From prison to postcard

Colin Kerr | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 3
Fort Denison overlooks the Sydney CBD.
Today Sydney’s Fort Denison is a picturesque feature on Sydney Harbour. But its history is full of swinging corpses, big guns and surprise attacks.

Measuring only the size of a smallish football field, the island on which Fort Denison now stands, about one kilometre or so out from Sydney Cove, was once a rocky outcrop in the harbour protruding around 25 metres out of the water. It was known to the local Aboriginal people, who paddled out to it in their bark canoes to fish, as ‘mat-te-wan-ye’, meaning ‘rocky island’.

Soon after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, local authorities began to use the island, known then as Pinchgut, as a makeshift gaol for recalcitrant convicts. Instead of sending them back to England for minor indiscretions, the villains were simply taken out and dumped on the rocky island with a meagre ration of ship’s biscuits and a bucket of water.

In those days, few people could swim and with the ever-present danger of sharks, there was no need for any walls, cells or iron bars as the bare rocky outcrop gave little hope of escape. With the sharks doing the guard duty, this, in effect, became a perfect lock-up, with little need for any gaol sentries or wardens.

Out here, not only were the poor abandoned wretches in full view of the authorities in Sydney Cove, they could also be seen by their fellow convicts – quite an effective discouragement for others considering disobedience. But as if that wasn’t enough of a disincentive, in 1796 a gibbet was erected on the highest point of the island from which Francis Morgan, a convicted murderer, was hanged. Morgan’s body was left by the authorities hanging in its chains, clanking and swinging in the breeze, gradually rotting over three long years, and would indeed have been a grim sight. Not surprisingly, by this time local Aborigines had long ago given up any further fishing expeditions anywhere near this now quite terrible place.

The name “Pinchgut” arose at around this time, however, there is some debate as to whether it refers to the meagre rations that the convicts were fed or if it is a reference to an old nautical term describing the island’s position (an area of sea where the channel narrows) in the harbour channel. No one quite knows for sure, but both theories are quite feasible.


In 1839, two American sloops and five warships arrived unannounced in Sydney Harbour during the night. Whilst their intentions were friendly, this event caused considerable alarm to the authorities of the still fledgling colony, revealing the defence inadequacy of Sydney Cove.

The governor of the day gave an immediate order for the island to be levelled and transformed from a rocky, undeveloped gaol to a gun battery for the defence of the harbour – the work, of course, to be carried out by convict labour. Much of the stone taken from the island was used in the construction of the foreshore around Circular Quay.

By 1842, the 25-metre-high rough, rocky outcrop had been totally levelled and cannons put in place.

With the outbreak of the Crimean War between Russia and England in the early 1850s, and the emerging potential threat of a Russian invasion (the old hysteria – “the Russians are coming…”), a review of Sydney’s Inner Harbour defence strategy led to the decision to proceed further at Pinchgut. So began the construction of a fort on the island. Contract labour was used to transport 8000 tonnes of sandstone and build a tower, along with a heavily fortified gun battery and a barracks designed for two officers and 45 soldiers.

The circular, French-styled Martello Tower, a popular feature of early nineteenth century European fortifications (extensively used in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars), is the only one of its kind to have been built in Australia and was one of the last to be built anywhere in the world.

By 1857, the transformation was complete. Named Fort Denison (after the-then Governor of New South Wales, Sir William Denison), the fort was ready for battle with two ten-inch, one eight-inch and twelve 32-pounder cannons (capable of firing a 32 pound/14.5kg cannon ball around 1.7 km), all set behind very formidable stone walls up to four metres thick. The island was then faithfully manned by officers of the British Royal Artillery.

The largest guns were set up in the top section of the tower, with the other cannon spread along the ground level section of the fort. In those times, a great deal of care had to be taken to prevent any sparks igniting the barrels of gun powder that needed to be housed on the island. The walls were whitewashed, their whale-oil lamps stored behind glass, while a pitch was laid over the floor so that any friction from the old-style military boots was effectively reduced. Because the barrels were ringed with copper, the buckets (used to extract the powder for transporting to the guns) needed to be made of leather.

When the anticipated ‘Russian invasion’ failed to eventuate, Fort Denison was handed over to the Volunteer Naval Brigade in 1869.

Although the guns were regularly fired in training exercises, history now reveals that, in fact, no shots were ever fired in anger from the old fort. By 1870, the introduction of much-improved weapons and the development of iron-clad warships (against which old-time cannons were not effective) saw the concentration of Sydney’s defence strategy shift to its outer harbour and Fort Denison was abandoned as a military installation.

Now, whilst in reality the old fort never saw any real action, it was, in fact, shelled by a US warship during WWII. Although it would have seemed real enough on the day when the tower was hit, it all turned out to be a mistake – the warship was simply doing some target practice out in the harbour and by accident one volley from the ship’s large guns slammed into the fort. Evidence of this so-called ‘friendly fire’ can still be seen on the fort stonework today.

Whilst this seems to be pretty much the highlight of the old fort’s life, it was later in its life to take on other different roles.


In 1906, it became the time-keeper in Sydney Cove. Mariners in the harbour would adjust their ship’s chronometers when they heard the reliable ‘boom’ from one of the fort’s cannons right on the stroke of 1pm every day. A visual signal from the observatory (now obscured by the Opera House) enabled the fort staff to be precise with the firing of their 1pm time gun. Correct time was critically important to early mariners so that they could calculate their position at sea by the sun and stars.

The firing of the gun was stopped during WWII so as not to alarm residents and visitors. Today, however, local ships (and everyone else within earshot) take little notice when the age-old tradition of the one o’clock firing of the cannon continues. Visitors to the old fort can witness a daily re-enactment of the once important event and whilst the boom rolling out across the harbour is still quite deafening, the practice of using real cannon balls in a busy harbour thankfully ceased many years ago. Modern electrical charges are now used to produce the cannon’s familiar boom.

While quite a few of the old cannon have long since been removed, several are still in place on the ground level of the fort (one of which is used for the daily firing). The three larger cannon located high up in the tower still remain in place and can be seen during regular fort tours.

Another role undertaken on Fort Denison since the 1860s is the reading of tide levels in Sydney Harbour. Today, the tide gauge is still operating, but it now uses a satellite tracking system, with recordings being automatically sent to the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

From the late 1830s, the fort was also equipped with flags, lights and a fog bell to assist in harbour navigation.

In an act that was probably close to the fort’s last effective use in defence of Sydney Harbour, a large anti-aircraft gun was set up in 1942 when the army occupied the fort as part of the harbour’s defence against a possible Japanese attack. The gun could also be lowered to fire at enemy shipping.

Today, Fort Denison is much quieter. In fact, for much of the last part of the 20th century, Fort Denison was operated by a caretaker, usually with his family. The caretaker would act as a guide for the island’s regular visitors. Daily tours of the fort are now conducted by National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) guides, with breakfast/brunch tours available on weekends. The tours offer visitors the opportunity to inspect the fort, learn more about its history, enjoy a picnic on the lawn and perhaps consider for a moment just how different life was for its first inhabitants.


For tour bookings and further information, contact Sydney Harbour National Park Information Centre, Cadman’s Cottage, 110 George Street, The Rocks, NSW 2000. Telephone: (02) 92475033. E-mail: cadman.

For special events, contact Blue Rock Venue Management, telephone (02) 9223 8885.