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Australias Colonial Navies



Naval achievements are indelibly written into the history of Australia.


Australia - How It All Began


The discovery, settlement and defence of the Australian colonies were all made possible because of the ascendancy of British sea power.


The influence of the Royal Navy was to remain, even after the RAN came into being, and indeed still manifests itself strongly in our customs and traditions. Perhaps it would not be too much to say that, but for the British naval presence in this remote outpost of Empire, the very history of this nation might well now be written not in English, but in the language of some other European or even Asian power. Fortunately, any doubts as to the future sovereignty over this great island-continent were dispelled largely by Britain’s command of the seas


Following a succession of victories over France and Spain in the 18th century, and in spite of continual preoccupation with the French, Britain retained the capacity to reach out over new horizons in search of lands as yet undiscovered. Hence it was that Lieutenant James Cook RN, intrepid navigator and commander of HMS Endeavour, on his epic voyage to the southern seas, sailed northward along Australia’s eastern coastline, named the vast tract of land he had discovered New South Wales and took formal possession in the name of King George III on 22 August 1770.


    capt phillipCaptain Arthur Phillip RN - 1st Governor Of New South Wales

Up to the 1770s, British convicts were being transported to the western world, but following the declaration of American independence in 1776, an alternative destination for these prisoners had to be found, and New South Wales was selected.The Royal Navy played a major role in this first settlement. Captain Arthur Phillip RN in the frigate Sirius, with the armed tender Supply, escorted the transports which carried some 1480 people, including nearly 800 convicts. The convoy first put into Botany Bay, then went on to Port Jackson where, on 26 January 1788, a party landed at Sydney Cove, the British flag was hoisted and volleys were fired.


In the years that followed, although no warships were stationed on a regular basis in New South Wales, the Royal Navy kept a watchful eye on the fledgling colony, and a vessel of the East Indies squadron was detached occasionally to visit Port Jackson.


It was not until 1821 that a man-of-war was maintained regularly in the colony. This vessel also crossed the Tasman on occasions to inspect the coasts of the colony of New Zealand. In the ensuing twenty years, vessels based on Port Jackson included HM Ships (6th rate) Alligator, Caroline, Conway, Imogene, and Rattlesnake, and the sloops Hyacinth, Pelorus and Zebra.





The task of charting the waters around the Australian coast was pursued steadily by the Royal Navy from the early days of settle ment. One of the vessels involved in this task was HMS Beagle, the famous little brig-sloop in which Charles Darwin made his epic world survey voyage in 1835. There was a great stir of excitement amongst the colonists when, in January 1846, the first steam vessel to visit Australian waters arrived in Port Jackson. This was the paddle-steamer HMS Driver, which en route from Hong Kong to New Zealand, had called to replenish her bunkers before sailing for Auckland. The Tasman crossing took eight days.






colonialnavy2By the mid l9th century the Royal Navy’s presence in New South Wales had increased considerably, though Australia still remained part of the East Indies command. Steam was asserting itself as a motive power at sea and the paddle warships Acheron and Torch augmented the sailing vessels based on Port Jackson, which included Calliope and the sloops Electra and Falcon.


In the early 1850s relations between Great Britain and Russia were becoming badly strained. At that same period rich gold strikes were made in New South Wales and in the newly estab- lished colony of Victoria. These factors, combined with reports of the sighting of strange warships cruising in the western Pacific, were the cause of much uneasiness amongst the colonists as they realised their vulnerability to outside attack.




As concern developed into a state of mild alarm, guns were mounted around Port Jackson and a 65-ton armed ketch, Spitfire, was built in Sydney, while the colony of Victoria ordered the 580-ton sloop-of- war Victoria to be built in England. The British government too, mindful of the fact that their Australian colonies constituted a rich prize for any would-be attacker, and in response to the colonists’ urgent requests for stronger naval protection, took steps to augment the naval force based on Port Jackson and at the same time to establish Australia as a naval command separate from the East Indies Station.

On 25 March 1859 Captain William Loring of HMS Iris was authorised to hoist a Commodore’s Blue Pendant and to assume command as senior officer of Her Majesty’s Ships on the Australian Station independently of the Commander-in-Chief in India.



