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RAN Armament Depot Spectacle Island - Chronology


4 February: Captain Hunter and party land on Dawes Island (Spectacle Island)


Surveyor Knapp completes a contour survey of the island.

17 April: Island reserved from sale for public purposes.

May: the Colonial Architect had finalised and costed a plan of works for the magazine, based on advice from the Brigade Major and the Assistant Superintendent of Stores. The estimated cost of the works comprising a "Gunpowder Magazine with Guard House and other necessary buildings" was £7,000.

Plans for the initial group of buildings (magazine, cooperage, laboratory, quarters etc) were drawn up in the office of Colonial Architect James Barnet. The buildings were to be mainly built of sandstone with slate roofs.


Construction approved by 23 January 1863 when the Colonial Architect was requested to carry out the works.

Tenders were called for the work; the highest tender being for £11,350 and the lowest for £6,430. The successful tenderer was Mr. John Gwynneth who tendered £7,439. The contract for the work was issued about 26 August 1863.

"At Spectacle Island a spacious powder magazine, and other buildings, have been contracted for by Mr. Gwynneth. The foundations are being laid for the superintendent's quarters, and also for the soldier's quarters, and the excavations are in progress for levelling the site for the magazine. The latter building will be seventy-five feet by fifty, and will be of stone obtained on the island; there are also to be a cooperage, labourer's quarters, a laboratory, and a wharf, connected with the magazine by a covered way. The magazine will be exclusively for the storage of merchant's powder." (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November 1863)


Mr. Gwynneth went bankrupt with the work only partially completed and despite a request from the Official Assignee that the contact not be re-tendered, this course of action was taken and a contract for completion was let to Mr. William Thornton on 21 November 1864 for the sum of £4,450.

£1,000 appropriated as a "further sum" for the Powder Magazine Spectacle Island in the supplementary appropriations. (NSW Acts No. XII of 1864)


Contracts were let in 1865 to equip the new magazine; items provided included furniture, powder wagons and magazine trucks.

The buildings of the new magazine were completed by about the 20th of September, 1865.


£390 appropriated for furniture and fittings for the Powder Magazine buildings and offices, Spectacle Island. (An Act to appropriate and apply out of the Consolidated Revenue F u n d of New South Wales certain Sums to make good the Supplies granted for the Service of the Year 1866 and for the Year 1865 and previous Years. [7th April, 1866.]


In 1871 a tender was accepted for the erection of cottages on the Island; these were in addition to the Foreman's quarters originally provided.


25 September: Proclamation by His Excellency Sir Hercules Robertson to the effect that all the ground for a distance of 50 yards from high water mark around Spectacle Island was a "public magazine" within the meaning of the Gunpowder and Explosives Consolidation Act of 1876.

In the additional estimates for 1876 the sum of £800 was voted for the erection of two replacement cottages (to the 1871 specification). £350 was also voted for the extension of the wharf, this work being necessary as due to a miscalculation when first constructed, lighters could not be brought alongside at low water.

An infant child died on the Island:

"BRADY - June 30, Spectacle Island, Blanche Marie Wynne Brady, aged 1 year and 7 months, only daughter of Thomas and Maria Brady." (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1876)


A requisition was submitted for the construction of a new laboratory. Stone for the cottages (see 1876) was being quarried on the island, and the site proposed for the laboratory was where the quarrying was being done.


The laboratory, a boatshed and a new "temporary" magazine all appear to have been completed about 1878.


8 June: James Gorman VC was appointed Foreman of the Magazines on Spectacle Island for a yearly salary of £175.

20 July: Just six weeks after taking up the position of Foreman, Gorman married for the second time. His new bride was thirty-five year old Deborah King, who with his daughter Annie, then lived with him in a stone cottage on Spectacle Island.


