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Rob's Shed

The "Three Bees" Blows Up

From the Sydney Herald, 5 September 1936:

SYDNEY BOMBARDED.

A Forgotten Sensation.

(BY FRANK WALKER, F.R.A.H.S.)

If the average person In Sydney was asked what he knew about an early bombardment of Sydney, he would look surprised, and would probably edge away from his questioner. But, as a matter of fact, this actually took place on May 20, 1814, In the evening, and whilst it lasted provided enough excitement and terror for the inhabitants to last them for the rest of their lives.

It would appear that the Three Bees, a ship of about 500 tons burthen, and loaded with general merchandise, had been anchored near the western side of the Cove, and when a fire broke out In the hold, the mooring lines were cut, and the vessel drifted out from the shore, by this time well alight. It was the custom in those days for overseas vessels to carry guns, and the Three Bees was well provided in this particular, and, moreover, the guns were loaded, whilst she had a well-stocked magazine in the after hold, close to the seat of the fire.

As the news of the disaster spread from mouth to mouth, a crowd collected on the shore, and watched the blazing vessel, anticipating at every moment that an explosion would take place. The newspaper of the day (which was the "Sydney Gazette"), recounting the disaster In the stilted phraseology of the times, gives a vivid description of the fire.

After referring to the circumstances which led up to the conflagration, the account proceed as follows:

"The proximity of the magazine to the place from whence the flames aspired, was, in Itself, a circumstance so dreadful, as not to leave a moment to decide. To set down to scuttle her was utterly Impossible, on account of the suffocating columns of smoke that from her hatches darkened the surrounding country. . . . About half past six. when lying off the north-west corner of the Government Store, her first gun exploded In a direction over Mr. Blaxcell's. or the new Guard House. Fourteen went off In all, and though there were some hairbreadth escapes ... no personal Injury has occurred. A swivel ball, which had possibly made part of a charge of grape, as there were no swivels mounted, entered Captain Piper's window, through the lower sash, which it knocked to pieces, together with the Inside shutter, took the corner completely off a portable writing desk, and fell expended In the apartment, ... By half-past seven, she had drifted over to the rocks of Benelong Point (afterwards called Fort Macquarie), and shortly after, the long-dreaded explosion of her magazine took place. . . ."

The account concludes with the information that the wreck burnt all night, "and presented to the distant eye a spectacle, exciting awe and sensible regret in the mind of everyone."

It Is a surprising fact that there were no fatalities, nor any damage done worth recording. Fortunately the ships of those days carried solid shot, and not shells, but even heavy cannon balls, fired at close range, would be calculated to do some injury to the buildings adjoining the Cove. This was the manner in which our city underwent its first bombardment, and, it is to be hoped, its last."
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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au