Spectacle Island Explosives Complex

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The Spectacle Island Explosives Complex is historically highly significant. Dating from 1865, it is the oldest naval explosives manufacturing and storage complex in Australia. Built originally to hold government gunpowder, it was later converted for use by the Royal Navy for storage of naval munitions. It was the location of the manufacture of projectiles and has been used by the Royal Australian Navy since the early years of the twentieth century. The complex has direct associations with Australian participation in the First and Second World Wars. (Criterion A.4) (Themes: 3.13 Developing an Australian manufacturing capacity, 5.1.2 Coping with dangerous jobs and workplaces, 7.7 Defending Australia, 7.7.1 Providing for the common defence, 7.7.3 Going to war)

The complex is very important for its rarity. Naval explosives complexes with this level of integrity and completeness, situated on an impressive harbour site, are rare even in world terms. Spectacle Island reflects the process of development from gunpowder storage to the manufacture of naval projectiles. The buildings, incorporating features such as asphalt floors, wood block floors, wooden tramway rails, roof ventilation, wall and roof insulation, special storage arrangements, cavity brick walling and blast walls, illustrate the special designs required for safe explosives handling during the period. The original and early fabric, both external and internal, of each building contributes to the significance. As well as containing good examples of period explosives buildings, the complex also features good examples of Victorian Georgian and Federation Free Style architecture. (Criteria B.2 and D.2)

The 1865 buildings are significant for their association with NSW Colonial Architect James Barnet. Barnet played a seminal role in NSW architecture for over two decades. (Criterion H.1)

Contained within several buildings at the complex is the Naval Repository, a collection of relics and artefacts of key significance to the history of the Royal Australian Navy. (Criteria A.4 and B.2)

The island has strong aesthetic values. The sandstone and slate 1865 group on the eastern end of the island has an axial orientation and a near symmetrical presentation to the waterfront and is distinctive for its materials and Georgian styling. The Federation buildings elsewhere also are visually pleasing, exhibiting uniformity in form, scale, materials, colour and texture. Roof forms throughout the island add to this visual harmony, and the spaces between the buildings are important, as is the scale of the buildings generally. Added to this is the encircling sandstone seawall. Spectacle Island, a cultural landscape, is a significant feature of this western end of Sydney Harbour. (Criterion E.1)

Spectacle Island is a small island in Sydney Harbour which was first known as Dawes Island as early as the first year of British settlement in 1788. Later, the name Spectacle was given to the island owing to its shape; it was then two small islands joined by a narrow isthmus which was affected by high tides.

The main explosives magazine in the harbour was Goat Island which was developed from 1833. By the late 1840s it had become overcrowded with merchants' gunpowder and suggestions started to be made that Spectacle be used as a gunpowder storage site. No action was taken at this time but by the 1860s the situation had become more urgent. In 1865 Spectacle Island was selected by the colonial government as its gunpowder storage site. Plans for the initial group of buildings (magazine, cooperage, laboratory, quarters etc) were drawn up in the office of Colonial Architect James Barnet; Barnet played a central role in NSW architectural development for over two decades. The buildings were mainly built of sandstone and had slate roofs. The shape of the island began changing as well, and the isthmus was gradually built up.

In the 1860s Garden Island was granted to the Admiralty as the headquarters for the Royal Navy's Australia Station and by the 1880s it was starting to be fully developed as such. But munitions were not stored on Garden Island and the decision was made to use Spectacle Island for this purpose; Spectacle was close enough to Garden Island for this use yet was far enough up the harbour to be relatively safe from attack. In 1884 Spectacle became the naval armament depot and the colonial government's explosives were removed. Existing buildings were altered and new ones were constructed to suit the new military needs, and the completed installations were at the forefront of munitions handling and storage technology at the time. Rendered brickwork and, later, facebrick and polychrome brickwork (and tiled roofs) distinguished these buildings from those of 1865. But as the island developed, so did harbourside suburbs, and nervousness about the risk posed by Spectacle Island increased.

