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Jubilee History of Spectacle Island

In 1933 a short history of Spectacle Island was prepared as a typescript to celebrate the jubilee of the commencement of naval usage of the site. The identity of the author is given by the initials "R.A.B.", believed to be Reginald Arnold Ball, who at that time was an Assistant Armament Supply Officer stationed at the Island. The text of this history is given below.

Spectacle Island in the 1920s

Spectacle Island in the 1920s. From the collection of the National Archives of Australia. (Image # C4076, HN5516D)

THE JUBILEE OF SPECTACLE ISLAND
And its Early History

The present month marks the Jubilee of Spectacle Island as a unit in the defence of the Australian continent, for it was in September 1883 that Sir Alexander Stuart, Premier of the Colony of New South Wales, made the island available to the British Admiralty for the storage of explosives and guns, on terms which amounted to "permanent loan".

The sea wall which girts the island to-day encloses an area of a little more than five acres, much of which is reclaimed ground. The island's present shape is therefore very different from what it was in the "sixties" of last century, when the hand of man had commenced to remodel it. In those days it resembled, as its name implies, a pair of spectacles, and comprised two small islands which were separated at high water, but which at low tide were connected by a narrow neck of rocks.....

The earliest known reference to Spectacle Island in the official records of New South Wales was in 1862, when Mr. Surveyor Knapp made a contour map which described the island or islands as "scrubby rocks". The same year on April 17th, a notice in the "Gazette" announced that Spectacle Island and other islands in the colony of New South Wales were "reserved from sale until surveyed, for the preservation of water supply, and other public purposes." The first reference to the island's future use occurs in an undated plan, probably about 1863, entitled "Spectacle Island's Proposed Powder Magazine", which shows the suggested sites of certain buildings. These buildings were erected about 1865, that date having been cut in the stone over the doorway of the original powder magazine, which is in use to this day.

It is not, however, until eleven years later - on 25th September 1876 - that Spectacle Island was given its official status as a Government Powder Magazine with the gazettal of a Proclamation by His Excellency Sir Hercules Robertson to the effect that all the ground for a distance of 50 yards from high water mark around Spectacle Island was a "public magazine" within the meaning of the Gunpowder and Explosives Consolidation Act of 1876. Statutory Regulations promulgated on 29th September, 1876 declared that "The Magazines established as 'Public Magazines' for the storage of explosives are those at Goat and Spectacle Islands, in the harbour of Port Jackson; the Magazine at Gulgong and the floating magazine in the Port of Newcastle."

These regulations dealt in great detail with the question of safety and those applying to trespass were very stringent.


In the pre-Naval days, Spectacle Island was policed by a "Warder" whose duties were defined in such detail that it is perhaps of interest to reproduce them:-

"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 me 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."

About this time, negotiations which had been long continuing between the British Admiralty and the Colonial Government concerning a site for a Naval Depot in Sydney had reached an impasse, which centred upon the desire of the Naval authorities to have Garden Island, and the reluctance of the local Government to let them have it. In those days, Naval explosive stores were accommodated in a magazine allotted the Navy at Goat Island. Admiralty plans prepared in 1875 included a magazine on Garden Island, but Commodore Goodenough, who was then in command of the Australia station, reported that "the inhabitants of Sydney would strongly object to the stowing of powder so near to the town", and he advised the retention of the Naval Magazine on Goat Island.

At last, early in 1883, an agreement was reached between London and Sydney for the establishment of a Naval Depot on Garden Island, but still the question of storage space for warlike stores had to be decided. The position became acute when, in April that year, confidential advice was received from the Admiralty that six sets of armaments for merchant cruisers were to be sent to Sydney, and Commodore Erskine informed the Governor of New South Wales immediately of his storage requirements. Five months later, the New South Wales Government agreed to make Spectacle Island available for use as a Naval Armament Depot; the decision being recorded in the following minute of the Premier:-

"Following upon the arrangement by which Garden Island and a site at Wooloomooloo Bay are set apart, and certain wharves and buildings are to be erected for Her Majesty's Navy, and to become the property of Her Majesty, in exchange for certain lands and buildings not formerly handed over to the Colony, it has been decided by the Government that Spectacle Island shall be given in use only for the storage of powder, mines and other warlike stores for Her Majesty's Navy and for the guns and other outfits intended for the arming of merchant cruisers in time of war. The necessary alterations are to be made in the wharf and approaches and buildings, as will enable this to be carried out and thus lessen the other requisite buildings on Garden Island. Commodore Erskine is very desirous that progress be at once made in these works, so that he may see them undertaken before he leaves Sydney. It is understood that no charge is to be made by this Government to the Imperial Government for the use of the Island and its buildings, etc.; but on the other hand, it is understood that the Colonial Government is not to be at any expense for the necessary caretakers, who are to be appointed by and held responsible to the Commodore."