18 October: James Gorman dies after suffering a stroke.


September: Agreement to transfer the Island to the Royal Navy:

"To-day the Colonial Secretary and the Minister of Public Works accompanied by Commodore Erskine paid a visit of inspection to Spectacle Island, with a view to carrying out the arrangements made by the Colonial Treasurer with the Commodore, for having the Imperial warlike and other stores kept there instead of being as hitherto, mixed with the colonial war stores, which will in future be kept at Goat Island. The place having been duly inspected it was ordered that various alterations should be made in the building there to meet the purpose in view. The Imperial stores on the island are to be placed in charge of the naval staff who will also undertake the custody of the guns, carriages, and ammunition sent out by the home authorities for arming merchant vessels in the event of war." (The Argus, 12 September 1883)


Tanks for the storage of torpedo cable were built.


£5,500 appropriated for the erection of a Shell Magazine and Wharf, including reclamation works (NSW Act No. 42, 1899)


George Halse, an armourer attached to H.M.S. Katoomba died from the effects of an explosion at Spectacle Island.



At the Water Police Court yesterday before Mr. G. H. Smithers, S.M., Alfred Brickall (60) was charged with stealing 51 revolvers, of the value of [indecipherable], the property of his Majesty the King, between November 1904 and July 6, 1905. The evidence showed that certain revolvers had been pledged with several pawnbrokers of the city. Mr. William Robert Crane, foreman of the Ordnance Depot, Spectacle Island, identified the revolvers as of naval pattern, and stated that when stock was being taken 54 revolvers were found to be missing. Accused was committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions, to be held on August 2 next. Bail was allowed." (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1905)


"Will Spectacle Island Blow Up?

The people of Balmain have long regarded Spectacle Island with frank fear. It is the Sydney storehouse of the Imperial Navy for explosives in all their forms, and Balmain dreads an explosion that will wreck the neighbourhood.
When it was proposed to supersede the floating magazines which carried the commercial explosives of the city, the Australian Admiralty authorities were Invited to remove their magazine from Spectacle Island to part of the site In Middle Harbour selected for the other purpose. But both Admiral Fanshawe and Admiral Fawkes were averse to the proposal, primarily because the site being nine miles away would be impracticable.
But their expert officers reported that an explosion of naval warlike stores was practically impossible nowadays on account of their character and the care and skill exercised in handling them. Elaborate precautions were constantly taken to prevent an explosion, and to minimise the effects of such an accident should it occur. It was pointed out that there were great magazines at Plymouth, Portsmouth, and elsewhere at home in close proximity to dense populations, yet no objection was taken to the practice there. So Spectacle Island will continue to be the naval magazine." (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 January 1907)



The attention of the Premier was directed last evening to an article published In the Melbourne "Age" which attacked the New South Wales Government, and the Premier In particular, for action taken in connection with the suggestion that one or more of the torpedo boats wanted by the Federal Government should be built In Sydney, and for the Government's attitude with regard to expenditure on Spectacle Island. ...

"As to Spectacle Island, the position, again, is very simple. Under the agreement with the Admiralty made many years ago Spectacle Island was utilised for the housing of naval stores and ammunition. The Island was not used exclusively in connection with the Department of Defence, so as to pass automatically to the Commonwealth on the inauguration of federation, but, at the same time, the charge for maintenance, etc, in respect of naval stores and equipment was, without doubt, a matter that passed under Commonwealth jurisdiction. "The position was somewhat unique. My predecessor (Sir Joseph Carruthers) argued we should not be called upon to bear the whole burden of further expenditure in respect of a matter which was of Commonwealth concern. When we were asked to treat as a transferred property and to hand over to the Commonwealth the island, which did not pass legally and which we were under no obligation to part with, we were reminded of an agitation going on in Victoria, and fomented very foolishly by the "Age" which had in view the concentration of all naval matters in Melbourne. It did not appear to be a wise proceeding to hand over a property we were quite entitled to retain possession of when there was a risk of finding that the agitation of the "Age" had been successful, and that the Commonwealth Government might dismantle the Island and remove all the stores to Victoria. "Of course this might involve breaking the agreement with the Imperial Government, but there seems to be no difficulty in breaking the naval agreement for a contribution by way of naval subsidy. There is no reason why the same course should not have been followed with regard to Spectacle Island. We decided, therefore, that the wisest course was to keep what we had. If, however, the Commonwealth refuses to recognise the justice of all Australia contributing towards the cost of the stores which the Government uses for the defence of Australia, then this State Is quite prepared to consider the position in this new light." (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February 1909)