Federation occurred in 1901 and with the Commonwealth Defence Act three years later the Commonwealth took responsibility for defence matters. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) came into being in 1911 and two years later the RAN took over Spectacle from the Royal Navy. By 1910 there were 40 buildings on the island, the isthmus had been filled in and the area of the island had been increased by about a hectare through reclamation works utilising spoil from the old Balmain coalmine.

During the First World War there was hectic activity on the island and several hundred extra workers were appointed, mainly for shell-filling. Older buildings were remodelled to better deal with new needs, especially improved storage of cordite. With the end of the war in 1918, Spectacle was used to store unused munitions until they were eventually dispersed. By 1922 all the major permanent buildings had been built.

The Second World War once again saw frantic activity, and many hurried, temporary buildings were erected. Spectacle Island played an important role in dealing with smaller calibre ammunition, but was soon unable to cope with larger calibre material.

After the war the island again was used to store unused munitions. Gradually, Spectacle's role was changing. Ongoing growth of harbourside populations helped to make the explosives handling and storage role untenable, and technological change hastened Spectacle Island's obsolescence. Many buildings fell into disuse. Parts of Spectacle were used by Naval Cadet units. Several buildings were, and continue to be, used to hold the Naval Repository. This is a collection of relics and artefacts, ranging from small items to vessels, which are a key part of the RAN's history. The island was given a new major role, of being in the centre of a group of lighters used periodically for the storage of ships' outfits while undergoing refit; the lighters were supervised from the island. Spectacle Island is still used by the RAN. It is the oldest naval explosives manufacturing and storage complex in Australia.


Many of the buildings on Spectacle Island have evolved over time and their changing use helps to reflect changes in technology over more than a century. The Barnet-designed buildings were erected in 1865. These include Building 1 which was initially called the Storekeeper's or Foreman's Residence and was later known as the Commandant's or OIC's Residence; a second storey was added in 1915. Building 2, a Guard Room and Barrack, by 1898 was used as an office; after 1945 it was an office and storeroom. A Latrine block (Building 4) was extended during the Second World War. Building 6 was a Cooperage (used in connection with the casks of gunpowder) which by 1878 was a Small Arms Store; by the Second World War it was a general store. A Laboratory (Building 7) was extended in 1885; its other uses were as a Fireworks Store, Examining Room, Produce Store, and then a Storehouse after 1945. The Powder Magazine (Building 9), with its adjacent covered way, was a key building in 1865; it had become an Isolation Store by 1914, then was the Quick-Firing Ammunition Store from 1914, the Main Magazine or Empty Package Store by 1922, Cordite Magazine No1 in 1942, and the Workshop and Preservation Plant Room by 1981. The 1865 Labourers Quarters (Building 21) was later used as a Guard Room 1872-1915 and was extended in 1915 to become part of the Police Barracks and Workmens Mess; with the c.1915 Mess (Building 19) and 1915 Police Barracks and Workmens Mess (Building 20), it reflects the First World War era administration of the Island by the police and the need for facilities for shell-filling workers. During the Second World War it was used as Offices and as an Electrical Shop, and by 1982 was an Office and Workshop.

In the 1870s another Laboratory was built (Building 43) which later became a Filled Shell Store and was used by Naval Cadets after 1945. More toilets were erected in 1877; later used as a store the building is now disused.

After the Royal Navy took over, a number of buildings were erected in 1884. These include the Shell Store (Building 10), which was an Ordnance Store from 1922. Building 12, Gun Carriage Shed, was later used as a workshop. Building 25 was the Return Store. The Armourer's Workshop (Building 26) was the Rigging Shed by 1942. Building 19, Guncotton and Torpedo Store, was later the Small Arms and Depth Charge Store, and was later used by Naval Cadets. The Forge (Building 34) was used until 1942. Another structure built by 1884 was the Front Wharf. Tanks for the Storage of Torpedo Cable were built in 1886 and were used as an Air Raid Shelter in 1942.

