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An Overview of Spectacle Island's History - Part 1


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.

The Colonial Gunpowder Magazine 1862 - 1884


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" (commercial explosives) as well as the military and naval powder. For example, on 12 February 1861 the Foreman of Magazines at Goat Island wrote to the Assistant Military Storekeeper:


I beg leave to acquaint you, that the consignment of Merchant Gunpowder 749 Barrels received per Ship "Calabar" have been stored in the passages of the Magazines, the whole of the Racks and Bays being quite full. - The Passages of the Large Magazine are full, as are also the Passages of Nos 1 and 3 Colonial Magazines - No. 1 almost crammed.

Should another consignment of Gunpowder arrive shortly there is no space for storage in the Magazines.

I am
Most Respectfully

Your obedient humble servant

J. Midgley"

Spectacle Island had been canvassed as a site for a magazine as early as 1848, although in early 1862 a site at the rear of Victoria Barracks was also being considered. The latter site was dismissed by Percival Wilkinson, the Assistant Military Storekeeper, because of "the inconvenience of such considerable land conveyance of large quantities of Ammunition and the ground being low and damp".

In 1862 Surveyor Knapp completed a contour map of Spectacle Island, which was then reserved from sale for public purposes. By May 1862 the Colonial Architect, James Barnet had finalised and costed a plan of works for the magazine (magazine, cooperage, laboratory, quarters etc), based on advice from the Brigade Major and the Assistant Superintendent of Stores. The buildings were to be mainly built of sandstone with slate roofs. The estimated cost of the works comprising a "Gunpowder Magazine with Guard House and other necessary buildings" was £7,000; this was placed on the estimates for 1863 and was 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)
The Soldiers at Cockatoo

To the Editor of the Herald

Sir, -

Yesterday evening, between six and seven o'clock, or thereabouts, as I was out in my boat between Cockatoo and Spectacle Islands, I saw the heads of two people in the water. Thinking that their boat had gone down, I of course pulled towards them as quickly as possible to save the (as I thought) drowning men, but upon coming up to them I found that they were two soldiers belonging to the detachment stationed on Cockatoo Island, who had been for a swim across to Spectacle Island, which I think is highly improper, as there are females who live with their husbands at Spectacle, building the magazines.

If a shark had taken off one of these men's legs, who would have been to blame for allowing them to leave the island, as it is against the orders to do so.

I am, &c., &c.,                                                            AQUATIC

Hunters Hill, 8th December.

(Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 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.

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 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:

"...The works for the Ordnance depot on Spectacle Island are on the point of completion; the principal building is fifty feet by twenty-five, and is constructed to hold 4000 barrels of gunpowder; there are also quarters for the man in charge, a laboratory for examining the powder, a cooperage, and a covered way, 130 feet long, from the wharf to the magazine." (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1865, p.8)

The buildings mentioned are all still in existence, as at 2011, although much modified.

The Gunpowder Magazine - Early 1870s

(A high-quality, panoramic view of Spectacle Island, from which the above image is taken, is available at the State Library of NSW. Select "View Media Files" and then scroll down and then zoom in to look at the photo detail.)

Further Development

Maintenance of the new buildings was a problem, the more so as tradesmen were reluctant to travel to the Island for small jobs. Thus, in 1868, the job of painting the magazine was undertaken by the men of the Royal Artillery who were paid £6 10s. for their efforts. Within a few years termites had eaten their way into the magazine as was duly reported by the Assistant Superintendent of Stores to the Under Secretary for Finance and Trade:


I have the honour to report for the information of the Honourable the Treasurer that the white ant has made its appearance in one of the magazines at Spectacle Island."

The ravages of the "white ant" (termites) figure prominently in the periodic maintenance requests in the files of the Colonial Architect.

In 1871 a tender was accepted for the erection of cottages on the Island; these were in addition to the Foreman's and Labourer's quarters originally provided. These quarters were located hard by the magazine and by 1876 were being regarded, probably as a result of the recommendations of the 1875 Storage of Gunpowder Board, as a safety hazard. In the additional estimates for 1876 the sum of £800 was voted for the erection of a further two 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.

The 1881 plan of the Island, shown below, suggests that the cottages constructed in 1871 and 1877 were semi-detached, so that there were 4 dwellings in 2 discrete buildings.

The two cottages were under construction in March 1877 when a requisition was submitted for the construction of a new laboratory (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 1877, p.5). Stone for the cottages was being quarried on the island, and the site proposed for the laboratory was where the quarrying was being done. It is apparent that at this time the island comprised two parts connected only by a narrow isthmus possibly under water at high tide, as the construction of a road to connect the two islands was proposed using the stone "ballast" from the quarrying operation. The contract for the laboratory also included the linking roadway which would have required considerable land filling. The need for this new laboratory probably resulted from the realisation that the existing laboratory was too close to the magazine. The laboratory, a boatshed and a new "temporary" magazine all appear to have been completed about 1878.

An 1881 plan of the Island shows the following major buildings (numbers are for the current numbering of assets on the Island):

Plan of Spectacle Island 1881

In September 1882 there was some correspondence in the letters pages of the Sydney Morning Herald referring to a fire risk resulting from the proximity of residences to the magazine. In response, the Ordnance Storekeeper, J. T. Blanchard, stated that:

"... Explosive substances," moreover, other than gunpowder - consisting of small arm cartridges, tubes, fuzes, &c., each in a metal case, and packed in wooden cases, tin-lined, or in zinc cylinders - have since 1876, been stored separately in three stone detached buildings, one of which had been used as a dwelling, and contains chimneys; and the other two were specially built for the purposes, and have no chimneys. ..."(Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 1882, p.5)

This letter shows that Spectacle Island, had, since at least 1876, been storing military explosives in addition to "merchant's powder", or commercial explosives.

