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.

21 comments

  • Thanks for the descriptive overview of Goat Island. I am doing family history at present. My great grandfather was a British soldier stationed at the island in the late 1850’s. If you have any further references/information I would be most grateful.

    Thanks, Mary

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  • Attention: Mary Reilly,

    Dear Ms Reilly,
    Please contact me at robert.newton@environment.nsw.gov.au and I can provide you with information on Goat Island, and some details on the British military units stationed on the Island.
    I would also be pleased to see any information you may have on on your great grandfather.
    Regards,
    Robert Newton
    Ranger Goat Island
    NSW NPWS

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    • Robert

      I also had an ancestor who worked and died on Goat Island. He’s name was Charles McLeod Buchanan, he was a Government officer – this was giving as his occupation on his death certificate, which also stated he died on the island on the 30.11.1856. He was listed as Head of Goat island in the 1841 Census. Is there any info i could chase up which might indicate his role on the island.

      Hope to hear from you soon

      Jay

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      • Glenda May Smith

        My husband (Kevin Lewis Smith) was descended from Charles McLeod Buchanan through his son William & his 2nd wife Kate Ellen Anne Eagar. Following a visit we made to Goat Island many years ago, Kevin sent to National Parks, who run the island now, much information on Charles McLeod Buchanan. The older son (John) of Charles was also on Goat Island in Government employ. We do have quite a bit of information on this family.

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        • Sue Buchanan Trosser

          Hi Glenda, i too am descended from Charles McLeod Buchanan but through his son William and his first wife Mary. i would be interested in talking to you about the Buchanan family.

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      • Hello Jay Duggan, my late husband, Kevin Lewis Smith, was also a descendant of Charles McLeod Buchanan. William Buchanan was one of the sons of Charles, he became a Postal Inspector with Sydney GPO. He married Mary Morris, daughter of George Ennever Morris, who was the owner of several early Inns in Sydney, The Greyhound, The Australian, & the Crown & Anchor. The marriage of William & Mary ended in divorce. William then married Kate Ellen Anne Eagar daughter of Mary’s older sister Louisa. Kevin was descended from William & Kate though their daughter Hannah Buchanan. It has been a long time since I looked at the Buchanan research so am a bit rusty. Charles Buchanan had about ten children in Plymouth, he & wife brought to Australia their youngest children. Also on the ship was John Buchanan with wife & child. John was the oldest son of Charles Buchanan & he also worked on Goat Island.

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  • I have a convict relative sentenced to life in irons on Goat Island.
    Thomas Craker arrived June 11 – 1834..
    Not quite the best of occupations..

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  • about charles anderson’s story when it first opened we went on a tour of Goat island we were told charles anderson was shot in the head at the Crimean War then committed a crime in england was sent here & was chained to the rock & cried & yelled day & night . The govenor at the time went over to ask him to stop as he at times could be heard over the colony .The tour guide told us this

    Now I read a different story which one is true as my grandson 10yrs I told him the story I heard on Goiat island & if its not true Ill tell him the correct one please let me know

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  • Hi James.. My nana was born on goat island my great grandfather was James Crowley an engineer on one of the boats that worked from goat island. Have you heard of my great grandfather or have seen anything about him. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thank you .. Patricia McNeil

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    • Hi Patricia, lovely to hear from you. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about him. Hopefully someone will see your post and pass on some information? Cheers, James

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    • Hi Patricia,
      My Great Grandfather James Copland was employed as a Magazine Warder on Goat Island c1876. His daughter Susan Anderson Copland was born there in 1878, she died in UK 1960 following a car accident.
      Kind regards
      John

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  • We visited Goat Island on Friday the 1st Feb 2013. Very beautiful and most informative tour-plus a lovely lunch included. I would advise anyone interested in Australian history to go on this tour.

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  • I sent a photo of my father and some of his workmates (ship builders) to Eliza, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, as she was looking for photos of Cockatoo Island. I thought the photo was taken at either Garden Island of Cockatoo Island mid fifties. She said that she thought it was taken at Goat Island due to a sign in the back with NOWIE thereon. Can you enlighten me James? I can send you the photo.

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  • Does anyone know where these photos were taken (mid ’50s). I thought it was either Garden or Cockatoo Island but it has recently been suggested it’s Goat Island. Would love to know as my father is in them.

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  • Hello James & other readers. So glad to happen upon this site on my search for information regarding Goat Island’s convict past. My ancestor was a convict on the Island and I would like to know more if anyone can enlighten me further than what I have read here. It seems there is very little information available. trixybellerose@gmail.com

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  • Dorothy Smith

    My GGGrandfather was there in 1834/5 arrived in Irons is there any information available, his name David Missingham. Dorothy Smith

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