We’re all familiar with the standard picture of Sydney Harbour.
The slopes of the Opera House stretch broadly in the foreground, the slender needles of skyscrapers jostle in the corner, and the Harbour Bridge guards the whole thing from behind.
But just beyond the typical photograph, tucked around a corner, is an island we tend to forget, but that wears hundreds of years of our city’s history.
Cockatoo Island is where gaping industrial space collides spectacularly with sheer rock faces, and harbour waters that circle its borders.
It’s a beautiful, stark, and haunting spot in the middle of the harbour.
Just a 10-minute ferry ride from the CBD, it manages to feel miles away from the hustle and bustle on the other side of the water.
Best known as a quick getaway from the city, in recent years the island has become a cultural hub, hosting the international Biennale exhibition more than once.
Anyone who has visited the island however, might get the feeling the Instagram-friendly pop up bars and cafes that dot the edges don’t quite belong in the rolling expanses of concrete.
There’s an immutable shiver of a dark history that spills out of the cracks in the pavement, no matter how many times we try and cover it up.
It’s eery as all hell in other words, and as I recently discovered when invited to the island’s adult-only Ghostyard tour - put on by Sydney Harbour Trust - there’s a chilling reason why that is.
A secret history
The island is actually a central part of Australian history. Before European arrival, it was an intersection point of four Indigenous nations’ lands, and after the British arrived, it was used as a penal colony, a shipyard, a naval base, and an industrial hub.
The island has always been a permanent place of transience, but certain souls that passed through it have largely disappeared from our history, although it seems they might still be hanging on at the edges of our present.
The Biloela Reformatory School for Females
Thirty years after it kicked into life as a penal colony, the island was repurposed as a shipyard, and the new site for Biloela Reformatory School for Females, a school for delinquent girls and orphans which opened its gates in 1871.
This is where the history takes a sharp turn into twisted territory.
The school, a later report found, was an abomination.
Mixing those who had lost parents with petty criminals, the institution was run by a Mr and Mrs Lucas who - according to the Harbour Trust’s history - took an Oliver Twist style approach to the orphans in their care, and treated them like dirt.
They were all made to drink water from a communal trough like cattle, and ate without cutlery.
They slept in prison cells which were locked at night, trapping the girls in the tiny spaces for up to 12 hours at a time.
Whispers of dalliances between the (very) young delinquents and the dock workers who laboured behind the insufficient fencing separating them, pepper historical documents of the school.
For almost ten years, the abuse and neglect of the girls ran rife, and we know this all because a Royal Commission happened to be set up into charitable institutions at the time the school was running.
In 1880 the results of said inquest saw the school relocated, and the Island’s institution shut down.
Do the girls, however, remain on the island more than 100 years later?
There is obviously no way to prove this, but the tour pulls out all the stops to try.
Will you quake in your boots?
As a consummate sceptic with a wild imagination, I have to say this tour did get me.
There were certain parts - strange flashing devices and one spinning crystal - that definitely raised more eyebrows than goosebumps.
That said, standing perfectly still in an empty house while footsteps echoed from the empty second floor had even the aggressively sceptical of the group shuffling where they stood.
If you want to kick it up a notch you can through a night in of glamping on the waters edge that the Harbour Trust offers.
Would I recommend it? Yes.
Visible or not, there are ghosts on this island, in my opinion their just not the white-sheet kind.
This reporter was invited on the tour as a paid guest of the Harbour Trust.
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