Each DigiTale has been written to inform people about someone famous, infamous or obscure. As we publish new articles, you’ll get to know a colourful line-up of true-life characters, including Lachlan Macquarie, Captain Thunderbolt, Bungaree, Charles Ormsby... and countless others!
You’ll also discover the distinctive voices of the passionate history buffs and writers within our volunteer team. Above all else, DigiTales are meant to be entertaining yarns. Some are informed by folk stories, tall tales and hearsay. Others draw on archival newspapers and reliable first-hand accounts. Whatever the case may be… we hope you enjoy them!
One of the nation’s foremost engineers during the 19th century, Gother Kerr Mann played an instrumental role in the development of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment. Today, the remnant convict structures, including Fitzroy Dock, are a testament to his enduring impact. This DigiTale, jointly written by volunteers Michelle Harper and Fay Jubb, shows the civic-minded engineer was a man who wore many hats well.
During his eight-year term as the Governor of New South Wales (1838-1846), Sir George Gipps withstood criticism to make a principled stand against ‘squattocracy’. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a prison at Cockatoo Island. In this DigiTale, volunteer researcher Michele Harper canvasses the life of the statesman who possessed “a fine sense of justice” but was not always popular.
"I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have served as Harbour Trust Volunteer Manager since 2003 and have witnessed or played a part in a number of great initiatives. Many of these undertakings would not have been possible without our amazing team of volunteers. The Harbour Trust has benefitted greatly from their unique perspectives, special skillsets and length of service. This DigiTale shares the stories of some of the volunteers we’ve been privileged to work with." – Volunteer Manager
Between 1871 and 1911, Cockatoo Island hosted two nautical school ships: first the ‘Vernon’ and later the ‘Sobraon’. These ships operated as industrial schools for wayward, neglected, and homeless boys. One of the boys enrolled with the Sobraon was Joseph William Melrose. In this DigiTale, written with the help of Joseph’s surviving family members, we offer insights into his time aboard the Sobraon as well as his later years.
In the 20 years since the Harbour Trust was established, our heritage sites have emerged as rich sources of intrigue and exploration, beloved by many Australians. For their contribution, we owe a debt of gratitude to the hundreds of volunteers who have generously shared their time, knowledge and passion. In this DigiTale, veteran volunteer Sandra Hall reflects on her journey with the Harbour Trust and celebrates the diversity of our volunteer team.
The most famous figure from Cockatoo Island’s convict era (1839 to 1869) is arguably Fredrick Wordsworth Ward. A convicted horse thief, Ward cemented his place in Australian folklore when he escaped Cockatoo Island and embarked on a bushranging spree that culminated in his death. In this DigiTale, volunteer Michele Harper examines the life and the legend of the ‘currency lad’ turned bushranger better known as ‘Captain Thunderbolt’.
Between 1881 and 1925, more than 240 people were interred at the Third Quarantine Cemetery at North Head Sanctuary in Manly, having succumbed to epidemic and pandemic diseases. In this DigiTale, volunteer Michele Harper celebrates a notable occupant of the historic cemetery. Annie Egan contracted Spanish Flu in 1918 while nursing at the North Head Quarantine Station and her fight for religious freedoms, during her final days, captivated the nation.
In August 1941, the government authorised the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) to fill key positions at North Fort – a military base at North Head, Manly, that was crucial to Sydney’s coastal defences. In this DigiTale, Harbour Trust volunteer Glyn sheds light on the role his late mother – Patricia Evans née Talberg – served at North Fort, including a facility shrouded in secrecy: The Plotting Room.
One of the names inscribed on the Australian Memorial Walk at North Head Sanctuary is that of Andy Young, a veteran of World War I and II. Harbour Trust volunteer, Andrew M, commemorates – and reveals his connection to – the decorated serviceman, who experienced war first hand before he had reached adulthood.
During his nearly three-decade tenure as the Colonial Architect of NSW (1862 to 1890), James Barnet dominated pre-federation architecture. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper canvasses the career of the tireless public servant including his design work on Macquarie Lighthouse and the other buildings that speak to his enduring legacy.