By 1910 there were 40 buildings on the island, the isthmus had been filled in and the area of the island had been increased by about a hectare through reclamation works utilising spoil from the old Balmain coalmine.



The Water Police yesterday morning recovered tho body of Albert William Brailey, the marine who was drowned owing to the capsize of a naval skiff off Spectacle island last week. The body was found floating near the Cove-street wharf, Balmain, at a spot but little removed from the scene of the accident.

He was attached to H.M.S. Penguin, and was temporarily attached to the guard on Spectacle Island. He was a native of the Midland Counties.(Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1911)


"Lieutenant James Creber, who for five years was In charge of the naval ordnance depot at Spectacle Island, and who has been absent for two years, during which time he served on the warships Majestic and Impregnable, returned by the Ophir yesterday. He will resume his old post." (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1912)


The Island was transferred from the Royal Navy to the Naval Board of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 July.

- Melbourne, August-7.

... Lieutenant J. Creber, R.N., is to receive a salary of £450 a year, together with an allowance of £50 in lieu of quarters, in the position of lieutenant in the Permanent Naval Forces, with duty as naval ordinance officer at Sydney. (Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 1913)



About a fortnight ago the Balmain Council forwarded a letter to the naval authorities respecting the storage of explosives at Spectacle island, which is situated between Iron Cove and the Parramatta River.

At the last meeting of the council a reply was received from the captain-in-charge of the Commonwealth Naval Establishments.

After drawing attention to the letter from Vice-Admiral Fanshawe, Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Naval Station, to the late Sir Harry Rawson (the then State Governor) In February, 1903, the communication stated that the remarks then made were still applicable and that the following further arrangements had been made since that date, viz., an efficient fresh water supply with stand pipes and hoses fitted for immediate use distributed around the depot, and also a powerful steam fire engine. It was stated that the magazine regulations existing at the island were such as pertained to all Imperial home and foreign magazine depots, and reduced the possibility of an explosion to a minimum. The great bulk of the explosives handled at the island consisted of cordite, which, unless closely confined does not explode, but simply burned. The amount of gunpowder stored on the island was now very small. Some of the large naval magazine depots at home and abroad were situated in close proximity to crowded neighbourhoods, and in that respect Spectacle Island had great advantages in that a good stretch of water separated it from the mainland. In his letter to Sir Harry Rawson, Vice Admiral Fanshawe stated it was quite evident that if Sydney were to continue to be the headquarters of the Australian Naval Station the depot for the reserves of ammunition must be situated in Port Jackson, and it appeared to him that no more suitable site than Spectacle Island could be found; and, in view of the elaborate precautions which were taken to prevent the possibility of an explosion occurring and the further precautions taken to minimise the effect of an explosion, should such a thing occur, his Excellency the Commander-in-Chief did not consider that the inhabitants of the district need be under any apprehension as to their safety." (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 1915)


Reproduction of message

"The above is a reproduction on a reduced scale of a message received from the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, England, packed in a case containing certain stores consigned to the Royal Australian Naval Ordnance Depot at Spectacle Island. This was evidently the work of one of the employees who, although working at top pressure, found time to express his admiration of the Australian people, and is no doubt voicing the sentiments of many others in this department of the Homeland." (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1916)


"The engagement is announced of Miss Blanche Creber, only daughter of Lieutenant Commander J. Creber, R.N., and Mrs. Creber, Spectacle Island, Sydney, with Mr. T. A. Hewetson (late A.I.F., Anzac), third son of Mr. T. W. Hewetson and Mrs. Hewetson, of Mallanganee, N.S.W." (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 1919)


The depot was renamed from Naval Ordnance Depot to the Royal Australian Naval Armament Depot.