The Admiralty lost no time in taking possession of its newly acquired accommodation, and in November a number of men were on the way to Sydney to staff the new Ordnance Depot. There had been some delay, however, in carrying out the Premier's instructions, and when advice of the departure from England of the new staff was received, he speeded up the transfer with the following directions:-

"I understand my Hon. Colleague was to get all Colonial powder removed so as to enable us to hand over the Island to the Commodore, not as a gift but as a loan to the Admiralty, on the condition that they keep our merchant ship's armament there. Of course all our men will be removed and thus room made for the new arrivals and such other men as the Commodore may appoint. My Hon. Colleague, the Minister for Works, was to get the necessary alterations made to the buildings, especially for storage of gun carriages, etc. These should be done at once, also the making of the wharf, and buildings on the flat rock."

Although there is no definite information on the point, it is nevertheless fairly evident that the Admiralty took over Spectacle Island during the latter half of 1883, making use of the existing storage facilities whilst the additional buildings and plant required for Naval purposes were being installed. There was a vast amount of delay, however, in connection with the new works, and it was not until early in 1888 that the originally approved scheme was completed.

It is of interest to note that at this time, the Colonial Government was supplying the police guard for the Magazine. In January, 1888, the Admiralty were anxious to know the probable date of handing over the Naval Depot at Garden Island, and the final paragraph of their despatch dealt with the question of a guard in these terms:-

"The Commander-in-Chief on the Australian Station has again called attention to the unguarded state of the stores, magazines, etc., on Spectacle Island, and My Lords have directed him to submit for their approval a scheme of the Establishment which he considers will be necessary for the Naval Depot when handed over by the Colonial authorities. This scheme is to include the provision of a guard for the buildings and stores both at Spectacle Island and Garden Island, for the safety of which my Lords will then be prepared to make the necessary arrangements. In the meantime, My Lords conclude that the police guard already provided will be continued by the Government of New South Wales."

The delay in the completion of the buildings at Garden Island was, for unknown reasons, much greater than had been the case with the Ordnance Depot. Doubtless, the fact that the construction of the buildings on Spectacle Island was urgently necessary to house dangerous stores had something to do with it. However that may be, a period of thirteen years from the date of approval of the original plans was to elapse before the Naval Depot was a completed concern. In September, 1896, the Admiral Commanding the Station, Sir Cyprian Bridge, made the first inspection of the new Establishments, and from what he saw and wrote, it is to be inferred that, if the Depot had been an unconscionable time in the making, the final result was at least worthy of the best Royal Navy traditions. The Admiral placed the following eulogy on record:-

"The neatness and orderly appearance of Garden Island and Spectacle Island generally, the careful and systematic way in which all the stores of various kinds are placed in the storehouses - some of them buildings almost palatial in character - and the state of the machinery and workshops are very creditable to the Captain-in-Charge and his subordinates. The labour of completing the transfer from the old Depot to the new has been considerable, and the various officers concerned have shown good judgment in availing themselves of the services of the considerable personnel of the Establishments and the Reserve in effecting it at times when, owing to the absence of the seagoing ships, or other causes, the work of repair and supply has been slack.... The condition of the warlike stores at Spectacle Island is especially satisfactory. They are now practically complete and so well arranged that ordinary issues, and when necessary, the station mobilisation can be effected with convenience and rapidity."

During its fifty years as a Naval Establishment, the first thirty under British Admiralty, and the past twenty under Commonwealth Naval Board Control, Spectacle Island has been under the charge of nine different officers, their names and years of appointment being:

1880 - Mr. William Horn, Gunner, R.N.: as "Officer-in-Charge of Ordnance Stores, Sydney," appointed to Spectacle Island when the establishment was taken over. Promoted Chief Gunner 17/11/1883.

1885 - Mr. Thomas Larking, Gunner, R.N.
1890 - Mr. Henry Bennett, Gunner, R.N.
1894 - Mr. H.D. Capper, Gunner, R.N.
1900 - Mr. S. Helen, Gunner, R.N.
1904 - Mr. James Creber, Gunner, R.N.
1908 - J. Gledhill, Esq., Deputy Ordnance Store Officer
1912 - Lieut. James Creber, R.N. (Retired) (Commander, R.A.N. Retired)
1919 - Lieut. John Hayes, R.N. (Retired) (Lieut-Commander, R.A.N. Retired
1928 - W.M. Hine, Esq., Armament Supply Officer (Still Serving).

(With acknowledgments to the Rev. Thompson's "History of Garden Island", from which certain of the facts in the above account relating to the Naval History of Spectacle Island have been obtained.

R.A.B.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au