So, the Royal Navy’s Australian Station (later formally called the Australia Station), came into being. Loring’s flagship Iris was a sailing frigate, the other vessels under his command being the screw corvettes Pelorus and Niger, and the screw sloop Cordelia — a rather ill-matched collection of vessels and hardly to be rated as a powerful naval force. Nevertheless it was a beginning, and it set the pattern for a squadron which was destined to provide Australia’s defence by sea for many years, until such time as the nation was able to build and maintain a navy of its own.

The Iris sailed for home in 1861, Commodore Loring having transferred his command the year before to Commodore F.P. Seymour, who hoisted his pendant in the screw corvette HMS Pelorus. Although only three years old, Pelorus had already seen much action, including the Indian Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the second so-called Opium War in China in the later 1850s. She also took part in the Maori Wars of 1860, in June of which some 60 of her men landed and participated in the operations at Puketakuere. An interesting vessel on the station in 1859-60 was the screw sloop Niger which, in 1849, had been pitted against the paddle sloop Basilisk during tests in the English Channel to determine the efficiency of the screw propeller as compared with the paddle.


 Settlement Of Australia

A naval officer, Lieutenant James Cook, ‘discovered’ Australia for England on 20 April 1770, and another naval officer, Captain Arthur Phillip, commanded the First Fleet which landed the first European settlers at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.
Captain Phillip also was the first ‘governor-in-chief’ of the new colony of New South Wales and he was succeeded in turn by three more naval officers - Governors John Hunter (1795-1800), Philip Gidley King (1800-1806) and William Bligh (1806-1808).
As Australia developed through the Nineteenth Century with the population growing and new colonies developing, so did the naval and military forces. The discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 saw amazing population shifts from the cities to the hinterland.
Thousands of seamen seeking their fortunes deserted ships which were pouring migrants into Australia at an increasing rate. In 1850, after more than 60 years of settlement, Australia’s white population was only 405,000; yet, only seven years later in 1857 Victoria alone had a white population of 409,000. Although Britain’s Royal Navy firmly ruled the waves of the world’s oceans at that time, it became increasingly apparent as the population grew and spread that the defence of such a vast land as Australia posed problems for the Mother Country.
Naval ships and their officers have, from the very beginning of the Nation, played an important role in Australia's founding and development. Following the landing at Botany Bay by Captain James Cook in 1770, the young colony of New South Wales had four successive Naval officers as Governor, Captains Arthur Philip, John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bligh.


In 1821, Britain had decided to station only one man-o-war in Sydney. However, excursions by France on the west coast of Australia alarmed the British, resulting in the dispatch of HMS CHALLENGER, under the command of Captain Charles Fremantle RN, to take possession of the remainder of the continent outside New South Wales.


By the mid-nineteenth century, Victor ia had become a separate colony and had already established a naval force of its own. By 1865, the Imperial Colonial Naval Defence Act gave all the colonies official power to establish their own naval forces. Subsequently, Queensland and South Australia joined New South Wales and Victoria in establishing naval forces, including volunteer brigades and auxiliaries.


The colonial navies continued to operate for nearly four decades. Victoria, in particular, placed considerable importance on its naval force and acquired HMVS CERBERUS, a large iron-clad turreted ship launched at Jarrow-on-Tyne in 1868.






CERBERUS is at this present time a rusting hulk lying in Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, Australia you may wish to add your support to the Save Cerberus Project by clicking the link below.


In 1926, no longer considered economic, she was towed to the Melbourne bayside suburb of Black Rock and grounded where she lies today as a breakwater.


In 1884, Britain, recognising Australia’s economic potential and its strategic importance in the Pacific, raised the status of the Australian Squadron to a Rear Admiral’s command and appointed Rear-Admiral George Lyon as the Flag Officer commanding the Squadron.


The Admiralty had planned to augment the Australian squadron with seven ships and assume command of the joint colonial forces. This proposal was considered by a number of Australian politicians, including the Prime Minister of the day, as a thinly disguised attempt by the Admiralty to regain control of the colonies and thwart moves from within Australian for greater independence and autonomy.


The proposal was successful insofar as seven RN ships were stationed in Australia as an auxiliary squadron to the colonial navies, but, under the command of the Australian Squadron. Its main purpose was to provide protection of coastal trade routes and it would not go beyond Australian waters. Part of the cost of building and maintaining the ships would be borne by the colonies.


