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Guarding the Explosives

Early Colonial Days in New South Wales

In early days in the Colony of New South Wales the magazines, which were mainly associated with the defensive batteries, were guarded by the military, although not without occasional problems. David Collin's An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales records, for August 1798, that:

"The battery on Point Maskelyne was nearly completed in this month. A few carpenters were employed in laying a floor in Government House, and other repairs; but several of the public works were nearly at a stand, many of the sawyers being in the hospital. The powder magazine having been found upon examination to be in a very insecure and dangerous state, the powder was taken out and sent on board the Supply. This removal was the more necessary, as an attempt had been made to open the door of the magazine in the night. The weather was bad; and it was supposed that the sentinel, whose box was thrown down and broken, had endeavoured to shelter himself in the magazine."

The Colonial Gunpowder Magazines

Until the departure from Australia of the British Army garrison in 1870, Goat Island, and possibly Spectacle Island, were guarded by British soldiers. Occasionally the tedium of this duty had unfortunate consequences. On 8 December 1857 the Sydney Morning Herald reported the outcome of an inquest held on Goat Island into the death of Samuel Bryant, a private in Her Majesty's 77th Regiment. It seems that on the preceding Sunday evening Bryant had been part of the military detachment or guard stationed on the Island. At about 8.30 PM that night another private, John Cook had returned to the guard room "in a state of insensibility" declaring that he had stabbed Bryant with a bayonet. After deliberating for an hour the jury determined that Bryant " ... came by his death from a bayonet wound, inflicted by the prisoner John Cook, whom we pronounce guilty of murder. ... To this verdict the jury added a rider expressive of their regret at the easy manner in which intoxicating drinks are to be obtained upon the Island." The newspaper account fails to shed any light on the reason for the murder, beyond the likely involvement of rum.

Judging by a later letter published in the Herald on 12 February 1858, Cook received the sentence of one year's imprisonment with hard labour; this was evidently seen at the time as a lenient sentence although the Herald's correspondent argued otherwise.

Evidence given to the Storage of Gunpowder Board in 1875 revealed that at that time the night-time guard at the Goat and Spectacle Island Magazines was being provided by the civilian staff, who were rostered for the duty in addition to their normal hours. The guard was armed with a rifle. Recommendation 9 of the Board's report was that "a guard at each of the established magazines be provided, and that to ensure efficiency three gunners and one non-commissioned officer of the Permanent Artillery Force be detailed periodically for this duty." It's unclear whether this recommendation was implemented.

The Regulations Under the "Gunpowder and Explosive Consolidation Act, 1876," (40 Victoria, No. 1.) first regulated the civilian guarding of the colonial powder magazines, including the Goat and Spectacle Islands magazines:

"11. On no occasion shall strangers have access to a magazine without proper authority; but when so admitted, they must be attended by an officer of the department, whose duty it shall be to see that the necessary precautions have been adopted, and that they have no articles in their possession of a combustible nature, or likely to cause an accident.

12. All public magazines in which explosives are stored shall (unless otherwise provided) be watched by a warder of the department, who must be a special constable, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. when he shall be relieved by another warder, who must also be a special constable. The Foreman of the magazine shall occasionally visit such warders to see that they are on the alert and doing their duty."

The duties of the warders were:

"16. The warder shall patrol the magazine buildings, and see that the instructions given in Regulation 5 are strictly attended to. He must every half-hour strike the bell (giving four blows) during his guard; and every omission of such duty must be noted, and reported by the foreman to the Ordnance Storekeeper. The warder must not allow any person to come within the precincts without authority - must see that no boats anchor or remain within the proclaimed precincts of the magazine, except those duly authorized, in which case they shall be under his supervision - must hail at night all boats or individuals approaching the magazine - report arrival and departures to the Foreman - must we that no spirituous liquors are improperly introduced within the precincts by residents or visitors, - and must see that all lights are put out by 11 p.m. except those in the guard-room, the Foreman's quarters, and in the dwellings of such employees as have obtained permission to have lights on account of sickness."

