The founding of the British colony in Port Jackson in 1788, isolated from the mother country some ten-and-a-half thousand miles away, brought with it many anxieties for the new settlers. With French, Spanish, Dutch and Russian empires all vying with Britain for global supremacy, the security of Sydney was very much on the minds of Governor Phillip and his gubernatorial successors. Right from the get-go measures were put in place to shore up the vulnerable colony’s defences, both against potential external threats and internal rebellion. How secure and how effective these efforts were, we shall examine below.
In 1790 a battery was located in Sydney on a rocky bluff jutting out into the harbour on what was to become known as Dawes Point. The Dawes Point fortifications were chosen to be the first line of defence against enemy invaders because of its propitious location – a high, narrow, peninsula offering an excellent views straight out onto the harbour§. Also, being very close to the main settlement at Sydney Cove, news of any sign of impending danger or threat could be quickly relayed to the townspeople. A battery was also installed on Windmill Hill (now Observatory Hill) in 1794. Ten years later work commenced on the construction of Fort Phillip on the same site, the fort was intended to be a citadel in the event of convict insurrection, however it was never completed. In the 1850s most of the fortified structure got dismantled to make way for the building of the Sydney Observatory¹.
Over the course of the first seventy years or so of settlement in Sydney the security focus gradually shifted from concentrating on the inner harbour (Dawes Point and Sydney Cove) to defending the Heads and Botany Bay. In 1801 the first gun emplacements were built in Middle Head (north of Obelisk Bay) as a response to the growing threat to Britain of France under Napoleon (in the 20th century these fortifications were overgrown by vegetation and more or less forgotten until rediscovered in the 1990s)².
The threat to New South Wales, so distant from the European theatres of the Napoleonic Wars, probably seems a remote one when seen through modern eyes, but it was taken seriously at the time. Sydney was perceived as a desirable prize because of several factors – it had a strategically important harbour, the envy of navies all over the world; there was only a small population in place to defend the settlement; and later on it had huge quantities of gold bullion acquired from the goldfields³.
It seems that the adequacy of the fortifications was being called into question constantly throughout the 19th century. Criticism from prominent citizens of the colony was common (the embrasures ineffective, fragility of the fortification as a whole, etc). One of the points made by Commissioner Bigge’s Report into the colony (1820) was that in the event of another conflict between Britain and the USA (following upon the recent War of 1812) Britain’s colonies, especially New South Wales, would be very susceptible to seizure by the US4. In addition, the prevalence of American whaling fleets in the South Pacific made many in the colony fearful of raids on Sydney Town by Yankee privateers.
Francis Greenway was the architect commissioned to strengthen the principal fort at Dawes Point in 1819, having described (with some exaggeration) the battery’s prior state as “perfectly useless … so that any speculator of any of the nations we were at war with, might have entered our harbour, destroyed our infant town, blowed up the stores, and left us in a woeful condition5. Greenway was also responsible for the construction of Fort Macquarie on the tip of Bennelong Point (smack-bang where the Sydney Opera House is today!).
The strengthening of Sydney’s defences have often occurred as a reaction to security scares in the colony. The decision in 1841 to convert a convict hold in the middle of the harbour (Pinchgut Island) into Fort Denison came about after two American warships were discovered having anchored themselves in the harbour without being detected. The fortifications of Fort Denison were in any case far from swiftly constructed, not being finished until 1857, by which time the perceived external threat had shifted to Russia after the Crimean War.
South Head was fortified in the 1840s – though not equipped with artillery until the 1870s! Possessing an ideal vantage point to view vessels approaching the harbour, it was also used as a lookout and a signal station. Today a naval base, HMAS Watson, is housed on the land it occupied6.
Not all plans for the reform of Sydney’s coastal defences got acted on. In 1848 Lt-Colonel James Gordon proposed a definitive, systematic plan to upgrade and improve both the inner (harbour) fortifications and the outer (heads) fortifications. Gordon’s plans only ever got partially implemented by the colonial authorities who were content to “cherry-pick”7.
Following the Crimean War conflict, a fear that the Russian Pacific Fleet might invade the colony prompted an upgrade in defence facilities. Some fortifications were added to Bradleys Head and South Head, although nothing much really happened until Britain’s Cardwell Army Reforms came into effect (1870). One consequence was that British ‘redcoats’ were withdrawn from Australia and the colony was required to raise local units to protect itself. This proved a spur to the authorities in Sydney to construct new fortifications further north-east in Port Jackson, around Mosman. Gun emplacements were built at Middle Head, Georges Head, Bradleys Head and Lower Georges Heights.
British fears that Tsarist Russia might try to extend its empire into India via Afghanistan led to a wave of ‘Russophobia’in the 1870s and 80s8, which spread eventually to the NSW colony. Already, in 1863 a Russian corvette (the Bogatyr) had visited Sydney and Melbourne, prompting the Sydney Morning Herald to allege that it was secretly conducting topographical surveys of Port Jackson and Botany Bay to ascertain the strength of the settlement’s fortifications9.
The Sydney authorities, fearing an attack from the Russian Navy and sensing that Sydney was vulnerable to an attack from its southern “back door”, built a fort in 1888 at Bare Island off La Perouse⊕ at the entrance to Botany Bay. The edifice unfortunately was composed of poor quality materials and began to crumble before completion. The islet fort was decommissioned in 1902 due in part to the state of its armaments. Though heavily-gunned its technology had quickly become outdated. The Russian Pacific Fleet never came to Bare Island but these days scuba divers flock to it as its waters are a prized diving site10.
