Garden Island, located in Sydney Harbour to the east of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay, has been associated with the defence of Sydney and eventually Australia, since the first fleet of convicts arrived in 1788. Garden Island boasts what is claimed to be Australia’s first lawn tennis court. Built in 1880, it is still in use, although the lawn was replaced in 1960. But possibly its best kept secret is its spectacular 360 degree view of Sydney from the top of the old signal station. Once used to flag messages to ships, it boasts views of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, Fort Denison, and the city skyline.
Cowper Wharf, Woolloomooloo Bay
Public Access: Access to Garden Island is restricted, due to it being a military base. There is a Public Access Area on the northern end of Garden Island. The Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre is located within it. The Centre consists is housed in two heritage-listed buildings: The Gun Mounting Workshop (1922) and the Boatshed (1890). The Public Access Area has a number of relics from Garden Island’s past including the initials of the three First Fleeters carved into a sandstone rock. The Public Access Area also includes fortifications from the colonial period, the first grass tennis court in Australia (not for public use), the First Fleet initials (see below), a heritage rose garden, 150 year old trees, grass verges, and picnic tables and seating.
Garden Island, 1877
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A unique relic of the First Fleet is a series of initials carved into an outcrop of sandstone on Garden Island. The three sets of initials – “FM”, “IR” and “WB” – each dated 1788, are located near the tennis courts within the Garden Island Naval Base at the Harbour end of the island. Mystery surrounds the initials as there is no written record of their existence yet there is no reason to believe that they anything but genuine. Historians who have researched their identity believe they belong to First Fleeters Frederick Meredith, Captain’s steward of transport ship Scarborough; marine private Joseph Redford of HMS Sirius and William Bradley, first lieutenant of HMS Sirius, who was a cartographer.
All three men were crew members of HMS Sirius during the winter months of 1788 at a time when Sirius was anchored off Garden Island when the ship’s crew had planted a garden there to grow vegetables for their tables. Bradley led the group that went ashore to establish the gadren. It is likely Meredith and Redford were among that group – did they carve their initials on the island then?
The men had also all been members of exploration parties in the Sydney region in that year and is anotherlink between them, it provides a logical reason why they may have believed it necessary to carve their initials here. The carvings could well be location markers used in much the same way as trig points are today, a pactice not uncommon in those times. Being located at the Sirius land base, they would have marked the start and finish points of their expeditions or surveys, the initials themselves serving to identify who led or took part in the survey. If this was their function, there could well be another set or sets of initials somewhere else around the harbour to which this location was cross referenced still waiting to be discovered.
Meredith was on the HMS Sirius when it sailed from Sydney in October 1788 for the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa in search of food for the starving colony. They returned to Sydney in May 1789. Meredith would later sail on the Sirius to Norfolk Island, where it was shipwrecked. After returning to England with Captain John Hunter who faces court-martial, for the loss of HMS Sirius, Merdith came back to Australia in 1793, when he became one of the first free settlers and was granted land at Strathfield and Liverpool. He went on to become Liverpool’s first police officer and postmaster. His descendants include the Packer media family.
Little is known about Joseph Redford and what became of him. William Bradley conducted numerous surveys of the Sydney region in the early days of the colony. His later career was overshadowed by his steadily deteriorating mental state. Although a successful small ship commander, Bradley became increasingly erratic and was eventually retired as a result. A few years later, suffering serious mental problems, Bradley committed a highly unusual case of postal fraud and was ultimately exiled. He never returned to Britain but lived in quiet disgrace in France until his death in March 1833, age 75.
Note: Tour guides tell visitors that one of the initials is JM and not FM. If they are JM, they would be the initials of Marine Officer Lieutenant James Meredith, who sailed with the First Fleet on the convict ship, Friendship. We believe the initials are FM, and not JM as we inspected them many years ago when they were protected from the elements and we read them as being “FM”.
A small gun pit had been built on the hummocks of Garden Island by the First Fleeters, but it had soon become overgrown and quickly fell into disrepair. It was removed in 1811 when Gov. Macquarie declared Garden Island a civilian establishment and determined to transfer what remained of the Garden Island fort to a new fort on Bennelong Point. Another event which occurred in the aftermath of the visit of the squadron of US Navy ships in November 1839 was the return of Garden Island to its former state as restricted military land. In 1856 the island was set aside for use by the Royal Navy as a base.
The Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre is the maritime museum of the Royal Australian Navy. The centre opened on 4 October 2005 and is located within the Public Access Area on the northern end of Garden Island Naval base. The Centre is housed in two heritage-listed buildings: The Gun Mounting Workshop (1922) and the Boatshed (1890). The conning tower of the Japanese Midget Submarine, which was involved in an attack on the Garden Island Naval Base during World War II is preserved and on display along with the documentary video of the attack. The RAN Heritage Centre is open from 9:30am to 3:30pm daily except for Australia Day, Good Friday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve and New Years Day.
Bus tour groups that visit the RAN Heritage Centre are permitted to transit Garden Island Dockyard in their own bus. There is no bus transport provided by Navy. In collaboration with Sydney Ferries Corporation, pedestrian visitors to the RAN Heritage Centre arrive by Sydney Ferry using the Circular Quay to Watson’s Bay route. The ferries will stop at the Garden Island Wharf during RAN Heritage Centre opening hours only. All pedestrian visitors are to depart the Public Access Precinct by the last ferry each day. Due to security requirements there is no pedestrian access or private vehicle access to or from the RAN Heritage Centre via HMAS Kuttabul Garden Island Dockyard.
