Saturday, 16 January 2016

Colonial Defences of Sydney

I have recently moved back to Sydney after around 10 years of living far and wide elsewhere.  I have given myself a 'bucket list' plan to visit the colonial era defences and fortifications.   Of course, I have a hidden VSF agenda in the background as well :-)

I'll present my findings here of course and as a prelude thought I would provide some overview of what was constructed in the early colonial days, during the 'Russian Scares' and post Federation.  I had decided that for the time being, I am going to stick with defences constructed in the colonial period (pre 1901) only.

The colony of New South Wales was established in 1788 in Port Jackson (better known now as Sydney Harbour).  A remote spot on the far side of the world from the British Isles, it was a long way from the Royal Navy's bases and help.  Over the next century layers of defences were built and upgraded to included new technologies including rifled guns, breach loaders, mines, torpedoes and anti-submarine booms.

Some of the fortifications around Sydney's inner and outer harbour.
This summary explains it well - from:

The arrival of a French expedition to Botany Bay almost simultaneous to the arrival of the first fleet in January 1788 was a timely reminder that the colony of New South Wales, being the most isolated outpost of the British Empire, was always going to be vulnerable to any military action which might be taken against it. In a world where the countries of Europe were jostling for superiority and control of world trade, Britain had no friends as such, least of all the French with whom the relation was at best unfriendly. Even as the colony was settling in at Sydney Cove, Gov. Phillip was formulating a plan which included fortifications around the entrance to Sydney Cove and the establishment of a system of lookouts near the entrance to Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). His actions were hardly surprising since he was a military man and the settlement on Sydney Cove was little more than a military outpost which employed convicts to do the dirty work. None of Phillip's original fortifications remain - the oldest fort is at Bradleys Head, which was completed in 1801. This battery was commissioned by Governor King during the Napoleonic Wars in 1800. This remarkable structure was hewn by convicts from the local sandstone and is a reminder of how fearful the fledgling colony was of invasion particularly from France.

On 29th November 1839, the unheralded arrival of a squadron of US Navy ships caused a furor. They entered the harbour under cover of darkness and no one knew of their arrival until morning, when the population rose to see them at anchor in the harbour. Fear of the repercussions had the new arrivals been unfriendly was enough to push the military authorities into re-assessing Sydney's defence strategies immediately. Their review resulted in Governor Gipps commencing work on what would become Fort Denison without waiting for British Government approval. In 1848 Lieutenant-Colonel James Gordon developed a definitive plan for the defence of Sydney town which involved 30 heavy guns located at Inner South Head and Middle Head, 9 heavy guns at Sow and Pigs Reef, 2 heavy guns at Pinchgut, work at Bradley's Head and changes to the Dawes Point Battery. The plan was only instigated in part.

The 1850s were heady days for Australia, the goldrushes of inland New South Wales and Victoria bringing unbelievable wealth to both individuals and the country itself. This influx of wealth, coupled with the knowledge that Australia's coastal towns were still vulnerable to attack by sea, led the authorities to fear that raids by foreign ships to plunder the colony's gold reserves were a distinct possibility. Rumours began to circulate that such an attack by American pirates was imminent, and with the outbreak of the American Civil War, there were additional fears that the North may declare war on England and her colonies for aiding the Southern States.

In 1853 a Government Committee on the Defence of Port Jackson recommended harbour defenses be upgraded immediately in view of the threat of an European war with Russia which escalated into the Crimean War (1854-56). Governor FitzRoy appointed Col. Barney to improve harbour defenses. He based his plans on Gordon's recommendations of 1848 which included the arming of the outer harbour utilising fortifications at North, Middle and South Heads. The project was to be short lived. Governor Denison, who arrived in the middle of the building program, abandoned it, shifting the emphasis back on the inner harbour by reinforcing existing works as well as an upgrade of Fort Denison.

In the early 1870s, it was noted that a seemingly never ending stream of Russian naval vessels on long distance "training expeditions" were visiting Australian ports. They seemed to be taking more than a passing interest in Australia, and whilst there was no evidence that an invasion was in the wind, the visits were enough to make the local authorities re-think their defence strategies again. As a result of what became known as the Russian scare, more strategic harbourside land was set aside for military use and a series of fortifications built on them.

These defence upgrades reflect the scares that largely controlled the colonial reaction to events involving England. When a crisis or war scare occurred in England, the colony also felt threatened, and in a knee-jerk reaction, a lot of work was done - more often than not poorly - upgrading the city's defences until the threat of war dissipated or the Government ran out of money - or both. Either way, the job was more or less left unfinished until the next scare.

