Iron Giants: The Heritage Cranes of Cockatoo Island

Formerly a ship-building complex, Cockatoo Island played a major role in Australia's maritime affairs from 1857 to 1991. Today, 17 cranes survive from this golden era. These iron giants contribute to the island's industrial terrain as well as the iconic skyline of Sydney Harbour.

By Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Cockatoo Island's Electric portal travelling jib crane (C302) on New Year's Eve (2017) (2018) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Cockatoo Island's heritage cranes include both steam-powered and electrical cranes. Together with the island’s remnant industrial buildings, dry docks and wharves, these metal behemoths provide visitors with a window into a period spanning 134 years.  

Although most have ceased functioning, the No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002) and Mort’s Dock Steam Crane (C009) have been restored to their former, steam-powered glory by skilled Harbour Trust volunteers. Restoration work has been carried out on a further eight cranes.    

Get to know some of our iron giants ahead of your next visit to Cockatoo Island…  

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Mort’s Dock Steam Crane (C009)

This steam crane was built by Morts Dock & Engineering Company at Balmain and installed at Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island in 1891. 

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009) moving a load, Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Possessing a 9.5m jib and a Reciprocating Twin Cylinder Steam Engine, it was used to move supplies and equipment in the dockyard. Although small, it could lift 10 tons — more than any other crane on the island at that time. 

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Close-up of pressure guage for Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Despite being a steam-powered crane, there was a twenty-year period (1965 to 1985) when it was instead powered by compressed air. In addition to being one of the few surviving steam-operated cranes in Australia, it is one of the oldest steam cranes on Cockatoo Island.

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Close-up of coal for Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

So, how does the crane operate? To begin, the driver shovels wood or coal into the furnace, which heats water in the boiler, converting it to steam.  

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Close-up of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009) during public demonstration, Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

When the steam pressure exceeds 40 PSI (pound-force per square inch), the energy activates the piston and the driver is able to begin lifting loads. 

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Close-up of pulley for Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Guided by a dogman (i.e. a person on the ground directing the crane), the driver moves two levers in the cabin: the slewing cone clutch swivels the crane while the dog clutch lowers and raises the hook on the jib, which lifts the attached load.  

Public demonstration of Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009) with jib extended over the water, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

The Mort’s Dock Steam Crane has been restored to working order by the Harbour Trust Volunteer Restoration team. To see it in action, check the Cockatoo Island website for news of upcoming demonstrations!

No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

The No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane

Located on the opposite side of Fitzroy Dock, the No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002) is another rare example of an early steam-powered crane.

The No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002) – like its identical twin (C001) at nearby Sutherland Dock – was built by Priestman’s of Hull, England and installed during the 1890s. Powered by a vertical boiler and steam engine, the crane was in constant use until the late 1980s. 

No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane (C002), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island with Fixed Tower Crane (C231) in distance (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Operated by a driver and two riggers, it played a vital role in the operation of Fitzroy Dock, moving along rails to place props and scaffolding when ships docked for repairs. Due to its low speed, high torque and traction system, it was also used to tow ships into dock.  

Public demonstration of the No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane, Fitzroy Dock Cockatoo Island (2017) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

In 2017, the crane was returned to working order by the Harbour Trust’s volunteer restoration team. These skilled workers also restored the enclosed cabin, which had been a feature of the crane since World War II. 

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island (blue sky) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300)

Located between the slipways and the coal-fired Powerhouse, this shipbuilding crane was transferred from Garden Island to Cockatoo Island in 1976 to assist in the construction of HMAS Success, a Durance-class replenishment oiler for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). 

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island (ladder) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island (close-up) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

The boom (arm) and associated fixings have been temporarily dismantled and displayed near the crane as part of make-safe works carried out by the Harbour Trust. 

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island Slipway Travelling Crane (C300), Cockatoo Island (view of powerhouse chimney) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Like the brick chimney of the Powerhouse, the towering, rust-saturated Slipway Travelling Crane is a distinctive feature of the island to the north-west.  

Close-up of Electric portal travelling jib crane (C302), Cockatoo Island, New Year's Eve 2017 fireworks (No. 2) (2017) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Electric Portal Travelling Jib Crane (C302)

This photogenic crane was installed at Cockatoo Island near Fitzroy Dock in 1979 and is associated with the fitting-out of ships.   

