Fort Denison | NSW Environment & Heritage

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Heritage

Fort Denison

Item details

Name of item: Fort Denison
Other name/s: Pinchgut; Mattewanye (Eora name)
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Defence
Category: Fortification
Location: Lat: -33.8549412218 Long: 151.2255194070
Primary address: , Port Jackson, NSW
Local govt. area: Unincorporated Waterway
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Metropolitan
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT1 DP837196
LOT2 DP837196
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
 Port JacksonUnincorporated Waterway  Primary Address

Owner/s

Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Office of Environment and HeritageState Government31 Mar 99

Statement of significance:

Fort Denison is of national and international significance as an exceptionally fine and intact example of a nineteenth century defence fortification that is unique within Australia. Located in Sydney Harbour, neighbouring the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Fort Denison is a landmark that represents colonial Australian settlement. Fort Denison is associated with several phases of Australian history. As an island it was used as a place by local Aboriginal people for food and pleasure, and was used by European settlers as a place for incarceration and exploitation of convict labour. The island was then modified for defensive use firstly as a Battery and then as a Fort. As a Fort it demonstrates the administration and politics of the British Empire and the need for defensive structures in the colonies. For most of the 20th century the island and Fort took on a maritime role. It continues to be reference point for tide measurement and changing navigation techniques. Fort Denison is the only island site entirely covered with a fortification within Sydney Harbour and retains the integrity of its completed 1862 form. In an international context, the combination of a Martello tower and associated barracks is unusual and rare. The Fort built entirely of local sandstone, demonstrates the evolution from an island to convict shaped rock battery, to a completed Fort. The Martello tower on Fort Denison is unique as a European styled coastal fort constructed in Australia. It is of international significance as one of only two towers in the southern hemisphere that survive intact. It forms part of a worldwide group of similarly styled and dated European coastal fort towers built during this period. The tower is also of international significance for the integrity of its original casemated ordnance and sidearms. Fort Denison is recognised by the people of Sydney as an historic fortification that remains an enduring feature in a changing harbour context. The very nature of its massive sandstone construction, combined with its isolation and comparative inaccessibility, adds to its mystique and its landmark status with Sydney Harbour. (Fort Denison Conservation Plan 1999 NPWS)
Date significance updated: 29 Sep 08
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.

Description

Designer/Maker: George Barney
Builder/Maker: William Randle
Construction years: 1840-1862
Physical description: Fort Denison on Sydney Harbour is within the visual catchment of the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the Royal Botanic Garden and the Sydney Harbour Naval Precinct (NPWS, 2016).

Fort Denison is the only Sydney Harbour island which is no longer described as an island. Even Garden Island, now visually part of the mainland (and anything but a garden) is still known as an island. The island known as Mat-te-wan-ye (small rocky island) to Aborigines and Rock Island to the first settlers, is now popularly known as Fort Denison and viewed as a built artefact rather than an island.

From a distance no evidence of its original island character is apparent, except perhaps scattered rocks at low tide. However, on close inspection the--sandstone bedrock visible below the south west battery reveals part of the rock of the island, particularly when combined with the pictorial evidence provided by drawings such as that by Barrington in 1802,

The Fort
The visual impact of the fort is a combination of the strong vertical mass of the Martello tower and the equally strong horizontal lines of the low barrack and battery buildings. The two distinct building forms reflects the history of the staged Fort construction; which progressed from the original horizontal form of the battery, and later construction of the barracks and Martello tower. The tower, which only lost its dominant role in marking the water entrance to the city with the construction of the Sydney Opera House, was built with an open gun platform (terreplein) which surmounted two internal levels. A section through the tower, shows the navigational light which replaced the upper cannon in 1913. The lower internal level contained rooms for the storage of gun powder and provisions and the middle level still houses the three original cannons. Internal tower circulation is via a spiralling staircase that connects the three tower levels. External access to the tower is through a single external door from the upper terrace level battery and bastion.

Three major elements comprise the strong horizontal section of the fort; the battery and bastion, the barracks and terrace.

Gun Battery and Bastion:
The outward facing defensive side of the fort known as the gun battery and bastion confronted incoming ships. It is constructed out of the island's sandstone bedrock. The battery consists of an open working area which services a series of nine gun placements and corresponding slanted firing openings which are equally positioned along the raised parapet wall of the battery. An underground water tank has been cut into the bedrock of the battery. The bastion located at the southern end of the battery was constructed to house a single cannon set behind a raised stone parapet. The cannon was located on a raised circular revolving mount to maximise the cannon's aim of fire.

Wet Ditch and Breakwater:
A wet ditch and breakwater formed by sandstone blocks separates the fort from the open harbour channel. Beyond this is a breakwater which surrounds the whole island which moderates the wave action against the stone fabric of the fort.

Barrack:
The main single storey building is the barrack,. its eight chimneys indicate its original accommodation purpose. The barracks are built into cut back bedrock and contain a row of single rooms used for military bunk-style accommodation for the lower ranks as well as accommodation for two separate officers' quarters. A central breezeway and vault covered staircase allows access from the barracks and lower terraces to the upper terrace battery, bastion and Martello tower. The two end rooms adjoining the barracks, known as the Tide Gauge Room to the north and the West Room to the south, were constructed soon after the completion of the barracks. The loopholes, or angled openings were designed to enable the defensive fire whilst defending against enemy attack.

Terrace:
The lower north west facing terrace is constructed on the same level as the barracks. It was probably built on rubble fill which is contained by a low stone wall.

The terrace is open and not defensive in nature, as it faces away from the open sea and potential attack. It currently has a bitumen surface and several small planted garden beds. Garden beds were constructed on this terrace during the 20th century as part of the domestication of the fort by the Sydney Harbour Trust and later Maritime Services Board caretakers. Two sewerage treatment units which service the toilets are concealed in the garden beds at either end of the barracks. (Fort Denison Conservation Plan 1999 NPWS).

Plantings:
A Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) planted in one raised garden bed on the terrace's western side and a fruiting fig tree (Ficus carica cv.) at the south-west base of the Martello Tower are the only trees on Fort Denison (Stuart Read, pers.comm., 8/8/2016).

An external cannon is on the Eastern Terrace. A tall flag pole with side spars runs three permanently flown flags on this terrace (NPWS, 2016).
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Physical condition is excellent. Archaeological potential is high.
Date condition updated:26 May 14
Modifications and dates: 1840-1842 - construction of battery
1856-1858 - construction of battery, barrack and tower and bastion
1858-1862 - construction of terrace, west room and tide gauge room
1917 - construction of slipway
Current use: Navigational aid, time gun, tide gauge and guided tour.
Former use: Fort, site of public hangings

History

Historical notes: Fort Denison is a small rocky outcrop in Sydney Harbour which the Eora Aboriginal people once called Mattewanye.

After the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Governor Phillip referred to it as Rock Island. Thomas Mitchell, a convict, was sentenced to a week in irons on the island, fed only on a diet of bread and water. His ordeal, and that of many subsequent punished convicts, led to the island being known as 'Pinchgut'.

By 1796 the government installed a gibbet. The first convict to be hanged was Francis Morgan. In 1793 he had been transported to NSW for life as punishment for murder. He was executed for bashing a man to death in Sydney (Wentworth Courier, 2014, 30).

In December 1835 Captain George Barney arrived in Sydney as Commanding Royal Engineer. By June 1836, Barney had examined the existing defences of the harbour and assessed that the existing defence facilities for Sydney were inadequate. Barney produced a sketch map of the existing situation and suggested defensive works for a Martello tower on the Sow and Pigs Shoal and the second battery on Pinchgut.

In 1838 and 1839 there was increasing unease at the state of the colonies' defence. A more detailed report was prepared by Barney with an estimate of 5,000 pounds for defensive works. This was not well received when it reached England in 1840. The Treasury declined to provide the money and revisions were requested.

During 1840 and without approval from England, Barney established prisoners on Pinchgut and employed them on preparing the ground. Once the island was cut down, Barney then proceeded to excavate a level terreplain or gun platform, sunk into, and surrounded by a protective parapet of living rock.