The following article from the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 September 1882 resulted from the correspondence and describes the arrangements for storage at the Island:

"In view of the discrepancies in the statements recently made with regard to the powder magazine at Spectacle Island, a reporter from this office was sent yesterday afternoon to see for himself the actual condition of things. It may be mentioned that the same reporter visited the island about two years ago, and he found everything now in very much the same condition as it was on the former occasion.

The principal magazine consists of a large building with three gables at each end. There are no chimneys in it, and it is lighted and ventilated by means of windows everyone of which is covered by a wire screen, and is further protected by wooden shutters, both inside and out. This building is used for the storage of gunpowder belonging to the Imperial or the Colonial Governments. It is all stowed in strong casks or cases, packed away on racks which run along the length of the building.

No one is permitted to enter any of the magazines with any combustible about him, such as matches, and he has even to leave his keys, penknife, &c., behind him, and has to put on galoshes before being admitted into the sacred precinct. Behind this building there is a similar detached magazine, in which small-arm ammunition is stored. This is also packed in strong wooden cases lined with tin, and which cannot be opened without a considerable amount of unscrewing. The windows here also are protected by wire screens and shutters, and so is another building in the same enclosure in which cartridges and rockets are kept. In neither of these buildings are there any chimneys, and the three are surrounded, except in front, by a high stone wall. The principal magazine bears over the portal the date of its erection - 1866.

Outside the enclosure, at either end, are stone cottages, which were erected in the first instance for dwelling-houses, but which it has been found necessary to take for storage purposes. Both these buildings have chimneys, but being surrounded by narrow chimney pots, there is very small chance of an erring spark finding its way down. One of the apartments, with a fireplace, contains some packages of confiscated ammunition from the unfortunate expedition of the Marquis de Ray. The other contains explosives substances not gunpowder, such as fuzes of different kinds, friction tubes, and there are two sound strong cases of port fires, all well protected, and kept screwed up.

All these buildings, the principal magazine, as well as the subsidiary ones, are protected by lightning conductors of stout copper wire, which was erected under the supervision of the late Mr. Smalley (obscure) in 1867 (obscure) and the ends of the rods, as our reporter ascertained by actual inspection, are carried out some distance into the harbour. Without expressing any opinion as to the wisdom of having powder magazines so near the city, no one can fail to see that every possible precaution against accident is taken at these Spectacle Island magazines, and it is hard to suggest any further means of reducing the risk without removing the magazine altogether, which, as has already been authorised, is shortly to be done."

(Notes: 1. The buildings referred to in the article above are the magazine (now Asset no. 009), the original laboratory, superseded in 1878 (now Asset no. 007) and the Labourer's quarters (now Asset no. 021). The fourth building must be either the cooperage (now Asset no. 006) or a building erected after the 1881 plan was prepared.
2. The Marquis de Ray's expedition was a failed expedition to settle the Island of New Ireland. The Marquis, and his associates were convicted in France of fraudulent misrepresentation in organising the expedition.)

What was Stored There?

The evidence available to the author says that the magazine was initially constructed to store merchant's powder, that is, commercial explosives lodged according to law in a public magazine until such time as required for use or sale. However evidence quoted above regarding storage there in 1882 of tubes and fuzes suggests that by that date at least military explosives were also being handled. This is not surprising, as Goat and Spectacle Island magazines operated in conjunction with each other, and the Goat Island magazine was certainly storing both military explosives and merchant's powder.

What Work was Done There?

Initially, the work of the magazine was most likely confined to the receipt, storage and issue of gunpowder in barrels, the unheading (opening) of barrels to inspect the contents, repacking of gunpowder into new barrels, repair of barrels and the disposal by sale or drowning of unserviceable gunpowder.

Subsequently, if military explosives were also held there, the work may have extended to the filling of shells, the making up of gun propellant cartridges, and similar tasks.

How was the Work Conducted?

Although "Gunpowder Acts" go back to at least the 1830s in NSW, it was the Regulations Under the "Gunpowder and Explosive Consolidation Act, 1876," (40 Victoria, No. 1.) that provided the first comprehensive and legally enforceable rules for the operation of powder magazines. The Treatise of Ammunition of 1878 also contains rules for the operation of powder magazines likely to be similar to those applying to the Spectacle Island operation.

This publication contains a section called "Hints on the Examination of Ammunition" (PDF file, 444 KB). This gives guidance on such matters as:

Also included are various other instructions which, together, give some idea of the work undertaken at a late 19th century ammunition depot:

Who Worked There?

The magazine was part of a colonial government organisation headed by an official whose title changed frequently during the 19th century, but who can be characterised as the Colonial/Ordnance/Military Storekeeper. However these officials did not necessarily work on the Island, which would have been under the continuous supervision of a Foreman.

Some names of people identified with the Island in the colonial period can be found on the Spectacle Island People page. The most notable Island resident of this period was James Gorman, V.C. who took up the position of Foreman in 1881.

What Happened After 1883?

Continue on to read about the Island's history from 1883 as a Royal Navy Ordnance Depot.

Like More Information?

For more information about the transfer of Spectacle Island to the Royal Navy read the Jubilee History of Spectacle Island.

For more information on the history of the island, visit the Australian Heritage Places Inventory and the Australian Heritage Database. Due to frequent changes in the URLs for the relevant entries these are not given and you will need to do your own search.

For information about the management of Goat Island and Spectacle Island as colonial powder magazines, see the page dealing with the Ordnance Storekeeper.

To see a timeline for the Island, visit the Chronology page.

To see a list of the people who were responsible for the Island at various times, visit the Spectacle Island People page.

To see a chronological listing of buildings visit the Spectacle Island Buildings page.

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
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