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The 1897 Gunpowder Magazine at Newington

Gunpowder magazine at Newington c.1960

The Gunpowder Magazine at Newington, Around 1960

The gunpowder magazine was the major building constructed at Newington in 1897-98 for the New South Wales Military Forces. It measures 24.4 metres by 24.4 metres, with a height of approximately 8 metres. For further information on the reasons why it was constructed, visit the webpage "Foundation of the RAN Armament Depot Newington".

To see more photographs of the magazine, visit the webpage "Newington - The Colonial Era Buildings".

Description - National Trust 1984

"The building consists of three wide barrel-vaulted store rooms and a triple gabled slate roof. Similar character to the other early buildings: face brick, cream brick trims, sandstone capped gable ends with round vents. The vaults have double walls with a passage in the wall cavity and windows so that lanterns could be placed in the passage to light the vaults. Brick string courses and beam holes in two of the vaults suggest that there was a former upper level of shelving.¹ On the east side there is a flat roofed addition. The tramway passes in front of the vaults and enters each one by means of a turntable. The building is surrounded by flying buttresses added later, apparently to give extra support to the vaults, and by earthen banks to contain blast." (National Trust letter RM/06 of 16 November 1984)
Newington powder magazine - buttresses

Detail of counterforts (buttresses) and flying buttresses

Description - Department of Defence Heritage Inventory 1996

"Historical Summary

The Magazine dates from the first period of construction at Newington. It was completed by 1897. The building is linked in design philosophy, materials and importance to other magazines in Sydney and represents a later development of Vauban's ideal model of a powder magazine. Together with Spectacle Island, this Depot held major munitions during the early years and development of Defence Forces in N.S.W. In 1907 the building was called Main Magazine. In 1928 the building was extended to augment accommodation for primer fitted ammunition. It was known as building 9. In 1939 the building was number 9: Group 6 Explosives Store (primer fitted ammunition). By 1950 the building number had changed to 20. In 1972 the name had changed to Magazine - S.A.A. Cox Gun.


This Federation style Magazine is a one storey structure, consisting of three large barrel vaulted storage chambers with a perimeter passage surrounding the group. The passages have small glazed windows at approximately five metre intervals to allow lamps to be placed to light the interior. A flat roofed annex services the three chambers to allow internal loading to small rail trucks. The annex also contains a gantry crane supported by regularly spaced timber posts. The annex also functions as a transition zone between the 'clean interior' of the magazine chambers and the exterior of the building. The three chambers are expressed externally by three parapeted gables with sandstone and polychromatic brickwork to openings and architectural features.

Newington powder magazine - roof detail

Wall detail, showing counterforts (buttresses) and flying buttresses added at a later date


The annex has been rebuilt and extended with the addition of a flat concrete roof. Brick flying buttresses forming part of a retaining wall and the earth traverse was added about 1928 and repaired in 1935.²

Doors to magazine antechamber (left) and lighting passage (right)

Doors to magazine antechamber (left) and lighting passage (right). Note later extension to the antechamber


Loadbearing brickwork with brick arched barrel vaulted ceiling, external brick buttresses with additional brick retaining wall and flying buttresses for further reinforcement to walls. Timber framed roof with slate cladding. Roof to annex constructed as concrete slab. Floors concrete. Brass and timber rail tracks to chambers with small turntables at doors to chambers. Doors are ledged and braced with diagonal boarding. All elements are earthed via copper strips. Lightning conductors on roof." (Department of Defence - Heritage Inventory Volume One - Newington Armament Depot, Schwager Brooks and Partners, April 1996)
Newington powder magazine - interior

Interior of one of the three storage chambers

Design Principles

Plan of the Newington powder magazine

Floor plan of the Newington gunpowder magazine - extracted from a measured drawing produced by Brian McDonald + Associates for the Olympic Coordination Authority - reproduced by permission of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority and Brian McDonald

The Newington Magazine generally conforms to the design principles set down by Marshal Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633 - 1707), the distinguished French fortification architect. These principles are described in the following extract from William Duane's A Military Dictionary, Philadelphia, 1810, pp. 257-358:

"Permanent powder magazines. According to Vauban's plan, powder magazines are commonly made 10 fathoms [60 feet] long, and 25 feet wide, in the clear.

The foundation of the longest sides, is 9 or 10 feet thick, and 6 feet or more deep, according to the nature of the ground. The side walls raised upon these are 8 or 9 feet thick; and if there is not to be an upper story, 8 feet will be sufficient height above the foundation. By this means the flooring may be raised above the ground, free from damp, and there will remain 6 feet from the floor to the spring of the arch.

