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Rob's Shed

A Deputation to the Colonial Secretary

From the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1875

"Yesterday afternoon, a deputation from the Sydney and suburban municipalities and the Sydney Chamber of Commerce waited upon the Colonial Secretary, to urge him to remove the gunpowder magazine to some safer place than Goat Island. The Chamber of Commerce was represented by Mr. James Powell, Mr. J. Alger, Mr. Rodd, and Mr. Hayes; the Sydney Corporation by the Mayor (Mr. Palmer) and Mr. Woolcott, Town Clerk; the other gentlemen present being Mr. Tunks, Mayor of St. Leonards; Mr. Perdrian, Mayor of Balmain; Mr. Ives, Mayor of Victoria; and Mr. Dind, Mayor of East St Leonards.

The MAYOR OF SYDNEY, having introduced the deputation, stated that the representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the city end suburban municipalities, after consultation on the subject, had all arrived at the conclusion that the storage of a large quantity of gunpowder at Goat Island, the present magazine, was a source of great danger to the city and suburbs; and that not only it should be removed, but that it should be removed as soon as possible. It had been suggested that the Government, having unlimited money in the Treasury, should provide hulks for the storage of the powder, and that these should be moved to a distance say at the head of Middle Harbour, where there would be no danger to the city if an explosion occurred. Mr. Powell and Mr. Alger would give further information on the subject.

Mr. J. Powell, said that there were stored in the magazines at Goat Island on the first of July, 1874, 49,371 lbs., or in round numbers about 200 tons of merchants powder, besides a quantity of powder belonging to the Government; how much they did not know. There were also other explosive, such as Lithofracteur stored there, which wont to increase the danger. Seeing that serious accidents had occurred lately from the explosion of powder in the old country, it would be well for them to look at the possibility of such an occurrence here. They thought that Goat Island being so near to the city, the storage of a large quantity of gunpowder there was fraught with danger to the lives and property of the inhabitants. His idea was that to have it stowed in hulks was the most ready way of meeting the danger. A Volunteer officer had urged that there was a danger of an enemy taking possession of hulks, but the objection in his opinion was not worth much, as the hulks could be readily towed away, or even scuttled very speedily if necessary.

Mr. J. Alger said that, according to one of the finest authorities in the army, the first condition to be thought of in a powder magazine was so to place the powder that, in the event of an accident occurring, the effect would be limited to the magazine in which it happened. If an accident were to occur at Goat Island, he was sure the whole of this town would be blown down; and he said this in view of the accidents that occurred in other countries. Only on the 22nd December last a magazine at Scutari was struck by lightning. It blew down the city walls and a large number of houses, and there were over 200 people killed and wounded. The matter of storing gunpowder had received a great deal of attention, both before and after the explosion at Regent's Canal, and a committee appointed by the War Office had recommended that explosive material should be removed to magazines far away from occupied houses. By an old Act of Parliament it was declared to be illegal to store up more than 200 lbs. of powder within two miles of a residence. Goat Island was just one mile from the place where they then were. He saw it stated in the Argus that the inhabitants of Melbourne and suburbs were every instant of their lives exposed to the risk of a catastrophe from the storage of gunpowder which only an earthquake could equal. In this city we were subject to the same thing at any moment. Lightning conductors could not be relied upon to secure a magazine from protection.

Mr. IVES said that the previous speakers had entirely overlooked the danger arising from the carriage of gunpowder. He had seen gunpowder to the extent of half-a-ton lying exposed in an open waterman's boat at the landing place at Dawes' Point, for an hour or an hour and a-half in the morning, numerous steamers passing at the time. Then it was conveyed through the town in an open van to the danger of the lives and property of the inhabitants. If the Government should provide hulks for the storage of the powder it could be removed by means of lighters without danger to the inhabitants.

Mr. ROBERTSON said he thought it was quite easy to establish the fact that there was danger in the gunpowder being at Goat Island. As to whether it would be better to have it stored in hulks was an unsettled question. He thought he remembered the time when the powder was kept in the harbour. He presumed that there was some reason for changing that arrangement. It might or might not have been well to put the gunpowder on Goat Island, but he thought there could be no doubt that Goat Island was not the proper place now.

