Fort Denison

Fort Denison
Fort Denison with its Martello tower
Type Historic Building
Location Port Jackson
Operated by National Parks and Wildlife Service
Website City Of Sydney Website – Fort Denison

Fort Denison is a former penal site and defensive facility occupying a small island located north-east of the Royal Botanic Gardens and about one kilometre east of the Opera House inSydney HarbourNew South WalesAustralia. The island is also known as Pinchgut Island.


Prior to European settlement, the island had the Eora nameMat-te-wan-ye (sometimes Mallee’wonya). After the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Governor Phillip and his advocate-general used the name Rock IslandIn 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.[citation needed] 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.[1]

Fort Denison pre-1885. National Archives of Australia
Fort Denison pre-1885. National Archives of Australia

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 aRussian 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 of sandstone from nearby Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay. The tower’s walls are between 3.3 metres and 6.7 metres thick at the base and 2.7 metres 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 (254 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-pounder (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, for two reasons:

  • The embrasures for the cannons were too small to use the guns effectively. By the time the cannon was loaded the ship would have sailed past.
  • The recoil was too powerful for the small room.

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

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.

Fort Denison circa 1930
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.

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. Origin Energy also made a significant contribution for the work.

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, coupled with the rising sea levels, 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.

Current use

Viewing west from the southern bastion
Viewing west from the southern bastion

Fort Denison is now a museum, tourist attraction 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 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 & 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.[2]

The custom of firing a gun daily at 1 pm began in 1906 to enable sailors to set their ship’s chronometerscorrectly. The daily gun continued until World War II when the authorities stopped it for fear of alarming residents. The practice recommenced in 1986.[3]

Explosive prank

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.

Charles 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.

Popular culture

Fort Denison was the location of the 1959 film The Siege of Pinchgut, released in the U.S.A. as Four Desperate Men. Directed by Harry Watt, written by Jon Cleary and starring Aldo Ray, the production was the final 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.

Gallery of guns

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.


  1. ^ Australia Today—Fort Denison (Pinchgut): A Relic of Early Sydney at (Education Notes) Australian Screen website. Accessed 27 March 2013.
  2. ^ Latest Weather Observations for Fort Denison at Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology
  3. ^ History of Fort Denison at official website. Accessed 27 March 2013
  4. ^ “News Reports”The Sydney Morning Herald (John Fairfax & Sons). 1900-10-12. p. 4. Retrieved2012-04-09The Reported Gun Fire at Fort Denison
  5. ^ “New South Wales report”The Argus. 1900-10-12. p. 4. Retrieved 2013-03-27. at Trove
  6. ^ Lightoller, Charles H. Titanic and Other Ships Chapters 27-28: eBook at Gutenberg of Australia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s