One of the stated objectives of the auxiliary squadron was to provide training for Australian sailors. However, no such benefit resulted.


In some Government circles within Australia, this proposal was viewed as an attempt by Britain to regain direct control of the various naval forces. Resentment of the whole scheme was considerable and gave great impetus to the movement arguing for the unification of the Australian States, in particular, the armies and navies. Alfred Deakin, one of the founding fathers of Federation, publicly declared that defence was a major stimulus to Federation.


Colonial Naval Forces



As Sydney was the major base for the Royal Navy in Australia, the New South Wales Government had no incentive to acquire their own naval forces. However during the Crimean War this sense of security vanished and in 1854 the government called for tenders for the construction of a gunboat to help in the defence of Sydney.


The gunboat, named Spitfire was not only the first warship ordered by an Australian government but also the first warship built in Australia. After the launch of Spitfire in 1855 no further steps were taken by the New South Wales Government in establishing a naval force until 1863 when the formation of a Naval Brigade of 120 men was announced. Support for the Naval Brigade was so great that by 1864 it consisted of five companies, four in Sydney and one in Newcastle, with an overall strength of 20() men. Headquarters for the Naval Brigade was established at Fort Macquarie, where the Opera House stands today. Unfortunately the Naval Brigade had no ships of its own, Spitfire having been given to Queensland in 1859.


The disadvantage of not having any vessels for the Naval Brigade was recognised during the late 1870s when the government ordered the construction of two second class torpedo boats, Avernus and Acheron. These vessels were built in Sydney by the Atlas Engineering Company of Pyrmont. The torpedo boats were later followed by the acquisition, as a gift from the Imperial Government, of HMS Wolverene in 1882.


The naval forces of the colony were further augmented by arming a number of government vessels. The Wolverene was paid off and then sold in 1893 and the other naval auxiliaries were used with less and less frequency as the per- ceived threats of the early 1880s diminished. Even though the number of vessels operated as part of the defences of New South Wales decreased, the membership of the Naval Brigade con- tinued to increase until it reached a strength of 614 at Federation. At the time of Federation the entire assets of the naval forces of New South Wales were transferred to the Commonwealth. This included the men of the Naval Brigade that were serving as part of the International Force in China during the Boxer Rebellion.




Following the lead taken by New South Wales, the Victorian Government ordered a composite sail-steam sloop, named Victoria from England. This ship arrived in the colony on the 31 May 1856.


During her career Victoria carried out a large variety of tasks. including assisting in the search for Burke and Wills and deliver ing the first trout eggs to Tasmania.


The highlight of Victoria’s career was when the vessel was dispatched to New Zealand during the Maori Wars. This was the first occasion that Australian military or naval forces had been deployed overseas as part of an impe rial force.


Following their experience with Victoria the Colonial Govern ment applied to the Imperial Government for assistance in the acquisition of an ironclad warship. As a result of these requests the Victorian Government was given assistance in the purchase of Cerberus as well as the loan of a composite steam-sail warship, HMS Nelson.


Supporting the permanent naval forces which manned the ships was an active and well-trained Naval Brigade. This Brigade was organised into two divisions of approximately 150 men each. One of these divisions was stationed at Port Melbourne and the other was based at the Williamstown Naval Depot.


During the l880s further warships, including first and second class torpedo boats and two gunboats, were added to the Victo rian Naval Forces. As well as these regular warships there was also a large number of government vessels which were earmarked for naval service in times of tension.


By the end of the 1880s Victoria had by far the most powerful of all the colonial naval forces. These forces, acting in concert with the fortifications located at the heads and other sites around Port Phillip Bay, made Melbourne the most heavily defended city in Australia and possibly the Empire. As with the other colonies expenditure on the naval forces and defence in general fluctuated with the interest and concern shown by the government.


By the early 1890s expenditure on defence had been reduced to such an amount that the naval force was considerably reduced and the two gunboats were also paid off. The final act of the Victorian Naval Forces was to dispatch to China a force to fight the Boxers and to serve as part of the international group.




The Queensland Marine Defence Force was established during the early 1880s to help provide for the defence of Queensland’s extensive coastline.


