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An Overview of Spectacle Island's History - Part 3

Part 1 of this overview dealt with Spectacle Island's history as a colonial powder magazine between 1862 and 1884. Part 2 dealt with it's history as a Royal Navy (RN) Ordnance Depot between 1884 and 1913.

The Royal Australian Navy Ordnance (later Armament) Depot, Sydney

The Transfer from the Royal Navy

The Australian Navy was designated as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 10 July 1911. When its assembled ships first entered Sydney Harbour on 4 October 1913, the Naval Ordnance Depot, Spectacle Island had been transferred from the Royal Navy on 1 July 1913 and stood ready to meet the needs of the new fleet.

Navy List 1913 Spectacle Island

From the Navy List, 1913

Lieutenant James Creber, as Naval Ordnance Officer, was responsible for overall control of the depot, and for the logistics aspects of the operations, in accordance with Navy Order No. 15 of 1914:

N.O. 15


The following Orders should be read in conjunction with Navy Order 125 of 1913 :


General Duties of Naval Ordnance Officer.

1. The Naval Ordnance Officer, under the Captain-in-Charge, is in charge of the Naval Ordnance Depot, Spectacle Island, Sydney. He is generally responsible for the upkeep of guns, ammunition, and other Naval Ordnance stores necessary for the ships and depots of the Royal Australian Navy.

2. He is responsible to the Captain-in-Charge for the following:-

(a) The general control of the depot as far as the discipline of the Naval ratings and police is concerned;
(b) that the fire arrangements are efficient, and that fire drill is frequently exercised;
(c) the general supervision of the working staff, and the carrying out of all orders resulting from the test of ammunition and explosives by the Inspector of Warlike Stores.

3. He is to arrange each month that the necessary number of hands are told off for the carrying out of the examinations laid down for that month.

4. In the absence of the Inspector of Warlike Stores for any reason, he is to arrange for and carry out the annual and other examinations, if necessary asking for the assistance of a specialist officer from the Fleet. On no account is the examination of any stores for any year to be omitted unless the omission is authorized by the Naval Board.

5. In the absence of the Inspector of Warlike Stores he will be responsible that the Magazine Regulations are carried out.

Lieutenant Henry Cayley, as Inspector of Warlike Stores, was responsible for the technical aspects of operations, in accordance with Navy Order No. 125 of 1913:




The Inspector of Warlike Stores, Spectacle Island, Sydney, will be responsible under the Naval Board for the following:-

Examination of guns.
Examination of gun-mountings.
Examination of torpedo and electrical stores in store.
Tests, examination, and proof of warlike stores so far as they can be carried out locally.

2. The guns and mountings in reserve at Sydney will be under his supervision.

3. He will be responsible to the Naval Board:-

(a) That the Regulations with regard to warlike stores are carried out in the Royal Australian Navy.
(b) That the returns in connexion with guns, mountings, and warlike stores as ordered by the Regulations are correctly rendered.
He is to report on the first of each quarter that all returns have been rendered or if any are overdue. Whenever it may be necessaiy to call for or to hasten a return he is to communicate direct with the ship or establishment concerned by form.

4. Routine communications between I.W.S. and ships or establishments may pass directly, but more important communications are to pass through Captain in Charge or Naval Secretary.

5. The I.W.S. will only provisionally condemn guns unless the case is a very decided one. In all doubtful cases and also when the gun may be repairable a full report is to be made to the Naval Board, who will ask the Admiralty for an opinion. In such cases the I.W.S. must be prepared to forward impressions, &c, to England.

6. Any questions which may arise concerning ammunition, explosives, or other warlike stores, which are not covered by the Regulations are to be referred to the Naval Board, who will ask for the assistance of the Chemical Adviser, or of the Admiralty when considered desirable. This is not to prevent the Inspector of Warlike Stores taking immediate action when he considers it desirable to do so.

The transition to Royal Australian Navy control was aided by the recruitment of ex-Royal Navy officers, and ex-Admiralty civilian staff. Lieutenant Creber, for example, had been in charge of the Island as a Gunner, RN, between 1904 and 1908, and Lieutenant Cayley had also previously been the RN Inspector of Warlike Stores. Even the Foreman of Storehouses, Charles Osborne, was an Admiralty employee on long-term loan. Strong relationships with the RN were developed then and maintained well into the latter half of the century.

