In the 1870s New South Wales authorities believed Russia might invade Australia. The colony requested two British fortification experts, Sir Peter Scratchley and William Jervois to coordinate the defence of Sydney. They began in 1877 and Bare Island was to play a crucial role, as the sole fortification in Botany Bay.

Little did they know the controversy that would follow. 


Who designed the fort?
  • Sir Peter Scratchley, British Miltary
  • James Barnet, Architect
Construction Timeline
  • Fortress – 1881-1889
  • Bridge – 1887
  • Barracks – 1890-1891
Royal Commission


Who Designed the Fortress?

 Sir Peter Scratchley, British Military 

A Lieutenant Colonel in the British military with an engineering background, Scratchley coauthors the Jervois-Scratchley Reports of 1877 and was the primary designer of the fort at Bare Island.


James Barnet, Architect 

James Johnstone Barnet (1827-1904) was the Colonial Architect at the time and responsible for construction of Bare Island Fortress. A distinguished architect with over 400 constructions to his name, he had received both praise and criticism for his designs.


bare island fort controversy

Sir Scratchley and James Barnet. Credit: NSW State Library

John McLeod and Co.

The company contracted to complete the works.


Henry Purkis and Edwin Colley

Two clerks who carried out inspections.


Bare Island Fort Construction Timeline – 1881-1889


  • The fortress began construction in 1881 was completed in 1889


  • The bridge to the island was not completed until after the fortifications were erected. Prior to that all supplies and construction material were brought over on barges. Including the iron casemates for the main gun.


  • The bridge to the island was built after the fort, and was finished in 1887.


  • The barracks were built later between 1890 to 1891.
bare island history

Bare Island 1870-1875. Credit: State Library of NSW

Major Controversy


It wouldn’t be a major public work without a bit of controversy. This is Sydney, after all.

  • On 16 July 1889 work on the fort and barracks was removed from James Barnet’s control.


  • A ‘military works’ branch was created within the Public Works Department, with Lieutenant-Colonel F. R. de Wolski as director.


  • de Wolski was highly critical of Barnet’s ability.


  • Barnet delayed handing over plans and documents.


  • The relationship between Barnet and the military deteriorated, with rumours of incompetence and shoddy work practice. This sparked the Bare Island controversy, and led to the first Royal Commission.


Royal Commission

Australia’s first royal commission was appointed in 1890 to investigate the contracts and work practices on Bare Island. The findings concluded that the standard was inadequate, with specs altered and expenditure insufficiently controlled.

There was conflict between Barnet’s evidence and that of his subordinates. The commission found the deficiencies to be Barnett’s sole responsibility, he was found guilty of gross indifference and insubordination.

John McLeod and Co were banned from future government contracts and ordered to pay back a sum.

Purkis and Colley were sanctioned for failing to adequately inspect the works.

Barnet quit his position as Colonial Architect, but was allowed to keep his beard.

Throughout the controversy, Barnet denied the allegations, believing de Wolski’s influence had swayed the Commission. Despite his many contributions to colonial architecture, it would be on this note that he ended his career.

The saddest part was that his wife died that very same year.

In 1901 the island was handed over to the new Federal Government.

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