But with regard to the storage in hulks, in Middle Harbour, he thought there was something in the objection put forward by the Volunteer officer whose name they had not heard. It seemed to him that if the powder were put into hulks in Middle Harbour that it would be very easy for an enemy to possess himself of it. The remedy Mr. Powell suggested of scuttling the hulk would be simply like cutting your throat in your enemy's presence. He had always been in the habit of grappling with difficulties rather than cutting his throat over them. He thought they ought to have some commission of scientific men - he did not mean a grand commission to spend a lot of money and waste time - but some three or four gentlemen to endeavour to advise the Government on this matter. Gentlemen holding his position might be pardoned if not acquainted with the peculiarities of this kind of thing. The storing of so large a quantity of gunpowder at Goat Island was objectionable on two grounds - first, inasmuch as it might blow down the town, and next, in the event of an explosion, all their powder would be gone at one shot. As to the danger arising from carriage of the powder, there was no doubt Mr. Ives had pointed out what was very important. He thought the most important thing to be said in favour of putting the powder into hulks was this matter of carriage, because, as we manufactured none, when it was brought to the colony in ships it could be transferred to the hulks without being exposed to the risks to which citizens were exposed at present. Our guns fixed at the various forts had no one in charge of them, and any filibustering expedition coming here might get possession of them and turn them upon the city. If they put the powder in Middle Harbour it seemed to him that they would just finish the whole thing. The whole of the money in our banks would be at the mercy of the filibustering expedition. He fancied there might be some suitable place on the Parramatta River where the powder could be put with safety.

The MAYOR of SYDNEY said he was afraid that he was misunderstood. It being admitted that the storage of gunpowder should be removed from Goat Island, because of the great danger it caused, his idea was that it should be removed to Middle Harbour temporarily, until it was decided where it should be placed. Mr. ROBERTSON thought the Government would be very foolish if they entered upon any temporary expedient without knowing whether it would be a wise one. He did not know why this matter could not be settled altogether, in three weeks. They had not been in the habit of having matters settled quicker than that. There was nothing to hinder the Government making immediate inquiries as to the best place and proper mode of storage; and there would be nothing to prevent them placing their? before Parliament when it met, which would only be a few days. He would like to get the opinion of professional men before deciding.

THE MAYOR OF SYDNEY: Would you be kind, enough to get Captain Hixson to send in a report?

Mr. ROBERTSON: We cannot commit ourselves to Captain Hixson's opinion.

Mr TUNKS concurred in the course suggested by the Colonial Secretary. It might turn out, after all, that the powder magazine at Goat Island was not so dangerous as they thought. He happened to witness an explosion in Bridge-street, and it established the correctness of a notion he held, that in certain circumstances the explosive effects went upwards rather than sideways. It was a question that ought to be decided by scientific men. Let their opinion be given and acted upon. When a gun charged with powder went off in the harbour it shook his windows; if there was a corresponding effect with the explosion of 200 tons of gunpowder it seemed to him that the house would be shaken down.

Mr. PERDRIAN said that at Balmain the people were afraid of the removal of the powder to and from Goat Island.

Mr. TUNKS said that they could be prosecuted for removing it.

Mr. RODD said that the lightning conductor was out of order at Goat Island, and the men there complained of the state of the landing place, and the danger arising from the grass and brushwood. Then they were also afraid of the lithofracteur - as it was a substance that they did not understand and might explode either from too great heat or too great cold; and he was further told that it was not properly stored. Mr. Montefiore had d suggested that a portion of the powder might well be stored along the line upon the mountains. Some of the powder might be kept in the forts. There was a danger of an enemy throwing shells into Goat Island.

Mr. ALGER said that powder was taken through George street to the railway station. If tho train was not ready to take it away, it was taken a short distance along the line, and thus the people of Redfern were in as much danger as those of Sydney.

Mr. ROBERTSON said there was only room at the forts for 100 charges for each gun. He did not think there was any danger of an enemy shelling Goat Island. It seemed to him that the carriage of powder through the city was entirely unnecessary. It might well be sent up the Parramatta River, and on to the railway in that direction. His impression was that the powder was very dangerous where it was, on Goat Island, and the Government were quite willing to take any action that was necessary for the interests of the people so as to lessen the possible danger arising from this matter.

The MAYOR OF SYDNEY thanked the Colonial Secretary for his courtesy and withdrew."
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Robert Curran
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