World War 1

When taken over in 1913, the Island offered limited opportunity for expansion. As early as 1882 the safety concerns of the citizens of Sydney were being expressed in the local press. Further concerns were expressed in 1903 and again in 1915. The only significant new buildings constructed after 1913 were cordite testing facilities in 1914, a shell filling and emptying room in 1915 and a depth charge store in 1920. However by 1924 the two latter buildings were no longer being used for their designed purpose, probably because the ammunition concerned had been moved to the Newington sub-depot. (The reference above to "shell filling and emptying" suggests that this room was for filling "Common" shell with gunpowder. This type of shell filling was being replaced at the time with more modern "cast" explosives such as Lyddite, Shellite or Trotyl (TNT), but remained in use in until the early 1920s.)

Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 1915

Good evidence is lacking as to the tempo of operations at the Island consequent on the conduct of the war. Claims have been made in successive Heritage Management Plans for the Island that position it at this time as a great naval arsenal, but these are fanciful. Information contained in the accounting records, which have survived, don't support this view. For more information visit The Experience of War at Spectacle Island 1914-1918.

Many of the ships were engaged overseas, and would have drawn replenishment ammunition "on repayment" from Royal Navy sources. Unless actually engaged in fighting, ships did not fire their guns at a much greater rate than in peacetime, due both to the cost of the ammunition and the wear and tear on gun barrels. A case in point is the flagship, HMAS Australia which, despite spending most of the war on active duty, is reputed to have fired her main armament in anger on only two occasions, as made clear here:

"In late December 1914 Australia (I) received orders to sail to England via the Pacific and reached Devonport on 28 January 1915. En route she captured and sank von Spee's supply ship Eleonore Woermann (5000 tons) off South America. From Devonport Australia (I) proceeded to Rosyth in Scotland, where in February 1915 she became flagship of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Sir William Pakenham, KCB, MVO. The squadron as initially formed comprised Australia (I) and her two sister ships, HMS New Zealand and HMS Indefatigable. From then until 22 April 1916, Australia (I) was based at Rosyth accompanying the Battle Cruiser Fleet on a succession of sweeps, patrols, and convoy escort tasks across the length and breadth of the North Sea. The enemy was rarely if ever seen, and a shot at a suspected submarine on 30 December 1917 marked the only occasion when she subsequently fired in anger."(HMAS Australia (I)- - accessed 4 January 2014)
Cordite testing

Sydney, NSW. 1940-05. Cordite being tested. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (

Post-war Expansion

On 22 December 1917 Captain Thring, then Director of War Staff and Director of Naval Ordnance wrote to the First Naval Member:

"The Commonwealth Cordite Factory is now turning out a certain amount of gun cordite. The first lots will be made up into practice charges for 4" guns and below. It is proposed to carry out this work at Spectacle Island..."

Thring went on to point out the unsuitability of Spectacle Island for such work and indeed for any storage of explosives and concluded by recommending:

"In my opinion the magazine should be removed to a safer locality before the return of our ships and I submit that this question should receive early consideration by the Naval Board."
Photo of shell stored at Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island - Shell Storage c. 1920s - photo by Stan Atherton, reproduced courtesy of June Madden

At the conclusion of the First World War, the Naval Board not only had to consider the storage of the reserve outfits of the returning ships but also the manifest unsuitability of Spectacle Island for storage of explosives.

In October 1918, the 3rd Naval Member argued that additional magazine accommodation should not be built at Sydney as the Naval Base itself should be removed from there. Two months later the Director of Naval Ordnance, CAPT Stevenson recommended that main magazines be built at Flinders Naval Base in Victoria. In the same month, the Admiralty were asked what the probable cost would be for a ship suitable to be used as an ammunition supply ship for reserve ammunition. In April 1919, Admiralty offered HMS Magnificent for the purpose, with the cost of conversion estimated as £180,000. (Magnificent had already been converted for RN use.)

