While a little hard to decipher, especially from my photos, three sets of initials (WB, FM and IR) and the year 1788 engraved on sandstone rocks on the hilly and wooded northern part of Garden Island are thought to be genuine, dating back to 1788. This makes them the earliest known examples of graffiti in Colonial Australia and the oldest surviving evidence of British settlement on the continent.
1788 marked the arrival of what is referred to as the First Fleet into Sydney Harbour. Aboard the ships of this first fleet were the first Europeans to settle in Australia – a mix of freemen and convicts.
While settlement centred around Sydney Cove (now Circular Quay) the flagship of the First Fleet, the Sirius, anchored just outside of Sydney Cove and a few of its crew laboured on what became Garden Island, creating a kitchen garden to supply the ship with fresh vegetables. The garden wasn’t much of a success and food generally in the new colony was hard to come by. In October 1788 the Sirius left in search of food and according to at least one account a gardener was left on Garden Island. To survive he would need to have interacted with other settlers in Sydney Cove. Accordingly, it is conceivable that the marks left on the sandstone rocks could have been left by Sirius crew members or others who arrived on the First Fleet.
In support of this, there were 26 people on the First Fleet with the initials WB, four of these were crew of the Sirius. Three bore the initials FM, one of which, Frederick Meredith, was crew of the First Fleet – the initials are thought to be his.
The initials IR, present a little more difficulty. First names starting with I were extremely rare in the late 18th century and while one person on the First Fleet did have those initials, convict Isabella Rosson, it is highly unlikely she would have been on Garden Island in 1788, even though she went on to establish the first school in the colony. It is more likely that the I is in fact a J – two crew members of the Sirius and many other First Fleet arrivals had the initials JR.
The rocks on which the initials are carved are accessible to the public, lying as they do, within the Public Access Precinct.
Getting to Garden Island
Garden Island is an active naval base and public access is only permitted to the Garden Island Public Access Precinct on the north tip of the island. Unless you are on a bus tour, access is only permitted by Sydney Ferries using the Circular Quay to Watson’s Bay route. Ferries stop at the Garden Island Wharf during RAN Heritage Centre (see separate review) opening hours only and you must leave the island by the last ferry each day.
Free access to the Public Access Precinct (and the RAN Heritage Centre).