Presented to the MHSA Victoria Branch 25 June 2009 by Bob Marmion
'The Gibraltar of the South'
Defending Melbourne and Port Philip Bay during the mid to
late 19th century - a reappraisal of the defences.
During the 19th century, defence was a major issue in Victoria as indeed it was in other British colonies and the United Kingdom. Considerable pressure was brought to bear by London on the self governing colonies to help provide for their local defence against possible invasions or incursions by nations such as France, Russia and the United States.
From the 1850s until Federation, Victoria spent considerable energy and money fortifying parts of Port Phillip Bay and the western coastline as well as developing the first colonial navy within the British Empire. In addition, citizens were invited to form Volunteer Corps in their local areas as a second tier of defence behind the Imperial troops stationed in Victoria. The colony relied on its Volunteer Force, and following the withdrawl of the Imperial garrison in 1870, a very small standing army known as the Victorian Artillery. Recognising that the early defence schemes were ineffective and grossly out of date, Victoria, in 1883, totally re-organised its defences. For the first time in any British colony, there was an integrated defence scheme where government, a proper general staff, the local land forces, colonial navy, and the fixed defences (such as the forts and minefields) were all linked to provide the basis for an effective colonial defence. The local defences were designed to be melded with the wider Imperial operations.
A key part of the new defence scheme was Fort Queenscliff. The Fort offers a unique opportunity to study the changing nature of defence as its history spans a period from the 1850s until 1946. The Fort played a pivotal role in the changing defence scheme, especially as policy changed from a defence of Melbourne (at Hobsons Bay) to a forward defence centred on the Heads. This came about in great part due to changes in technology (for example weapons with greater ranges meant that enemy ships had to be kept further away from Melbourne), communication, the arrival of steam war ships, including ironclads, and the need for a small professional standing army (rather than Volunteers) in order to keep up with the technological changes.
Fort Queenscliff was the nerve centre of the defensive network which included forts and batteries on both side of the Heads and in the Bay itself. There were extensive mine fields, torpedoes, searchlights and bases for small attack craft. By the end of the 19th century, it was claimed that Port Phillip was the most heavily defended port in the southern hemisphere.
However, all was not as it seemed. Despite the Victorian Government spending £7.1 million between 1851 and 1901, the defences could best be described as a hologram that projected strength, but which failed to provide an effective defence until well into the 1890s. There were massive problems with supply, command and staff, organization, maintenance of equipment, manpower and operation of minefields and the fort's ordnance - all of which had to be rectified before Victoria could be properly defended. Once this had been achieved (by the mid 1890s) the colony could look towards taking a greater role in Imperial affairs such as in the conflict in South Africa or the Boxer Rebellion.
The Victorian defence scheme also laid the groundwork for the post Federation Commonwealth defences.
Bob Marmion has had a lifelong interest in Australian military history, particularly the colonial era of the 19th century, along with artillery and forts in Australia, Britain and the US.
In 2003, he completed an MA on the Victorian Volunteer Force - the local defence force which existed from the 1850s until the 1880s. Bob has recently completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne on Victoria's colonial defences in the 19th century.
He is currently writing a comprehensive two volume history of the Victorian defences from 1803 until 1946. In recent years, he has been engaged in a survey of former Victorian military and naval sites with defence archaeologist, Dr Brad Duncan; this will form the basis of the second volume. Other projects underway include a history of Fort Queenscliff.
He is a full member of the Professional Historians Association (Victoria) and has served as the Fort Queenscliff historian. He has delivered the results of his research into the Victorian defences at a number of conferences in Australia and overseas.