by the police. The following is the account by the Commissioners of a scene of which they were eye-witnesses :-

“On opening the door of the dark room, eight girls, from fourteen to seventeen years of age, were found, four of them in a half-naked condition, and all without shoes and stockings. Their wild glare and half-crazed appearance as the light of the opened door fell upon them struck us with horror. The room had a stone floor, was without a chimney, had every window closely boarded up, was without an article of furniture, and had a foul and sickly stench, every call of nature being there answered by the inmates, On the door being closed it was impossible for us to see each other till accustomed to the darkness. Into this room eight girls had been put and kept in the dark from Friday morning till the visit of the Commission on Tuesday night, in the semi-nude condition in which they were found. Fed on bread and water, they drank, as they said, like dogs, from a bucket placed in the room, no utensil being allowed them. Three were so hoarse from the effects of their confinement in the closed-up room, and sleeping on flags, non bedding having been allowed them but blankets, that they were almost unable t speak.”

Mr. Lucas, on being called upon to answer the charges made against him, admitted that he had “quarrelled” with the girls, had rubbed their heads against the walls; and could only say that he did not think he had knocked a  girl down and stood upon her. The general management and domestic economy of this institution were found by the Commissioners to be in keeping with its system of discipline. It will hardly be credited that such things could be in a Christian and civilised country. Verily truth is stranger than fiction!  

Brisbane Courier Mail Wed 17 Sept 1879

Biloela girls escape

Two girls escaped from the Biloela Reformatory three weeks ago, having dressed themselves in the matron’s clothes, taken a boat, and got to the mainland. They have not yet been recaptured.

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 3 Sept 1881

Cruelty at Biloela

Our correspondent of the Daily Telegraph tells an extraordinary story of cruelty practiced on girls confined in Biloela Industrial School. One of the statements is that it is customary to hold girls down, and cane them till their flesh is raw.