Photo of gun barrels at Spectacle Island

Gun Barrel Storage at Spectacle Island c. 1920s - photo by Stan Atherton, reproduced courtesy of June Madden

In the event, the Naval Board decided to delay a decision until after the impending visit of Lord Jellicoe. By June, 1919, the proposal had been abandoned. (HMS Magnificent served as an ammunition ship in RN service until 1921.)

During the latter part of 1919 the matter was taken to Cabinet, and the attention of the Prime Minister was drawn to the dangerous state resulting from the lack of ammunition reserves.

In 1920 the Army Magazine at Newington became available for reallocation due to the Army centralising its activities in the Liverpool area. A minute N.17/0144 dated 1 April 1920 from Captain C. Round-Turner, RN, Director of Ordnance, Torpedoes and Mines, to the First Naval Member provides some background to the transfer of Newington to the RAN. In this minute Round-Turner writes that he met with the Army's Chief of Ordnance on 12 March 1920, and was advised that Newington would be made available "for the storage of the Reserve Ammunition of the Navy." The reserve ammunition comprised 2 outfits for each ship on station plus 2 year's practice ammunition. Round-Turner then visited Newington on 24 March 1920 and decided that it would be suitable for the storage of about half of the reserves, and that additional storage would be necessary. Further, he regards Newington as an unsuitable permanent site due to its proximity to the coast leaving it open to attack from both air and sea. He concluded with:

"We are faced, as we have been ever since 1906, with the imperative necessity of constructing a modern magazine and shell store of sufficient size to accommodate all the reserve ammunition for the existing Australian Navy, and to allow of expansion to meet future needs; or in the event of the adoption of Viscount Jellicoe's proposals of smaller magazines and shell stores at each of the main Naval Bases. As the full proposals cannot in any case materialize for some time it is important that the magazine in connection with the Eastern Base should be commenced without delay; plans and estimates for this have already been prepared."

Between March and September 1921 investigations were made into the possibility of converting a railway tunnel at Otford into magazine storage; the cost was estimated to be £248,000. Advice was then sought from the Admiralty as to the suitability of the proposal. Although the outcome of this enquiry isn't known, it's clear from the construction program that by 1923 expansion at Newington, together with the development of the Swan Island Mine Depot, had been accepted as the preferred option for the medium term.

Following the transfer of Newington to the Navy a program of construction was commenced there. By late 1924, on the evidence of an inventory of buildings of that date, most of the mass detonating explosives had been transferred from the Island to either Newington or Swan Island.

In 1921, and following a similar change by the Admiralty, the depot was renamed as the Royal Australian Naval Armament Depot (Navy Order 24 of 1921). Job titles were also changed by Navy Order 312/1921, to those shown in the image below. It was also signalled that the positions were to be civilianised. This did not happen until about 1929 for the Deputy Armament Supply Officer position and never happened in the case of the Assistant Inspector of Naval Ordnance position.

Navy list 1922 Spectacle Island

Once the Newington depot had been taken over, the combined establishment was referred to as the RAN Armament Depot, Sydney, and this title persisted until the early 1960s, when the depots at Newington and Kingswood gained an independent existence.

The Inter-War Years

Activity levels during the 1920s and 1930s probably paralleled those of the Navy as a whole. These were years of economic depression, and significant cuts to Navy budgets. In each of the years 1935 and 1936 only one Commonwealth Navy Order relating to ammunition was issued; this compared with 17 in 1925 and 14 in 1926. There were no significant changes in organisation, and minimal new construction of facilities during the 2 decades.

The following list, taken from the Commonwealth Estimates of Receipts and Expenditure for 1926-1927, shows the total staffing and salaries of the Naval Armament Depots, Sydney:

The total anticipated expenditure on salaries was £9601. (Bracketed numbers are the number of employees at each level; salaries are totals for each level).

Spectacle Island in the 1920s

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

Effect on Establishments.

Whilst all naval ranks are anxiously waiting for definite news of retrenchments, it Is feared that the navy will have to bear most of the reduction in expenditure on defence contemplated by the Federal Ministry. ...

