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Spectacle Island History

Spectacle Island is in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour, Australia), offshore from the suburb of Drummoyne and close by Cockatoo Island, a former naval dockyard. Initially a powder magazine operated by the Colony of New South Wales, it later became a Royal Navy ordnance depot and subsequently the initial headquarters of the RAN Armament Depot Sydney.

Aerial photo of Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island, July 1987 Facing East; Cockatoo Island to Left, Snapper Island to Right; Ammunition Lighters at Mooring Trots; Crane Stores Lighter at Front Wharf

2013 was a triple anniversary for the Island - 150 years since construction of its colonial powder magazine was commenced, 130 years since the Island was transferred to the Royal Navy for its use as a naval ordnance depot, and 100 years since it was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy. The Island is a Commonwealth-listed heritage site, still used by the Navy as an operational base. It is one of only 2 Sydney Harbour islands which are currently inaccessible to the general public, and hence is not well known by Sydney residents.

Spectacle Island was known as Gong-ul in the language of the Aboriginal inhabitants (Kohen, 1993; Attenbrow, 2002). For more information about the naming of the island, and to view early map representations, see "Spectacle Island - What's In a Name?"

Explore the history of Spectacle Island through the links below.

Gun storage Spectacle Island

Naval guns being prepared to be placed in reserve storage at Spectacle Island, 1940. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001648)


Dot point  The construction of the Spectacle Island powder magazine was a direct result of the overcrowding of the Goat Island magazine; the latter being used for storage of merchant's powder as well as the military and naval powder. On 12 February 1861 the Foreman of Magazines at Goat Island wrote to the Assistant Military Storekeeper...

Read What the Foreman Wrote - and Explore the History of the Colonial Powder Magazine, the Royal Navy Ordnance Depot and the RAN Armament Depot.


Dot point  The Spectacle Island Chronology page contains additional information.


Dot point  Lieutenant William Bradley, first lieutenant in the SIRIUS accompanied Captain Hunter in a boat party to survey the harbour very soon after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

Bradley's Journal Account of Spectacle Island


Spectacle Island in the 1920s

Spectacle Island in the 1920s. From the collection of the National Archives of Australia. (Image # C4076, HN5516D)


Dot point  James Gorman VC, a hero of the Crimean War, took up the position as the foreman of the magazines on Spectacle Island in 1881. Read more about James Gorman and his remarkable life, by courtesy of author Harry Willey, whose 20 year's of research into James Gorman's life enabled the true story to be told.

James Gorman, V.C.


Dot point  "In 1933 a short history of Spectacle Island was prepared as a typescript to celebrate the jubilee of the commencement of naval usage of the site. The identity of the author is given by the initials "R.A.B.", believed to be Reginald Arnold Ball, who at that time was an Assistant Armament Supply Officer stationed at the Island. "

Jubilee History of Spectacle Island


Dot point  "No amount of drenching will extinguish a box of Cordite when once it has taken fire, and efforts should in such an event be directed to preventing the neighbouring boxes from being ignited."

Spectacle Island Fire Regulations.


Dot point  "The City Coroner (Mr. J. C. Woore) held an inquest yesterday at the City Coroner's Court respecting the death of George Halse, 35, a single man, who died from the effects of an explosion at Spectacle Island on Saturday last."

A Fatal Explosion.


Dot point  A list was compiled in 1902 showing the date of erection of each building present at that time on Spectacle Island. It also shows those buildings that were in the course of erection or which were then proposed. It serves to identify the early stages of the island's development.

Early Buildings on Spectacle Island.


Cordite testing

Sydney, NSW. 1940-05. Cordite being tested. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001638)


Dot point  What did the Royal Navy keep at Spectacle Island?

Imperial stockholdings at Spectacle Island.


Dot point  Henry Douglas Capper, Gunner RN, was appointed as Officer-In-Charge of the Naval Ordnance Depot, Spectacle Island in 1894, following on from Henry Bennett. He was to serve in the post until 1900. Capper was one of the more interesting people to have been associated with Spectacle Island.

Henry Capper, Gunner, RN

Extracts from Henry Capper's Autobiography Aft - From the Hawsehole - HTML version

Extracts from Henry Capper's Autobiography Aft - From the Hawsehole - Adobe Acrobat * (PDF, 31KB) version

Get Acrobat Reader[* Requires Acrobat Reader. This is a free download. Click on the icon to go to the download site. Link opens in a new window.]


Dot point  The Australian Navy was designated as the Royal Australian Navy on 10 July 1911. When its assembled ships first entered Sydney Harbour on 4 October 1913, the Naval Ordnance Depot, Spectacle Island had been transferred from the Royal Navy and stood ready to meet the needs of the new fleet.


Dot point  Small boats, lighters and other support craft were essential to the operation of Spectacle Island during its life as an explosives depot. What was the "Ditty Box"?

Spectacle Island Support Craft.


Dot point  "When embarking or disembarking explosives at a ship or wharf steps are always to be taken by the Lighterman to see that fire hoses would be readily available should the necessity arise."

Fire Regulations Governing the Embarkation and Disembarkation of Explosives - 1928.


Dot point  "Dinner was just over and on the northern side of the stone cottage which answered the double purpose of guard and mess room a number of bare footed blue-jackets were basking in the sun. From the little of them visible, or about from their ankles to their great toes, they seemed young active lads who grumbled, perhaps, occasionally but on the whole faced life and its worries with easy carelessness."

Read an Account of a Visit to Spectacle Island in 1891


Gun inspection

Workmen inspecting a 4 inch naval gun in reserve storage at a RAN ammunition depot. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001656)


Dot point  There have been many "Officers-in-Charge" of the Spectacle Island depot, some of whom have had interesting lives in other fields.

Read about some of the people associated with Spectacle Island


Dot point  Spectacle Island in the newspapers?

Read the Spectacle Island scrapbook.

Dot point  Take a mid-20th century photographic tour through this depot.

RAN Armament Depot Photo Album circa 1949-1953

Sources of further information


(Can you add to the story of Spectacle Island? If so, please contact me at the email address below.)

Material on this page may be copied for personal use. If you intend to republish any substantial part of the page in any manner, please acknowledge the source and provide the URL of the page.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au