The Jervois-Stratchley Reports (defence capability reviews) of the late 1870s emphasised the military importance of sea-ports and this led to a new phase of fort construction in Sydney and elsewhere in the Australasian colonies, eg, Bare Island, Fort Nepean (Port Phillip Bay, Victoria), Fort Lytton (Brisbane) and the eponymous Fort Scratchley in Newcastle. The fortifications designed by Lieutenant Scratchley, eg, Bare Island, the 1890s cliff-top forts manned with large, anti-bombardment guns around Sydney’s eastern seaboard to protect the suburbs of Vaucluse (Signal Hill Fort), Bondi (Ben Buckler) and Clovelly/Coogee (Shark Point), were outmoded and already basically obsolete when completed11.
The development of Sydney’s coastal defences has followed an irregular course since 1788. Its decidedly desultory and piecemeal trajectory can be attributed to a number of factors, principal among which is cost. Funding defensive works with all the infrastructure required (then as well as now) is an expensive business. Unsurprisingly, the resort to cost-cutting as in the Dawes Point battery, led to the use of inferior materials and rapid disintegration of the construction. Procuring the artillery was neither cheap or easy to do, and in virtually no time the weaponry became out-of-date12. Also at times, the “tyranny of distance” possibly breed in the local authorities a degree of complacency. Being so far away from where the international action was, meant that coastal fortification often ended up a lower priority that the other, immediate needs of the colony.
Bare Island has functioned as a museum since the early 1960s, having never fired a shot in anger (fortunately so perhaps, as had it seen action, its location would have been terribly exposed to hostile fire). Its infrastructure remains largely intact although it’s disappearing guns have indeed ‘disappeared’ for good. The nearby but remote Henry Head is today overgrown to a large extent with vegetation and also sans guns.
Middle Head/Georges Head (Mosman) has probably the best kept fortifications on the Sydney coast, owing in large part to the fact that this part of Middle Harbour was under military jurisdiction for over a century. The area at various times has contained, et al, a naval hospital, army camp (barracks, quarters, etc), a gunnery school and a submarine miners’ depot.
Middle Head has two forts on the headland, the larger one, the Outer Fort, is perched up on sloping ground in front of a cleared area. The fort’s emplacements contain the notorious the “tiger cages”. During the Vietnam War the cages were used by the Australian Army to train soldiers to withstand torture and interrogation. On the iron grills of some of the cages rust marks are still visible, a remnant of the water entrapment ordeals that used to be meted out! Although no shots were ever fired in anger from the Head, in the middle of last century the battery’s gunners used to practice the accuracy of their 10 and 12 inch guns on a tiny, rocky outcrop of an island in Middle Harbour – which is now fully submerged (no surprise!)
The smaller, Inner Fort with dense vegetation surrounding it has a very different claim to fame. It was used as the bikies’ hideout in the 1974 independent cult movie Stone. The emplacements have long entrance ramps leading to circular gun enclosures and the bikies on their Harleys would tear through the bush track and along the ramps into the enclosures. The two forts and the nearby fort at Georges Head all have the same design – circular gun mounts with ancillary rooms running off them and a vast network of connecting tunnels leading to other military instalments on the promontory.
The Dawes Point battery today is non-existent, the space merely one of the historic curios of the Rocks. All that remains is the symbolism of a couple of authentic looking canons, some information boards recounting the history and architecture, and an artist’s modern, interpretative representation of the former structure … and a nice park in the shadows of the steel under-girth of the harbour bridge.
§ Dawes Point functioned as the centrepiece of a system of signal stations. A series of strategically positioned signal posts stretching out to the Heads would relay information on marine activity such as the approach of foreign shipping
⊕ at the same gun emplacements (with disappearing guns) were constructed at Henry Head on the most easterly part of La Perouse
¹ ‘Colonial Powder Magazines – Fort Phillip Powder Magazine’, www.users.tpg.com
²’Sydney’s lost fort declared open’, 23. July 2010, www.news.com.au
³ Dean Boyce, ‘Defending colonial Sydney” Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/defending_colonial_sydney, viewed 30 March 2016.
4 Boyce 2008; A Wayne Johnson, ‘Showdown in the Pacific: a Remote Response to European Power Struggles in the Pacific, Dawes Point Battery, Sydney, 1791-1925’, (Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority), www.sha.org/uploads/files/
5 F Greenway, Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 13 September 1834.
6’Bridging the Gap’, Dictionary of Sydney,2011.
7 ‘Sydney’s Fortifications’ (2015), www.visitsydneyaustralia.com.au
8 ‘Russophobia’ was evident at the time in the popularity of “Invasion scare novels” (eg, The Invasion by WH Walker, published in Sydney in 1877, an account of a fictionalised attack on Sydney by the Russian navy, Boyce 2008.
9 A Massov, ‘The Russian Corvette “Bogatyr” in Melbourne and Sydney in 1863’, http://australiarussia.com.au
10 ‘Bare Island (New South Wales)’, Wikipedia, www.e.n.wikipedia.org
11 Boyce 2008; ‘Sydney’s Fortifications’ 2015.
12 ‘Sydney’s Colonial Fortifications’, Australian Society for the History of Engineering & Technology (ASHET, Self-guided Tour, nd)