"In 1921 management of the Depot was transferred from the Royal Marine Garrison to the Royal Australian Navy."
A Google search produces about 14 references similar to the above; all are incorrect and have resulted from uncritical copying from a single source.
This claim probably had its origins in a brief history of Newington prepared about 1968. It has been "copied and pasted" often since then.
There was no Royal Marine Garrison in NSW in 1921, and none in 1897-98 when the Newington Magazine was constructed. British "garrison" troops departed Australia in 1870 when the colonies assumed responsibility for their own military defence. A few Royal Marines worked from time to time at the Royal Navy Ordnance Depot on Spectacle Island, or at Garden Island, up to their handover to the RAN in 1913, but did not constitute a separate force requiring an explosives magazine for its support.
The claim is also counter-intuitive. At the time of the first construction (long-delayed) at Newington in 1897, the Royal Navy ammunition and explosives were located at Spectacle Island, which seems to have been adequate for its purpose as it was being actively expanded through the 1890s and early 1900s.
There is abundant evidence in reports of parliamentary debates in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald during the 1870s and 1880s that Newington was an endeavour of the NSW colonial government, to relieve overcrowding at the Goat Island magazine and other explosives storages around the harbour, such as Berry's Bay, which was used by the Torpedo Corps, an element of the New South Wales Military Forces. The explosives in question comprised "merchant's powder" (i.e. commercial explosives, by that period comprising more than just gunpowder) and the ammunition and explosives used by the New South Wales Military Forces.
An early reference is from the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 October 1875, page 7, reporting the recommendations of a Board appointed by the government of the Colony of NSW into the removal of the Goat Island magazine. Recommendation 2 was "That a separate and distinct magazine for merchant's gunpowder, capable of storing about 300 tons, be established on the right bank of the Parramatta River...".
The issue was debated in the NSW Parliament on 7 October 1881:
"FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7, 1881
In the Legislative Council yesterday. ...
Mr. O'Connor moved the adjournment of the House for the purpose of bringing under notice the great danger to which both life and property were exposed from the criminal carelessness of the Government in allowing enormous quantities of explosives to be stored close to Sydney; ...
Mr. Watson said the subject had occupied the attention of the present and previous Governments. There had been great difficulty in getting a new and suitable site for a magazine, and one had at last been selected by a board, which had been adopted by the Government, and directions had been given for the preparation of plans for the work. ...
Mr. Day said the amount of explosives stored at Goat Island was beyond belief, and placed 50,000 lives in jeopardy. Mr. Reid suggested that the new magazine should be established in some part of Middle Harbour. Mr. Watson interjected that the new magazine would be at Newington. Mr. Burns, Dr. Renwick, and Mr. Pigott would prefer the selection of a site at Middle Harbour. ...
Mr. Henson thought they were not likely to have many buildings near the site at Newington for a long time. ..." (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1881)
Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February 1882
In the event, the commercial explosives were dispersed to storage hulks until such time as permanent magazines at Middle Harbour were completed, and the military stores to Newington. This took much longer than expected. An area of 248 acres 1 rod and 8 perches at Newington was resumed in 1882 for "certain works for and in connection with the erection of a magazine for the storage of gunpowder and other explosives and certain buildings in connection therewith." (Government Gazette No. 334, 22 August 1882, page 4317) However construction did not eventuate until early 1897. Some military stores lingered at Goat Island until as late as 1905, when the Balmain Borough Council, acting on residents complaints of excessive noise, prevailed on the military authorities to cease the disposal there of obsolete Martini-Henry cartridges by removal of the bullets and firing of the resultant "blank" cartridges. (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 1905, page 5).
Parish Map Extract Showing Land Acquired in 1882 for the Newington Magazine Together With Earliest Land Grants to Waterhouse, Shortland and Archer
A couple of pieces of evidence clearly point to Newington being constructed for the New South Wales Military Forces, which transferred into the Commonwealth Military Forces post the 1901 Federation of the Australian States.(General Order No. 104 dated 8 July 1902 gazetted and authorised the formation of the Ordnance Department.)
A notice appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 March 1897 calling for tenders for the erection of a "Magazine, Laboratory, Gun Cotton Store and other buildings" at the Military Reserve at Newington is in the name of "New South Wales Military Forces".
Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 1897
On 18 June 1895 the Government Gazette recorded the formation of:
"Ordnance Store Corps: "C" (Ordnance) Branch of the Military Secretary's Department, now a civil branch, to be converted into an Ordnance Store Corps."
