From a fishing spot, to a penal colony, to a defensive fort, to a harbour navigation facility that houses a museum and a restaurant… Fort Denison has sure come a long way!
Today, it is one of the icons that stands proudly on Sydney Harbour attracting the attention of tourists, especially those who pass by on Sydney Harbour Cruises. But, it’s so much more than just an impressive structure… it has a fascinating history and a story that is just begging to be told..
When the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Fort Denison was nothing but a steep, rocky island referred to as Mat-te-wan-ye by the local Cadigal people, where fishing was a popular pastime. It then became the perfect site to incarcerate unruly convicts who were sentenced to weeks of isolation. They were clamped with leg irons and confined to the island with meagre rations of bread and water. Being a ‘prison with meagre rations’ earned it the name ‘Pinchgut Island’, which pretty much stuck!
Later, the island was flattened and quarried for sandstone, which was used build Bennelong Point, where the Opera House now stands. Fears of a Russian invasion during the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century led to its fortification in 1862. Built from 8,000 tonnes of sandstone, quarried from Neutral Bay, the island was named Fort Denison after then NSW Governor Sir William Denison.
The fort features the only Martello Tower in Australia, a very obvious remnant of its colonial past. Martellos were small defensive forts, built mostly in coastal areas across the British Empire during the 19th century. This one on Sydney Harbour was the last one ever constructed. With the introduction of powerful rifled artillery, these towers became obsolete and is now retained primarily as a historic monument… a relic of the past!
From 1906 to 1942, the fort played the role of a time-marker, firing a canon every day at 1pm for ships to set their chronometers to local time. This practice was abandoned when World War II broke to avoid terrifying Sydneysiders with the sound of gunfire. It was later resumed in 1986 and to date the cannon is fired at 1pm by the National Parks Guide.
The island has been managed by various organizations including the Naval Brigade and the Sydney Harbour Trust. In 1992, Fort Dension became part of the Sydney Harbour National Park and is maintained by the New South Wales National Parks & Wildlife Service.
Today, the Fort operates as a Harbour Navigation Facility, with automated tide gauge, foghorn, beacon and channel markers. It even houses a modern museum and restaurant to attract tourist attention, and is even marketed as a unique venue for people looking to celebrate a special event!
What a giant leap for a site that was once a dreary colonial penal centre!