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Fort Queenscliff

Home > Australia > Escape the City | Museums
by Ian Gill (subscribe)
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Published June 7th 2012
It gave Port Phillip the reputation of the most fortified port facility in the southern hemisphere but the guns of Fort Queenscliff were never fired in anger.

During the 1850s, at the height of the gold rush and shortly after the outbreak of the Crimean War, storehouses full of bullion fuelled fears that the colony of Victoria might become a target for French or Russian expansionism in the Pacific. That fear led to the recommendation in 1859 that Port Phillip Heads be fortified.

Work on fortifications at Shortland's Bluff began in 1860 with the construction of a sea wall housing heavy guns. By 1864 the first permanent battery was in place above the sea wall and comprised four 68 pound, muzzle-loading cannon manned by volunteer artillerymen.

A further two batteries were completed in1882 and by 1886 the fortifications at Queenscliff were complete.

Fort Queenscliff
Several period weapons can be viewed on the lawn at the Fort's main gate.

The finished Fort comprised a wall of handmade bricks with firing loopholes provided at intervals throughout its length. A raised mound of earth was built up inside the wall from which defenders could fire on an approaching enemy. The entire perimeter was surrounded by a moat with access gained through two large gates each fronted by a wooden bridge.

The north wall included a fort within a fort. Called the 'keep' it was a self-contained, raised watch tower overseeing the landward approaches and manned by a small force able to fight on if the main garrison was over run.

The 'Keep'.
The 'Keep' was a fort wthin the fort. Here the defenders would make a last stand in the event the fort proper was over-run.

Occasionally upgraded, the fort formed an integral part of Australia's coastal defences between 1883 and 1946.

Throughout that period it was manned full-time by a garrison made up of volunteer gunners, infantryman, engineers and naval militiamen.

A 'Disappearing Gun'.
Queenscliff's famed 'Disappearing Guns' were designed to retract into their emplacement to allow gun-crews to safely reload and make detection by the enemy more difficult.

The fort eventually became the headquarters for a chain of defences which developed around Port Phillip Heads including Fort Nepean, on the eastern side of The Rip, and the man-made island gun emplacements at Pope's Eye and South Channel Fort.

Explosives Magazines
Concrete magazines held the shells and powder used by Fort Queenscliff's defenders.

It was from Fort Queenscliff that the order to fire the first Allied shots of World War 1 was given, directing Fort Nepean to fire on the German freighter PFALZ as she attempted to flee the Port of Melbourne at the outbreak of war.

Ironically the very same gun also fired the first Allied shot of World War 2.

At 9.15 PM on September 3rd 1939 the 820 ton coastal steamer WONIORA passed through the heads as she returned to Melbourne from Tasmania. When she failed to stop as directed Fort Nepean fired a 100-pound shell across her bow. Needless to say the WONIORA heaved-too.

Today Fort Queenscliff is both home to a unit of the Australian Regular Army and a meticulously maintained historic site.

The original command post, signal station, guardroom, cell block, barracks and two lighthouses together with a range of weapons have all been carefully restored and are supplemented by a small but excellent military museum.

Without doubt, time taken to tour Fort Queenscliff, the largest and best preserved of Australia's 19th century fortifications, is time well spent.
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Why? A visit to Australia’s best maintained 19th Century fortification provides a rare insight into our colonial past and a unique vantage point from which to view Port Phillip Heads.
Where: King Street, Queenscliff, 3225
Cost: Adult $17, Concession $12, Family $38, Child $7.50
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