"The Corps comprised No 1 Gun Wharf Section with a Deputy Assistant Commissary General of Ordnance, a Lieutenant and Quartermaster, three Conductors of Stores and one Sergeant Artificer. No 2 Magazine Section was composed of one Conductor of Stores and three Privates; and No 3 Armourer's Section was composed of a Lieutenant and Quartermaster, with one Armourer Sergeant and two Privates. These appointments were filled by members of the permanent military forces." (John D. Tilbrook To The Warrior His Arms A History of the Ordnance Services in the Australian Army, Chapter 2 page 25)
It is the Ordnance Store Corps, and specifically the No. 2 Magazine Section, that is likely to have been the commissioning unit at the Newington Magazine in 1898.
A history of the Australian Army Ordnance Corps (available at the RAAOC Association website) says: "...On 15 September 1902 the following Warrant Officer, Non-Commissioned Officers and Gunners were attached to the newly formed No 4 Company pending transfer to the Ordnance Stores Corps....The following N.C.O. and men employed at the Newington Magazine were attached to No. 2 Company also pending transfer to the Ordnance Stores Corps.
Sergeant T. Walker
Gunners G. Jennings, T. Campbell and W, Clarke..."
Sydney Morning Herald, 1 February 1932.
(Thomas Walker: born 1859 (NSW BDM 8462/1859; died January 1932 (NSW BDM 873/1932). According to a funeral notice for his son John, published in the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 April 1919, Thomas, by now a Warrant-Officer, was still working and living at Newington at that time.)
An article in the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower's Advocate of 4 September 1897, reporting on the construction of the Magazine, says that: "...the Government Powder Magazine at Newington, where it is intended to store all the powder required for military purposes in the colony..." (A scanned copy of the article is available at the website of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority.)
This article says, amongst other things:
"There is to be a cooperage for the repairing of barrels, an examining room and a laboratory, for the making up of cartridges, and a gun-cotton store for the storage of dry gun-cotton. A convenient wharf has been placed on the river, and the river is to be deepened to the wharf. From the wharf, on which the iron gates will form the main entrance, there will be a thorough system of tram lines running around the reserve. One line will run to the gun-cotton store on the right hand side, and a double line of rails will run to the powder magazine."
Of the buildings mentioned (there was also a latrine and soldier's quarters), all are shown on the earliest map available to the author (below), with the exception of the gun-cotton store (which is outside the area covered by the map).
This map section, dating from the early 1920s, shows the original magazine precinct, its surrounding iron picket fence and tramway tracks. North is to the right. The complete map also shows the residences, empty case store and smoke apparatus store.
View an album of photos showing the surviving buildings constructed at Newington in 1897-98.
The gun-cotton store no longer exists. It is shown on a 1928 map, occupying a position now occupied by a later explosives storehouse (Building No. 8) erected around 1940. It had been, in any case, replaced by 3 new guncotton storehouses constructed around 1922 (Building Nos. 36-38) on the eastern side of the Depot.
This map, dated 1928, shows the location for the "HMAS Albatross" bomb store (section 110), the three guncotton magazines(sections 100 and 101), filled shell and depth charge store (section 99), laboratory block "D" (sections 96 and 99) and laboratory block "B" (section 100). The original magazine precinct is in sections 103 and 104, and the residences in sections 97 and 98. Section 104 contains the original guncotton magazine, later replaced by Building No. 8.
The 1897 buildings at Newington were erected by Mr John Howie, a prominent Sydney master builder, according to his obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald of 15 October 1917.
The following table relates the buildings known to have been constructed in 1897-98 with the buildings as they exist now.
|Building Name||Building Number||Notes|
|Dry gun cotton store||Demolished||Probably demolished when Bldg 8 constructed.|
|Warrant officer's cottage||123||-|
|Men's quarters (4)||118 & 126||-|
|Cells||139||Contained within guard house|
|Lamp room||?||Location not positively known - most likely integral with the Guardhouse, although Building 137 is also a possibility.|
|Cooperage||143||Now known as the Gatehouse|
The original function of Building 137 isn't known, although its location indicates a functional relationship with the powder magazine. The most likely use was as a non-explosive component store or office.
The powder magazine (Building 20) conforms in many respects to the general design principles set down by Marshal Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633 - 1707), the distinguished French fortification architect. It is worth noting that evidence given by a military expert to the 1875 Board of Inquiry was that this type of construction wasn't warranted, and that what would now be described as light, frangible construction would be suitable. However at that stage the intention was for Newington to store merchant's powder, rather than military explosives.
After World War 1 the Army decided to centralise its ammunition storage in the Sydney area at the Ordnance Depot at Liverpool. (Army files of the time sometimes refer to this as the Explosives Depot and the location is sometimes given as Moorebank. This depot was located at Anzac Road, Moorebank.)
