Point Nepean Forts

10 inch gun eagles nest

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1877 SCARE
1882 SCARE


Fort Nepean – Victoria’s Gibraltar

Fort Nepean, known in the 1880s as Victoria’s Gibraltar, was an essential part of the defence network of colonial Victoria. Victoria’s defences, in turn, were planned in the larger context of British imperial defences. One of a number of defence installations round Port Phillip Bay, the fortifications on the tip of the Nepean Peninsula, together with those at Queenscliff, Swan Island, Fort Franklin and South Channel Fort, were designed to protect Victoria from attack by raiders who might penetrate the Heads and make their way up the Bay to hold the city of Melbourne to ransom.1

Victoria’s defence was in its early years the province of the British navy. Its internal security was at first also safeguarded by the presence of British forces. Although the protection by the mother country was valued by the colonists, it nevertheless made Victoria vulnerable to attack by enemies of the Empire. Thus, France, the United States, Russia and China were named as potential threats to Victorian security.2

The Crimean War (1853-1856) stirred the colonial patriots to take some responsibility for their own defence. In 1854, a volunteer rifle brigade was formed in Melbourne. Drilling and military exercises were carried out by the volunteers at night and weekends.3

Relief of the Light Brigade

Relief of the Light Brigade – Crimea 1854

The discovery of gold in Victoria meant that the colony now had something to defend. As the Argus warned its readers

… in the event of war we are in a very defenceless state and that the fact of it being known all over the world that we have a few millions, worth of solid gold within cannon shot of the Bay is a circumstance which renders us peculiarly liable to attack.4

British troops were partially withdrawn in 1860, when they were sent to New Zealand to fight in the second Maori War. They were completely withdrawn in 1870. Volunteer enthusiasm had waned after the Crimean War ended but the withdrawal of British troops was an incentive to plan Victorian defences and improve the local force.5

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Coastal Defences

Sir Peter Scratchley KCMG 1885

Sir Peter Scratchley KCMG 1885

In 1860, Victoria applied to the British Government for the services of an officer of the Royal Engineers to superintend the erection of defences. Captain Peter Scratchley was appointed and advised the provision of batteries in Hobson’s Bay and at the Heads.6

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1877 Scare

Russian activity against Turkey in 1877 with the possibility of Britain’s involvement may have been a factor in the appointment of a team of advisers from the Royal Engineers to report on Victorian defences in that year.

William Jervois c.1880

William Jervois c.1880

In June 1877 Colonel Sir William Jervois and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Scratchley recommended that Port Phillip be defended by a battery and keep at Queenscliff, a fort at Point Nepean and batteries at Swan Island and South Channel Island, with mines in the South and West Channels.7

Jervois Mine Plans 1884

Jervois Mine Plans 1884

Towards the end of 1878, a report was circulated by the press of Australia that the Russian Government had contemplated making a raid upon some of the Australian ports:

… the Russian admiral at Yokohama … who possessed the instinct of a true buccaneer, became almost too frank… on one occasion he went so far as to say, striking his thigh at the same time with considerable energy “Fancy one, after all, missing such a chance! Six millions sterling! Why. there would not have been such a coup since the days of the Spanish galleons”.8

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1882 Scare

The European crisis in 1882, when it seemed that Britain would become involved in a major war, was decisive in encouraging Victoria to build defences. A general European war with Britain isolated would make the colonies vulnerable to attack.9

As Victorian politician James Service put it in a speech to the electors of Castlemaine in February 1883, Victoria had no consistent policy on defence in the nineteenth century:

. . . Upon the subject of colonial defence we grow hot or cold alternately year by year. One year we get scared and spend any amount of money, then we have a fit of economy and do nothing. . . . 10

However, following the 1883 election, Victoria set up its own Ministry of Defence, a step not taken by the other states.11

James Service c.1880s

James Service c.1880s
12th Premier of Victoria
(Mar 1883 – Feb 1886)

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The Victorian colonists did not fear a large scale invasion. They believed that the British navy was sufficient protection against invasion by a large body of troops, since an enemy would not risk its army so far from home. A force of 10,000 troops, a force large enough for the task, would be difficult to transport and maintain; its ships would be vulnerable to attack by the British navy.12

More probable was “a sudden attack with a view to plunder” by “some dashing fellow in command of an enemy’s frigate, or a privateer, who will seek an entrance into Port Phillip with the view either of. laying the City of Melbourne under an embargo, or destroying the shipping … 13

Certainly Victoria wavered in its determination to provide adequately for its own defence, but the 1880s provided enough incentive as well as enough prosperity to complete its fortifications at the Heads by 1890.

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