Royal Navy at Spectacle Island

Once Spectacle Island had been taken over by the Royal Navy, security was provided by Royal Navy Marines, although the isolation of the Island no doubt was its best security. However the writer "Vaurien", who visited in 1891 seemed to have no difficulty in landing from his rented skiff:

"It was while examining some empty cases on the wharf addressed to the paymaster in charge of H.M. Naval Yard, "Sidney" - British officials were never at the top of the class in spelling - that the polite request of the Officer-in-Charge to know if I was looking for anybody recalled my thoughts from the eccentricities of naval orthography to the fact that my card of admission had not been delivered. Having obtained permission to explore the island by myself we parted on the best of terms, he promised to subsequently explain any puzzles met in the peregrination. Inland are many substantial buildings wholly devoted to war material and those who handle it."

Henry Capper, who was in charge of Spectacle Island between 1894 and 1900, recorded in his autobiography:

"My post was resident officer on Spectacle Island, at the mouth of the Parramatta River, which was both a Magazine and an Ordnance Depot. There were four other families of the storekeeping staff, and a guard of twelve marines under a Lance-Sergeant, also resident. All of these had their boats for communication with the mainland, and for my convenience a service boat and an able seaman was also borne."

Royal Australian Navy at Spectacle Island

The transfer of Spectacle Island from the Royal Navy to the Royal Australian Navy in 1913 coincided with the creation of the RAN's Naval Dockyard Police branch. From that time until the island ceased to be involved in ammunition logistics during the 1990s, security was provided by a Naval Dockyard Police complement.

The photo below shows Senior Constable Tom (Thomas James) Blake, photographed at Spectacle Island before 1927. Tom Blake, born 31 May 1884 in Plumstead, England, was amongst the first recruits to the new branch, having commenced on 8 July 1913 on a salary of £156 per annum. Blake, who had prior service with the Royal Navy, was one of the members of the NDP appointed as supernumary members of the Victoria Police Force on 25 August 1921 when guarding arrangements at Flinders Naval Base were transferred from the Victorian Police Force to the RAN.

Photo of Senior Constable Tom Blake

Senior Constable Tom (Thomas James) Blake, photographed at Spectacle Island before 1927

The fire fighting responsibilities of the police at Spectacle Island are shown in the Fire Regulations c. 1920.

Relationships between the police and civilian staff were generally good, but occasionally troubled, although the matters in dispute seem petty in retrospect. For example, in 1941 the Armament Supply Officer, Monty Hine wrote to the Commodore-in-Charge, Sydney complaining about the police fishing from the wharf whilst in uniform and on duty. The Commodore replied that this was a long established privilege which he did not intend to withdraw unless it could be shown that abuse was occurring. (ASO to Commodore-in-Charge, Sydney S.I. 415/1/43 of 9 January 1941; Commodore-in-Charge, Sydney to ASO B.S. 577/39/44 of 7 February 1941)

Just 4 days after the Commodore's letter was written (could there be a relationship?), the ASO had occasion to:

"... report that at approximately 1230 11th February, 1941, I had reason to speak to Constable Edwards in connection with his beat past the front of the residence, with the result that I was subjected to obscene and abusive language. In addition, I was repeatedly threatened with clenched fists and on one occasion Constable Edwards clutched me by the throat.

2. Apart from the fact that this constable was told that very frequent patrolling in front of the residence was objected to, I quite fail to appreciate the reason of his insulting and aggressive behaviour." (ASO S.I. 415/1/43 to Commodore-in-Charge, Sydney dated 11 February 1941)

The outcome of this particular incident isn't known, but fishing seemed to continue until October 1941, when an instruction from Sub-Inspector Garlick brought the practice to a halt. (Sub-Inspector instruction dated 10 October 1941)

RAN Naval Dockyard Police

According to Peter Mangan:

"The formation of the Naval Police occurred on the 1st July 1913, when the Royal Naval establishments in the Sydney area were handed over to the Royal Australian Navy.

