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The Military Magazine at Newington

First-hand accounts of activities at the Newington magazine during the occupancy of the military (i.e. from its foundation in 1897 until 1921) are hard to come by. In their absence, however, it is reasonable to infer what happened there from other sources of evidence.

According to an account based on archival research:

"The Newington Magazine, under Sergeant Walker's control, issued gunpowder to the coastal batteries of NSW which comprised the Commonwealth's principal defences in the state. Records show that quantities of up to 455 kg (1,000 pounds) of powder were shipped to South Head by powder lighter, and that surplus powder was returned from South Head, Bare Island and Wollongong to Newington. ....

During this period cordite propellant was introduced into service and stored at Newington on receipt from England. In 1906 the magazine at Wollongong was 'returned', and in 1910 cordite from the magazine at Goat Island was transferred to Newington." (Royal Australian Navy Ammunition Depot Newington (RANAD Newington) - A Historical Survey for Explosive Ordnance Contamination for CH2M HILL AUSTRALIA Pty Ltd, page 8)

What was stored there?

The major elements of the New South Wales Military Forces requiring ammunition and explosives in 1897 were the coast defences, both artillery (Permanent Artillery, Volunteer Artillery) and submarine mining (Submarine Mining Corps), the Field Artillery and the Militia Forces (Cavalry, Mounted Rifles and Infantry) who were quite widely dispersed throughout the colony. This means that the ammunition types likely to have been held at Newington were:

The archival research mentioned above says that:

"Other natures of EO recorded as being held at Newington Magazine during this period included field artillery types such as cartridges 1 3/4 lb, 9pr RML, 3 pr cartridges and 5 inch Howitzer cartridges. Records clearly indicate that the Magazine issued and received field artillery ammunition to and from firing batteries for practice shoots" (Royal Australian Navy Ammunition Depot Newington (RANAD Newington) - A Historical Survey for Explosive Ordnance Contamination for CH2M HILL AUSTRALIA Pty Ltd, pages 8,9)
Submarine miners at Chowder Bay

Submarine Miners, with mines, at Chowder Bay

Field artillery 1890s

"A" Battery Field Artillery, NSW 1890s (Tom Roberts)

The Magazine was planned in the era of gunpowder. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 September 1882 gave the stocks of explosives in the Sydney magazines. This revealed that Goat Island held 810,594 pounds of gunpowder whilst Spectacle Island held a further 401,718 pounds. The powder hulk "Bhering" held 98,044 pounds of guncotton (a total of 585 imperial tons). There were additional stocks of commercial explosives such as Dynamite, Lithofracteur, Pyrolignine and Blasting Gelatine. How the quantity of gunpowder was split between military, naval and commercial stocks wasn't given.

A further report in the Herald of 11 May 1888, quoting a paper tabled in the NSW Parliament, gave the stock of Martini-Henry ammunition (for the standard military and police rifle of the time) at 17 February 1887 as 5,150,000, with a further 550,000 rounds on order.

On 7 November 1900 the Herald, reporting testimony by Major-General French to the NSW Parliament gave the stocks (on hand or on order) of .303 inch (cordite) ammunition as 5,888,500 rounds, with 2,043,000 rounds of black powder (Martini-Henry) ammunition and 476,100 rounds of .45 inch machine gun ammunition.

Martini-Henry ammunition was still held at Goat Island in 1905, although being disposed of as obsolete. Newington probably held the replacement stocks of .303-in ammunition. The Herald commented that the rifle salute fired at the King's Birthday Naval and Military Review at Centennial Park in November 1904 was noticeable for a mix of cordite and black powder discharges.

Types of gunpowder

                                                            Gunpowder came in many different types

Gunpowder was manufactured in many varieties, distinguished by composition, form, grain size, glazing etc, and designed to produce specific burning performance according to whether its intended use was a gun propellant, bursting charge or blasting explosive. It was supplied and stored in barrels.

Information about powder barrels

It's also known that phosphorus was kept at the depot, as an accident occurred in 1918 when 40 pounds of phosphorus were being burnt. The purpose for which this was held isn't known. Although smoke shell using white phosphorus were developed during World War 1 for the standard British field gun, the Ordnance QF 18-pounder, it wouldn't be expected to be present in bulk in an ammunition depot. Phosphorus was widely used in Australia at the time for poisoning rabbits. It became a controlled substance during the war because of its potential use in incendiary devices. It's possible that the phosphorus being burnt was confiscated commercial phosphorus.