To enable this force to carry out its assigned tasks, two gunboats were ordered from the shipyards of Armstrong Mitchell & Company.


The gunboats, named Paluma and Gayundah were shallow draft vessels capable of operating in the many bays and estuaries along the coast. Shortly after her arrival in the colony Paluma was lent to the Royal Navy for use as a survey ship along the Australian east coast.


Supporting these ships were torpedo boats and a number of government vessels modified to act as naval auxiliaries.


The Queensland Government also established Naval Brigade companies in the major ports along the Queensland coast. Of all of the colonial naval forces the Queensland Marine Defence Force was the only one not to become involved in a foreign adventure.


This did not mean however that it had an uneventful existence. In September 1888, after a disagreement with the Queensland Government over certain conditions of service, Captain H.T. Wright RN. commanding officer of Gayundah, coaled and provisioned her and threatened to sail her to Sydney.


On hearing of this the government ordered a squad of police to relieve Captain Wright of his command. The problem was eventually resolved but not before Captain Wright had enquired from his gunner as to the best line of fire for his guns in order to hit Parliament House. The second incident of interest occurred in 1893 dur ing a flood in the Brisbane River when the gunboat Paluma broke its moorings. When the flood waters receded Paluma was left high and dry in the Botanical Gardens. While officials were arguing as to the best means of refloating Paluma another flood struck and refloated the ship. She was then towed to her moorings and made secure.




In South Australia, as in the other colonies, the early l880s saw the initial moves towards the establishment of a naval force. The major push for the establishment of a naval force came from the then governor, Sir William Jervois. As a consequence of the pressures applied by Sir William and the general concern over the lack of adequate naval defences., the South Australian Government ordered the light cruiser Protector.


This 920-ton ship arrived in Adelaide in September 1884 and remained in active service with the South Australian Naval Forces until she was transferred to the Commonwealth in 1901. During the later stages of her career as a colonial warship Protector saw active service in China during the Boxer Rebellion.


At the time of her acquisition Protector was the most powerful and modern warship in service with a colonial navy. To support Protector the Government also established a Naval Brigade. Also purchased were a number of Whitehead torpedoes. though there was no torpedo boat available to fire them. This situation remained unchanged until the South Australian Government negotiated the purchase of TB 191 from Tasmania, transfer of which occurred during 1905.




During the mid-1830s the colony of Van Diemans Land built and operated the armed schooner Eliza. This vessel, built at Port Arthur, was operated by the Convict Marine Service and carried out anti-piracy patrols as well as helping to maintain the security of penal establishments. Though she was an armed vessel Eliza’s function was mainly that of a coast guard vessel and not a warship.


Tasmania’s first and only warship was purchased in 1883. This was a second-class torpedo boat known simply as TB 191. The ship arrived in Hobart on 1 May 1884 and remained in the colony until she was transferred to South Australia. TB 191’s career was very uneventful and consisted mainly of occasional practice runs and long periods of inactivity. During one of these occasions TB 191 was used to help carry out a survey of Ralph’s Bay. Finally, during the early 1900s, plans were made for the disposal of TB 191 to South Australia.




The provisions of the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865 were not applicable to Western Australia until after that colony achieved the status of a self-governing colony, and until that time she could not legally operate warships of her own. However, in 1879 a militia unit, known as the Fremantle Naval Artillery. was formed to assist in the defence of Fremantle Harbour. Personnel for the Fremantle Naval Artillery were recruited solely from ex- Royal Navy personnel or merchant seamen of good character.


The primary function of the Naval Artillery was to provide a mobile shore battery for the defence of Fremantle Harbour. To this end the unit was equipped with two brass 6-pounder field guns. Unfortunately there were no limbers for these weapons so they were very restricted in their mobility. In 1889 these guns were replaced by two 9-pounder RML guns complete with limbers and wagons. However, by this stage the Fremantle Naval Artillery had been disbanded and reformed as the Fremantle Artillery Vol unteers.





At Federation the men and assets of the various colonial naval forces, including those of the New South Wales and Victoria Naval contingents and the crew of Protector who were serving in China, were combined into the Commonwealth Naval Forces. The Commonwealth Naval Forces were formed into the Royal Australian Navy in 1911.