By 1922 all the major permanent buildings had been built.


Naval Armament Depots, Sydney - Staffing Estimates 1926-27

MELBOURNE, Wednesday.

Members of the Arms, Explosives, and Munition Workers Federation employed by the Defence Department at Spectacle Island, New South Wales, were covered by a variation of a determination also delivered by Mr. Hunt. An agreement having been reached between the parties, Mr. Hunt embraced the terms for all members of the organisation at all naval establishments in New South Wales as follows:

Rates of pay: Storehouse assistant, minimum £233 per annum, maximum £239,with annual increments of £6; Skilled storehouse assistant, £245; £257, and £6; Junior storehouseman, £245, £269, and £6; Youths aged under 16 years, 18/6 a week, rising to £3/12/ a week when aged 19 years and under 21 years; Storehouse assistants and others employed in magazine explosive stores; or ammunition stores, to be paid an additional salary of £12 per annum; casual employees to be paid at the rate of 2/4 an hour. (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March 1926)



The old wooden steamer Birriwa, formerly of the Australian Commonwealth line, which ia lying between Spectacle Island and Schnapper Island, caught fire shortly after 4 p.m. yesterday. Much anxiety was occa- sioned, on account of the close proximity of gunpowder and ammunition stored on Spectacle Island, but the outbreak was extinguished before the flames had spread far." (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 1928)


RAN Armament Depot Sydney Annual Report 1928-1929

Examined by Naval Officers.

The mine swept up from the ocean bed off Cape Everard on Thursday by the trawler Koraaga was the twenty-seventh mine found In Australian waters. The discovery also confirms the statement made by the Germans after the war that the raider Wolf had put down two minefields, each of 15 mines, along the Australian coast. ...

The mine recovered by the Koraaga was taken yesterday to the naval armament depot at Spectacle Island for examination by naval officers, who will submit a report to the Navy Board. There is no doubt that the mine has been "dead" for many years. The officers will endeavour to determine the origin of the mine and come to some conclusion concerning the manner of Its breaking away from the mooring cable. ..." (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1929)


"Set on fire twelve days ago, the hulk Birriwa is still slowly burning away at her anchorage near Spectacle Island. She was originally set firm in the mud, but with the destruction of the superstructure and part of the hull she became light enough to float, and release herself from the mud ...

The Birriwa was set on fire on July 7, by order of the Navy, as she was considered a potential danger to the ammunition depot at Spectacle Island. ...

The Birriwa is one of five wooden vessels built for the Commonwealth Government during the war, and later sold to a private company. They were dismantled and valuable parts sold, and two were burnt in 1920." (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July 1930)
Effect on Establishments.

Whilst all naval ranks are anxiously waiting for definite news of retrenchments, it Is feared that the navy will have to bear most of the reduction in expenditure on defence contemplated by the Federal Ministry. ...

It is generally agreed that any considerable retrenchments in naval establishments would involve the dismissal of many civilian members of the staff at Garden Island. From today all naval establishments in Sydney will work a five-day week, and will not be open on Saturdays The establishments concerned are Garden Island, the Royal Edward Victualling Depot and the armament depots at Spectacle Island and Newington. ..." (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 1930)


"The body of an 8-inch gun, to be kept in readiness as a replacement for the cruisers Canberra and Australia, reached Sydney yesterday by the Hobsons Bay, and was taken to the armament depot at Spectacle Island. The gun was recently sent to England to undergo slight repairs." (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1933)


RAN Armament Depot Sydney Annual Report 1935


Spectacle Island was being considered as the preferred of 3 sites, in conjunction with Cockatoo Island, for the construction of a major ship building facility, for the construction of welded ships up to aircraft carrier size. This would have involved the filling in of the area between the two islands and their connection to the shore. (Navy Office letter 87388 of 7 November 1945) The proposal was actively progressed but seems to have "died" some time after 1948.