Lieutenant Colonel James Gordon took over from Barney as Commanding Royal Engineer on 12 January 1843. Barney retained his post as Colonial Engineer until the end of 1843 when, as a result of the economy of the colony, he was retrenched. By 1848 Gordon and developed his definitive plan. It involved 30 heavy guns located at Inner South Head and Middle Head, 9 heavy guns at Sow and Pigs Reef, 2 heavy guns at Pinchgut, work at Bradley's Head and the alteration of Dawes Battery. At this time the colony was experiencing a six year period of economic depression and had little preoccupation with international and defence problems.

In January 1849 Gordon was replaced as Commanding Royal Engineer by Major J.W. Baddeley. There were no initiatives during his two-year stay, as discussions were proceeding between the Home and Colonial Governments over whether funding for defensive works would be transferred to the Colony.

In 1853 a Select Committee on the Defence of Port Jackson was appointed and a regular attendee of every meeting was George Barney. Following the Select Committee's report in September 1853, Gordon's proposals were adopted by the Executive Council in NSW. Barney was appointed to carry out immediate construction of two forts - one on Inner South Head and one on Middle Head.

In January 1855 the New Governor General arrived, Sir William Denison. Soon after his arrival he proposed to erect a strong work on Pinchgut. George Barney was placed in charge of the project which he divided into three areas: battery completion, barrack and tower. In September 1855 tenders were called for and the contract for Pinchgut was awarded to William Randle in January 1856.

By mid 1856 the fort was nearly two-thirds completed. Barney reported on the excellence of the workmanship and suggested that the work was now of such a character that it was worthy of a better name than Pinchgut. It was not until October 1857 that a notice in the Government Gazette announced that the Fort shall be designated 'Fort Denison' in compliment to His Excellency the Governor General. By late 1857 the Fort was fit for occupation and guns were installed before December 1858. Final work was not finished until about 1862.

The Fort was never used for its intended purpose of defence and was actually outmoded by the time of its completion (ibid, 2014, 30).

The Royal Artillery continued occupation of Fort Denison at least until December 1869. The maximum quartered there was 25. During the 1870s the Naval Brigade under Captain Hixson practised from the Fort, firing at a target moored on Rose Bay. During the 1890s the Fort functioned as a light and tide station for the Marine Board.

In October 1900, during the Boer War, the SS Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour. One night the fourth officer Charles Lightoller and two shipmates rowed to Fort Denison and climbed the tower. They planned to prank Sydneysiders into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking the city. They hoisted a Boer flag and fired a wad of cotton waste from one of its cannons. Lightoller was never apprehended but confessed to his company's superiors. He went on to become the second officer of the RMS Titanic and the most senior officer to survive the 1912 sinking. He was a key witness at two inquests into that disaster (ibid, 2014, 30).

In 1901 the Sydney Harbour Trust took over Fort Denison.

In 1906 the time gun from Dawes Point was moved to Fort Denison, where it is fired daily at 1pm. This daily ritual helped ships in the harbour to set their chronometers (ibid, 2014, 30).

The Fort's tower was damaged during World War II when it was struck by a shell from the USS Chicago during engagement with Japanese midget submarines (ibid, 2014, 30).

In 1936 responsibility for Fort Denison was transferred to the Maritime Services Board of NSW.

For many years Fort Denison has been used to collect both meteorological and tidal data. It is still used to measure tidal activity (ibid, 2014, 30).

Until the mid 1980s, a caretaker lived at Fort Denison. Their water, gas and electricity were all fully supplied from the Sydney mainland (ibid, 2014, 30).

Since 1995, Fort Denison has been under the control of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and it is used as a tourist destination (Kerr, 1986).