The former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove was built as a place for Russian expat Nicholas Maclay to study marine life. Now protected by the Harbour Trust, the sandstone cottage is a monument to the celebrated Russian polymath and humanist. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper celebrates his remarkable life, including his contributions to science and society, globally.
As the old saying goes, ‘behind every great man is a great woman’. According to Harbour Trust volunteer Karyn Johnson, however, Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg was always a few steps ahead of her celebrated husband: Fredrick Ward, the bushranger and escaped convict better known as Captain Thunderbolt.
During his nearly two-decade reign as Cockatoo Island’s Superintendent (1841 to 1859), Charles Ormsby gained a reputation for his willingness to bend the prison system to his will. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper canvasses the colourful life of the controversial, convict era figure.
At one time stationed at North Fort in Manly, Don Donkin MBE (1929 to 2016) belonged to a very special era of gentlemen warrant officers who led by example, writes Harbour Trust volunteer and presenter Ron Ray. In his words, "The Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery has been blessed by a number of gentlemen but sadly they are a dying breed."
Toby was a Wonnarua man and one of a dozen Aboriginal people who died in custody during the early years of Cockatoo Island’s convict penal establishment. Volunteer researcher, Michele Harper canvasses the life of the man who was born ‘Booral’ and spent his twenties actively resisting European settlement.
Despite a life punctuated by prison escape attempts and floggings, John Crudden – one of Cockatoo Island’s convicts – might ultimately be remembered for his bravery. Michele Harper, a volunteer researcher for the Harbour Trust, charts the troubled life of the Irish expat, sentenced to the island’s penal establishment before he had even reached manhood.
The Australian Memorial Walk at North Head Sanctuary features monuments to the major conflict periods in Australia’s history. Located in idyllic coastal bushland with views of Sydney Harbour, the paved pathway is engraved with the names of servicemen and women who defended Australia in peace time and war. Harbour Trust volunteer, Andrew M, honours two of the men inscribed on the walk: Privates JW and TR Miles, his great granduncles.
In 1871, the former convict penal establishment at Cockatoo Island transformed into an industrial school for girls and a reformatory for young women who had broken the law. Sadly, the reformatory was cruelly mismanaged. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper shares the story of Captain Harris, an American ship master who literally fought for the women of the reformatory.
Bungaree (aka King Bungaree, Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe) is a symbol of significant collaboration between Aboriginals and Europeans. He was also the first known Australian to circumnavigate the continent and the first person described, in print, as Australian. Michele Harper canvasses the life of the celebrated Aboriginal pioneer, diplomat and leader, including his connection to Georges Heights in Mosman.
Cockatoo Island has a remarkable history as a shipbuilding and ship repair facility, contributing significantly to the nation’s maritime affairs between 1857 and 1991. Michele Harper, a volunteer researcher for the Harbour Trust, profiles an esteemed figure from this era – Jack Payne, one-time general manager of Cockatoo Island Naval Dockyard (1921 until 1932).
Harbour Trust sites, including North Head Sanctuary in Manly, occupy a significant place in Australia’s defence narrative. Michele Harper, a volunteer researcher for the Harbour Trust, shares the story of Brigadier Reginal Lee Rex Rabett, CMG – a gunner of renown who contributed to the military heritage of North Head.
Between 1871 and 1911, Cockatoo Island was used to provide boarding and education for wayward or homeless boys and girls. Although many children endured poor treatment, talented swimmer Barney Kieran was one of those who thrived, writes Harbour Trust volunteer Jane W.
Professional boxer. Competitive walker. Convicted forger. Businessman. Hero. Model prisoner. As Michele Harper reveals, John Perry – one of Cockatoo Island’s convicts – was a man with many talents and identities.
Do you believe in ghosts? Ross D, who is a tour guide, recounts a few recent 'encounters' with Minnie, the daughter of Gother Kerr Mann, Cockatoo Island’s superintendent from 1858 to 1870.
Macquarie Lightstation in Vaucluse is home to Australia’s first lighthouse, built over 200 years ago. Michele Harper, a volunteer researcher for the Harbour Trust, reflects on the storied life of Francis Greenway, the convict architect who designed Macquarie Lighthouse.