Plan for ship building site at Spectacle island

Preliminary plan for shipbuilding facility at Spectacle Island

"Eighty members of the Federated Clerks' Union at the R.A.N.A. Depot, Spectacle Island, at a meeting yesterday strongly protested against any attempt being made "to use any of the union's funds, to support Communism or Communistic doctrines or strikes engineered by Communist-led unions." (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 1945)



There was a noisy scene in the lobby of the Australian Hall, Elizabeth Street, city, last night, when police were brought to prevent the supporters of the Communist executive of the Ironworkers' Union from "gate-crashing" a meeting of Spectacle Island ironworkers, which had been called to establish a breakaway movement from the Ironworkers' Union." (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 1946)

Employees of naval establishments at Garden Island, Mascot, Spectacle Island, Homebush, Newington, and Rydalmere, at a largely attended meeting in the Australian Hall last night decided to break away from the Ironworkers' Union and join the A. W. U." (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1946)


Female Gunwharf clerks, engaged "for the duration of the war", were being displaced by returning men.


Gun firing trials were being regularly carried out at the Cape Banks Range, including:

Ordnance QF 40MM Bofors
Ordnance QF 2-pdr Mark 8
Guns Machine Oerlikon
Guns sub machine Thompson

Rockets target and illuminating were also being proofed at the Range. The Long Bay Rifle Range was also used for small arms firings.

" ... A particularly interesting unofficial visitor was Mr. Choake of Melbourne, a member of the Ex Naval Men's Association. Mr. Choake was connected with Spectacle Island in 1892 and served in H.M.S. "Orlando" and other ships on the Station about that time. ..." (RANAD Sydney Newsletter, August 1948)


"Spectacle Island continues to make history and the Residence comes into the picture with Mr. W.R. Cox, Armament Supply Officer (O) looking very pleased with himself in the role of a proud (double barrelled) grandfather. Twin girls were born to his daughter on 14th March and all are doing well. The mother flatly refuses to entertain Grandpa's proposals to name them Gunwharf and Magazine or Pistol and Rifle. They will be put forward in due course for inspection on receipt into Depot." (RAN Armament Depot Sydney Newsletter, February 1949)

A decision was announced that the three 15-inch guns stored at the gunpound at Clarke Island were to be sold.


5. ... Today, in June, 1950 sufficient work exists to warrant the running of a fleet of 41 motor vehicles, in addition to the use of 10 motor boats. In 1936 six ammunition lighters of 290 tons capacity were allowed by establishment but at the present time 42 lighters, with a carrying capacity of 4320 tons, are in use. (SASO minute to Civil Secretary of 7 June 1950)


White ants were on the march:

"The wooden bearers under the 14" guns at Clark Island are deteriorating and arrangements have been made to replace them. The floating crane "TITAN" is necessary for this job, but unfortunately is held up by a strike which has dragged on for months. The white ants have no such industrial scruples and the state of the bearers is causing concern. The 15" guns are still with us. The firm who was interested found that the cost of cutting them up on the site was prohibitive. In years to come, perhaps, the term "white elephant" in Armament Depot circles may be replaced by "15" gun". (RANAD Sydney Newsletter, November 1951)

Transfer of empty packages from Spectacle Island to Rydalmere was completed this year.

"Nuggett", the Spectacle Island dog dies:

"NUGGET" - "Nugget" was a very young dog when brought to Spectacle Island in the year 1935 by his master, Mr. W.R. Cox. "Nugget" was only off the Island when permitted to accompany his master to Newington either on board the "ONYX", or on special occasions, on the "GARNET". That was several years ago. He enjoyed these outings.

