As early as 1826 Goat island was being viewed as a suitable place to store the Colony's gunpowder:
"Goat Island, which lies at the entrance of the Parramatta River, and forms the commencement of the harbour to the west of Sydney Cove, is on the eve of being converted into a naval arsenal, and Mr. Nicholson, the Master Attendant, who seems highly delighted with the measure, is most anxious that the views of His EXCELLENCY may be promptly carried into the fullest effect. On the west side of the island, which forms a complete shelter from our southerly gales, there is depth of water to lay the largest vessel in the navy close to the shore. The Phoenix hulk is to he moored off this island, and the prisoners will be worked on shore." (Sydney Gazette, 24 May 1826)
Some years were to elapse, however, before construction got under way; in the interim complaints were made about the danger posed by the existing magazine at Fort Phillip:
"... we feel assured that the majority of the inhabitants would repose much more comfortably were the Magazine stationed in some isolated spot, especially as there is Goat Island, and a hundred other favourable sites, in the vicinity of Darling Harbour, that might be considered perfectly eligible and altogether safe for the article of gunpowder to be secured." (Sydney Gazette, 28 November 1827)
On 31 December 1832 the Sydney Gazette reported that:
"His Excellency the Governor, in company with the Master Attendant, and several other gentlemen, proceeded on Friday last to Goat Island, for the purpose of fixing on a proper spot to erect a powder magazine, the floating one being too small to contain one half the powder now in this Colony."
Shortly thereafter, a notice placed in the same newspaper, prohibited landings on the Island.
Construction of the magazine and barrack complex at Goat Island was commenced, using the labour of ironed (convict) gangs from the convict hulk (prison) "Phoenix", shortly after. The magazine was intended for the increasing stores of gunpowder held in Sydney town for public works and also as a central magazine for the powder stocks of the Navy and Military.
In August 1836 the NSW Legislative Council passed "an Act for better regulating the keeping and carriage of Gunpowder". This provided for the Officers of the Ordnance to be responsible for the custody of merchant's stocks of gunpowder.
On 13 January 1838, the Sydney Gazette advised its readers :
"The whole of the powder has been landed into the magazine at Goat Island, from the powder hulk lately moored off the North Shore. This vessel will, we believe, be fitted up to receive the diving apparatus, shortly expected from England for the Engineer Department."
By January 1839 the Goat Island magazine and the adjoining cooperage were fully completed. The magazine, otherwise known as the Ordnance or Queen's Magazine was constructed of sandstone quarried on the island and measured 100 feet by 25 feet internally. It was capable of holding 3,000 barrels of gunpowder. Its construction included heavy buttresses supporting a massive arched roof and an intricate ventilation system carved in the sandstone walls.
The Queen's Magazine conforms to the general design principles set down by Marshal Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633 - 1707), the distinguished French fortification architect. These principles are described in the following extract from William Duane's A Military Dictionary, Philadelphia, 1810, pp. 257-358:
"Permanent powder magazines. According to Vauban's plan, powder magazines are commonly made 10 fathoms [60 feet] long, and 25 feet wide, in the clear. The foundation of the longest sides, is 9 or 10 feet thick, and 6 feet or more deep, according to the nature of the ground. The side walls raised upon these are 8 or 9 feet thick; and if there is not to be an upper story, 8 feet will be sufficient height above the foundation. By this means the flooring may be raised above the ground, free from damp, and there will remain 6 feet from the floor to the spring of the arch. The arch is formed of layers of bricks, arched one over the other, and ought to be 3 feet thick at the top. The exterior surface of the arch terminates with an angle at the top, like a roof; which angle must be of such magnitude as to make a thickness of 8 feet over the key stone of the arch. The foundation at the gable ends is 5 feet thick, and the same depth as the sides; these ends are built up 4 feet thick, from the foundation to the top of the roof. The long sides are supported by counterforts [buttresses], 6 feet thick and 4 feet long; and placed 12 feet asunder. The ventilators are placed, one in the centre of each space between the counterforts, and are made with a die across them of 1 1/2 feet. These ventilators are also closed with plates of iron. The magazine is lighted by a window in each end, high up, which are opened and shut by means of a ladder. These windows are secured, each by two shutters, made of plank 2 or 3 inches thick; and the outer one covered with sheet iron, and both fastened with strong bolts. The entrance of the magazine should, if possible, be placed towards the south. A wall of 1 1/2 feet thick, and 10 feet high, is built round the magazine at 12 feet distance. A magazine of the above dimensions will contain about 94,800 lbs. of powder, in piles of 3 barrels each; for a greater number piled above each other destroys the barrels, damaging the powder, and occasions accidents."
In 1848 the Colonial Secretary, Edward Deas Thomson, suggested to the Respective Officers of the Ordnance that the Ordnance magazine should be removed to Spectacle Island, due to the overcrowding caused by the large stocks of merchant's powder. This suggestion was rejected by the Officers and did not proceed.
Some time after its completion, and at least by 1852, the original cooperage at Goat Island had been converted for use as a laboratory, where propellant charges were made up for use by Naval ships and the Garrison artillery.
In 1851, with no resolution to overcrowding in sight, the Government introduced to the Parliament a Gunpowder Destruction Bill:
"The COLONIAL SECRETARY moved the first reading of the Bill. This matter had been a subject of much consideration between his office and the Ordnance department. Gunpowder had accumulated to so great an extent at the Goat Island magazine as to endanger the city. A vessel had been hired for additional storage, but this was only a temporary measure; and among the proposed additions to the estimates was a sum for the erection of a new magazine. In the event of that sum being granted, the Government would be prepared next session to introduce a Bill for placing the system of storing merchant's gunpowder upon an entirely new footing. The object of the present Bill was to authorise the destruction of certain gunpowder which had remained so long in the magazine as to incur charges for store rent greater than its entire value."
