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An Overview of Spectacle Island's History - Part 2

Part 1 of this overview dealt with Spectacle Island's history as a colonial powder magazine between 1862 and 1884.

The Royal Navy Ordnance Depot 1884 - 1913

The Transfer from the NSW Colonial Government

In 1883 negotiations were proceeding between the Commodore in Charge of the Australia Station, on behalf of the Admiralty, and the Colonial Government for the provision of naval facilities on the station. The Government wanted to shift the powder from Goat Island due to the danger to the population of Sydney and, because the new flagship, HMS Nelson, required extensive warlike stores, it was suggested that Spectacle Island was a suitable site for their storage. Also of concern was the powder and guns for arming merchant ships as cruisers in wartime.

"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)

Following the agreement for the transfer of the Island, work quickly went ahead on the necessary works. These included:

These works were progressively completed during 1884 and 1885.

Relocating the Stocks

The following letter sheds some light on the timing and manner of the transfer of the Royal Navy stocks from Goat Island to Spectacle Island:

'Espiegle' at Sydney
1st September 1884

Sir,
In compliance with the directions contained in your memo of 27th August 1884, we have the honour to report as follows:

2. We are of the opinion that it is undesirable to move the whole of the powder from Goat Island until the work on Spectacle Island is completed. The store-house for Gunnery Stores has not yet been begun; the building of the torpedo-store will not be finished for some weeks and then the internal fittings will have to be put up; the wharf and connecting tramways (see plan) have not yet been taken in hand.

3. We suggest:
That a moderate quantity of "present use" powder be taken at once to Spectacle Island, as its storage there will facilitate supply and permit effective supervision on the part of the resident Gunner without interfering with his charge of the other stores already there;

That the Colonial Government be requested to remove as soon as possible the small quantity of stores belonging to it still on Spectacle Island, which will enable it to with-draw the two men taking care of them;

That, as the wharf, crane and tramways could probably be completed - if taken in hand at once - as soon as the internal fittings of the torpedo-store, the torpedoes etc be removed directly the wharf and store are ready for their reception, which would greatly diminish any risk of danger to the city from these powerful appliances;

And that the whole of the powder now on Goat Island be taken to Spectacle Island as soon as the work to be done on the store-houses is finished and the work-men have ceased to be employed on the latter island.

4. The "present use" powder could be removed by a small working party in a ship's launch. The transfer of the explosives from Berry Bay and Middle Harbour would require a working party of 40 men ... The final transfer of the whole remaining powder from Goat Island would require two working parties of about 15 men each ... permission to use the powder lighters and tugs belonging to the Colonial Government should be obtained ... the adoption of the above suggestions would go far to secure the citizens of Sydney against dangers concerning which they express much anxiety.

5. The number of men under the Gunner should be completed to 3 ... as soon as the two men in the Colonial Service are withdrawn.

Cyprian A. G. Bridge          Captain HMS Espiegle
Thomas C. Fenton           Torpedo Lieut. HMS Nelson
P. Tillard                          Gunnery Lieut. HMS Nelson
(Archives NSW 7/367
Plan of Spectacle Island 1894

Further Expansion

The period during which the Royal Navy was in occupancy of the Island coincided with three major changes in weapons technology. These were the change from gunpowder to cordite as a gun propellant (1890s), the introduction of quick-firing ammunition (involving the encasing of propellant charges in brass cartridge cases) and the replacement of gunpowder as a bursting charge for shells with Lyddite (picric acid), Trotyl and Shellite(1890s). These changes are reflected in the chronological listing of Spectacle Island buildings.

The 1894 plan above delineates the approximate ultimate shape of the Royal Navy depot, although a few buildings were erected later. These included a second filled shell storehouse (now Bldg 37 - built c. 1899) to the west of that located on the landward edge of the wharf shown on the north side of the Island, and a second quick-firing ammunition store (now Bldg 42 - built c. 1902, constructed to the west of, and continuous with one (Bldg 41) built in 1891). Considerable expansion of the island took place to secure land for further building, with much of the fill coming from spoil from the Balmain coal mine.

What was Stored There?

During the Royal Navy period, the Island functioned as both a Magazine (for explosives) and Gunwharf (for guns). Stocks were kept for both the ships of the Australia Squadron, and for arming merchant vessels in the event of war. For more detail, see the report of stockholdings in 1910.

Postcard of Spectacle Island

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

What Work was Done There?

The principal work of the depot was the receipt, storage, maintenance and issue of guns, ammunition and explosives, filling of shell (until the introduction of modern cast fillings) and making up of gun propellant cartridges.

How was the Work Conducted?

During the early period of Royal Navy occupancy, the regulations in use would have been similar to those described in part 1 of this overview. However the later period was marked by a transition to the use of more modern explosives, such as Lyddite (picric acid), and gun propellant, namely Cordite. These explosives were not manufactured in Australia at that time, and so progressively the filling of shells with a bursting charge of gunpowder, and the making up of gunpowder propellant cartridges became less important. Instead, attention switched to the maintenance of ammunition supplied from manufacturers in the United Kingdom in a fully assembled form. Regulations in force towards the end of the period included the Naval Magazine Regulations, Kings Regulations and Admiralty Instructions and the Cordite Regulations.

The depot was lightly manned, with Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines. The letter quoted above refers to the complement in 1884 being the Gunner-in-charge plus three. Typically at this period, when a ship required fresh ammunition, sailors were drafted from the ship to the depot to assist with the filling of the shell and the making up of cartridges.

Mr Henry Capper, Gunner-in-charge from 1894 to 1900, is one of the more interesting people to be associated with the Island. Read the relevant chapter of his autobiography to gain an appreciation of life in an ordnance depot in the last years of the 19th century.

The Gunner-in-charge was a Warrant Officer, hence "Mr Henry Capper". Also associated with the working of the depot was the Inspector of Warlike Stores, normally a sea-going Lieutenant, and thus out-ranking the Officer-in-charge. The Inspector was responsible in particular for the inspection of guns, including those mounted in the Squadron, but also had a general responsibility for matters of technical acceptability of ammunition.

Who Worked There?

The names of the Gunners-in-charge of Spectacle Island are known, however few others of those who worked there are currently identified. Note that for the period 1908 to 1912 the position of Officer-in-charge was held by a civilian officer.

Life as Gunner-in-charge was not without its compensations. For example, in 1892 the Australian Town and Country Journal reported that:

"Mr. and Mrs. Bennett invited over 100 of their friends to their residence at Spectacle Island on Saturday, October 8, when a most enjoyable time was spent. The large hall of the store had been converted into a very picturesque ballroom, being beautifully decorated with the ensigns of all nations. Dancing was indulged with great vigor all afternoon, and several songs were well rendered. At 6.30 the visitors were invited to a repast, which was laid out at the end of the hall. ..."

Some names are known of people identified with the Island in the Royal Navy period - sadly, through their accidental deaths:

What Happened After 1913?

Continue on to read about the Island's history from 1913 as a Royal Australian Navy Ordnance (later Armament) 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 and search for "Spectacle Island".

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
borclaud @ tpg.com.au