Up until the arrival of Lachlan Macquarie as the colony’s new Governor in 1810, Garden Island’s role changed. Macquarie abandoned the island’s farm and then the fort a year later when he built Fort Macquarie on Bennelong Point. From 1810 Garden Island was used essentially as a picnic area for the residents of Sydney until 1856 when it was set aside for use by the Royal Navy as a base. Since that time, the base has grown in a ramshackle manner with the addition of a plethora of new buildings and facilities over the course of the next century. It is connected to the mainland by the Captain Cook Graving Dock. Today it remains a restricted area and houses the Fleet Base of the Royal Australian Navy and the Garden Island Dockyard.
Imperial Naval Depot, Garden Island, 1900. Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum
In 1904, after the proclamation of the Commonwealth Defence Act, it became Australia’s principal naval base and functioned well in this capacity throughout the Great War. On 10 July 1911 the tittle Royal Australian Navy was granted by King George V to the Naval Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia. On 1 July 1913 all naval establishments in the Australia Station were handed over by the Admiralty to the RAN. These facilities included Garden Island and the buildings that had been erected by the Government of NSW in the years before federation.
Garden Island in 1929
1922 saw the beginning of a wrangle between the State and Commonwealth Governments over who owned Garden Island. The matter went back and forth through various courts of appeal, with judgment going back in forth in favour of one and then the other before the Commonwealth Government went as high as it could go – to the Privy Council in London – which, in February 1929, ruled that the NSW Government had right of ownership to Garden Island. After World War II the State Government sold the island outright to the Commonwealth Government.
The Royal Australian Navy had a tunnel system under its Garden Island Naval Base, extending under Potts Point as far as the Kings Cross area. They contained a power station, offices, air raid shelters and a command centre. Some of the tunnels under the Garden Island Naval Depot were built to be able move guns from one side of the island to the other and to transport ammunition. Under and around the Captain Cook Dock there are tunnels associated with the dock itself. There is also a pit (now sealed) that was built in the 1800 2s dug as a store for provisions should the island ever come under siege.
As a result of concern over the increased Japanese naval activity in the waters off Australia, a decision was made to greatly improve facilities at Garden Island. In May 1940, the facility was selected as the most suitable location in Australian waters for a dry dock. The building of the Captain Cook Graving Dock became the biggest engineering task in Australia’s history up until that time. It is approximately 345 m long, 45 m wide and 14 m deep. It has a capacity of 259,122,000 litres of water which can be removed or replaced in about four hours. Working around the clock, a team of 4,000 men moved 55 kms of sheet piling and 800,000 cubic metres of stone and core filling to build the giant coffer dam which reclaimed 14 hectares of sea bed. Over 1 million tonnes of concrete was poured in the construction of the giant dock which connected Potts Point to Garden Island, making it no longer and island.
MV Oosterdam in dry dock, Garden Island
Opened by the Duke of Gloucester on 12 March 1945, the dock was many times larger than the Sutherland Dock on Garden Island and with two compartments independent of each other, can house a fleet carrier and two destroyers simultaneously. Even today it is still large enough to house the biggest ships in the world.
A little known fact is that the landfill used to bridge the island to the point was all excavated from Kings Cross. To coincide with the dock work the city council and Department of Roads excavated the Kings Cross tunnel. William and Bayswater road were already choking with drays, trams, bicycles and motor vehicles and the tunnel was the obvious solution. It was also intended to be used as the main local air raid shelter if we were to be attacked. One can imagine the lorries travelling back and forth along Macleay street laden with landfill.
Potts Point eventually lost 10 acres of land in the resumption program – and some of Sydney s most spectacular grand homes including Caleb Castle (which became Grantham), Crecy, Charlemount and Clarens, but above all we lost our northern parkland and view.
In late May and early June 1942, during World War II, submarines belonging to the Imperial Japanese Navy made a series of attacks on the cities of Sydney and Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. On the night of 31 May 1 June, three Ko-hyoteki-class midget submarines, each with a two-member crew, entered Sydney Harbour, avoided the partially constructed Sydney Harbour anti-submarine boom net, and attempted to sink Allied warships. Two of the midget submarines were detected and attacked before they could successfully engage any Allied vessels, and the crews scuttled their boats and committed suicide. These submarines were later recovered by the Allies. The third submarine attempted to torpedo the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, but instead sank the converted ferry HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 sailors. This midget submarine’s fate was unknown until 2006, when amateur scuba divers discovered the wreck off Sydney’s northern beaches.
The Royal Australian Navy had a tunnel system under its Garden Island Naval Base, extending under Potts Point as far as the Kings Cross area. They contained a power station, offices, air raid shelters and a command centre. Some of the tunnels under the Garden Island Naval Depot were built to be able move guns from one side of the island to the other and to transport ammunition. Under and around the Captain Cook Dock there are tunnels associated with the dock itself. There is also a pit (now sealed) that was dug in the 1800’s as a store for provisions should the island ever come under siege.
The Garden Island Precinct is historically highly significant. It is associated with the earliest days of British settlement in Australia and provided a sorely needed fresh vegetable supply for several years. The island’s development as a naval base paralleled the development of NSW and of Australia more widely. The precinct took shape during the major phase of nineteenth century development of Garden Island as a key naval station and headquarters for the Royal Navy in Australia. From the early decades of the twentieth century, Garden Island has functioned as the Royal Australian Navy’s major fleet base and ship-refitting dockyard, and the island remains in use by the RAN. Consequently, the precinct has a direct connection with an extensive period of naval activity in Australia, and is a place that is central to the story of Australia’s naval history. The continuing original use of many buildings is important. The precinct is closely associated with Australia’s naval participation in world conflicts and other wars during the twentieth century.