"Nugget" was well known to all at Spectacle Island, also to many visitors. When left on the Island whilst his master went ashore, he would patiently await his return and welcome him on his arrival at the wharf. In his early life when his master was doing the rounds of the depot, 'Nugget" used to run ahead and thus give warning that his master was on the job. Later in life, "Nugget" became less active and walked behind, allowing his master to make an unannounced visit As the years slipped by, "Nugget" found it difficult to accompany his master on the rounds of inspection, and eventually resigned himself to the task of minding the office. Many often wondered how "Nugget" would fare if he had to live ashore.

Always a faithfull companion, "Nugget" served his master well, and it was with sincere regret that his master had to acknowledge that "Nugget" was getting less agile each day. Alas, no need to worry how "Nugget" would fare ashore, "Nugget" has gone to rest forever, at Spectacle Island. (RAN Armament Depot Sydney Newsletter August 1951)


February: Replacement of bearers under the 14-in guns at Clark Island was in progress.


1 October: The "flagship" of the Spectacle Island fleet, M.B. Garnet, was towed away for disposal. (RANAD Sydney Newsletter November 1953)

For want of a crane ...:

"The 8" guns which were mutilated and sold are still on the Island. The floating crane has been out of commission and the new owners have been unable to take delivery. Negotiations are still proceeding for the sale of the 15" guns but have not been successful yet." (RANAD Sydney Newsletter, May 1953)

The 8" guns were finally removed around June, whilst the three 15" guns were sold around the same time.

The first A/S Mortar Mk 10 was received.


The White Ensign was flown for the first time at the Island, in honour of the visit of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth to Sydney. (RANAD Sydney Newsletter February 1954)

The 15" guns on Clark Island were to be cut up and removed during January 1954:

"The three 15" guns on Clark Island - 100 tons in weight, wire wound, and metal nearly two feet thick at the breech - are with us no longer. The contractors descended on them with blow torches, making a cut right along the tops, cutting each gun into five units of twenty tons and transporting the pieces by rail to Newcastle. The job was done in a week and excited considerable interest, the daily newspapers published a photograph and a comment." (RANAD Sydney Newsletter, February 1954)


A new water main was laid from the mainland to the Island. (RANAD Sydney Newsletter August 1955)


10 April: Earl Mountbatten of Burma, First Sea Lord inspected Spectacle Island by air (helicopter)


13 September: Spectacle island laboratory closed by direction of the Naval Board.


Magazine office staff transferred from Spectacle Island to Newington.

Commonwealth Explosives Port Facilities Committee in its Report on the need for an isolated jetty in New South Wales for the handling of Commonwealth explosives, recommends construction of an explosives wharf on Commonwealth territory in Jervis Bay so as to enable the removal of the most dangerous explosives shipments from Sydney Harbour.

Jan-Mar:Contract placed for disposal of Imperial (Royal Navy) 14-inch BL guns stored on Clark Island.

Apr-Jun: Cutting up of 14-inch guns on Clark Island commenced.

Jul-Sep: Cutting up and removal of guns from Clark Island completed.

20 October: Magazine office staff removed from Spectacle Island to Newington.


27 February: 90-foot, 100 year old Norfolk Pine Tree on Spectacle Island struck by lightning necessitating removal the following May.


Staffing December 1960 (Directing Staff Not Included)

Location Storehouses Water transport Workshops Clerical Foremen
Spectacle Island 37 14 29 16 3


17-20 March: 6-inch guns ex HMAS Hobart stored on Spectacle Island were mutilated and removed.


2 December: Gunwharf section at Spectacle Island merged with Weapon Equipment Depot, Garden Island.


27 May: Yacht "Gretel" stored on Spectacle Island for one year period.


22 February: New procedure for ammunitioning without use of Spectacle Island implemented.

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