Goat Island

Goat Island, which is located west of the Harbour Bridge near Balmain: was once the headquarters for the Sydney Water Police; was once the principal gunpowder store for NSW; and was once the source of the sandstone used in some of Sydney’s finest buildings.

Although it was known to the indigenous people of Sydney as Me-mil, Memill, Me-mel, or Milmil, there is considerable debate about how the name “Goat Island” was derived, with one interpretation that, if viewed from the air, it may appear to look like a badly-formed goat.

The birthplace of Bennelong’s father; the island was recognised from the early days of European settlement for its many qualities: in particular, as ideal location for fortifications to defend the Parramatta River and Sydney.

For many years, Goat Island was also a prison within a prison, a place for the very worst of the convicts in the early days of the penal settlement.

A lone rock on the island serves as a reminder one of the more distressing stories of Goat Island: the story of the life of Charles “Boney” Anderson, an 18 year old convict. Like many who end up in the criminal justice system, it is believed Anderson may have had a mental illness. In his seminal work, “The Fatal Shore”, Robert Hughes describes how after several unsucessful attempts to escape, Anderson received over twelve hundred lashes in 1835 and was sentenced to be chained to this rock for two years in an attempt to break his spirit. By night, he slept in a cavity in the sandstone. The situation for him worsened – especially due to taunts from people in boats closeby – until eventually he was sent to the penal settlement of Norfolk Island. While it was supposed to be much worse there, he arrived at a time of humane prison reform by Alexander Maconochie, who gave him some responsibility, leading to an improvement in his situation. When word of this got back to Australia there was an outcry and Anderson was brought back to Australia where he died at 27 or 28.

From 1833 onwards, Goat Island also became a central magazine for the gunpowder stocks in Sydney. At one point during its history, it said that up to 400 barrels of gunpowder were contained within the thick walls of the gunpowder magazine. However, as Sydney expanded – in particular, as Balmain developed – it was, after a while no longer deemed suitable as a facility for such large amounts of gunpowder. Today, the depot remains in excellent condition and guided tours are available.

Consistent with this history, Sydney’s Water Police were also based on the island between 1852 andd 1900. For many years, the television program, “Water Rats” was actually filmed on the island. Although production has ceased, there is still evidence of this part of the island’s history with many of the programs props still contained in storage facilities on the island.

In about 1900, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in The Rocks, Goat Island was declared a “quarantined bacteriological laboratory”, and became a home for scientific research.

In 1919, a shipyard, capable of building ships of up to 500 tonees, was also established on the island.

For most of its recent history, however, Goat Island has been an important maritime centre and was, for many years the home of the Harbour Master. Unfortunately, some buildings on the island, such as the Harbour Master’s Residence, remain in a state of disrepair. This particular building (built about 1900) enjoys spectacular views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; and through the National Parks & Wildlife Service, it is possible to book the lawns in front of the residence for activities.

Regular tours are also conducted. For more information, contact the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service.