Buildings from the 1890s include the Gun Mountings Shed (Building 11), the Quick-Firing Ammunition Store (Building 41) which saw a variety of later uses, and the Detonator Store (Building 51), all from 1891. Then followed the Dry Guncotton Store (Building 46; a magazine by 1942), the Cartridge Store (Building 47; various later uses), another Laboratory (Building 48), another Latrine (Building 50), another Cooperage (Building 8), the Back Wharf, fitted with an electric crane in the 1940s, the Boatshed and Slipway (Building 14), and the 6-Pounder Quick-Firing Ammunition Store (Building 44).

Between 1900 and 1905 six buildings were erected, the Filled Shell Magazine (Building 36), a gun-fitting store by 1931; the Testing Room (Building 15), later used by various trades; the Filled Shell Magazine (Building 37), later an empty package store; another Quick-Firing Ammunition Store (Building 42), later a Cooling Cordite Magazine and other uses; and the Shell Filling and Emptying Room (Building 49).

During the First World War the Cordite Test House was erected (now part of the 1942 era Building 5). The Doubtful Explosives Magazine (Building 32) was later an Isolation Store and Ordnance Store in the 1940s and was a Recreation Hall to the 1980s. Buildings 19 and 20 have been mentioned above. A Salt Water Fire Pump Housing (Building 22) also dates from this wartime period. The Police Lodge (Building 23) was built, as was the Substation/Transformer House (Building 33), and the Changing Room (Building 38), for workers to change their clothing and wash after handling dangerous chemicals.

Two buildings date from the 1920s: the Painting and Scraping Store (Building 17), and the Depth Charge Store (Building 30), used as an Anti-Gas Apparatus Store 1931-45.

During the Secod World War three surviving buildings were erected. The Canteen (Building 31), later used by Naval Cadets; the Emergency Diesel Generator Set (Building 35), and the Observation Post and Searchlight Tower (Building 54) which reflects security fears during wartime.


The Barnet-designed buildings have mainly sandstone walls and slate hipped roofs, and reflect Victorian Georgian styling. The Residence was built as such, and later was extended in ashlar-imitation rendered brick. An Art Nouveau fireplace survives in a bedroom. There is a three-room kitchen wing. The Guard Room and Barrack is single storey and was later extended in weatherboard and brick; sashes are multi-pane. The Cooperage has an asphalt surfaced concrete floor (an adaptation for explosives use seen in many of the buildings) and casements with shutters. The Laboratory's roof has been reclad with corrugated iron. The Powder Magazine (the central building of the original complex) features quoins and is in the form of three gabled halls. There are timber tram rails (another explosives adaptation, like the remnant cotton silicate insulation and ventilation). Graffiti on the walls relates to pre- First World War Royal Navy ships. The Labourers Quarters has verandahs and sash windows; 1915 extensions are in brick.

Building 43 is imitation ashlar rendered brick with an iron roof, concrete floor and casements.

Among the 1880s Royal Navy period buildings, the Shell Store is stone and rendered brick; timber doors slide on timber rollers, there is a travelling crane and storage arrangements reflecting the explosives function. The Gun Carriage Shed was built as a lean to and has corrugated iron and asbestos cement cladding and various tools within (lathes, drills etc). The Return Store is gabled and clad with corrugated iron, as is the Armourers Workshop. The prominent Guncotton and Torpedo Store has ashlar-imitation rendered brick walls, parapeted gables, arched openings, eaves brackets, tram rails and the Royal cypher on a keystone above the main doors. The Front and Back Wharves are both timber. The Torpedo Cable Tanks are partly buried and have stone-capped rendered brick walls with an arched cast iron roof.

