I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published June 25th 2013
Port Phillips Colonial Armada
Every Melburnian knows Port Phillip Bay. Great beaches, sailing & fishing and home to the nation's largest container port. But did you know it was once also home to a formidable fleet of warships, the strongest colonial naval force in Australia?
Victoria's need for a navy of its own was first recognised in the early 1850's, at the start of the gold rush and shortly after the colony seceded from New South Wales.
One of two cannons from HMVS NELSON on display at Fort Queenscliff
With the discovery of large amounts of gold Victoria experienced an influx of thousands of people from right around the world. Local authorities had no means of controlling arrivals by sea so a request was made to the British Government for the stationing of a warship on Port Phillip Bay. HMS ELECTRA arrived in April 1853 but was quickly deemed inadequate for the role and a request was made for a more appropriate vessel. The English didn't respond so the Victorian Government placed an order for a modern sloop to be constructed in England, the first vessel ordered by any colonial government.
Two cannons from HMVS NELSON were located in Bendigo in 1997 and are now displayed in the grounds of Fort Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula
HMCS (Her Majesties Colonial Ship) VICTORIA arrived in Melbourne in May 1856.
During her 40 years of service VICTORIA was employed as a survey ship, re-supplied lighthouses and operated as a water police vessel. In 1860-61 VICTORIA was deployed to New Zealand where members of her crew were landed with the Imperial Naval Brigade and fought in a number of actions against the Maori, the first Australian force to engage in a foreign war.
In 1861 she searched the waters off northern Australia looking for the missing explorers Burke & Wills.
A swivel link from HMVS VICTORIA on display in Gellibrand Street, Queenscliff
The colonies gold rush wealth combined with fears of Russian expansionism in the Pacific led to the fortification of Port Phillip and the acquisition of more warships. By the late 1800's the Victorian Navy was the strongest of any colonial naval force. By 1889 the fleet consisted of 14 heavily armed ships or launches and a 300 strong Victorian Naval Brigade.
The largest and most prominent remnant of the Victorian Navy today is the Cerberus breakwater at Half Moon Bay. The first British iron hulled warship to be powered purely by steam construction of the ironclad warship HMVS CERBERUS commenced in Plymouth, England in 1867 and was completed in 1870. Unable to carry sufficient coal to steam to Australia CERBERUS was fitted with a three-masted rig and sailed the majority of the 152 day voyage, arriving at Williamstown on 9th April 1871.
The rusted remains of HMVS CERBERUS act as a breakwater in Half Moon Bay at Black Rock
Looking at her rusting, semi-submerged remains off Black Rock it's difficult to visualise a 70 metre long, 3,300 ton warship armed with four 10 inch muzzle-loading guns mounted in two heavy turrets. With Federation in 1901 HMVS CERBERUS was transferred to the Commonwealth before becoming an inaugural unit of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911.
HMVS CERBERUS a once proud and state-of-the-art warship
At the end of her operational life, and never having fired a shot in anger, CERBERUS was used to store explosives before being towed to Geelong and used as a depot ship at a submarine base. She was finally dismantled at Williamstown dockyard in 1924, sold to Sandringham Council and sunk at Black Rock in 1926. Other relics from the once great Victorian Navy are displayed at various points around the Bay.
Two cannons from HMVS NELSON, uncovered in an archaeological dig at Bendigo in 1997, are now on display at Fort Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula. A very large swivel link from HMVS VICTORIA (also known as HMCCS, Her Majesties Colonial Steam Sloop) can be seen in nearby Gellibrand St Queenscliff and an anchor from the NELSON can be found in Commonwealth Reserve, Williamstown.