The Cardwell territorial reforms of 1870 within the British Army resulted in the withdrawal of British garrison troops from Australia. The British Colonial Office insisted that wealthier colonies such as New South Wales and Victoria should pay more of their own defence costs and thus begin to take full responsibility for their own defence. The negotiations and stances taken by both parties in the second half of the 19th century were somewhat convoluted, but nevertheless resulted in Britain giving the Australian states a helping hand in getting themselves started. A fallout from this was the construction of numerous new defence fortifications. In 1871 the first fortifications designed to defend the outer harbour were constructed. These were at Outer and Inner Middle Head, Georges Head, South Head, Steel Point and Bradleys Head. They remained operational but totally ineffective - fortunately they were never required to be put to the test to prove this - until well after World War I.

A pair of military defence advisers were sent out from England in 1877 to co-ordinate the defensive efforts of the colonies. They were Lieutenant Colonel Peter Scratchley and Lieutenant General Sir William Francis Drummond Jervois, both being Royal Engineers with expertise in defence fortifications. Both men advised the Queensland and Tasmanian Government on defence matters. Jervois, who had built military fortiftications in Canada, India, South Afrrica and the Malay peninsula, took responsibility for the creation of defence solutions for Port Phillip. Lt. Scratchley was appointed the Commissioner for Defences in New South Wales. After completion of his duties, Jervois stayed in Australia to become the Governor of South Australia from 2nd October, 1877 to 9th January, 1883, followed by a term as Governor of New Zealand.

During his term of office, Scratchley recommended a series of additional fortifications for Sydney, all of which were outdated even before they were finished. These included additional batteries which built in the 1890s in the Eastern Suburbs to prevent shelling of the residential areas to the east of Sydney and a self-contained fort designed by Scratchley for Bare Island to defend Botany Bay, it being supported by two disappearing guns at Henry Head.

Other useful resources with overviews here:


David Manley said...

Thanks for starting this, I shall watch developments with interest :)

Bruce Lee said...

You will have trouble visiting the Beehive battery, its still on Defence Force property and it is now pretty comprehensively locked up since someone nearly died there several years ago - claimed to have squeezed in through one of the gun ports and then couldn't get out, more likely the gate was unlocked or only slackly chained and someone came round and secured it properly while Dimbo was inside.

There were still some wooden gun carriages in there in the 1990's when a friend did a dissertation on the battery for her architecture degree, but locals were using them for firewood.

Paul O'G said...

Yes its part of the Defence Fuel depot at Obelisk Bay.
I know a few guys so we'll see - fingers crossed!

Bluewillow said...

Nice little project,

I may follow in your footprints as I have just moved back to Sydney myself after a 20 year absence and looking at exploring colonial history again, and finish my book on colonial volunteer units n Victoria and NSW.

The forts and battery's you have marked are the more well known ones, there were more, I have seen a colonial map of the harbour with three battery's and a fort on the south side of the harbour, the fort being near the Sydney observatory and the Ramps to the bridge now stands. From memory the fort was stone and the three battery's were timber ravelins, one was uncovered by archeologists in the early 90s. I think the map may of been in the museum in the rocks possibly, I will ask my friend Alison at the Australian museum or Brad Manera, when I next see them.


Paul O'G said...

Matt - you are entirely correct, that was just the first map I could easily find with an overview. Would love more detail on that map when you get it. I think that in addition to visiting the sites I might be doing a bit of research in the NSW State Library and archives too.

The battery you are referring to under the bridge's southern pylons is Dawes Battery - I went there yesterday with a post to follow shortly.

Why follow in my footprints - we should meet up and do some of these together! That would be really neat actually. Let me know if you are interested.

I've been doing a bit of research on Victoria also (I visited Fort Gellibrand in Hobson's Bay a fortnight or so ago) all for a VSF/Alt History project which you may also be interested in :-)

Oswald said...

Excellent - I'll follow with interest.

I have dabbled in a similar project in Hobart and to a much lesser degree, Victoria:

Paul O'G said...

Thanks Oswald - I'll check out your entries.
The Colonial Defences of Australia appear well underdone in terms of research

phann son said...

I really need to revisit the science museum, my problem is that I am too easily distracted by the dinosaurs next door!


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An exploration of debauchery, vice and other reasons to be a man!