Fort Denison

Fort Denison is situated on one of the most visited and photographed islands on Sydney Harbour. In 1788 a convict named Thomas Hill was sentenced to a week on bread and water in irons on what had originally been given the descriptive name of called Rock Island. It came to be known as Pinchgut.

Seven decades of colonial settlement were to pass before Pinchgut Island off Mrs. Macquaries Point was changed from a 15 metre high sandstone outcrop in the middle of Sydney Harbour into the island fortress we see today. Up until then it had been used by the early colonial Governors as a place of solitary confinement for particularly unruly convicts, it became part of Sydney's defences when in 1855 it was razed to sea level and its gun batteries, barracks and Martello tower were built by the Chief Engineer of Public Works, Colonel Barney. Fort Denison is now a museum, tourist attraction, Sydney's only island cafe, and a popular location for wedding receptions and corporate events. The tourist facility contains an exhibition of the island's history from Aboriginal times.

The custom of firing a gun daily at 1 pm began in 1906 to enable sailors to set their ship's chronometers correctly. The daily gun continued until World War II when the authorities stopped it for fear of alarming residents. The practice recommenced in 1986.

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Early History

Prior to European settlement, the island had the Eora name Mat-te-wan-ye (sometimes Mallee wonya). After the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Governor Phillip and his advocate-general used the name Rock Island. In 1788, a convict named Thomas Hill was sentenced to a week on bread and water in irons there, after which the island came to be known as Pinchgut. Once a 15-metre(49 ft)-high sandstone rock, the island was levelled by convicts under the command of Captain George Barney, the civil engineer for the colony, who quarried it for sandstone to construct nearby Circular Quay.

By 1796 the government had installed a gibbet on Pinchgut. The first convict to be hanged from the gibbet may have been Francis Morgan. In 1793, the British transported him to New South Wales for life as punishment for a murder. The authorities in NSW executed Morgan for bashing a man to death in Sydney on 18 October 1796.
Illustration: Island of Pinchgut, Port Jackson. Mason, Walter G. National Library of Australia.
Building The Fort

In 1839, two American warships entered the harbour at night and circled Pinchgut Island. Concern with the threat of foreign attack caused the government to review the harbour's inner defences. Barney, who had earlier reported that Sydney s defences were inadequate, recommended that the government establish a fort on Pinchgut Island to help protect Sydney Harbour from attack by foreign vessels. Fortification of the island began in 1841 but was not completed. Construction resumed in 1855 because of fear of a Russian naval attack during the Crimean War, and was completed on 14 November 1857.

The tower and buildings were constructed from 8,000 tonnes of sandstone quarried nearby at Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay. The fort's armoury includes two 10-inch guns and ten 8-inch 32 pounders, three of which were mounted in the tower's gunroom before it was finished and cannot be removed unless the tower is first dismantled around them.

Though never involved in a military conflict, the fort was hit by a naval shell fired from the American cruiser USS Chicago during a raid on Sydney Harbour by Japanese mini-submarines in May 1942 during World War II. A chip on the stonework of the tower is a reminder of the incident.

Fort Denison incorporates one of the last Martello Towers to be built in the world, following their proliferation in southern England after the design's defensive capabilities had been proven at Cape Mortella, Corsica, in 1794. From the time of its completion until the present day, a gun has been fired at 1pm each day to which mariners may set their ship's chronometers. It is also used to record tidal movements in Sydney Harbour.

In 1913 a lighthouse beacon built in Birmingham, England, and shipped to Sydney, replaced the 10-inch (254 mm) gun on the roof of the tower. The light is called Fort Denison Light. In 2004 the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, which manages the site, restored the lighthouse beacon, which is still in use. The fort also has a functioning foghorn and a tide gauge, which was established in the mid-19th century.

Charles Lightoller

In 1900, as the Boer war raged in Africa, the White Star Line ship Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. One evening, the fourth officer, Charles Lightoller (1874-1952) and four midshipmen rowed to Fort Denison and climbed the tower with a plan to fool locals into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking Sydney. They hoisted a makeshift Boer flag on the lightning conductor and fired one of the cannons located at the fort. The conservative citizens of Sydney frowned upon this activity and after an investigation Lightoller accepted sole responsibility for the incident and was reprimanded. White Star Lines apologised and paid damages to the city.

Charles Lightoller went on to be the second officer of the RMS Titanic and the most senior officer (second officer) to survive the 1912 sinking of the ship. He was a key witness at both the British and American inquiries into the disaster. Lightoller had been put in charge of the port side evacuation and found refuge on upturned collapsible B when it was washed off the deck.

Before joining White Star, Lightoller had led an adventurous life, and danger was never far away. On his second voyage, he was shipwrecked on a deserted island. On his third voyage, his ship's cargo of coal caught fire while he was serving as third mate on board the windjammer Knight of St. Michael, and for his successful efforts in fighting the fire and saving the ship. At the age of 24, he temprarily abandoned his career at sea after nearly dying from a heavy bout of malaria on the West African coast. For a time he prospected for gold in Yukon and worked as a cowboy in the Canadian West. Lightoller was decorated for gallantry as a naval officer in the First World War and later, in retirement, further distinguished himself in the Second World War by providing and sailing as a volunteer on one of the "little ships" during the perilous Dunkirk evacuation.

Fort Denison function catering

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  • How to Get There

    Access to Fort Denison for tourists is via a ferry that departs Wharf 6 at Circular Quay every 45 minutes, 7 days a week. The price of the ferry ticket includes the landing fee. Guided tours of the island, including the Martello tower are at an additional cost. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services conducts the tours, and also operates a Harbour Navigational Facility, with tide gauge, navigation channel markers, foghorn and beacon. The Bureau of Meteorology operates a weather facility from the island and publishes observations at half-hourly intervals on its website.

    The Name

    The island's gun batteries, barracks and Martello tower were built by the Chief Engineer of Public Works, Colonel Barney. It was he who suggested that the fort be named after the Governor, Sir William Denison.

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