It is generally agreed that any considerable retrenchments in naval establishments would involve the dismissal of many civilian members of the staff at Garden Island. From today all naval establishments in Sydney will work a five-day week, and will not be open on Saturdays The establishments concerned are Garden Island, the Royal Edward Victualling Depot and the armament depots at Spectacle Island and Newington. ..." (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 1930)

For more information on the inter-war years read the annual reports of RANAD Sydney for 1928-29 and 1935.

World War 2

Most explosives had been moved off the Island before war broke out in 1939, although the "Scorched Earth Denial Plan" prepared in April 1943 showed that at that date it still held BL cartridges, bulk cordite and small arms ammunition. It's primary role was therefore to serve as a Gunwharf depot (both storage and maintenance), as the operational base for RANAD support craft, and as the administrative headquarters of the RAN Armament Depot, Sydney. Operations were conducted at the Island, at Newington (to be greatly expanded during the war) and at Kingswood and St Marys.

The depot's Gunwharf task was somewhat relieved by the creation of new Armament Depots at Maribyrnong (Victoria), Brisbane (Queensland), Darwin (Northern Territory) and Byford (West Australia).

Testing depth charge thrower at Spectacle Island, 1941

Australian-made depth charge throwers being proved at Spectacle Island c. 1941." ( Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.)

For more information about war-time activities of the Sydney depot, and the Armament Supply organisation as a whole, visit the Experience of War 1939-45 page, and the Lessons Learnt page.

Post World War 2

In 1945, Spectacle Island was being considered as the preferred of 3 sites, in conjunction with Cockatoo Island, for the construction of a major ship building facility, for the construction of welded ships up to aircraft carrier size. This would have involved the filling in of the area between the two islands and their connection to the shore. (Navy Office letter 87388 of 7 November 1945) The proposal was actively progressed but seems to have "died" some time after 1948.

Plan for ship building site at Spectacle island

Preliminary plan for shipbuilding facility at Spectacle Island

In 1957 the laboratory closed by direction of the Naval Board, marking the end of the Island's role as a land-based explosives facility. However it was to continue to provide a mooring site for explosive-laden ammunition lighters until the mid-1990s. The following year, 1958, the Magazine office was moved to Newington and in 1967 the Gunwharf section merged with the Weapon Equipment Depot at Garden Island. By the mid-1970s the Superintending Armament Supply Officer was also based at Newington rather than on the Island.

Until the closure of "Sydney Harbour Ammunition Pipeline" in 1999 the Island continued to function as a material handling equipment and support craft facility. However roles had now been reversed and the Island during its latter years operated as a sub-depot of RANAD Newington.

What was Stored There?

Between 1913 and 1921, Spectacle Island was the sole RAN storage site for guns, ammunition, military accoutrements and, at times, military musical instruments. After the acquisition of the Newington sub-depot in 1921 ammunition was progressively transferred to Newington so that by the mid-1930s all mass-detonating ammunition was at Newington, with the exception of mines and most depth charges which were held at the RAN Mine Depot at Swan Island. The distribution of the Sydney stockholdings in 1935 is shown in the Annual Report for 1935. After World War 2 stockholdings were limited to non-explosive materiel.

What Work was Done There?

Broadly speaking, the work of the depot embraced the receipt, storage, maintenance, assembly, testing (including proof testing) and issue of both Magazine (ammunition and explosives) and Gunwharf (guns, gun spare parts, tools, military accoutrements) stores. A description of the types of maintenance work carried out on ammunition and explosives can be found on the Ammunition Repair and Maintenance page. If you have a high boredom threshold, you might like to read the "What Did the Naval Armament Depots Do?" page.

Who Worked There?

By and large, Spectacle Island was manned by a civilian workforce during its life as an RAN Armament Depot. The major exceptions were the Naval Dockyard Police, and senior ranks of the Naval Ordnance Inspection Branch, who were commissioned Naval officers.

Photo of staff at Spectacle Island 1938

Staff of Spectacle Island 1938

For more information on the history of the island, visit the Australian Heritage Places Inventory and the Australian Heritage Database. Due to frequent changes in the URLs for the relevant entries these are not given and you will need to do your own search.

To see a timeline for the Island, visit the chronology page.

To see a list of the people who were responsible for the Island at various times, visit the Spectacle Island People page.

To see a chronological listing of buildings visit the Spectacle Island Buildings page.

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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