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Port Jackson Explosives Hulks

The use of hulks (also known as Floating Magazines) for the storage of explosives at Port Jackson goes back to at least 1832. According to the Sydney Herald of 16 July 1832:

"The whole of the powder has been taken from Fort Phillip, and placed in the Floating Magazine; the former place is to be pulled down. We would suggest that a more convenient Telegraph House be there erected."

The floating magazine was the ex-government brig, the "Mary Elizabeth"", whose masts, cables, chains etc. were advertised by the Commissariat for auction on 18 September 1832.

A report in the Sydney Herald of 27 September 1832 says:

"It is the intention of Government to purchase a larger vessel to serve as a floating magazine, the present one being found too small to answer the purpose."

It's unclear from this report whether it is the "Mary Elizabeth" that has been found to be too small or whether the reference is to a predecessor, which the "Mary Elizabeth" replaced.

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."

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."

During the early 1850s, the Goat Island Magazine was overcrowded and, whilst building of additional storage was undertaken, a brig named "Cameo" was used 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).

During the 1860s, the gold rush greatly increased the demand for blasting explosives, resulting in the Goat Island 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).

In April 1877 the Ordnance Storekeeper invited tenders for the "fitting up the powder hulk Lady Alicia". (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 1877).The brig "Lady Alicia" had been advertised for sale in late 1875. She was still in service in 1886, when the Storekeeper again invited tenders, this time for alterations; she was then moored off Goat Island.( Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1886)

Sale notice for brig Lady Alicia

A letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, published on 6 October 1881, refers to the hulk Bhering as being moored off Spectacle Island. In this letter, Samuel Charles of 9 Richmond Terrace, Domain, castigates the government for continuing to hazard the lives of Sydney residents:

...When it is known than an explosion of 40 tons shook down houses at a distance of three miles, it is shocking to think what the destruction of life and property would be in Sydney, Balmain or North Shore if those magazines were fired by a villain or a madman, the carelessness of a drunken servant, or a flash of lightning, from all of which causes magazines have been blown up, and not unfrequently chemicals spontaneously - Bridge-street explosion to wit...These ships could be moored in the most suitable creeks up the Parramatta River, out of the fairway, and as distant from habitation.

By 1882, and with the prospect of an imminent transfer of Spectacle Island to the Royal Navy, magazine space at Goat Island was 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 Sydney Morning Herald of 8 September 1882 shows just how large these stocks were:

Newspaper clipping re stocks at Goat Island

The citizens of Sydney weren't shy of expressing their opinions in the letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald as to how the storage problem could be resolved. As early as 31 January 1862, "Suggest" had opined that Goat Island was unsuitable:

"It appears to me that a depot of arms should include also ammunition - should be well fortified and faithfully guarded - be centrally situated as a rallying point speedily attainable by the citizens. Accessible by water, to furnish arms and help to armed vessels sufficiently far from the sea, that an enemy might not intercept retreat into it.

I know no better spot that meets these conditions than the rocky waste land of Pyrmont to the left of the bridge. Soon after crossing the bridge, the road to the further bridge branches off rather to the left, running W. or S.S.W. through a deep cutting, thus isolating the proposed site on the north side. Some distance further south, above the bridge in Darling Harbour, a deep stone quarry considerably indents the land, and a cutting from the bridge road to this quarry would leave out a homestead by the water side, and isolate the site on the east side. On the west side is a road running from Parramatta - street northward, which is now abruptly terminated by the cutting of the bridge road. If this road was transferred to the beach of Blackwattle Swamp Cove, and cut down to a level with the bridge road, it would isolate the site on the west side; and a deep cutting running east from this road to the quarry would complete the isolation, presenting a stone block which could be gradually moulded into a pentagon fort, and be excavated with vaults and covered with buildings, the stone for which would be amply provided for out of the vaults and cuttings. A lofty tower could signal to Paddington barracks ..."

On 6 March 1882, G. A. Green offered a rather bizarre option:

" Sir, Will you permit me through your columns to show the Government what I believe to be the vast advantages of submarine storage of explosives.

I suggest that one of the many bays of the harbour - the deeper the water the better - be selected, in which any required number of tanks, about 5 ton capacity, could be sunk to the bottom, about 30 yards apart, the tanks to be built of wood, sheathed with Montz's metal, fitted with airtight door, and arranged for attaching lead weights on the outside to make them sinkable when containing only a portion of the storage, each one to have a distinguishing buoy; then piles or moorings in suitable positions for controlling of a covered vessel with necessary lifting gear, &c.

By this arrangement the vessel will be moved from buoy to buoy with the greatest facility. It will be seen that the small difference of specific gravity of the loaded tanks and the water, it will require very little labour to lift them from the bottom to the surface of the water ..."

In about late 1882 the Bhering was moved to what is now called Powder Hulk Bay in Middle Harbour, where it was joined by the hulks Pride of England, also a powder hulk, and the Alacrity, which was used as a guard ship and accommodation. These hulks were used for storage of mercantile (commercial) explosives until replaced by the Bantry Bay magazine about 1913.

"Friday, October 20, 1882
In the Legislative Council, yesterday.
...

On the adjourned debate being resumed, upon the motion of Mr. Broderer, expressing the opinion that the Government ought, as early as possible, to remove the gunpowder and other explosives in the magazines within Sydney harbour.

Mr. Alexander Campbell explained that the Government had taken such steps in this matter that within 10 or 12 days the hulk Pride of England would be ready for the reception of explosives and the schooner Alacrity for the accommodation of the men. In addition to this, the Government had resumed 217 acres of land at Newington Flats, on the Parramatta River, where it was proposed to erect three magazines of moderate size, separated by mounds of earth. ..." (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October 1882)

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."

There is available an illustrated contemporary account of a visit to the hulks in 1913. This is a PDF file, about 620 KB.

The method of operating the hulks in 1901 is described in an article by the Queensland Government Analyst, J. Brownlie Henderson, in the the Brisbane Courier of 19 January 1901 (p.7):

"PRACTICE IN SYDNEY.

On arrival in Sydney I visited the Mercantile Explosives Department, and Mr. Williams, the superintendent, and Mr. Wain, the analyst (late chief assistant here), most kindly gave me all information they had at their disposal, and took me round the Government magazines. The Explosives Act of New South Wales differs materially from the Imperial Act, and the handling of the explosives is retained entirely under Government control.

Shortly, the method is this :- When a ship brings a cargo of explosives into the harbour the explosives are transferred by labourers in the Government employ to Government lighters, the lighters towed to the floating magazine, and the explosives stored there. When the owner of any explosive wants a certain number of cases of his explosive from the magazine they are delivered to the Railway Explosives Wharf again by Government employees. If a certain lot of explosives contains cases which show a tendency to falling off In the heat test, and the owner requires delivery of several cases, those with the low heat test can be sent out first, apart altogether from any wish of the owner, so that they are used up before the heat test has reached the limit. The working details of this method, 'though they were kindly shown me by the authorities in Sydney, would be out of place in this report. The method is a good one, in so far as it keeps the entire control of the storage of explosives in Government hands, and at no cost to the Government, the charges made for unloading, storage, &c., more than covering the cost of working the department."

In 1906, the NSW Government appointed a committee to consider the future of 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.

Hulk - a vessel condemned as unfit for sea service,and used in harbour for some purpose such as a store ship or an accommodation ship (Admiralty Manual of Seamanship, Vol II, 1951, p. 747)

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au