It may be the best place to party in the New Year, but Fort Denison was originally far from an island getaway retreat. No more than a desolate rocky outcrop in Sydney Harbour, it was used as a fishing spot by Aborigines, who called it Mat-te-wan-ye, before being taken over by white settlers and given the name ‘Pinchgut'.
Once home to Sydney's finest weight-loss program, from the 1788 it was a dumping ground for petty crims. Those caught stealing food in the Sydney colony were shackled to the 15-metre rock with naught but rations of bread and water.
Although it gives weight to the choice of name, the Mitchell Library's senior curator Paul Brunton says ‘Pinchgut' has multiple meanings. "It was named Pinchgut by Admiral John Hunter [who later became Governor of NSW] in 1788. It's both an old nautical term for the point where a stream channel narrows and the word for being hungry."
The island was given a militaristic makeover and renamed after Lieutenant Governor Sir William Denison in the late 1830s, following fear of a possible attack by Russian warships. It was fortified with 8,000 tonnes of sandstone quarried near Neutral Bay, installed with a Martello tower (now the last Martello tower of the British Empire) and a bestowed with a gunroom, which seemed to be completely pointless given it was too small to fire cannons. However, by the time the fortification was complete, the garrison was redundant (although it was accidentally hit in 1942 when the American cruiser USS Chicago fired upon a Japanese sub that had entered the harbour).
Nowadays Fort Denison is a hot tourist destination and a favourite spot for wedding receptions.
Guided tours from Fort Denison daily at 11.15am, 12.15, 1.45pm & 2.45pm. Adults $37.50; concs $33; child $29.
Ferries for Fort Denison depart every 45 minutes from Pier 26, Darling Harbour (from 10.30am) or No. 6 Jetty, Circular Quay (from 10.45am). Adult & concs $17; child $10.