The branch was at that time known as the Naval Dockyard Police (NDP). It had been established to relieve the Royal Marine Light Infantry members who had carried out the guarding and policing duties at Garden Island, Spectacle Island and the Royal Edward Victualling Yard since 1867. Since the Commonwealth Government had acquired the Cockatoo Island Dockyard from the NSW Government on 31st January 1913, it was also decided to have Naval Dockyard Police take over from the six civilian Special Constables who had been employed by the NSW Public Works Department." (Commander Peter Mangan, History of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Police)

Naval Dockyard Police employed at Armament Depots were responsible for security, fire prevention (in conjunction with depot staff), first-response fire fighting and, at times, first aid.

The Military Magazine at Newington

When constructed in 1897 the Military Magazine was a relatively small and compact establishment, with the magazines and laboratories contained within a cast-iron picket fence. Outside the fence, but in close proximity, were constructed a warrant officer's quarters and four mens' quarters. It is likely that there were no guards as such, with responsibility for security being shared by the military personnel employed there on explosives work. In 1902, these personnel comprised a Sergeant and at least 3 Gunners.

Occasionally, during militia training manouevres, additional guards were assigned to Newington:


The back of the work at the Kensington camp, where the Australian Rifles Regiment and the St. George's English Rifles formed the backbone of a mobile force, with details of the Australian Light Horse, A.M.C., and A.S.C., was practically broken yesterday afternoon, when the firstnamed struck camp to take part in further manoeuvres at North Sydney and district as a northern force, as provided in the scheme. ...

At 1.30 p.m. the A.R.R. and the St. George's English Rifle Regiment moved off and mounted guard within the Sydney fortress area, in continuation with the tactical scheme issued by Colonel Campbell (fortress commander) at such places as Woolwich, Mort's and Cockatoo docks, magazines at Newington, cable station at La Perouse, and ordnance stores, leaving detachments at each place to form guards, which were told off to maintain reliefs. At 3.30 p.m. the troops returned to camp." (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 1909)

Additional guards were posted on the outbreak of World War 1 as the following notice shows:

"The commanding officer, Sydney Defended Port, Colonel G.R. Campbell, has issued the following official warning:- "At night time boats are warned to keep clear of the water approaches to the Hawkesbury Bridge, Goat Island, Ryde Bridge, Como Bridge, Newington Magazine, Bondi and La Perouse Beaches, and of the foreshores of Middle Head, South Head, Balmoral, and Chowder Bay. Persons are also warned against approaching at night all places where military guards are known to be posted."" (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 August 1914)

Anecdotal evidence says that on the first night this guard was in place at Newington it challenged a workboat towing lighters up to Duck River and opened fire when the coxswain, in ignorance of the warning, continued upstream.

The RAN at Newington

It is likely that Naval Dockyard Police were assigned to the Newington Depot soon after the depot was transferred from the Australian Army to the RAN. By 1929 the depot was guarded by a Naval Police complement of 4 - one Sergeant 2nd class and three constables. Police clocks were installed at various points and connected to an alarm at the sergeant's residence. There were 5 residences and these were occupied by a foreman, storehouseman, sergeant and 2 constables.

As the depot expanded it became necessary in 1929 to introduce horses for mounted Naval Police patrols. According to a history of the Naval Dockyard Police:

"The Naval Dockyard Police can lay claim to having been the last, if not the only, branch of the RAN to have been horse-borne. Patrols of establishments on horse back commenced during WW II at depots such as Byford, in WA, and Newington in NSW. They continued right through until 1952 when the last fiery steed was withdrawn from service at Byford and transferred to the less illustrious role of towing a roller around the sports ground of HMAS LEEUWIN. Notwithstanding this, Riding Breeches appeared on the official kit list of the Naval Dockyard Police some time after the disappearance of our last horse."

The 1935 Instructions for Naval Dockyard Police required the Sergeant to be:

"responsible that the horses are properly fed, watered and groomed, and that the saddlery is maintained in a clean and serviceable condition, also that horses are properly saddled, etc. on each occasion of their use and that they are not ridden in a manner likely to produce soreness."

Apparently not all Naval Policemen were comfortable on horseback. In his Annual Report for 1928/29, the Armament Supply Officer referred to the case of a Constable who sought:

"permission to curtail alternate patrols throughout his period of duty each night, the reason for his request being that his feet were seriously affected by the amount of walking to be done (the man being unable to ride)."

