Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fort Denison -- Keeping Sydney Safe?

I don't know how many times I have passed Fort Denison while on a ferry journey in Sydney Harbour and never really thought much about it. This well known landmark in the harbour is a small island fortress, constructed of beautiful Sydney sandstone and the tides, which are a very important in Sydney, were always measured there and that was the extent of my knowledge of the place.

On our recent visit to Sydney we decided to make a visit to Fort Denison and take a tour of the Martello Tower. After a swift boat ride to the Fort, we met up with our guide, a Park Ranger from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services who have managed the Fort in recent years.

A closer look at the Martello tower

Originally the small island stood 25 metres high and it was used as a place of punishment in the early settlement and prisoners were confined there for a week with meagre rations. As a deterrent, in 1796 a murderer was hanged on a gibbet on the highest point of the island and the body left in place for four years.

After a scare in 1839, when 7 American vessels arrived unannounced in the harbour and it was obvious that the defences of the harbour were inadequate the island was leveled and turned into a gun battery but the British government refused to permit further defence works.

The barracks part of the fort. The beautiful sandstone is typical
of many Sydney buildings

At the outbreak of the Crimean War a review of the defence strategy resulted in a decision to build a fort on Pinchgut, as it was known. 8000 tons of sandstone were brought by barge to the island from the nearby shore and for the next twenty two years the construction of the Martello tower, gun battery and barracks took place.

The circular Martello tower, named so after a similar one used so successfully in the defence of Mortello Bay in Corsica, was one of 200 built around the world. At the bottom of the tower the walls are 4 metres thick and it consists of three levels with the powder kept on the lower, storage in the centre and the three cannons, one eight-inch, one ten-inch and one twelve-inch, were installed in the gun room on the upper level. The three cannons were actually lifted into place and the walls built around them so there they remain today although in actual fact they were obsolete by the time the fort was completed in 1857. The battery itself held nine 32 pounder guns.

The cannons still in place inside the tower

Initially the fort was manned by a volunteer force and Tuesday was practice day for all the forts which had been constructed in the harbour. It took ten men to fire each gun, and in the limited space of the tower only one could be fired at a time. A well trained team took 1.5 minutes to complete a firing and the range was one mile. The cannons on Fort Denison were never fired except in practice.
The one o'clock gun is to the right in this photo of the battery

For a time the British Royal Artillery manned the fort with a garrison of 2 officers and 44 soldiers but by 1870 Fort Denison was no longer a military installation. Later it became a place to measure the tide levels and a navigation aid with an electric fog bell, a navigation light and a gun fired at 1pm for the ships to set their clocks. The one o'clock gun is still fired to this day, albeit electronically since 1986, but now it is just a grand tradition.

The only vegetation on Fort Denison, besides grass is
this fig tree which seems quite healthy if rather small

During the Second World War the Fort was manned again by a military force and Japanese submarines did get into the inner harbour. The USS Chicago fired upon a Japanese submarine however they missed and hit the Martello tower.

As you can see, it would have been difficult to manoevre in this small space
when firing the guns

We found it both an interesting place to visit and the view from the tower was spectacular. Sitting in the cafe which now operates on the island we had a great view of both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, a triangle of the three icons of Sydney Harbour.


CherryPie said...

Very interesting. It looks like some of the towers we have over here.

Granny on the Web said...

Those cannons look very menacing. I wouldn't like to be looking down the barrel!
Love Granny

Cathy said...

You always post the most interesting things and pictures. I learn something every time I visit your blog.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Enjoyed this post.

jams o donnell said...

Definitely a place to visit if I ever make it to Sydney

Carver said...

This was such an interesting post. You make a great virtual tour guide JMB. I also love the photographs you took.

Janice Thomson said...

Must have been a fascinating place to visit JMB. Great photos to accompany your interesting and informative post.

jmb said...

Thanks Cherie, these Martello towers were built all over.

The guns were interesting Granny, even if not very useful in the long run.

Thanks Cathy, I hope it is as interesting to others as to me.

Thanks LGS.

Jams, it's odd that I never have been before, although tours were not available until relatively recently.

Thanks Carver and Janice. Not such a great photographer but good enough to jog some memories with these.

Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I never heard of it before. It looks and sounds very interesting.