I'm a children's book author, radio presenter of 'By the Book' for Radio Northern Beaches, and freelance writer. Check out www.brydiewright.com for more about
Published January 21st 2017
A spirited tour of Sydney's convict past
If you've had the pleasure of a day trip to Cockatoo Island, you'll understand why it is a favourite for WeekendNotes writers. It was only very recently I first visited and made a beeline for the pre-dockyard Convict Precinct on the upper level of the site. As an adult heritage buff, the word convict was enough to reel me in but the Harbour Trust is also making sure its school-aged visitors become hooked on history with its 'Convict Clues Challenge', Ghosts of Biloela smartphone app, and a range of other fun but educational approaches to the island's heritage.
When you first arrive on the dock, the Visitor Centre has all the info you'll need for families and school groups. Be sure to pick up your free site map, 'Cockatoo Island History re-energised ' guide and most importantly for kids, the Convict Clues Challenge activity booklet. You can also ask about the self-guided audio tours, if you don't want to miss a thing. All these resources are designed to enhance your visit, and little ones are encouraged to become history detectives with the interactive tracking of convict clues, a perfect idea for school visits.
A remarkable find - solitary confinement cells uncovered in 2009
So, now you're prepared, let's take a self-guided tour. Head straight up the hill past the camp site to the ramshackle remains of the Military Officers Quarters. The point of real fascination here is the solitary confinement cells (dated to 1841) below the cookhouse. Only discovered in 2009, as part of an archaeological dig, the find has tremendous significance for harbour foreshore history. If you're a bit of a ghoul, spend some time soaking up the atmosphere inside the dank cells imagining what life was like for the most hardened of criminals. Kids won't be able to resist the lure of ghosts who must certainly be lurking in this long-buried part of the island.
Continuing further upwards to the precinct proper, I couldn't help but have a tremendous feeling of déjà vu for my visit to the remains of the notorious penal site at Norfolk Island. It's that same feeling of isolation and cruel and unusual punishment, set amidst picturesque island views, no doubt lost on those denied all freedoms. And the sad thing is that many locals may not even realise that Cockatoo Island was Sydney's equivalent of Norfolk Island and Port Arthur from 1839 – 1869, opened by the Governor of the day, as a harsh gaol for secondary offenders – the 'worst of the worst'. Another reason the island needs to be on the excursion list of school-age children.
What remains of the sandstone gaol quarters is a fascinating insight into colonial views on human rights (or lack thereof). With only the sturdy walls of the buildings still intact, it is a tremendous opportunity for children to use their imaginations to empathise with the men and women (up to 500 at one point!) who were crammed into unbelievably closely confined quarters every day.
And not to forget the detective challenge at hand, or the audio guide, history can often be just academic unless we shed light on real people who experienced it. The stories of career convicts Thomas Wilson and Sarah Clifford are recalled, along with the infamous Fred Ward, who staged a daring Alcatraz-style escape from the island and later became bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.
Only the sandstone walls remain but you can imagine the close living for the prison inhabitants
So, with our tour at an end, we have covered only a small portion of the island and its history but surely the most haunted, if you believe in that sort of thing. Not that I personally saw any ghosts but the lives of the unfortunate inmates resonate even today and anything that inspires children to a fascination for history, is top on my list. In fact, the innovative Harbour Trust has more great ways to engage with history in the very near future. See below for a calendar of events and whatever you do, don't miss out.
28 January 2017 Convict History Guided Tours
Crooked Characters of Cockatoo Island – for little rogues
February 2017 (selected dates) Convict Footprints – Real Stories Through Live Theatre