On 22 December 1917 Captain Thring, then Director of War Staff and Director of Naval Ordnance wrote to the First Naval Member:
"The Commonwealth Cordite Factory is now turning out a certain amount of gun cordite. The first lots will be made up into practice charges for 4" guns and below. It is proposed to carry out this work at Spectacle Island..."
Thring went on to point out the unsuitability of Spectacle Island for such work and indeed for any storage of explosives and concluded by recommending:
"In my opinion the magazine should be removed to a safer locality before the return of our ships and I submit that this question should receive early consideration by the Naval Board."
At the conclusion of the First World War, the Naval Board not only had to consider the storage of the reserve outfits of the returning ships but also the manifest unsuitability of Spectacle Island for storage of explosives.
In October 1918, the 3rd Naval Member argued that additional magazine accommodation should not be built at Sydney as the Naval Base itself should be removed from there. Two months later the Director of Naval Ordnance, CAPT Stevenson recommended that main magazines be built at Flinders Naval Base in Victoria. In the same month, the Admiralty were asked what the probable cost would be for a ship suitable to be used as an ammunition supply ship for reserve ammunition. In April 1919, Admiralty offered HMS Magnificent for the purpose, with the cost of conversion estimated as £180,000. (Magnificent had already been converted for RN use.)
In the event, the Naval Board decided to delay a decision until after the impending visit of Lord Jellicoe. By June, 1919, the proposal had been abandoned (HMS Magnificent served as an ammunition ship in RN service until 1921.)
During the latter part of 1919 the matter was taken to Cabinet, and the attention of the Prime Minister was drawn to the dangerous state resulting from the lack of ammunition reserves.
A minute N.17/0144 dated 1 April 1920 from Captain C. Round-Turner, RN, Director of Ordnance, Torpedoes and Mines, to the First Naval Member provides some background to the transfer of Newington to the RAN. In this minute Round-Turner writes that he met with the Army's Chief of Ordnance on 12 March 1920, and was advised that Newington would be made available "for the storage of the Reserve Ammunition of the Navy." The reserve ammunition comprised 2 outfits for each ship on station plus 2 year's practice ammunition. Round-Turner then visited Newington on 24 March 1920 and decided that it would be suitable for the storage of about half of the reserves, and that additional storage would be necessary. Further, he regards Newington as an unsuitable permanent site due to its proximity to the coast leaving it open to attack from both air and sea. He concluded with:
"We are faced, as we have been ever since 1906, with the imperative necessity of constructing a modern magazine and shell store of sufficient size to accommodate all the reserve ammunition for the existing Australian Navy, and to allow of expansion to meet future needs; or in the event of the adoption of Viscount Jellicoe's proposals of smaller magazines and shell stores at each of the main Naval Bases. As the full proposals cannot in any case materialize for some time it is important that the magazine in connection with the Eastern Base should be commenced without delay; plans and estimates for this have already been prepared."
Between March and September 1921 investigations were made into the possibility of converting a railway tunnel at Otford into magazine storage; the cost was estimated to be £248,000. Advice was then sought from the Admiralty as to the suitability of the proposal. Although the outcome of this enquiry isn't known, it's clear from the construction program that by 1923 expansion at Newington, together with the development of the Swan Island Mine Depot, had been accepted as the preferred option for the medium term.
In summary, the Newington Magazine was built for the New South Wales Military Forces and the transfer in 1921 was from Australian military use to Australian naval use, or, in common parlance, from the Australian Army to the Royal Australian Navy. It's likely that the transfer of the property was simply an internal re-arrangement within the Department of Defence as the Army's Ordnance Department was at that time a civil agency of the Department. 1921 was also the year the Department of the Navy was merged into the Department of Defence. (Robert Hyslop, Australian Naval Administration 1900-1939, Melbourne 1973, p.33)
More information is available about the activities conducted at the Magazine.
Information concerning the Otford Tunnel and HMS Magnificent is drawn from a contemporary "Summary of Action" referencing Navy Office files 17/0144, 21/086, 21/0145 and 21/0174.
Further information on the issue of storage arrangements for the RAN's ammunition circa 1919 - 1921 can be found in:
John Mortimer, "Naval Administration 1919-23: Lessons for Today’s Royal Australian Navy", Australian Maritime Issues 2008 – SPC-A Annual (Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs No. 27) ed. Gregory P. Gilbert & Nick Stewart Pp.145-194. ISSN 1327-5658/ISBN 978-0-642-29701-3.
This publication can be downloaded from the Royal Australian Navy website (2.83 MB; PDF format).
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