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
1. Environment-Tracing the evolution of a continent's special environments Environment - naturally evolved-Activities associated with the physical surroundings that support human life and influence or shape human cultures. Topography: How did the environment, topography and the River influence early settlement? Is there a strong relationship-Peopling the Continent Contact
1. Environment-Tracing the evolution of a continent's special environments Environment - naturally evolved-Activities associated with the physical surroundings that support human life and influence or shape human cultures. Cultural - Coasts and coastal features supporting human activities-
1. Environment-Tracing the evolution of a continent's special environments Environment - naturally evolved-Activities associated with the physical surroundings that support human life and influence or shape human cultures. Changing the environment-
2. Peopling-Peopling the continent Convict-Activities relating to incarceration, transport, reform, accommodation and working during the convict period in NSW (1788-1850) - does not include activities associated with the conviction of persons in NSW that are unrelated to the imperial 'convict system': use the theme of Law & Order for such activities Convict labour-
2. Peopling-Peopling the continent Convict-Activities relating to incarceration, transport, reform, accommodation and working during the convict period in NSW (1788-1850) - does not include activities associated with the conviction of persons in NSW that are unrelated to the imperial 'convict system': use the theme of Law & Order for such activities Experiencing secondary punishment-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings Developing local, regional and national economies-National Theme 3
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings Sydney and Australian Landmark-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings Significant Places: How are significant places marked in the landscape of Parramatta by, or for, different groups?-Monuments and Sites
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings Landscapes of military activities-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena Meteorology-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena Measuring tidal activity-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements Wharf and shipping history-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements River Transport-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements Maritime navigation and regulation-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Sydney invasion-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Naval establishment or involvement-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Defending the nation.-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Involvement with the First (Great) World War-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Involvement with the Second World War-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Building Peace time healing and understanding between cultures-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Observing and looking out for enemy movements-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Leisure-Activities associated with recreation and relaxation Visiting heritage places-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Leisure-Activities associated with recreation and relaxation Going to a museum-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Leisure-Activities associated with recreation and relaxation Activities associated with relaxation and recreation-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Leisure-Activities associated with recreation and relaxation Tourism-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
Fort Denison was built in stages between 1840 to 1862 and is evidence of the design and changes to harbour defence works and tactics of the colony from 1836 to 1866. It reflects the impact of events and changes to personnel associated with the place including George Barney (the designer), George Gipps, James Gordon and William Denison. (Kerr 1986:47,48)
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
Fort Denison is mounted on a rock entirely surrounded by the waters of one of the finest harbours in the world. Its tower, battery and terrace afford a superb urban and marine panorama. It has aesthetic qualities such as homogeneity of materials, quality of interior and partially enclosed spaces and relationship with surrounding. (Kerr 1986:46)
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
It serves as a picturesque reminder of the Port's penal and military history. (National Trust 1975)
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
It is evidence of the use of techniques of masonry fort construction. (Kerr 1986:48)
SHR Criteria f)
[Rarity]
It is the only one of its type in Australia. Martello towers are normally freestanding and the combination of tower and battery is rare. (Kerr 1986:47,48)
Integrity/Intactness: Published material on such towers in the English speaking world suggests that this may well be the most intact tower. (Kerr 1986:48)
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementUpdated Conservation Management Plan submitted for endorsement  
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementConservation Plan CMP endorsed by the Heritage Council 17 July 1999 for a period of five years, expires 17 July 2004. Jul 17 1999
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
HERITAGE ACT 1977
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

FRANK SARTOR
Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for commentDraft updated Conservation Management Plan Apr 16 2017

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval

Listings

Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0098502 Apr 99 271546
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage register     
Regional Environmental Plan  25 Mar 94   
National Trust of Australia register   11 Feb 74   
Register of the National Estate  21 Mar 78   

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
TourismAttraction Homepage2007Fort Denison View detail
WrittenJames Semple Kerr1986Fort Dension Conservation Plan
WrittenNational Parks & Wildlife Service (NSW)2012Plan of Management - Sydney Harbour National Park 2012 View detail
WrittenNational Parks and Wildlife Service1999Fort Denison Conservation Plan
WrittenSydney Living Museums2017Convict Sydney View detail
TourismTourism NSW2007Fort Denison View detail
WrittenUnknown1974National Trust Classification Card - Fort Denison

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5045472
File number: EF14/5740; 10/08172; S90/03974


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