Images of Cockatoo Island's Electric portal travelling jib crane (C302) during the New Year's Eve 2017 fireworks Electric portal travelling jib crane (C302), Cockatoo Island, New Year's Eve 2017 fireworks (No. 2) (2017) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

In addition to being the island’s youngest crane, it is also the largest. During past New Year’s Eve celebrations, it has been lit up spectacularly by Sydney’s world’s famous end-of-year fireworks. 

Cockatoo Island's Electric portal travelling jib crane (C302) on New Year's Eve (2017) (2018) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277), Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277), Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island (Landscape, view from Convict Precinct) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277)

Located within the Cockatoo Boat Storage yard, this crane was installed at Cockatoo Island circa 1970 and performed shipbuilding duties at the Sutherland Wharf until 1991.    

Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277), Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277), Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island (view from Convict Guardhouse) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

The size, scale and texture of Electrical Portal Jib Crane  (C277) is best appreciated from the lawn of the Convict Precinct as well as from within the nearby Military Guardhouse (pictured).  

Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277), Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island Electrical Portal Jib Crane (C277), Sutherland Dock, Cockatoo Island (Landscape, view from upper island) (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

A visually prominent feature of Cockatoo Island, it is a successor to a number of shipbuilding cranes previously located in the same position. 

Twin electric travelling jib crane (C226), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Cockatoo Island's Travelling jib crane (C227) at Fitzroy Dock with its twin (C226) and another heritage crane (C302) in distance (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Electric Travelling Jib Cranes (C227 and C226)

Located on either side of Fitzroy Dock are twin electric travelling jib cranes (C226 and C227), each weighing 5 tons. Both were manufactured in 1942 by Joseph Booth & Bros Union Crane Works in Leeds, England and were originally fitted to a floating dock in Iceland.  

C226 (pictured in the background) is located on the northern side of Fitzroy Dock near the Mort's Dock Steam Crane (pictured far right).

C227 (pictured in the foreground) is located on the southern side of Fitzroy Dock near the No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane.

Twin electric travelling jib crane (C226), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Cockatoo Island's Travelling jib crane (C227) at Fitzroy Dock with its twin (C226) in the distance (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

In September 1944, the floating dock (together with the twin cranes) was towed to Sydney for use in Cockatoo Island Dockyard. It arrived in June 1945 and was involved in the shipbuilding activities of the dockyard until 1964 when it was scrapped.    

Twin electric travelling jib crane (C226), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island Rear of Twin electric travelling jib crane (C226), Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island (2017) by Geoff Magee (photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

The twin cranes, however, were salvaged and refitted, and continued to service vessels at Fitzroy Dock until the dockyard closed in 1991.  Both have been restored by the Cockatoo Island Volunteer Restoration team.

Fixed Tower Crane (C231), Timber Wharf, Cockatoo Island (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Fixed Tower Crane (C231)

The Fixed Tower Crane (C231) was manufactured by Favco Industries and installed at the timber wharf on the southern apron in 1963 to coincide with a major refit program involving the naval patrol boat fleet.     

The primary function of the crane was  to remove and refit the main diesel motors to vessels.  This large and visually dramatic crane can be viewed in all its glory form the upper island and towers above Marina Café & Bar at Camber Wharf. 

View of Fitzroy Dock, Cockatoo Island with Sydney CBD in the distance (2020) by Ian Evans, volunteer photographer, Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Now that we’ve introduced you to eight of our iconic cranes... why not plan a trip to Cockatoo Island and become better acquainted with all 17? Other cranes to look out for include the Mobile Crane (C062) near the visitor centre, the Stiff Leg Crane (C007) near the the Harbour View Apartments and the Jib Crane (C008) on the upper island.

Unable to visit Cockatoo Island? Take some time to explore the island virtually and discover a few of our heritage cranes...

Mort's Dock Steam Crane (C009)

Electric Portal Travelling Jib Crane (C302)

Fixed Tower Crane (C231)

Slipway Travelling Crane (C300)

Electric Travelling Jib Crane (C226)

Electric portal Jib Crane (C277)

Harbour Trust — Extraordinary Places on the World's Best Harbour

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