Some of the guns of the period (around 1901), for which the Magazine may have stocked ammunition, include:

Ten inch muzzle loading gun



Sydney, NSW. 1891. A 10 inch, 18 ton Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) Gun Mounted at Georges Head

six inch breech loading gun

Sydney, NSW. 1892. A Breech Loading (BL) 6 inch Mark V Gun at Georges Head

The buildings completed at Newington in 1898 included a powder magazine, a cooperage (for work on powder barrels) and a guncotton store. These are consistent with what has been inferred above as to the likely types of ammunition held there.

Map of Newington Magazine circa 1921

This map section, dating from the early 1920s, shows the original magazine precinct, its surrounding iron picket fence and tramway tracks. North is to the right. The complete map also shows the residences, empty case store and smoke apparatus store.

The early years of military occupancy coincided with two major changes in ammunition technology. These were the replacement of gunpowder by cordite as the main gun propellant (from 1893 for the British Army), and its replacement by Lyddite (from about 1896 in England) and later trinitrotoluene (TNT) as the bursting charge for explosive shells.

Fuze percussion Pettman's Martini-Henry cartridge

The change to cordite for artillery ammunition (it was adopted first for small arms ammunition) in New South Wales probably started following the appointment of Major-General French as Commandant of the Military Forces in 1896. According to the Sydney Morning Herald of 31 December 1896 he was responsible for the cancellation of a previously placed order for breech-loading field guns to replace the existing muzzle loaders of the Field Artillery. The substituted order was for a 15-pounder, firing cordite charges (probably the Ordnance BL 12 pounder 7cwt which was "re-badged" in 1895 to take up to a 15 pound projectile). These guns were en route from England by the following March.

A further Herald report of 19 May 1899 refers to the Garrison Artillery conducting gun carriage trials at South Head of a 6-inch quick firing gun using cordite charges. This may have been a Mk V gun converted from breech loading, as a number of these guns were returned to the United Kingdom for conversion in the 1890s. The introduction of cordite for the artillery was a gradual process. As late as 1905 it was being reported in the press that the lives of artillerymen (in Victoria) were being endangered by being required to use black powder cartridges in guns designed for cordite - with the cost of cordite charges (£1 7s 11d) being alleged as the reason.

There is documentary evidence that cordite charges were being handled at the Newington Magazine in quantity by 1910, as in that year the NCO in charge requested erection of an "emergency magazine" for the storage of cordite cartridges on return after issue to Field Artillery. Australian production of cordite commenced around 1912. However as late as 1920, just before the transfer of the Magazine to the Navy, there were still 400 barrels of gunpowder in the No. 3 chamber of the powder magazine, as well as a small stock of gelignite and primers in the guncotton store.

The various coastal fortifications around Port Jackson all had "expense" ammunition magazines, and as those hostilities that occurred during the period were well away from Australia, turnover of stocks at Newington was likely to have been modest. In the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 April 1913 it was reported that the Department of Home Affairs had called for tenders for the construction of four magazines at Newington so the tempo or nature of operations must have changed to some extent. However in 1915 the Commander, Coast Defences, 2 Military District, questioned the need for guarding at Newington as there was hardly any ammunition there.

An anecdote about guarding: in the Sydney Morning Herald of 19 August 1914 the Commanding Officer, Sydney Defended Port, issued a warning to boats to keep clear of the Magazine at night. A local story says said that on the outbreak of the war the neighbouring militia unit was detailed off to guard the Magazine. Spying a workboat or tug proceeding innocently upriver they proceeded to fire shots across its bow in pursuance of the Commanding Officer's warning - if true, these were possibly some of the first shots of the war in Australia.


What work was done there?

Its likely that the principal work of the magazine included:

Here is a description from the 1890s of how to make up propellant cartridges:

"Care will be taken to see that the cartridge-bags are properly dry before being filled, and the proper charge will be carefully weighed out and inserted in the bag by means of the "funnel, copper, cartridge". They will then be choked by drawing together the mouth of the cartridge into several pleats with a brass needle, threaded with three strands of worsted for serge cartridges, or with silk twist for silk-cloth cartridges; the silk twist being doubled for 9-inch cartridges and upwards. After drawing together the mouth of the cartridge, three turns will be taken round the pleats, and the choke thus formed will be further secured by passing the needle five times through it alternately above and below the turns, thereby stitching down the turns round the choke at four points equidistant from each other." (Source: Manual for Victorian Naval Forces, 1890)

Cartridge 80-pounder RML

                                                               Cartridge 10-inch ML 70 lb P2 Full Charge


How was the work conducted?

Although "Gunpowder Acts" go back to at least the 1830s in NSW, it was the Regulations Under the "Gunpowder and Explosive Consolidation Act, 1876," (40 Victoria, No. 1.) that provided the first comprehensive and legally enforceable rules for the operation of powder magazines. Whilst the Crown was exempt from these regulations, they do describe what was recognised good practice at that time. The Newington Magazine probably operated under the War Office Regulations. The Treatise of Ammunition of 1878 contains rules for the operation of powder magazines likely to be similar to those applying when the Magazine commenced operations in 1898.

