Convict Lives on Cockatoo Island

Posted on: 16 September 2020 by Dr Katherine Roscoe in Blog

Illustration of convicts letter writing cockatoo

Dr Katherine Roscoe, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, discusses her recent public lecture for New South Wales History Week 2020 - 'Convict Lives on Cockatoo Island'.

When we envision the convicts transported to Australia – from Dickens’ escaped convict Magwitch to BBC’s 2015 show Banished – the picture is very whitewashed. Through my research, I seek to tell a more racially- and culturally- diverse history of Australia’s convict-era.

In my public lecture for New South Wales ‘History Week’ 2020 (full video avaliable below) I unpack the mythology around Sydney’s “Alcatraz”, Cockatoo Island. This nineteenth-century prison island, in the middle of Sydney Harbour, became famous for incarcerating people labelled as the “dregs of colonial society”. By presenting the lives (or fragments of them) of six convicts from Cockatoo Island, I instead highlight the diversity of Australian colonial society.

Illustration of Cockatoo Island

Drawing of Cockatoo Island, Sydney. 

  • In the lecture, I tell the life-stories of:
    John Perry, a six-foot tall black Irishman, the boxing champion of New South Wales, who kept prize-fighting while in prison
  • “Blind Larry”, the Jewish jewel-thief turned singing performer in prison productions
  • William Barry, an African-American ship’s cook whose stealing-spree around Circular Quay landed him in prison until his exile from the British dominions
  • John Fahey, an Irish deserter who absconded from custody to live with the Gubbi Gubbi people for more than a decade but was released early to lead a colonising expedition into the mountains.
  • Two Chinese men, “Tsin Soon” and “Hin Sic” who served 12 years on the island for murdering their abusive employer
  • “Neville’s Billy”, an Aboriginal man, sentenced to death for murder by an all-white jury, despite there being no witnesses tying him to the crime.

Together, it is clear that these Cockatoo Islanders’ lives were shaped both by global mobilities and strong racial disparities embedded within British colonial society.

Illustration of convicts letter writing cockatoo

'Convicts' letter writing at Cockatoo Island (1849).

More convict lives and a database of over 2500 prisoners incarcerated on Cockatoo island are available on my website: 

This forms part of my research project ‘“Criminals incapable of reform”?: Re-assessing the population of Sydney’s Cockatoo Island (1839-69)’ which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Katherine Roscoe is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology. Her researches centres on histories of crime and punishment, the British empire, race and geography. She tweets about her research @katyaroscoe.

If you are interested in studying within the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, please visit our study pages to find out more: 


You can watch the full public lecture here: