Fort Denison Island
Accessible only by boat, Fort Denison is one of the eight remaining islands on Sydney Harbour. While it’s now a popular stop on harbour pleasure cruises, the small, rocky outcrop (almost within stone-skimming distance of the Royal Botanic Gardens) was once an exceptionally grim place to find oneself in.
The island was essentially a prison fortress, built to lock away unruly convicts from 1788 until its reincarnation as a military fort in the mid-1800s. Being banished to this isolated, dingey prison was considered one of the most severe punishments a convict could endure. The island was even informally given the name “Pinchgut Island” due to the pitiful rations of bread and water the constantly starving inmates were forced to survive on. As very few convicts could swim in those days, the prison was virtually self-operating, with little need for guards and security.
In 1855, as the colony was gripped by the fear of a Russian invasion, the island was transformed into a fortification in defence of Sydney Harbour. The Martello Tower, Fort Denison’s most distinctive feature to this day, was the last ever built by the British Empire. It was equipped with two 10-inch guns and 12 eight-inch pounders.
Nowadays, Fort Denison operates as a museum where you can learn about the fascinating history of the island, check out some of the fort’s original military artefacts and climb the winding stairs to the top of the tower. Guided tours operate on the island four times daily.
Each day at the strike of 1pm, the Fort’s original cannon is fired.
Fort Denison is easily accessed by regular public ferries from Circular Quay. Some harbour cruise operators, such as Captain Cook, also stop over on the island.