Also in 1851, the brig "Cameo" was taken into service as a powder hulk (or "receiving vessel for ordnance stores" as the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 November 1851 puts it). The "Cameo" continued in use until about September 1854, when it was put up for sale. (Sydney Morning Herald of 26 September 1854).
In late 1853 an additional magazine, known as the Colonial Magazine, and intended for merchant's gunpowder, was completed.
In 1857, storage space was again a problem at Goat Island and proposals were made for the use of the small magazines attached to the fortifications at Fort Macquarie, Fort Denison, Dawes Battery and Kirribilli. When consulted on this proposal, George Barney, the Commanding Royal Engineer suggested, as had the Colonial Secretary in 1848, the use of Spectacle Island as a site for a new magazine. At this time the amount of gunpowder in store on the Imperial account was 402 barrels, 135 half barrels and 1,473 quarter barrels.
In the event, the Colonial Magazine was extended in 1859 and construction of a new powder magazine at Spectacle Island went ahead in 1863.
During the 1860s, the gold rush greatly increased the demand for blasting explosives, resulting in the Magazine becoming severely over-crowded. During the period leading up to the opening of the Spectacle Island Magazine, the brig "Lady Mary" was hired to act as a floating magazine at Goat Island, at a rent of £200 per annum (as per the estimates debated in the Legislative Assembly on 8 January 1862).
The same estimates debate reveals the costs of running the Goat Island Magazine. The total cost for the year was £826, of which £110 10s. was to be contributed from Imperial funds. The total cost was made up of:
|Allowances to Assistant Military Storekeeper, for additional duties||£50|
|Wages to cooper at 3s. 4d.; and to 3 labourers at 1s. 8d. each||£120|
|Boat hire at 8s. per week||£21|
|Night watchman, floating magazine||£30|
|Rent of brig Lady Mary, occupied as a floating magazine||£200|
(Source:Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January 1862)
On the evening of March 4 in 1866, a shipbroker's office at no. 17 Bridge Street, Sydney was devastated by the accidental explosion of two bottles of nitro-glycerine.This event appears to have precipitated a decision that the storage of explosives would be removed from the centre of Sydney.
On 4 March 1875 a deputation consisting of municipal representatives met the Colonial Secretary to argue for the removal of the Magazine.
In November 1875, the Report of the Storage of Gunpowder Board made a number of recommendations which included the removal of merchant's powder from Goat Island and the construction of a separate magazine for it on the right bank of the Parramatta River. New Gunpowder and Explosives Regulations were proclaimed in 1876.
The Royal Navy stores on Goat Island were removed to Spectacle Island in 1884, and shortly before March 1885, the Colonial Government stocks of explosives were removed from Spectacle Island to Goat Island.
With magazine space insufficient for the task at hand reliance was placed on the use of hulks for storing merchant's powder and the newer explosives, such as Lithofracteur, that were becoming available. The following article from the The Argus of 8 September 1882 shows just how large these stocks were:
The Brisbane Courier reported the removal of the hulks in its issue of 25 October 1882:
"The first step has been taken towards the removal from the immediate vicinity of the city of the explosives stored at Goat Island. Tho powder hulks are being moored in Middle Harbour."
Stocks of merchant's powder (or mercantile explosives as they were renamed) remained at Goat Island until July 1900, according to an Answer given by the NSW Premier in the Parliament on 10 September 1901. The residue of military explosives that were not moved to Newington after its opening remained until about 1907. On 22 March 1905, a correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald advised that the Balmain Borough Council had been successful in getting the military authorities to cease disposal of Martini-Henry rifle cartridges on the Island, as the method employed, which involved firing the de-bulleted cartridge, was excessively noisy.
In 1906, the NSW Government appointed a committee to consider the future of Goat Island and the powder hulks, or floating magazines as they came to be called. Their report eventually led to the construction of government magazines at Bantry Bay.
Explosives were finally removed from the Island in 1907; the following year the Commonwealth Government relinquished its claim to the Island. However there is evidence that Commonwealth stores, probably including ammunition, returned to the Island at a later date. This may have resulted from a temporary shortage of ammunition storage that affected both the Army and Navy immediately after World War 1.
The draft Conservation Management Plan for the Island says that the Sydney Harbour Trust, the new custodians of the Island, did not move into its western part, that includes the Queen's and Colonial Magazines, until 1925. There is, in the National Archives of Australia, a Department of Defence file titled "Handing over of Goat Island to NSW State Authorities - Transfer of Stores etc". This file, the contents of which the author hasn't sighted, has a date range of 1919-1923. (NAA: MP367/1, 525/4/46)
There is also a letter dated 6 December 1922 from the C.O.O 2nd District Base to the C.O. 1st C.A. Brigade that concerns the release of "... Bdr. Boston (Goat Island) for regimental duty ..." *. The letter's context implies that Boston had been engaged on work in connection with storage and maintenance of Army ammunition. (NAA:SP1048/7, S1/1/111:Reconditioning ammunition, personnel at Liverpool depot)
(* Probably Gunner William Boston, enlisted 10 October 1906; discharged medically unfit on 29 October 1931 from 1 Heavy Brigade R.A.A. Army No. NSW 670; rank of Bombardier from 1911. (NAA: B4717, BOSTON/WILLIAM)
It is possible to visit Goat Island. Go to the Sydney Harbour National Park website for information about guided tours.
J. S. Kerr Goat Island 1985
P.R. Stephenson The History and Description of Sydney Harbour Pp 221-222
Goat Island - A Contextual History, Sydney Harbour National Park, December 2007 (PDF File, 5 MB)
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