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Rob's Shed

Among the Islands

Sydney Morning Herald 23 May 1891, page 4

"AMONG THE ISLANDS

BY VAURIEN

SPECTACLE ISLAND.

If the worth of a plot of ground is to be estimated by the value of the goods to be found on it, then is Spectacle Island far and away the most valuable in the harbour, for it contains something like three-quarter of a million's worth of war material. The place is not far from Cockatoo, nor from a small, rocky, barren islet called Snapper Island, whose only office is to supply standing room for sea fowl - some place where they can meet and deliberate unmolested. Curiousity prompted me to first steer my bark to this wee elevation, standing like a wen on the face of the waters. Its northern and southern extremities consist of bare, tide-washed ledges running some distance into the bay, thereby rendering navigation dangerous to well-developed but inexperienced mariners in small dingies. The flora of the interior is chiefly rank grass, a few consumptive-looking bushes, and three stumps, one of the latter still showing signs of a little feeble vitality.

Spectacle Island about 1900

Spectacle Island Magazine c. 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW - Call number: PXA 635/837

Were snapper in the mid-Pacific, the shipwrecked sailor cast upon it would probably cross it once or twice and then go down again into the sea so that the waves might do their worst. Yet even here, under a beetling rock, were evidences of recent hilarity and merry-making in the shape of the remains of a fire and the broken fragments of a feast. Probably some boys, influenced by the wild stories of the pirates of old, stopped here for a night during the warm weather, and imagined themselves buccaneers. Oh! marvellous imagination of youth, that requires but a punt, an island, and a pond as the commonplace materials from which to manufacture weird stories of the romantic incidents in a corsair's life. But steam and electricity have wiped out the calling of piracy, so that a real rover is now as rare as a dodo.

A man once sold a horse at such an exceedingly low price that he deemed an explanation necessary. He suggested, in the first place, that the animal when turned into a paddock was extremely hard to find, that when found, he was no good. In one particular Spectacle Island is not unlike the foregoing eccentric quadruped. It is not easy to find, or, rather, to obtain a footing on it. It is useless to go there without a permit, as the naval authorities, in whose keeping it is, sensibly object to strangers who attempt to land without being accredited. But in the other particular, the horse parallel does not hold, as the island when found and visited is seen, as before intimated, to be worth all the others rolled into one, so far as the value of goods and chattels is concerned. As the Parramatta steamers do not call there, it is useless to go by the Cockatoo route. You are simply dropped at the latter place and have the mortification of looking at Spectacle Island from a short distance without the possibility of reaching it except by swimming, which apart from the inconvenience likely to raise from sharks in search of dessert, after a full meal on slaughter-yard refuse, is an undignified method of approaching an arsenal.

The best way is to take one of the Balmain omnibuses, any of whose civil drivers will drop you at a point in that droll suburb, whence the road to a boat-shed if not exactly straight is at least easily followed. On the overland route to Balmain it is possible that some institutions may arrest your attention by the way. There is a draw-bridge, for instance, which is pretty sure to be gaping as the vehicle approaches. It is not on record that any person, especially if on or behind a horse, or even on foot and in a hurry, ever approached that bridge without finding two conscientiously hard-working men twisting it the wrong way. While waiting for it to take a turn in the proper direction, an opportunity is afforded for studying the two long lines of vehicles, equestrians, and footmen, one of which is bent on reaching Balmain and the other as determined to leave it. Second-hand furniture, with an occasional piano attended by an Austrian suite, seems to comprise the bulk of the suburban-bound goods, while the balance of the Sydney-bound merchandise consists of empty beer-barrels relieved by wains of apparently wholesome hay. The abattoirs, too, are passed on the road, and above the hum of a great and contiguous city rises the pungent odour of swine and the low penetrative nidor of kine. Balmain itself is a suburb of surprises. Some corners look as if they dated from the Crusades, while the opposite ones seem angles of yesterday. The number of houses to let is not a cheery symptom; and the way tradesmen loll in their shirt-sleeves at their verandah posts, varying the tedium of waiting by sending stones in the wake of passing dogs, is mildly suggestive of commercial slackness.

Some time or another I must devote a whole day to Balmain, for, as seen from the top of a coach, it is a suburb that deserves looking after. On a hasty view it appears a place of promontories and peninsulas; of bare allotments, pretentious buildings, and curiously involved streets, as if its founders had the figure of a boomerang before them when they started to build, and shaped their thoroughfares accordingly.