This publication contains a section called "Hints on the Examination of Ammunition" (PDF file, 444 KB). This gives guidance on such matters as:

Shell rifled breech loading

Also included are various other instructions which, together, give some idea of the work undertaken at a late 19th century ammunition depot:

In 1910, the Department of Defence issued Standing Orders for Ordnance Store Services of the Commonwealth Military Forces. A copy of these orders can be read online at the National Archives of Australia. (Search using the title as given above.)

Image of cover of Army standing orders

Who Worked There?

On 18 June 1895 the Government Gazette recorded the formation of:

"Ordnance Store Corps: "C" (Ordnance) Branch of the Military Secretary's Department, now a civil branch, to be converted into an Ordnance Store Corps."

Another account says:

"The Corps comprised No 1 Gun Wharf Section with a Deputy Assistant Commissary General of Ordnance, a Lieutenant and Quartermaster, three Conductors of Stores and one Sergeant Artificer. No 2 Magazine Section was composed of one Conductor of Stores and three Privates; and No 3 Armourer's Section was composed of a Lieutenant and Quartermaster, with one Armourer Sergeant and two Privates. These appointments were filled by members of the permanent military forces."
(John D. Tilbrook To The Warrior His Arms A History of the Ordnance Services in the Australian Army, Chapter 2 page 25). "Conductor of Stores" is a senior N.C.O rank - equivalent to Warrant-Officer.

It is the Ordnance Store Corps, and specifically the No. 2 Magazine Section, that is likely to have been the commissioning unit at the Newington Magazine in 1898.

Post the 1901 Federation of the Australian states, the New South Wales Military Forces transferred into the Commonwealth Military Forces. (General Order No. 104 dated 8 July 1902 gazetted and authorised the formation of the Ordnance Department.)

A History of the Australian Army Ordnance Corps (available at the RAAOC Association website) says:

"...On 15 September 1902 the following Warrant Officer, Non-Commissioned Officers and Gunners were attached to the newly formed No 4 Company pending transfer to the Ordnance Stores Corps....The following N.C.O. and men employed at the Newington Magazine were attached to No. 2 Company also pending transfer to the Ordnance Stores Corps.
Sergeant T. Walker
Gunners G. Jennings, T. Campbell and W, Clarke..."
Obituary of Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker is one of those named as having been injured in an accident at the Magazine in 1918.

(Thomas Walker: born 1859 (NSW BDM 8462/1859; died January 1932 (NSW BDM 873/1932). According to a funeral notice for his son John, published in the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 April 1919, Thomas, by now a Warrant-Officer, was still working at Newington at that time.)

The Ordnance Department was initially formed as a civil agency of the Department of Defence rather than as an element of the Commonwealth Military Force, and it remained civilian throughout the time that it controlled the Newington Magazine:

"The raising of an Australian Army Ordnance Department on a military basis thus slipped into oblivion until World War 1. The permanently serving warrant and non- commissioned officers, artificers and assistant artificers who would have been transferred to the recommended Ordnance military organisation, had it become a reality, performed the Ordnance duties according to their specialty in the various States, whilst still remaining members of the Royal Australian Artillery in matters of pay and discipline." (John D. Tilbrook To The Warrior His Arms A History of the Ordnance Services in the Australian Army, Chapter 3)

Manning during the 1920s at the Moorebank Ammunition Depot, with which the Army replaced Newington around 1920-21, involved a core staff from the Ordnance Department, supplemented by working parties from the Royal Australian Artillery (RAA) and some civilian labouring staff. The use of RAA soldiers was intended to provide a nucleus of skilled artillery personnel to carry out fuzing operations in case of emergency. It is likely that Newington was similarly manned whilst under Army control. (NAA: SP1048/7, S1/1/111: Reconditioning ammunition, personnel at Liverpool depot)

The 1906 Committee

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. In their report, the committee considered the suitability of Newington as a site for a NSW government magazine. Their report was decidedly unfavourable. Follow this link to find out why.

Moving Out

After World War 1 the Army decided to centralise its ammunition storage in the Sydney area at the Ordnance Depot at Liverpool. (Army files of the time sometimes refer to this as the Explosives Depot and the location is sometimes given as Moorebank. As far as is known, this depot was located at Anzac Road, Moorebank.)

(The illustrations of ammunition on this page are representative of the period and not necessarily the actual items stored at the Magazine. The page also contains inferences about the types of ammunition held, and the activities conducted at the Magazine.)


Material on this page may be copied for personal use. If you intend to republish any substantial part of the page in any manner, please acknowledge the source and provide the URL of the page.


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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au