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Building The Fort
A map of the area shows a rocket and mortar shed was built right at the tip of Point Nepean by 1876. This was probably used for life-saving equipment. Plans for a jetty dated 1878 show that preparations for defences had started.14
In 1878 a portable house, possibly intended for workmen, was erected at a cost of £188, a road was laid out and almost 9000 sandbags were unloaded to construct a temporary emplacement for four 80 pounder guns. The military reserve was fenced in 1879. Although plans dated November 1878 for a jetty survive, this was not built until 1882. Prior to this, the military may have used the Quarantine Station jetty or the Cattle jetty to unload building materials and equipment.15
In 1882 work began on the first permanent gun emplacements. The first delivery of powder to Point Nepean was in April 1885, which suggests that guns were then in place.16
Construction work continued during 1885 on another battery for 80 pounder guns and was completed by March 1886.17
The Russian designs on Afghanistan in 1885 alarmed Britain and therefore the colonies. This alarm was particularly felt in Victoria. As the Council of War commented later:
the threat of war acted like an electric shock upon the community 18
The Disappearing Gun
The next phase of building at Point Nepean began in 1887 to adjust to the new developments in artillery. The “disappearing” gun on an hydropneumatic carriage had been developed in the 1870s. After firing, it recoiled below the parapet to enable re-loading to be done in safety. Thus it did not present a target to the ship it was attacking. At Nepean one gun pit was converted to receive a 6″ gun of this type, two others were converted for a 9.2″ gun, and a new replacement for a 9.2″ gun was built. In 1889 a contract for a 6″ emplacement, passage, etc., was signed and a weatherboard barracks was begun in the same year.19
At one of the highest points along the Nepean Peninsula, about one kilometre east of Point Nepean, the battery known as Eagle’s Nest housed a 10″ disappearing gun on an hydropneumatic carriage.20
The buildings at Point Nepean reflect intense activity in the 1880s and early 1890s to keep Victoria’s defences up to date with the latest inventions in military hardware. The impetus for this came from the international political scene, with a continuing sequence of war scares. There were said to be over 200 war scares in Australia during the nineteenth century.21
General Shaw’s Opinion
The accidental cutting of the cable linking Melbourne and London on 30 June 1888 set off a general war alarm in the colony. A headline in The Age newspaper read:
The Premier reacted by ordering a mobilization trial, in an attempt to test the defences without alarming the general population.
The Defence Department called out the Naval Brigade and directed the men of the Harbour Trust Battery to reinforce the garrison artillery. These men were distributed between the Queenscliff, Point Nepean and Swan Island forts. The gunboat Albert was sent to Queenscliff, and the search lights used at the Heads. Submarine mines were laid in the channels.
According to The Argus, the re-armament of Fort Nepean had been in progress for some weeks and gun emplacements had been prepared. Three guns were placed in barges on Saturday 30 June and sent down the Bay. Once these are installed, claimed the report,
“the fort will be one of the best equipped in the Southern Hemisphere”.22
The Age was more critical of the defence preparations:
It is unfortunate that the present scare should arise when both the Point Nepean and Point Franklin forts are almost completely dismantled, only one 9 inch gun and two 80 pounders being in position and ready for action at Nepean fort. Certainly one of the most recent pieces of artillery has been placed in the latter fort during the past week, but it is stated that the proper ammunition is not ready for it.23
The Age claimed that the heaviest piece of artillery in the colony was the 9.2 inch Armstrong breech loader, with its hydro-pneumatic carriage, which was mounted at Fort Nepean on 25 June 1888. It was brought down from Melbourne by the steamer Maud.
With the carriage platform, and shield, the entire apparatus weighed 64 tons. It was installed by 30 men of the Victorian Artillery, supervised by Lieutenant Umphelby and had to be moved ‘almost entirely by manual labour’. The weapon’s range was 10,200 yards and the weight of each shot was 380 pounds.24
First fired on 30 June 1888 at the time of the Russian scare, this gun and carriage was mounted and fired under the most unfavourable circumstances viz. the pit not being made, or rather consisting of a huge excavation in the sand which had to be lowered at strong sand storm blowing the whole of the time the gun was being mounted. The sand was so bad that in the evening we used to cover all parts of carriage with tarpaulins, cases etc, and in the morning you would find the whole lot covered with sand.25
With evident satisfaction, the Queenscliff local paper described Point Nepean’s guns in 1889 as
“a family of dealers of death and destruction”.
This florid prose was hardly justified: the guns at Fort Nepean had not at this time been fired in time of conflict and had caused no loss of life.26
By 1890, Charles Dilke’s assessment of Victoria’s overall defences was a tribute to the planners:
The Australians are – to be congratulated upon the perfection of the local defences of Melbourne – the best defended commercial city of the Empire.27