You can’t always trust the names of the 14 islands in Sydney Harbour. There aren’t many bucks or does on Goat Island, and Jaws isn’t circling Shark Island. Birds didn’t flock to Cockatoo Island when the British turned it into a colonial convict prison and then a quarry in the 19th Century, and good luck finding any fruit on Berry Island. But the place they call ‘Pinchgut’? That moniker gives you an accurate glimpse of the horrifying history of Fort Denison, the tiny island just off Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Sydney Opera House that bears a spine-chilling past.
Towering 20m above the water, the rocky outcrop was historically called Mat-te-wan-ye by the local indigenous population before New South Wales’ Governor Arthur Phillip renamed it Rock Island when the British colonised the territory in 1788. It didn’t take long before the island took on a more sinister name, however, when convict Thomas Hill was sentenced to a week in iron chains with nothing but bread and water to fill his stomach — so little nourishment that the conditions literally pinched his gut. Starting to see where the ominous nickname comes from?
The British then quarried the sandstone and levelled Pinchgut in the 1790s, and installed a gibbet — or a hanging gallows — in 1796. And they didn’t waste any time before before using their new torture device. Francis Morgan was transported to NSW in 1793 to serve a life sentence in the penal colony for murder, but leopards don’t change their spots and nor do murderers — Morgan committed another brutal killing in October 1796 and was hung in chains on Pinchgut the following month.
The Irishman didn’t lose his sense of humour, though, using his last words to tell the hangman about the picturesque water views he was missing out on. Gibbeted for all of Sydney to see from the middle of the Harbour, Morgan’s body (soon to become his skeleton) was left dangling in the breeze for four years as a savage warning against other ne’er-do-wells in the nascent city — his rotting corpse perhaps one of the few ways to ruin those sparkling Harbour vistas.
Pinchgut took on a new role — and name — in 1857, when the British completed construction of Australia’s first and only Martello Tower, the style of squat defensive fort more often spotted on the Caribbean and Mediterranean coast. Renamed after the then Governor of NSW, Fort Denison’s 8000 tonnes of sandstone had room for 24 soldiers and 12 cannons and was designed to shore up Sydney Harbour’s defences during the Crimean War. The only problem? By the time the Brits finished construction, their beef with Russia had been over for two years.
Fort Denison was called into action during World War II when it found itself caught up in a skirmish between an American ship and midget Japanese submarines in 1942. The USS Chicago misfired a shell that damaged Fort Denison (oops) before one Japanese sub torpedoed the HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 Allied naval personnel, then made its escape through the heads of the Harbour. While two wrecked subs were recovered, the fate of the third invader remained a mystery until 2006, when its wreckage was discovered just off the Northern Beaches.
These days, now that convict hangings and wartime torpedoes are a distant memory, you can catch the hourly ferry from Circular Quay to Fort Denison and not worry about bumping into a rotting corpse when you hop off. Explore the fortress’ museum, Martello tower, gun powder store and artillery in your own time or on a tour organised through the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service Guides. Don’t miss the daily cannon firing at 1pm, a tradition established between 1906 to 1942 to help sailors set their ship’s clocks accurately. Just make sure to pack lunch unless you want to pinch your own gut — the resident cafe and restaurant closed in June 2017.