Fort Denison

Fort Denison
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)

Fort Denison with its Martello tower
Map showing the location of Fort Denison

Location in Sydney

Location Port Jackson, Sydney Harbour National Park
Nearest city Sydney
Coordinates 33°51′17.21″S 151°13′32.26″E / 33.8547806°S 151.2256278°E / -33.8547806; 151.2256278Coordinates: 33°51′17.21″S 151°13′32.26″E / 33.8547806°S 151.2256278°E / -33.8547806; 151.2256278
Operator NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

Fort Denison, part of Sydney Harbour National Park, is a protected national park that is a former penal site and defensive facility occupying a small island located north-east of the Royal Botanic Gardens and approximately 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) east of the Opera House in Sydney Harbour, New South Wales, Australia. The island was formerly known as Pinchgut Island.

In 1978 the former fortress was listed on the Register of the National Estate,[1] and is now used as a national park, nature reserve, tourist facility, and as a function space.


Prior to European settlement, the island had the Eora name Mat-te-wan-ye (sometimes Mallee’wonya).


Location Sydney Harbour
Status Closed
Security class Maximum; isolation
Opened 1788
Former name Rock Island
Managed by New South Wales Colonial Government
City Sydney
State New South Wales
Country Australia

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 a time the island came to be known as Pinchgut.[2] Once a 15-metre (49 ft) high or higher sandstone islet, the rock 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.

In late 1796 the Governor had installed a gibbet on Pinchgut. A convict to be hanged and then gibbeted there was 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 Simon Raven to death in Sydney on 18 October 1796.[3] On 30 November 1796, Morgan was hanged for the brutal murder of Simon Raven. Following his execution his body was hung in chains (gibbeting) on Pinchgut. His skeleton was still hanging there four years after his execution. He said to the hangman that the only thing worth mentioning was the superb view of the harbour from his high elevation, and that he was sure there were no waters the world over to compare with it for beauty.

Military fortress

Fort Denison

Fort Denison pre-1885.
(Image: National Archives of Australia)
Former names Pinchgut
Etymology Sir William Thomas Denison
General information
Status Built as a fortress. Decommissioned circa 1930s. Now used as a national park; reserve; tourist facility; function space
Type Military fortress; gunnery
Architectural style Colonial fortification, castellated style
Location Sydney Harbour
Address North of Woolloomooloo
Construction started 1841
Completed 14 November 1857 (1857-11-14)
Closed circa 1930s
Observatory Martello tower
Technical details
Material Sydney sandstone
Designations Register of the National Estate (21 March 1978)

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 newly built fort then took its current name from Sir William Thomas Denison, the Governor of New South Wales from 1855 to 1861.

The fortress features a distinctive Martello tower, the only one ever built in Australia and the last one ever constructed in the British Empire. It was constructed using 8,000 tonnes (7,900 long tons) of sandstone from nearby Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay. The tower's walls are between 3.3–6.7 metres (11–22 ft) thick at the base and 2.7 metres (8 ft 10 in) thick at the top. However, developments in artillery rendered the fort largely obsolete by the time it was completed. The tower itself had quarters for a garrison of 24 soldiers and one officer. Fort Denison's armament included three 8-inch (200 mm) muzzle loaders in the tower, two 10-inch (250 mm) guns, one on a 360-degree traverse on the top of the tower and one in a bastion at the other end of the island, and twelve 32-pound (15 kg) cannons in a battery between the base of the tower and the flanking bastion.

Eventually all the guns were removed, except for the three 8-inch (200 mm) muzzle-loading cannons in the gun room in the tower, which were installed before construction was complete. The width of passages within the tower are too narrow to permit these to be removed. However, from the beginning the three cannons were of limited utility, due to the embrasures for the cannons were too small to use the guns effectively and by the time the cannon was loaded the ship would have sailed past; and the recoil was too powerful for the small room.

In 1906, a saluting gun (pictured below) was transferred from Dawes Point to Fort Denison.

In 1913 a lighthouse beacon built in Birmingham, England, and shipped to Sydney, replaced the 10-inch (250 mm) gun on the roof of the tower. The light is called Fort Denison Light, which is still in use.

