History of Fort Denison

Fort Denison has been at the heart of Sydney Harbour for over 150 years and over that time has had a varied past – it has been used as a fishing spot, defence structure, navigational guide, tide gauge station, weather station, time marker and now a restaurant, events space and historic museum.

Fort Denison was once a small, rocky island referred to by the local Aboriginal people as Mat-te-wan-ye, also spelt Muttewai.

After the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Governor Phillip renamed the land Rock Island, but it was informally known to locals as Pinchgut, as it was believed convicts were sentenced to weeks at a time isolated on the island with little bread and water.

The island was flattened and quarried for sandstone, which was used in the building of Bennelong Point, where the Opera House now stands. Once flattened the fortification was completed in 1857. Built from 8000 tonnes of sandstone, quarried near Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay, the island was named Fort Denison, after Sir William Thomas Denison, who was the Governor of New South Wales at the time.

The fort features the only Martello Tower to be built in Australia, and the final one ever constructed in the British Empire.

From 1906 to 1942, the one o’clock gun was fired each day to enable sailors to correctly set their ship’s chronometer to the local time. The firing of the cannon was stopped during World War II to avoid terrifying Sydneysiders and was later resumed in 1986. The cannon is usually fired at 1pm daily by the National Parks Ranger.

The island has been managed by various organisations over time, including the Naval Brigade in 1869, and the Sydney Harbour Trust in 1900. Fort Denison became part of Sydney Harbour National Park in 1992, managed by the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service.

Fort Denison On Film

We have found a couple of incredible old newsreels about Fort Denison from 1939 click here to watch.

In 1959 a feature film The Siege of Pinchgut was released by Ealing Studios. An escaped prisoner takes the Fort Denison caretaker and his family hostage and threatens to destroy Sydney by aiming one of Fort Denison’s gun’s at an ammunition’s ship at Garden Island . The movie won The Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Check out this link to see some wonderful old photos from the film.