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Rob's Shed

NSW Torpedo and Signalling Corps

The Torpedo Corps (NSW Torpedo and Signalling Corps from 1879), formed about 1871, and, described as an element of the Naval Brigade (formed 1863), was in occupation of a depot at Berry's Bay, on the north side of Port Jackson. The Corps was a part-time unit, with many members, including its commanding officer (Major Edward Charles Cracknell, 1831-1893), drawn from the ranks of the government Telegraph Department. Initially, the reference to "torpedo" means what were later known as "controlled mines", although torpedo boats with side-dropped torpedoes were obtained later.

The Melbourne Argus of 3 April 1871 reported on one of the Corps first activities:

"The prettiest sight of the whole spectacle on Saturday was the explosion of a torpedo beneath a little doomed boat moored for the purpose. It was one of the colonial-made torpedoes, manufactured in Sydney under contract with the Government, was placed on a shallow patch in 16 ft. of water, and was fired off by Mr Cracknell from the South Head. The explosion was instantaneous on connecting the wires, and an immense column of water was thrown up into the air. The force of the explosion was sufficient to have destroyed the largest ship afloat, or the most powerful iron-clad."

An examination of newspaper reports of the Corps' activities gives the impression of a rather accident prone bunch of amateurs. As early as 1874 they were responsible for the "fearful explosion of a torpedo" in Philip street Sydney, which resulted in Thomas Forster, aged 23, being dangerously burnt. It seems the Corps had sent a torpedo case to Mr George Benthien, plumber, to be made water-tight by pitching and soldering. The case had been used for a previous experiment, and it seems it had not been completely emptied of powder. (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March 1874)

In 1881, a man named Bucknell was killed by falling down an unsecured torpedo shaft at Georges Head. This shaft was one of those constructed to carry electrical cables for the firing of torpedoes. At the inquest there seems to have been considerable buck-passing between the Permanent Artillery and the Torpedo Corps as to who was responsible for seeing to control of access, as this extract from the Sydney Morning Herald 9 November 1881 makes clear.

"...the other batteries were locked, so that the public could not enter them without previously obtaining permission to do so; there was not any fence around the batteries at George's Head, nor any notice stating that the public were not allowed to enter without permission." He said that "Sergeant-Major McGREGOR was the non-commissioned officer who had charge of the works in connection with the torpedo service at George's Head; Mr. McGREGOR asserted that the works were in charge of the Artillery Force stationed there; Major CRACKNELL, the officer in charge of the Torpedo Corps, said he was not responsible; and Colonel ROBERTS, the head of the Artillery Force, "really did not know who had charge of the works." It is clearly the duty of the Government to step in at this juncture and place the responsibility upon somebody..."

The Corps established at Berry's Bay about 1877. They occupied a site leased from the estate of Alexander Berry. Explosives, particularly guncotton, were stored on this site, probably in large amounts. However there is no mention of a purpose-built magazine. This makes it likely that the guncotton was being stored in the wet form; wet guncotton will not detonate if exposed to a fire in the absence of a detonating composition.

On 28 February 1878 the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

"By the ship Lammermoor, which arrived here on the 17th instant, the Government has received the largest consignment of gun-cotton ever introduced into the colony in one shipment. The explosive is contained in 2500 cases of such careful and peculiar construction that the risk attending the storage of such dangerous material has been reduced to a minimum. The vessel has also brought other stores for the torpedo service. This gun-cotton &c., is the balance of the stores necessary for the completion of the torpedo arrangements, and for fitting the new corps for active service."

The Royal Navy's Australian Squadron may also have stored explosives at Berry's Bay. When they transferred their stores onto Spectacle Island in 1884, the majority came from Goat Island, but some also came from Berry's Bay and Middle Harbour (possibly from the powder hulks).

In an 1886 debate in the NSW Parliament "on the motion of Mr. Darley affirming the desirableness of reorganising the Permanent Artillery Force and the Torpedo Corps" Mr Creed:

"... maintained that in ordinary circumstances two months would be occupied in obtaining warlike stores from England, and if a war scare was created, such a demand for material would arise in that country that the colony might have to wait six months for a supply. They should, therefore, not only provide themselves with a sufficient quantity, but they should have proper places to keep it in. The stores at Berry's Bay were not efficiently protected. They contained several tons of gun cotton and hundreds of detonators, and the building was so open to the public and so combustible in its character that the emissary of an enemy might easily destroy it without suspicion being aroused against him. This might be accomplished by clockwork torpedoes, and if an explosion occurred, not only would they lose the war stores there, but much devastation would take place for miles around. ..."
(Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 1886)

Just the next month Mr Darley, in a letter to the Herald, adverted to the security issue:

"... I do trust that a proper and efficient body of trained torpedo men will be instituted, attached to the permanent artillery force, and that these men will have charge of the very dangerous, expensive, and valuable explosives which we now possess, and not allow a similar thing to that to occur which my hon. friends, Mr. Creed and Mr. Dodds, experienced. Let anyone attempt to go into an arsenal in England, much more so abroad, and see what would be done with him. Let anyone got a distance of 6 feet within the gates of a German arsenal, and he would find himself in the blackhole before very long. But, here, my hon. friends walked into our stores, examined the torpedoes, and walked away without a word being said to them."
(Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1886)

The Sydney Morning Herald of 7 June 1887 contains some information about the leasing of the property. The initial rental was £110 per annum. On 19 March 1878 the Colonial Architect surveyed the building and reported that the building was poorly constructed. Major Cracknell, however, was apparently satisfied that it was fit for purpose. In May 1885 notice to quit was received; there was talk of resumption, but it seems that negotiations resulted in the lease being maintained but at an increased rental.

It is said that about 1885, workshops, a packing room, a hydraulic testing house and an office were constructed on the site.

A report from 1887 describes the Torpedo depot thus:

"In the yard enclosing the buildings there are a number of heavy stores, chiefly torpedo cases, from which all gear, bolts, and chains have been removed, and on which the weather can have practically no effect. There is also a cable surf-tube to which the same remarks apply. A quantity of cable is stored in tanks of water, and regularly attended to. These tanks have lately been painted. There are also a number of coils of cable thrown together in a mass at one end of the ground, and they present a worn-out, ragged appearance which, to a superficial observer, would doubtless look like the result of careless exposure. As it happens, however, these are really worn out telegraph cables, which have been lifted from rivers and other watersheds in the country, and brought here to be of what use they may. They were never intended to be used for torpedo work, and would be of no use if they were, and they are so far gone that it matters little what becomes of them, but rather than that they or better material should be wasted, they are being utilised to teach the men knotting and splicing, and similar practical operations. A small storeroom occupies a portion of the yard, and contains a great variety of appliances, all in first-class order.

Within the main building, on the ground floor, there is a paintroom, in which it is stated a large quantity of guncotton was stored in a dangerous condition. The quantity actually in the depot at the time was about half the alleged quantity, and it was packed in the cases always used for it, the same cases, in fact, as are used in England. Although the quantity was enough to have done serious damage if it had exploded, there was never any probability that it would explode. It consisted of the charges of the 600lb. mines taken up from a certain mine-field after the scare of 1885, and stored in this depot temporarily, because it was the proper place for it in the absence of other immediate provision, but it has since been removed.

Throughout the establishment, which is filled, with a large stock of torpedo fittings and electrical appliances, the whole of the stores and instruments are in an admirable condition - clean and in good order, and divided into their several departments, all of which are as easily accessible as the structure of the building will allow. Those stores, preserved within the building, include a quantity of cable of a totally distinct construction from that kept in the tanks outside." (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March 1887)

A typical parade for the men of the Torpedo Corps went something like this:

"The Torpedo and Signal Corps assembled on Saturday at the depot on Berry's Bay for an instructional parade. The corps was conveyed from Circular Quay to the Bay and back by special steamer. The total strength was 132. Colonel Cracknell was in command, and there was a full attendance of officers who conducted the instruction of the various classes superintended by Major Penrose and Sergeant-major Wood. The day's work comprised signalling, rowing, test table instruction, hydraulic testing, joining, knotting and splicing, and laying out cables. Some experiments were also made with the position-finder with the aid of buoys."(Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 1887)

This wasn't quite as exciting as the field exercises, such as the occasion reported by the Herald on 18 November 1878, when an excursion to Middle Harbour climaxed with:

"All this having been explained, Major Cracknell proceeded to illustrate his remarks by actual experiment. A wooden float bearing a flag had been moored above the torpedo. The flag was supposed to represent a fillibustering ship. Directly the telescope was brought to bear upon the flag, the armature brought the wires into contact, and a grand and most thrilling explosion ensued. Tons and tons of water were ejected an immense distance into the air - probably to the eight of over 100 feet; the sea bubbled and foamed all around in gradually widening circles; the sandbank, at a distance of about five hundred yards, where the company were stationed, shook and trembled as though an earthquake had taken place; and a miniature tidal wave rushed up along the shore almost as far as high-water mark. Myriads of fish of all kinds were either killed or stunned by the explosion, and became an easy prey, not only to those who pulled up to the spot in boats, but also to the members of the corps, many of whom, regardless of the consequences to their uniforms, gallantly charged the waves, and captured heaps of unresisting fish."

The Torpedo and Signalling Corps later (by 1888) was transferred to the NSW Military Forces as the Submarine Mining Corps, located at Chowder Bay from 1892, and infamous for one of the worst military explosives accidents in Port Jackson during the 19th century.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au