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Storage of Gunpowder Board 1875

Around the year 1875 there was considerable agitation amongst the residents of Sydney about the danger presented by the Goat Island Magazine. For example, on Thursday 4 March 1875, a deputation from the Sydney and suburban municipalities and the Sydney Chamber of Commerce met with the Colonial Secretary to urge the removal of the gunpowder magazine to some safer place than Goat Island. (Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1875). The outcome of this agitation was the appointment of a board to consider the issue.

From the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 October 1875:

"STORAGE OF GUNPOWDER

In May last the Government appointed Captain Mann, M. E. Moriarty, Lieutenant-Colonel Richardson, Captain Hixson, and M. Barnett, members of a Board to consider the desirability of the removal of the Goat Island Magazine. The Board reported on the 5th October, instant, and the following are their recommendations-

1. That the whole of the merchant's gunpowder and other explosives now stored at the Goat Island Magazine, be removed from that establishment, and that it be retained only for the limited quantity of gunpowder and ammunition required to be stored for the use of her Majesty's ships on this station.

2. That a separate and distinct magazine for merchants gunpowder, capable of storing about 300 tons, be established on the right bank of the Parramatta River, at the site designated by the tracing forwarded by letter from the Board on the 30th August last.

3. That a suitable hulk be provided and moored at a safe distance from the proposed magazine for the storage of all explosives other than gunpowder.

4. That efficiently constructed powder barges, and steam-launch for towing the same, be provided by the Government for removal of gunpowder and other explosives.

5. That the magazine at Fort Denison be used as an expense magazine in the event of vessels not being ready to receive the powder brought down by the barges for exportation.

6. That for the conveyance of gunpowder and other explosives by land, to and from magazine, and in the immediate vicinity of the city efficiently constructed vans only be used.

7. That the transit of gunpowder, and all other explosives be under the immediate control of the Government and that the service be conducted by experienced labour only, in conformity with Government regulations.

8. That all boats, barges, and vehicles carrying gunpowder or other explosives be obliged to exhibit a conspicuous danger signal.

9. 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.

10. That fixed and definite boundaries be determined and proclaimed around all magazines.

11. That the law of the colony respecting the storage and transit of gunpowder and other explosives be revised, and that authority be given to the Government to fix and define the localities for the delivery of gunpowder. That trespassing within the proclaimed boundary of a magazine be made illegal. That dealers retaining the authorised quantity of 2 cwt. on their premises be required to take out an ordinary license, and that proprietors of country and local magazines, capable of storing larger quantities of gunpowder or other explosives, be required to take out special licenses, and that all licensed stores and magazines be liable for Government inspection.

12. That all explosives be duly labelled and declared, and no explosives (except small quantities for sportsmen) be carried in public vehicles.

13. That the whole of the underwood at Goat Island be cleared away, and that the general surface of the island be kept clear from undergrowth. That no buildings be erected in the vicinity of the magazine, and that the small building in particular to the eastward of it, be at once removed.

14. That the following alterations be made at Spectacle Island Magazine, viz. :- The buildings now occupied as quarters in the vicinity of that magazine to be converted into storage for ammunition, shifting, and making-up rooms &c. The shells and ammunition, now stored at the northern end, and close to the magazine, to be removed and stored in the vacated building.

15. That quarters be constructed on the vacant space, to the north-west of Spectacle Island, and that the magazine be not increased beyond a capacity of storage for 150 tons of gunpowder.

16. That in no instance should gunpowder and chemical explosives be conveyed in the same van, boat or barge.

17. That in no instance is gunpowder, or other explosives to be delivered from the magazine, or received by the railway for transit, until arrangements for its immediate removal on arrival at its destination are completed and provided by the consignee. 18. That regulations for the storage and transit of gunpowder and other explosives be in force in any city, town, or locality of the colony on proclamation to that effect being made by the Governor.

19. That the regulations for gunpowder magazines in charge of the Control Department, including rules for the reception, conveyance, storage, classification, and examination of gunpowder, ammunition, and other explosives, as contained in an Imperial work designated "Treatise on Ammunition," dated 1874, and issued under the authority of the Secretary of State for War, be in force so far as applicable to the somewhat necessarily altered conditions of the colonial service.

Gother K. Mann, Chairman

5th October, 1875"

In the event, the clearance of undergrowth at Goat Island was quickly put in hand but the Colonial Secretary seemed more interested in using hulks for storage in lieu of constructing a new magazine at Newington. Thus, although money was regularly included in estimates for the Newington project, it was not until 1897 that it finally went ahead, and as a magazine for military, rather than merchants' gunpowder. In the meantime, resort was made to powder hulks for the merchants' powder. However a new Explosives Act, with comprehensive modern regulations was enacted the following year.

The "the site designated by the tracing" (recommendation no. 2) is approximately coincident with the site later resumed by the Government for the construction of the military magazine at Newington. It is on the right-bank of the Parramatta River as viewed facing down-stream.

Note: The Board's report is a valuable historical resource. It contains transcripts of witness interviews and much other material describing the operations of the public powder magazines of NSW in the mid-1870s. It appears not to have been published as a separate publication but can be found in the Votes and Proceedings of the NSW Legislative Assembly for 1875/76 (Volume 6, page 993).

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au