Fort Denison circa 1930

In May 1942, three Japanese two-man midget-submarines attacked Sydney Harbour. When the US Navy cruiser USS Chicago fired on the Japanese, some of its 5-inch (130 mm) shells hit Fort Denison, causing the tower minor damage which remains visible.

Explosive prank

Further information: Fort Denison incident

In October 1900, as the Boer war raged in Africa, the White Star Line ship SS Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. One night, the fourth officer, Charles Lightoller and two shipmates 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 a harmless wad of cotton waste from one of the 8-inch cannons.[4][5] The blast shattered a few of the fort's windows but caused no other damage. Lightoller was never apprehended but confessed to his company's superiors and related the whole story in an autobiography.[6] He was transferred to the Atlantic route and went on to be the second officer of the RMS Titanic and the most senior officer to survive the 1912 sinking of the ship. He was a key witness at both the British and American inquiries into the disaster.

Current use

Recent restorative works

Since 1992, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which manages the site, has spent around A$2m conserving and upgrading the facilities. EnergyAustralia also made a significant contribution for the work via the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife.[7]

Following publication of a conservation plan, further renovation commenced in 1999 and was completed in 2001. The conservation and adaptive re-use of the island was awarded the NSW Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) Conservation Award; a Commendation in the National RAIA Awards; and a National Trust Heritage Award in 2001.

Increased harbour traffic has already destroyed the slipway. Furthermore, the porous sandstone drinks in the salt right down to the fort's foundations. In 2007 the government announced a $1.5 million rescue package. Fort Dennison is now home to more than 100 birds.

Viewing west from the southern bastion

Fort Denison is now a museum, tourist attraction, restaurant, and popular location for wedding receptions and corporate events. The tourist facility contains an exhibition of the island's history from Aboriginal times. Access to Fort Denison 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 & Wildlife Services conducts the tours.

In 2004 the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service restored the lighthouse beacon, which is still in use and supports operation of a Harbour Navigational Facility, with tide gauge, navigation channel markers, foghorn and beacon, established in the mid-19th century. The Bureau of Meteorology operates a weather facility from the island and publishes observations at half-hourly intervals on its website.[8]

The custom of firing a gun daily at 1pm 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.[9]

A restaurant was opened on the island in 2006, and is open for lunch 7 days a week year round, and opens for dinners for special events and occasions which can be found on their website. Bookings for major occasions, such as New Year's Eve, are coveted.[10]

Fort Denison was the location of the 1959 film The Siege of Pinchgut, released in the United States as Four Desperate Men. Directed by Harry Watt, written by Jon Cleary and starring Aldo Ray, the production was the final Australian film of the British-based Ealing Studios. The island also featured as the base of operations for Neville Savage in the sixth episode of the Australian children's television show Mission Top Secret. Fort Denison was often seen in the television series Water Rats. One episode in season two of the show, End of the Line, featured a party on the island.

Viewing from tower to southern bastion 
Gun - southern bastion 
Gun inscription: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" 
Gun at east-facing wall 
Gun room in the Martello tower. 

See also


  1. 1 2 "Fort Denison (Place ID 1856)". Australian Heritage Database. Department of the Environment. 21 March 1978. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  2. Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899 R. v. Hill [1788 NSWKR 2; [1788] NSWSupC 2. Accessed 7 January 2015.
  3. Australia Today—Fort Denison (Pinchgut): A Relic of Early Sydney at (Education Notes) Australian Screen website. Accessed 27 March 2013.
  4. "The Reported Gun Fire at Fort Denison". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 12 October 1900. p. 4. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  5. "New South Wales report". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 12 October 1900. p. 4. Retrieved 27 March 2013.
  6. Lightoller, Charles H. (1935). "Chapters 27-28". Titanic and Other Ships (eBook). Australia: Project Gutenberg.
  7. "Fort Denison". European Heritage. Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife. 2001. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  8. "Latest Weather Observations for Fort Denison". Bureau of Meteorology. Australian Government. 2016. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  9. "History of Fort Denison". Fort Denison official website. Retrieved 27 March 2013.
  10. "Fort Denison: Overview". NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Government of New South Wales.
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