The boathouse was easily reached, and - think of it, ye Sydney watermen, and beg forgiveness for your extortion - for one shilling an hour I secured a skiff fit for a Sultan. After the visit to Schnapper Island already referred to, the trip to Spectacle was merely a matter of a few hundred yards.

On landing at the latter the first thing to arrest attention is the number of large guns lying on the ground apparently bent on making as much as possible of that rarest of Sydney's present gifts, a sunshiny day. From the huge 22-ton bulldog, throwing one-sixth of a ton of iron over many miles, to the saucey little 4 lb. toy-terrier whose teeth, if small, are sharp and penetrating, there they lay looking so stolid and unconcerned that a stranger unacquainted with their peculiarities would never suspect them of being so hot-tempered and noisy when aroused - never deem them capable of firing up on occasionally small provocation. It is now agreed that, as man's life is bounded by five score years - except in the rare cases where, palsied and semi-inarticulate, he totters for a short time beyond that seldom-reached bourne - so the life of a modern great gun consists of about a hundred rounds, more or less. This is when it runs its natural course. But it sometimes shows such symptoms of distress after the first shot or two as to be obliged to run up the danger flag, by means of a crack occasionally extending from Dan to Beersheba. Of all man's productions, a big cannon probably points the sombrest moral. Bearing in mind the time and money spent on that great tube yonder, the number of men necessary to attend it, the labour they undergo, and their constant liability to have the breech blown in their faces, one would naturally think that such an expensive invention was intended to carry comfort to somebody. But there is no special comfort in occupying the wrong end of a 380 lb. missile's trajectory, except, perhaps, the solace to be derived from the reflection that you and the projectile will roach your destination simultaneously.

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)

Turn the left cheek when the right is smote? That 22-tonner over against the wharf there seems to have learnt the lesson badly. It is not so much a symbol of meekness as of the fact that Voltaire was probably not so wrong after all when he called men an amalgam of tigers and apes. These pieces of modern ordnance at Spectacle Island are intended as a reserve for the fleet. Even should one of tho Orlando's great guns become disabled, it is possible to supply its place from the surplus stock. It is not to be supposed, however, that all the cannons lying about are of the newest pattern. Many of them are muzzle-loaders of the old type, the type that was good enough for Nelson - and Collingwood. Having been fitted with steel tubes in their previously smooth bores, they now hold up their heads as rifled ordnance, ready to spin an elongated shot on its shorter axis as well as the best of them. They are a standing example of how new wine can sometimes be put into old bottles without fear of the result. Formerly content to hurl round projectiles with more or less precision, they are no sooner fitted with steel than they become filled with pride as well, and reject the food on which they were reared. Their breeches, however, seem to a standing grievance with them. They are and will remain muzzle-loaders to the end of their days so that, in spite of their airs and their promotion to the ranks of rifled ordnance, they still remain a sort of "marine artillery" a species of cross between the honest smooth-bore and the spruce breech-loader. Yet I love these old guns for all their aping of the manners of their superiors. Unlike their more highly-finished successors they could always be depended on to fire off through the proper orifice whatever was put in them, whether iron, or wood, or wadding. As for bursting, it was the last thing they thought of. You might give them a meal of powder enough for a torpedo, but they would bring it up as well as what was in front of it with an honest endeavour to do their best, which won tho approbation of all except, perhaps, of the incautious persons who happened to be before them.

It was while examining some empty cases on the wharf addressed to the paymaster in charge of H.M. Naval Yard, Sidney" - British officials were never at the top of the class in spelling - that the polite request of the Officer-in-Charge to know if I was looking for anybody recalled my thoughts from the eccentricities of naval orthography to the fact that my card of admission had not been delivered. Having obtained permission to explore the island by myself we parted on the best of terms, he promised to subsequently explain any puzzles met in the peregrination. Inland are many substantial buildings wholly devoted to war material and those who handle it.

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. The privilege of going without shoes and stockings is one which once enjoyed, is never willingly relinquished. Fashion, it is true, with her ghastly ordinances has succeeded in partly smothering the desire in most breasts. But the alacrity with which grown persons, whether on shipboard or on the sea-sands return to nature by taking off their boots shows that, however conventional we become, we rush to satisfy our natural yearnings when an opportunity offers, and throw our shoes over our shoulders.

