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This clip covers the early history of Fort Denison, from its initial construction in the 1840s as a defence against a feared invasion, to its completion in 1857, and its manning by Royal Artillery men from England during the 1860s. By the 1930s it was manned by a single janitor.
Since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 until its reincarnation as a Fort, the island of Pinchgut was used to intern criminals. Fort Denison was initially constructed when it was decided that Sydney was ‘inadequately defended’ against attack. The site’s layered history makes it a significant piece of settler heritage.
This clip shows footage from a 1939 black-and-white newsreel about Pinchgut, one of a number of islands situated in Sydney Harbour. Fort Denison, which is located on the island, was completed in 1857 as part of Sydney’s defences. In the clip, the fort is shown against the backdrop of the then recently completed Sydney Harbour Bridge while a narrator details its history. The clip also shows aspects of the fort, including canons, a ship’s mast and the Martello Tower with a lighthouse on top, and introduces the caretaker, who is the sole occupant of the island.
Educational value points
- Fort Denison was built on an island that was known to Indigenous people in the area as Muddawahnyuh, meaning 'rocky island’. After European settlement in 1788 the island was called Pinchgut by convicts who were marooned there with meagre rations of bread and water as punishment for serious breaches of the peace. The island was originally a 15-m sandstone rock, but during the 1800s it was excavated to provide sandstone to build Circular Quay, at that time the centre of shipping in Sydney.
- By 1796 Pinchgut had a gibbet – a post with a crossbeam, from which convicts were hung. This was intended as a warning to newly transported convicts, who passed the island as they arrived by ship in the Harbour. The first convict to meet this fate may have been Francis Morgan, who was transported to the colony in 1793 for life after being found guilty of murder and who was executed after bashing a man to death in Sydney on 18 October 1796.
- In 1839 George Barney, the civil engineer for NSW, who had earlier reported that Sydney’s defences were inadequate, recommended that Fort Denison be built to help protect Sydney Harbour from attack by foreign vessels. Construction of the fort began during the Crimean War (1854–56), when there were fears that the Russian Empire, which was at war with the British Empire, might use its formidable navy to attack Australia.
- Fort Denison, which was designed by George Barney, was constructed from 8,000 tonnes of sandstone quarried near Kurraba Point in Neutral Bay, NSW. The fort had quarters for a garrison of 24 soldiers and one officer and was equipped with two 10-inch (25-cm) guns and twelve ’32-pounder’ (15-kg) canons. Although the walls in the tower are between 3.3 and 6.7 m thick at the base and 2.7 m thick at the top, new developments in artillery meant that the stone fortress could be penetrated, rendering it largely obsolete by the time it was completed in 1857.
- In 1913 a lighthouse beacon built in Birmingham, England, and shipped to Sydney, replaced the 8-inch (20-cm) gun on the roof of the Martello Tower. The lighthouse beacon was restored in 2004 by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, who also manage the site, and it is still in use. The fort is also equipped with a foghorn and a tide gauge room that was established in the mid-1800s, both of which are also still in use.
- From 1906 a gun on Fort Denison was fired at 1 pm each day so that ships in the Harbour could accurately set their chronometers. Accurate timekeeping is essential to east–west navigation, as longitude is linked to the time difference between a ship’s location and its home point. A 1-hour time difference is equal to 15 degrees of longitude. The practice of firing the 1 pm canon continued until the Second World War, when it was stopped due to fears that it might alarm Sydney residents. However, it recommenced in 1986 and continues today. The island is one of many tourist attractions on Sydney Harbour.
- Fort Denison, named after Sir William Denison, who was Governor of NSW from 1855 to 1861, was never called upon to defend Sydney. In May 1942, during the Second World War, the fort sustained minor damage when the American war cruiser USS Chicago fired at a Japanese midget submarine that had entered the Harbour. The damage to the fort was an incident of what is termed 'friendly fire’.
Thanks to the generosity of the rights holders, we are able to offer Fort Denison early history from the newsreel Australia Today – Fort Denison: [Pinchgut]: A Relic of Early Sydney as a high quality video download.
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