RAN Heritage centre
by John Ellis
The RAN Heritage Centre, Garden Island, has replaced the old Spectacle Island Repository.
There is a story that there was a victualling storekeeper at the Royal Edward Victualling Yard, Pyrmont, before World War I, who did not fully follow directives from the newly established Navy Office, then in Melbourne. When a CNO came around, directing that certain items of victualling stores be discontinued, he was meant to put the surplus items up for disposal and that could include sale.
Sample under counter
He did follow the directive but also put a sample under the counter and forty years later, when he retired shortly after World War II, he had amassed a collection of badges, clothing, brushes, crockery, cooking utensils and so on. That post-war era coincided with the then still quite young RAN realising that something should be done to retain some aspects of historical interest.
CNS, VADM Sir John Collins, was not dismayed to hear of the collecting that had preceded his proposal to initiate a historic collection. Over the years, the historic collection was housed at Spectacle Island; however, there was always the tyranny of water transport that prevented easy access for the wider public to view the collection.
In keeping with its original purpose, the Heritage Centre building displays old gun barrels, along with a Seacat launcher (background).
The Heritage Centre at Garden Island is in a building that itself is of historical interest. Originally a gun mounting workshop, it was opened at the northern end of Garden Island in 1922 to maintain guns from cruisers and destroyers. In the 1970s it became the FIMA (Fleet Intermediate Maintenance Authority) workshop and in the late 1990s it was renovated with a proposal to become a functions centre.
Naval Historical Society
Following the reclamation of land on the eastern side of the island, the former boatshed and slipway, built in 1913, became isolated from the water. After some years of disuse it was restored to provide a headquarters for the Naval Historical Society. The RAN Heritage Centre is located in and around the gun mounting workshop with the boatshed forming one boundary. The public can visit this important link with Sydney’s formative years by commuter ferry from Circular Quay. Alighting from the ferry, visitors have access to the knoll of what seamen from the First Fleet’s HMS Sirius called “the garden island”, having been granted access to the island to grow vegetables. Some of those jolly jacks appreciated their association with the new colony and carved their still visible initials and the year, 1788, into a rock.
The former signal station on the knoll has been modified to allow visitors to enjoy a spectacular 360 degree view of the harbour. Several memorials and relics have been established near the gun mounting workshop over the past 30 years and include the bow of HMAS Parramatta I, the first ship built for the newly formed RAN, the flag mast from Tresco and memorials to our County class cruisers and Bathurst class corvettes.
Between the workshop and the boatshed are several items familiar to salts of yore — an Ikara launcher, a Seacat launcher, four-inch, 4.5-inch and five-inch gun barrels, an anchor from HMAS Melbourne II, the mast of HMAS Vendetta I and several radar aerials. The cradle for a 12-inch barrel is presently empty.
The gun mounting workshop houses two displays. Large items in one group include the centre section of one of the Japanese midget submarines that attacked Sydney Harbour in 1942 and the boom boat that first raised the alarm. There is a fully rigged Montague whaler, a pump from HMAS AE1 and the figurehead from Windsor Castle, a sailing ship built in 1876.
Timeline: 1788 to present
The main gallery, on two levels, allows visitors to experience the Navy’s story and gain a greater understanding of the Navy’s contribution to Australia’s history and development over the past century. Along one wall is a timeline from 1788 to the present with events significant in naval affairs listed.
There are items from the Boxer Rebellion up to the Persian Gulf, with World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Confrontation and peacekeeping missions in between. Different aspects have been grouped to illustrate the RAN’s widely varied skills and roles —aviation, medical, training, weapons, diving, navigation and engineering and so on and there is representation of Jack at sport and leisure.
There is a periscope, wrongly claimed to be the only fully operational one available to the public. The other one is in Holbrook.
There are several groups of medals, including those of our late member CAPT Peter Daish, and extracts of diaries, reports and letters amplifying particular campaigns. Those wishing to note the wisdom of SBLT Fred Lane should not leave without reading his remarks about armed reconnaissance in Korea.
Work in hand
The curators still have some work to do and this is in hand. There is a splendid dress tailcoat from the 1930s — as yet without a card explaining the owner. I suspect he might have been the late CAPT Bill Cook.
There are two examples of diver’s badges that face in opposite directions and two examples of an artisan’s badge that have the axe and mallet on opposite sides, without an explanation of why they have been displayed. The diver’s branch badge has faced right for the past 60 years and my chart showing the artisan’s badge has the axe head to the left. Are these like the stamp collection whose owner values the printing errors more than the regular stamp?
Those who served in Perth II in 1969 will remember David Burchall presenting the top of a voice pipe recovered from Perth I in Sunda Strait — that priceless artefact is here on display.
From the sharp end one can view examples of ammunition from cannon balls to a 12-inch projectile with 76 mm, four-inch, five-inch and eight-inch in between.
There is also a display of personal weapons, including machine guns, rifles, pistols, bayonets, swords and cutlasses. The splendid display of silver includes trophies for long past regattas, wardroom silver and the silver drums made for the 75th anniversary of the formation of the RAN. There are ships’ bells, lifebuoys and battle honour boards and a re-creation of a mess deck from the 1920s.
Ahh, it don’t blow nearly so hard at sea these days.
Do make a visit a priority in your calendar. Replenishment at the Salthorse Café and a ferry ride on the harbour is always a treat.