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The History Of The Bare Island Fort

By December 7, 2022 No Comments

One of the joys of living in Sydney’s east is the proximity to so many wonderful coastal spots.

One spot well worth visiting is Bare Island. Just off the point at La Perouse, the island is home to a 19th-century fort with a fascinating history that stretches from a feared Russian invasion to a famous Tom Cruise chase scene.

Bare Island’s early history

Bare Island is a tiny outcrop just 30 metres off the coast in Botany Bay.

Now part of Kamay Botany Bay National Park, the surrounding area is part of the traditional lands of the Goorawal People and the Gweagal People.

Among the first Europeans to spot Bare Island were Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook who, on sailing into Botany Bay in 1770, recorded in his journal that he passed a “small bare island”. The name stuck.

Fear builds a fort

In 1853, France and Britain declared war on Russia. With Australia still indelibly tied to the mother country, and with France having a colony in the Pacific, fears of a Russian invasion of Sydney took hold.

By the 1880s, the New South Wales colonial government decided it was necessary to fortify Sydney’s coastline. Among the defences built was the Bare Island fort.
Designed by Peter Scratchley, colonial administrator and military engineer, and Gustavus Morrell, a civil engineer, most of the fort’s concrete works were completed by 1883 and four guns mounted.

The fort is one of the earliest examples of mass concrete work in Australia. But the colony’s inexperience with the building material became evident in the fort’s poor workmanship – the first troops stationed there had to live in tents on the La Perouse headland because the fort could not yet properly house them.

As you make your way across the 130-year-old wooden bridge the fort begins to take shape. But that’s from the mainland side. Viewed from the ocean, the island looks, well, bare – and there’s a good reason for that. Ships approaching from the ocean couldn’t see the fort, which gave resident troops an advantage over the enemy they thought would soon turn up.

But the Russians never came, and by 1908 all military activity on the island had stopped. In 1912 the fort began a new chapter as a veterans’ home, the very first in Australia. When World War II broke out the fort was recommissioned for military purposes. While around twelve veterans remained at the fort throughout the war, the veterans’ home was closed altogether in the 1960s.

Bare Island’s big-screen adventures

The much-loved Australian classic Phar Lap used Bare Island and La Perouse as locations for many outdoor scenes, and other films have done the same.

But it was in 2000 that the fort starred in one of cinema’s most memorable action scenes in Mission: Impossible 2.

For one notably dramatic chase scene, the filmmakers had their sights set on blowing up the island’s 130-year-old bridge. But National Parks and Wildlife Service refused, and the explosion had to be digitally created instead.

Exploring the fort today

Footbridge from La Perouse leading to Bare Island — Photo from Wikipedia

Today, you can explore the tunnels that snake through the island’s interior, view the small museum, and see the massive 18-tonne gun, which veterans moved from its original spot to create a pool room for themselves.

National Parks and Wildlife Service runs guided walking tours of the fort. Tours run most Sundays – see the NPWS website for more information. In the past, Bare Island has also hosted Aboriginal cultural workshops.

Bare Island is also a popular place for snorkelling and scuba diving. Grab your gear and keep an eye out for coral, red morwong, weedy sea dragons, blue gropers and more.
Tip: If you visit Bare Island Fort, make sure you visit gorgeous Congwong Beach, La Perouse, right next door.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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