Located just minutes from Circular Quay, Fort Denison offers spectacular views of Sydney Harbour, offering a unique perspective on the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It’s no wonder that on public occasions, such as New Years Eve, it is such a popular place. Nonetheless, Fort Denison is one of the places many Sydney-siders are more inclined to go past rather than visit.
Although now called Fort Denison, for many thousands of years, the island was known to the local indigenous people as Mat-te-wan-ye, meaning ‘rocky island’. The island, which was once 25m high (and very rocky), was, however, flattened during the 1800s and became, initially a prison within a prison, becoming a place for the very worst convicts in the early days of the New South Wales penal settlement.
Amidst security concerns, the island was fortified during the 1850s, made with 8,000 tonnes of sandstone quarried from near Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay. This photograph shows Australia’s only Martello Tower, located on the island. Gun towers such as this one, which became popular during the 1700 and 1800s, are based on a simple, but effective design. According to the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, which has responsibility for Fort Denison, this particular example is one of the best preserved in the world. When you visit Fort Denison you have the opportunity to go inside the tower to see where gunpowder and weaponry was stored, including a room containing three canons, around which the tower was actually built.
During this mid 1800s, tide measuring facilities were also established on the island. You can see both the old and the new: while one of the older measuring devices resembles an old clock, a simple grey and white pole demonstrates the more modern, sonar-based measuring device. Measurements from the island are sent to the National Tidal Facility (at Flinders University), assisting researchers with an interest in sea levels and tides. Fort Denison continues to be the reference point for tidal information for all of New South Wales. The information gathered at Fort Denison can assist in the provision of a real-time forecasting service for the maritime industry, assisting port authorities with shipping movements and cargo-loading potential.
According to the National Tidal Facility, using high-precision tidal gauges, NTF gathers data relating to long-term changes in sea level that may occur through factors such as global warming. Gauges also monitor meteorological factors that affect sea levels, such as barometric pressure and windspeed, so that these variable factors can be eliminated in assessing measurements of long-term changes in sea levels.
Although its strategic role in the defence of Sydney diminished in the 1870s, the sound of canons continues to be heard in Sydney Harbour. Commencing in 1906, one of these canons is fired daily at 1pm.
Although the original purpose was to assist sailors to set their ship’s chronometers correctly the practice continues, each day. During the Second World War, however, the practice was stopped, so as not to alarm residents. For many years, the sound of canons was a signal to Sydney siders that it was time for lunch.
It is perhaps, not surprising then, that Fort Dension continues as a popular spot for lunch, with restaurant facilities now located on the island. Regular tours are also conducted. For more information, contact the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service.