Spectacle Island – What’s In A Name?

“Spectacle” is a common island name – there are three in the Australian state of New South Wales alone. This post is about Spectacle Island in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), and how it acquired its name.

This Spectacle Island has a long association with the storage of explosives. You can find its history on my RAN Armament Depots website.

The shape of the island has been extensively modified since 1862 – by reclamation and by the reduction in height of some elevated areas to provide flat ground for building. This photo shows the island as it looked in the late 1980s:


The original shape of the island is best shown by the detailed survey made by Surveyor Edward Knapp in 1862 in preparation for the construction of the first buildings. The solid line in this represents the high tide mark, the dashed line the low tide mark:

Knapp Survey

This survey shows that the island was originally comprised of two unequally sized islets, separated by a “reef partially dry at low tide”.

Its name as used by the Wangal aboriginal people, was Gongul. This name was collected prior to 1791 by William Dawes (The Notebooks of William Dawes on the Aboriginal Language of Sydney). The notebook designates it as “the eighth island coming up the harbour.”

The first known European visitors to the island were the survey party of Captain John Hunter and First Lieutenant William Bradley, both of HMS Sirius, on 3 February 1788. Hunter recorded that:

It was a fairly unattractive place … two flat rock platforms, covered with scrub and divided by an isthmus 55 yards. The total area was less than 2 acres. (quoted in M. Keats, A Cautionary Tale: A Study of the Macro Bivalve and Gastropod Molluscan Fauna of Spectacle Island, Sydney Harbour, Wetlands (Australia) 16 (2), 1997.)

Following this visit, the island was named Dawes Island, after Second Lieutenant William Dawes of the Sirius. Yes, in a strange coincidence, the same Dawes who collected the aboriginal name!

This is the section of Hunter’s chart showing Dawes Island:

From Chart of Port Jackson as surveyed by Captain John Hunter

The map below is from Midshipman Raper’s redrawing of Hunter’s original survey. It misrepresents the island’s outline by showing the two halves as more equal in area than they were in fact. (Bird Island is present day Cockatoo Island).

From Chart of Port Jackson as surveyed by Captain John Hunter, drawn from the original by George Raper.

In 1802 the French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin produced a chart of Port Jackson, based on Hunter’s and supplemented with their own observations.  In this chart Dawes Island is named as “Isle Banks”, possibly just a transcription error:

From Survey of Port Jackson by Nicolas Baudin’s Expedition 1802

The first published use of the name “Spectacle Island” that I’ve been able to trace occurs on John Septimus Roe’s 1826 chart of the harbour (1) (2):

Survey of Port Jackson by John Septimus Roe – Published in 1826 but surveyed in 1822

The first newspaper use of “Spectacle Island” I’ve found so far is much later, in 1847, in a report of the death of a prisoner who drowned whilst escaping from Cockatoo Island (Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 1847, page 2).

It’s unclear whether the name “Dawes Island” entered into general usage. However it wasn’t forgotten as in 1860 there was a report of a sculling match race that stated that the course was “from Fort Macquarie to Dawes’ Island and back” (Moreton Bay Courier, 4 September 1860, page 4). (To this day, the island has continued to serve as a rounding mark for boat races.)

Every account of the origin of the name that I’ve come across says that it came from the island’s resemblance to a pair of spectacles. How could this be when the two islets were so unequal in area?

It seems unlikely that any waterline view of the island, as from a nearby boat or shore, could generate a resemblance to a pair of spectacles. Here is one such view – Spectacle is the small island at left:

John Skinner Prout – Cockatoo Island, Parramatta River (1843)

To see more early waterline images of the island, visit my Flickr page and open the Spectacle Island album.

Two other theories have been suggested. Both assume that an overhead view of the island’s outline gave rise to the name. Such a view could only have come at that period from a representation of the island on a survey plan or chart.

The first theory is that the resemblance is to the type of spectacles known as a lorgnette, i.e. spectacles that are positioned by a long handle attached to one side. Those with a very vivid imagination may possibly detect a lorgnette shape in Hunter’s depiction of the island.  If this theory is correct, it does beg the question as to why the island wasn’t named “Lorgnette Island”.

The second possibility is that the name was applied by someone not familiar with the island but aware of its depiction on the Hunter-Raper chart shown above, where the outline does approximate a pair of spectacles.

It seems unlikely that Roe, who was a competent marine surveyor, did not know that the name Dawes Island had precedence. He may have changed it because he had already applied the Dawes name to “Dawes Point” and wished to avoid any confusion. Alternatively, he may have used a name which had already entered common usage.

Before leaving the subject I should mention a third theory. At one time there was a girl’s reformatory school on nearby Cockatoo Island, occupied by both orphans and “wayward girls”. It was said that Dawes Island was a good place from which to see the wayward girls make a “spectacle” of themselves. This also has the virtue of explaining why it’s “Spectacle Island” and not “Spectacles Island”.

Much as I like this explanation, chronology rules it out. The reformatory came long after Roe used the name in 1826. And my Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells me that the singular form “spectacle” may also refer to what we now call “spectacles” or “a pair of spectacles”.


  1. Since first publishing this post I’ve become aware of a reference by the historian James Jervis to the name “Spectacle” being recorded by Surveyor Charles Grimes in his Field Book no. 7 in 1799. I have no reason to doubt this but have not yet had a chance to view the field book to  establish the context of the reference. Jervis’ claim is at page 402 of “The Origin of the Names in Port Jackson“, JRAHS, Vol. XXXI, Part VI, 1945.
  2. There is a plan based on the surveys of Grimes and Matthew Flinders published in London on 12 March 1799 that shows the island named as “Dawes” but this date is too early to reflect the results of any field survey conducted by Grimes in 1799. ( A topographical plan of the settlements of New South Wales including Port Jackson, Botany Bay, and Broken Bay / surveyed by Messrs. Grimes & Flinders. Communicated by Lt. Col. Paterson of the New South Wales Corps. Additions to 1815 Grimes, Charles, 1772-1858)