Kuttabul Command team discover Garden Island secrets

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Debra Holland (author), ABIS Tom Gibson (photographer)

Commanding Officer HMAS Kuttabul, Commander Rebecca Jeffcoat, RAN, listens as Garden Island tour guide, Mr Leyland Wilkinson, explains the history of the base during a recent tour of the island. (photo: ABIS Tom Gibson)
Commanding Officer HMAS Kuttabul, Commander Rebecca Jeffcoat, RAN, listens as Garden Island tour guide, Mr Leyland Wilkinson, explains the history of the base during a recent tour of the island.

Members of the Naval Historical Society recently hosted a familiarisation tour of Garden Island’s ‘heritage secrets’ for Commanding Officer HMAS Kuttabul Commander Rebecca Jeffcoat and her team.  

Led by David Stockman, who has spent 45 years at Garden Island, the first stop was inside a labyrinth of underground tunnels. Cut into the rock and running for hundreds of metres beneath the northern hill, the tunnels were built as air raid shelters after the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney in 1942.  Although never needed during the war, the remnants of a planned telephone exchange, the casualty clearance station, the emergency generator room and the ablution blocks remain.

Commander Jeffcoat said she was fascinated by the history of Garden Island and enjoyed the opportunity to share it with her team.

“Garden Island is the oldest naval base in Australia dating back to the first days of the colony,” Commander Jeffcoat said. 

“Its history is very much the story of Sydney’s growth and change over the past two centuries which has been hand in hand with Navy’s."

Moving from the tunnels, echoes of an earlier era can be found above ground, from the carefully restored houses, the oldest dating back to 1885, the abandoned signal station, a heritage rose garden, the fuel store and the 1796 gun emplacements.   

Two more volunteers, Norman Rivett and Leyland Wilkinson then took over tour guide duties for the command team. For 90 year old Norman Rivett, the history of HMAS Kuttabul and Garden Island aligns very much to the story of his own life.  A former English merchant navy engineer, he began his career on the dockyards as a fitter in 1954 and now 60 years later, he still attends to his volunteer work with the Naval Historical Society every Tuesday and Thursday.

Mr Rivett is just one of several dedicated Society volunteers, all of whom have personal or family links to Defence and the dockyards, who are ensuring this valuable part of Australia’s heritage is kept for future visitors to enjoy.

The tour continued on to a ceremonial drum idol set deep in the earth. The carved tree stump is believed to have been brought back to Garden Island from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in 1910.  Society tour guide, Leyland Wilkinson, formerly Superintendent of the Apprentices Training School for the Naval Dockyards, produced a 1922 photo of Surgeon Lieutenant William Paradice standing next to the idol which towers above him.  Time and the elements have worn down the stump so it barely reaches the shoulders of those present today.

Just below the 19th century tennis courts on the western side of the hill is one of the island’s most unusual treasures; three sets of initials, each with the year 1788, carved into the sandstone rocks. The signatures belong to Frederick Meredith, a seaman and baker, Royal Marine Private Joseph Radford and First Lieutenant William Bradley, sent from HMS Sirius to survey the island.

Garden Island was initially utilised by the First Fleet settlers as a place to grow crops as it was removed from the main settlement and food was less likely to be stolen by the populace. The soil was more fertile than the land around The Rocks, resulting in Garden Island’s name and a place in Australia’s early history.

“But just as importantly, Garden Island’s history belongs to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have departed here in warships for service overseas, or worked in the shipyards, or even called it home,” Commander Jeffcoat said. 

“We recognise that as custodians of this heritage, Navy has a responsibility to ensure its long term conservation and I am pleased that we are able to have  areas of the island opened up for the public to enjoy,” she said.       

Access to the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre and the northern section of the island is via the Garden Island ferry wharf.

For more information on the Naval Historical Society of Australia’s guided tours see www.navyhistory.org.au