The arch is formed of layers of bricks, arched one over the other, and ought to be 3 feet thick at the top. The exterior surface of the arch terminates with an angle at the top, like a roof; which angle must be of such magnitude as to make a thickness of 8 feet over the key stone of the arch. The foundation at the gable ends is 5 feet thick, and the same depth as the sides; these ends are built up 4 feet thick, from the foundation to the top of the roof. The long sides are supported by counterforts [buttresses], 6 feet thick and 4 feet long; and placed 12 feet asunder.

The ventilators are placed, one in the centre of each space between the counterforts, and are made with a die across them of 1 1/2 feet. These ventilators are also closed with plates of iron.

The magazine is lighted by a window in each end, high up, which are opened and shut by means of a ladder. These windows are secured, each by two shutters, made of plank 2 or 3 inches thick; and the outer one covered with sheet iron, and both fastened with strong bolts.

The entrance of the magazine should, if possible, be placed towards the south. A wall of 1 1/2 feet thick, and 10 feet high, is built round the magazine at 12 feet distance.

A magazine of the above dimensions will contain about 94,800 lbs. of powder, in piles of 3 barrels each; for a greater number piled above each other destroys the barrels, damaging the powder, and occasions accidents."

Vauban-style magazines, also known as "bombproof" magazines, normally have a single chamber. In British military practice magazines were often constructed, as at Newington, with multiple chambers. For an articulation of the design principles underlying British practice, read or download an extract from: C.W. Pasley Course of Military Instruction Originally Composed for the Use of the Royal Engineer Department Volume III, 1817. (PDF, 468 KB)

Newington powder magazine - ventilation arrangements

Roof detail and ventilation arrangements for roof space and storage chamber

Construction drawings of the Newington magazine haven't come to light, so it is not possible to say definitively if the magazine is "bombproof", (at least 3-feet of masonry over the arches) although this seems likely.It was an anachronism when constructed, and possibly one of the last Vauban-style magazines constructed anywhere. At the time of its construction the supersession of gunpowder by cordite was commencing and cordite had different storage requirements. Also, design developments in the United Kingdom after 1865 tended towards lighter, frangible roofed buildings set within either natural or constructed traverses.

The addition to the eastern side of the magazine c. 1929 replaced an earlier Shifting Lobby, and relocated the earth traverse to accommodate the extension and a 4-feet wide pathway between building and traverse. The specification provided for concrete foundations and floor, hollow block reinforced concrete roof with lined ceiling, brick walls with internal studding, fibro-cement linings and silicate cotton packing together with drainage and alterations to lightning conductors.(National Archives of Australia SP155/1; DEF15284)

The lighting passages, if not unique, are unusual for an above-ground gunpowder magazine where natural lighting is possible. They are more akin to lighting arrangements to be seen underground in coastal gun batteries and forts, e.g. the contemporary Green Hill Fort, Thursday Island. This was constructed by the Queensland government between 1891 and 1893 under the direction of a seconded Royal Engineer, Major Edward Druitt.

Plan of portion of Green Hill Fort, Thursday Island

Portion of Floor Plan, Green Hill Fort, Thursday Island

Some elements of the Newington magazine design such as triple vaults and the shifting room integral to the building can be seen in this plan which is intended for a fortress magazine of the 1860s:

Plan of gunpowder magazine

From R. Home, "Construction of Magazines" Papers on Subjects Connected with the Duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers, New Series, Vol XII, 1863, pp. 40-41.

Further Information

Read or download instructions for the operation of (PDF, 96 KB), and lighting of magazines (PDF, 32 KB) contemporary with the construction of the Newington magazine.


1. Wooden racking was normal for gunpowder stored in barrels.

2. The flying buttresses and traverse retaining walls are made with similar bricks, which are different to those used for the magazine, suggesting that they are not contemporaneous with the magazine structure. However there is evidence that earth traverses and retaining walls formed part of the original construction as they are mentioned in a report prepared at the time of Federation recording items passed to Federal control:

"All the buildings are of brick and the workmanship of the best quality and well maintained. The powder magazine, laboratory and gun cotton store are protected with brick retaining walls supporting earthwork mounds."(Report of the Committee into State Properties transferred to the Commonwealth, 1903 , p.18)

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Robert Curran
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