In thick novels written by young lady authors, there is one reflection that is sure to be met several times between tho covers. It is to the effect that on entering an apartment, whether lofty or lowly, it is always easy to surmise the gentle presence of woman from the dainty way in which the things are arranged so as to make the greatest show without being positively obtrusive. On Spectacle Island, too the same gentle presence is manifest, if only by the swings on which children defy the law of gravity, or, by the orderly manner in which the window-blinds hang. There is a garden also, in which attempts at cultivation are plainly visible. It is not large certainly, a few yards square perhaps, but under a system of intense culture there is no reason why it should not grow sufficient vegetables for a frugal family besides supplying button-holes to the cultivators when giving a party. The idea of a party, however, in the neighbourhood of a powder magazine is too gloomy to dwell upon.

To the north-west of the island is a small peninsula joined to the main body by a curving causeway bearing a wooden tram-line. On this wee, semi-detached spot is a house which from, its isolation and air of general moodiness, I at first took to be the magazine, until informed that it was the operation-room, or place where cartridges were filled, shells prepared, and other warlike affairs attended to. A good deal of cutting and blasting is being carried on at the wee Peninsula to, make room for a building to use as a store depot for the coming Australian fleet, when the vessels comprising that squadron manage to got over their trial trips without having to be towed out of danger.

On the portion of Spectacle Island, furthest from this tiny protuberance, are the officers' quarters, consisting of a cosy stone cottage partly or wholly surrounded by a generous verandah. From the latter, one has a full view of Balmain's sloping north-western coast, dotted here and there with what an auctioneer would call highly-ornate marine residences, of Five Dock, Hunter's Hill, Cockatoo, and the entrances to the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers. The cottage, in fact, is one that commends itself to any person, who loves the sea and enjoys the odour of the briny as it enters his bedroom in the early morning. As I stood on the pathway the south-east breeze, even though slightly seasoned with the malodorousness of a great city, brought a bouquet from higher latitudes, closely followed by an appetite that could hold its own against a shark, an alderman, or a pike.

And now Mr. Bennett, the Officer-in-Charge, took me in hand to show me some of the stores. He is a warrant officer in the Royal Navy, and entered the service as a lad of 12 or 13. Even in his time the sea-service has improved in many ways so far as the comfort and conduct of the men are concerned. It is the same with the army. The change from the harsh and occasionally semi-savage discipline of the ante-Crimean days has been gradual but great. What is not generally known is that all the great mutinies both in land and sea forces took place when the "cat" was kept going all day afloat and ashore. I've spoken to an old soldier from whose regiment, when serving in India, every tenth man was once taken and shot. But it was the Nore mutiny which, according to Lecky's lost volumes, placed Great Britain in such a critical position that nothing but the rarest good luck kept her from losing Ireland.

All these things pass through my head while Mr. Bennett, as if receiving instead of conferring a favour - a pleasant characteristic which is found to perfection among sailors - explains the peculiarities of the various kinds of projectiles. There is one main peculiarity which is apparently possessed by all alike, except, of course, the solid, chilled, shot, which is too heavy for lenity they have an irritating habit of bursting out at the most inopportune times and places. In that Spectacle Island there are shells to suit every description of enemy Her Majesty has on land or water. Would a small one fit their case? Here is the precise article to accommodate them. Would they prefer the largest size with time or percussion fuse? In the corner yonder is the exact pattern of which they are in search, warranted to be delivered with a rapidity leaving nothing to be desired once they leave their address. Strange that such expensive presents should be intended for one's worst enemies. There is something in one of these 380lb. shells that commands respect even when it is lying empty on the floor. Although there may not be an ounce of powder in it it seems plethoric with a dreadful potentiality for downright wickedness.

A display of shells

Here, too, are the projectiles intended for the old smooth-bores that have been rifled by modern ingenuity in order to keep up with the times. They are much uglier-looking customers than the round balls the pieces formerly belched. Their very shape is suggestive of nothing so much as iniquity long drawn out. Then come small-arms, quick firing guns, rocket-tubes, and the multitudinous appliances for carrying out that most potent of remedies for human misunderstanding blood and iron. The rockets are mostly for use among the South Sea Islands, as experience has shown that the kanaka who smiles contemptuously at a solid shot, will put his very best leg foremost when a rocket comes to chide him for eating the last storekeeper.

If the poor Papuans only know the care taken by the white folk to provide them with comforts, common gratitude would do more to civilise them than the shorter catechism. For the black man is simple by nature, and too frequently allows his pale-faced brother to got inside him.

Then there are complete equipments for the merchant vessels which might be pressed into the service as cruisers on a sudden outbreak of hostilities. A Siberian proverb says that the white Czar's arm is far reaching. A visit to Spectacle Island goes some way to snuggest that one M. Bull also is exceedingly long in the reach. This, at all events, was the cardinal impression left on my mind as I thanked Mr. Bennett and once again committed myself to the treacherous deep."

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au