The 1890s buildings include the Gun Mountings Shed, clad with corrugated iron, floored with wood blocks set in asphalt and possessing a gantry crane. The Quick-Firing Ammunition Store is red brick in Flemish bond with stone dressings, segmented arches, casements with shutters, a hipped tile roof, concrete and asphalt floor, timber tram rails and cotton silicate insulation. The Dry Guncotton Store shares many of these features (but with slate roof), and has a roof ventilator with timber louvres (another means used to keep explosive material cool); the Cartridge Store is similar. The Detonator Store similarly is red brick, and has a surrounding blast wall on three sides. The 1894 Laboratory is rendered brick with a gabled slate roof; there are low hatches for passing shells from roof to room. This building was linked by rail to the rest of the complex and was deliberately sited on the far side of the island's rocky knoll in case of blast; it was designed not by the Government Architect but by the Director of Military Works. The Boatshed has weatherboard walls and a hipped roof with a blind dormer at one end. Building 44 is brick with parapeted gables, stone dressings and slate roof, and porches to shelter explosives as they are loaded; there are decorative hooded wall vents.

Many of the 1890s-1900s era buildings reflect Federation Free Style design. The Filled Shell Magazine is polychrome brick (red with plum string courses), has stone dressings, gable vents, casements with timber awnings, terracotta tiles and a concrete/asphalt floor. The Testing Room is similar, and has trapdoors associated with pits which held the testing equipment, and a boiler shed. The Filled Shell Magazine is similar in style and materials and has decorative timberwork to gables; similar is Building 42 which also has the timber tram line, insulation in roof and walls, and a travelling crane. Rather similar is the Shell Filling and Emptying Room, which features an external semi-circular monorail running between the two door openings.

Buildings from the First World War include the remains of the brick-walled Cordite Test House. The Doubtful Explosives Magazine is brick with gabled-hip slate roof and the usual explosives features of concrete/asphalt floor, cotton silicate insulation and roof vents. The Mess is brick with hipped iron roof and segmental arches over sash windows. The Police Barracks is similar but with a hipped-gable corrugated asbestos cement roof. The Fire Pump Housing retains an early electric pump, said to be from a submarine. The Police Lodge is clad with asbestos cement, with an iron gable roof and reflects control of access to the island. The Substation is brick with 15-pane windows and a corrugated asbestos cement roof. The Changing Room is small, brick, with a hipped-gable roof clad with iron, and has awnings.

Early 1920s buildings are the weatherboard and asbestos cement walled, iron-roofed Painting and Scraping Store, and the Depth Charge Store which is brick, gabled, with concrete/asphalt floor, insulation, tramway rails, and gable louvres.

Second World War buildings include the Canteen which is clad with asbestos cement, the Diesel Generator Set which is iron and asbestos cement clad, and the brick and concrete Observation Post and Searchlight Tower.

Other elements of interest include the flagpole, a fence made from shell cases and remnant garden near the Residence. There is also the grassed forecourt to the 1865 group and the island's central open space traversed by tram lines. A sandstone seawall surrounds most of the island. The 1896 seawater pool is found on the northern shore, and was used not just for recreation but also for washing off chemicals. Although the natural levels of the island have been much altered (a level surface was needed for the tramway), the western knoll remains and, with its small cliffs, is a visual feature. There are also gun pounds, made from lengths of railway line around either the First or Second World Wars, which were used for the storage of gun barrels.

As well as being historically highly significant for its associations, Spectacle Island is an extremely rare collection of explosives buildings and it may be unique for its siting, completeness and integrity. It is rare in world terms.

The island, a cultural landscape, has strong aesthetic values. The sandstone and slate 1865 group on the eastern end of the island has an axial orientation and a near symmetrical presentation to the waterfront and is distinctive for its materials and Georgian styling. The Federation buildings elsewhere also are visually pleasing, exhibiting uniformity in form, scale, materials, colour and texture. Roof forms throughout the island, and the buildings' scale, add to this visual harmony, as does the spacing of the buildings. Added to this is the encircling sandstone seawall. Spectacle Island is a feature of this western end of Sydney Harbour.