They were hard times and permission was not granted!

Police horses continued to serve at Newington up to and through World War II. However, in 1945, a decision was taken to replace the horses with bicycles. At this time there were three horses in use for police work.

Sergeant Herbert Amis

Photo of Herbert Amis and sons

Sergeant Herbert Amis with sons Gerry (left) and Harry (right)(if you are a member of this family, please contact the website author - email at foot of page)

Herbert Amis was born at Itteringham, Norfolk, England on 12 December 1890 and died at Auburn, NSW on 8 May 1960. He joined the RAN on 12 December 1912, serving as a Stoker and Mechanician until 13 August 1934 when he was discharged at the termination of his engagement.

On 14 August 1934 he enlisted in the RAN Reserve and served thereafter in the Naval Dockyard Police. He was promoted to Sergeant 2nd Class on 16 July 1940, and continued to serve until December 1952 when he was discharged, probably because of having reached the maximum service of 40 years.

Amis is believed to have spent much of his Naval Police career at Newington, including as the resident Sergeant. Documentary evidence places him at Newington in 1942. His son, Harry, was officer-in-charge at the RAN Torpedo Depot in the early 1970s after wartime service as a Seaman and Sub-lieutenant.

In March 1944 the Naval Board ordered a review of guarding arrangements at Armament Depots "with a view to reduction in numbers having regard to the present manpower position."(Secretary, Naval Board letter 463/205/3553 of 31 March 1944). In response, the Admiral-in-Charge recommended a total complement of 26 for Newington, 19 for the Homebush sub-depot and 9 for Spectacle Island. This was a reduction of 68 on the approved war-time complement.

At Newington, for example, the recommendation was for a Sergeant 1st Class, 3 Sergeants 2nd Class, 3 Constables 1st Class and 19 Constables to man 3 posts and a general patrol.

Newington was a lively place in 1949, a period of industrial conflict in Australia. On 3 July 1949 the Sunday Herald reported, under the banner headline "New Security Safeguards Against Strike Sabotage - Armed Guards at Defence Depots" that:

"Two civilian guards at Newington naval explosives depot were replaced yesterday by an R.A.N. guard of 50, commanded by a lieutenant ... They have been issued with live ammunition"

A video about RANAD Newington, The History and Operation of the Newington Armament Depot, was made by the Olympic Coordination Authority in 1999. This video contains a short interview with the Chief Petty Officer in charge of the Naval Police at Newington, in which he explains how the Naval Police role was undertaken.

The US Army Ordnance Depot at Kingswood

Available evidence suggests that this depot was guarded by mounted patrols, as horse stalls are included in the list of buildings on the site. There were also 3 "Fire Towers" which presumably permitted surveillance of the entire depot site.

The RAN Armament Depot Kingswood

The earliest evidence I have for the presence of Naval Dockyard Police at Kingswood is an Admiral Superintendent minute to Flag Officer in Charge, NSW, dated 16 November 1950 that confirms that the police quarters had still not been moved across Bringelly Road, due to uncertainty about the future of the depot. However they may have been present from 1945, when the RAN and RAAF took over the former US Army Ordnance Depot.

A report from the Sunday Herald of 5 June 1949 regarding inadequate security at government munitions sites said:

"...Hundreds of heavy aerial bombs are stacked in scrub country near Kingswood, N.S.W. Last week, there was only one unarmed man detailed to guard the dump. A senior R.A.A.F officer commented in Sydney yesterday: "Given a truck and a couple of men, I could get sufficient bombs from the Kingswood dump in half-an-hour to blow the harbour bridge sky high - and the theft might not be discovered for weeks."

This report refers to the RAAF portion of the Kingswood site, and may not represent the position on the Navy portion. As late as 1950 RAAF security comprised a continuous patrol by a single horse-mounted civilian guard.

The later arrangements for guarding at Kingswood were somewhat unusual in that the Naval Dockyard Police contingent reported to the Commanding Officer of the RAAF No. 1 Central Ammunition Depot. This was a result of the Joint User Agreement that governed joint use of the site.

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Robert Curran
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