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In The First Angry Shot I made reference to the defence installations at the Southern end of Port Philip Bay.

These were started in the19th century when Victoria was a colony of the Crown and in the 1880’s was described as the heaviest defended port in the Southern Hemisphere. In the days of sailing ships Port Philip Heads provided much of its own defence via its natural advantages. It sits at the Eastern end beyond the Shipwreck Coast of which Matthew Flinders said "I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline."

port phillip heads bathymetry

The entrance to Port Philip Bay is called The Heads. There is a distance of about 3.5kms between the two points of Point Nepean to the east and Point Lonsdale to the west of which about 1 km is navigable. The navigable portion is known as The Rip and the tide flows at around 6 knots. The defence strategy is based on a triangle of which a line drawn between the two heads is the base with the apex on a feature known as The Pope’s Eye. Ships entering the bay must first traverse the heads then once through take a 90 degree turn to starboard then another turn to port on approaching the South Channel. The South Channel is then followed up to a point opposite Rosebud and from there it is open water to Melbourne or Geelong.

The Crimean War (1853 to 1856) stimulated concern for Victoria’s defences. The Victoria goldfields were, at the time, the richest goldfields in the world. There was concern of invasion by the French and the Russians and in 1859 a British officer was engaged to advise on the colony’s coastal defences. He proposed four large gun batteries be constructed at the entrance to Port Philip Bay with another inner ring of batteries at Hobson’s Bay for the specific protection of Melbourne.

In 1860 the construction of a sea wall began at Shortland’s Bluff, now Queenscliff, to strengthen the cliff for further development of heavy fortifications. The first permanent battery was completed in 1864 at a cost of 1,425 pounds ($2,850) and it was armed with four 68lb muzzle loading canons. In 1870 the last detachment of British troops returned to England and construction declined.


In 1877 a decision was made to proceed with further fortification works. The plan was for the fortification of Point Nepean and construction of a fort at Queenscliff, the construction of a series of forts on the shoals and sandbanks inside the Heads along the shipping channel. The bottom end of Port Philip Bay has a lot of shallow water which rises to the low lying feature known as Mud Island. I have traversed the area many times in sail and motorboats. It is easy to step out and walk around in the middle of the bay it is so shallow.


Queenscliff was to be the headquarters of these defences. It was already the site of the main navigation lights and the pilot station.The fort was to be self-contained which would enable the town to withstand a siege of up to 6 months if it was cut off from Melbourne.

In addition, a fort was to be constructed at the Pope’s Eye, the southern end of a large sand bank directly in line with the Heads but about 7 kms inside the bay. There were to be seven additional man made forts constructed along the main shipping channel.


The Fort at Popes Eye. It was never completed

These forts were to be equipped with 9.2 inch breech loading Armstrong guns known as the “disappearing guns”. These were an ingenious design of gun. They were mounted in a vertical position below ground level where they were loaded. When loaded they were then raised to their horizontal firing position and aimed via periscopes. When fired, the recoil sent the gun back to its vertical position below ground.

Construction of a fort at the Pope’s Eye commenced but was discontinued. An artificial island fort was constructed from basalt rocks brought from the mainland adjacent to the town of Rye. This was the first and only one of the original 7 forts planned. It was fully equipped but today has been stripped of its armaments and was used by the navy to store mines. It is accessible to the public boating fraternity for recreation purposes.


Pope's Eye

The final plank in the defence of Victoria was the purchase of the iron clad monitor Cerberus in 1870. HMVS Cerberus was a 225 feet shallow draft semi-submersible battleship. She was the first British naval ship to be solely steam powered, She had four 10 inch muzzle loading guns mounted in two turrets with a crew of 12 officers and 84 sailors. On federation she was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy but remained in Port Philip Bay. She never left the bay or fired a shot in anger.


It was planned that in the event of an attempted invasion she would enter the semicircular partially completed Fort at the Pope’s Eye, fill her ballast tanks and sit on the bottom with her forward guns pointing towards the Rip. If an invading ship got past the forts at the entrance they would then have to deal with Cerberus while, at the same time, attempting to navigate the narrow waterway of the South Channel.

In 1909 her engines became inoperable and she was converted to a munitions store ship in WW1, then to a submarine tender and finally, in 1924, retired from service and sold to Sandringham Council in 1926 for 150 pounds ($300) when she was scuttled at Half Moon Bay to be used as a breakwater for the local yacht club.

The fate of the forts at the Heads was much more benign. Fort Nepean has been discussed in The First Angry Shot and is now part of a national park. Queenscliff has had a much more significant role.

The main concentration of defence facilities was at Queenscliff which now enjoys its prosperity thanks to the military construction projects of the 1870’s. Initially, a battery was established at Shortland’s Bluff, the former name of the town. This battery was placed on the site of the lighthouse which was moved and a new dual arrangement of lighthouses constructed on the new site.


This site still operates today as the famous high light and low light complex for the critical movement of ships through the Rip.

A similar battery was constructed at Swan Island at the north of the town and a military railway was built connecting the town to Geelong. Swan Island is still in use today as a restricted area where the Navy stores mines and torpedoes, the railway has been merged with the state railway system.


The construction of the fort as it stands today started in 1879 and took 10 years to complete. It was very heavily fortified and included a moat. After 1889 little was done by way of further development until the onset of WW1.when further barracks and mess buildings were erected. The fort had always been garrisoned with gun crews and engineers. It was a requirement that those recruited were single men. If a soldier wished to marry he had to first obtain the commander’s permission. The fort was intended to train men for isolation. The diet was mundane and almost lead to a mutiny in the early 1900’s. Sobriety was encouraged to the point where the fort had its own bottle making factory for making soft drinks.

The fort was the centre of military control of the entire defence system. The first shots of the two world wars fired from Fort Nepean were controlled from Queenscliff. The fort still is today a military establishment under the control of the Australian Army. After WW2 coastal batteries of the kind that existed at The Heads became redundant and the fort became the Australian Army Command and Staff College until this was merged with The Australian Defence College in Canberra. It is still occupied by the army today as the base of army career management but it is also a substantial military museum, classified by the National Trust and maintained as such by the army. On display are two of the “disappearing guns”.The continued occupation by the army preserves the fort as an example of living history of our national defence systems.

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