Incident at Fort Denison


So, in the year of Our Lord 1900, armed with a letter of introduction and full of good resolutions, I made my appearance at 30 James Street, Liverpool, the headquarters of the wonderful White Star Line. It was customary in those days to have to wait anything up to six months before getting an appointment, so, feeling very virtuous at having done the great deed, I slipped away for a few months’ holiday. Within a week, to my utter disgust, I had orders to report; and on arriving in Liverpool, found I was appointed to the R.M.S. Medic, the first of the five huge White Star Liners that were to open the new Australian service. I suppose I ought to have felt flattered at being picked out from among the many, but it was rather a staggerer, since all my outfit happened to be roaming somewhere round the railways, more or less lost, and certainly unobtainable.

When the Marine Superintendent told me the ship was sailing within a couple of days, I blurted out, “Good Lord, I’ve no clothes.” His reply was short, and to the point. “Get some.” I did, and rambled off to Australia with slightly less than half an outfit. But it was the White Star Line, the summit, at that time, of my ambitions.

What a change after that precious old cattle truck. Here everything spotless and clean; everything just-so, discipline strict, but in no way irksome. Navigation such as I had never known it.

I soon fell into things and became frightfully keen at my job. Crowds of passengers and plenty going on. I lasted a whole voyage, and then I sent in my resignation in preference to being fired! Undoubtedly my own fault for again doing those things usually left undone by the discreet and wisely minded.

It came about this way. We were lying in Sydney, in Neutral Bay, and for one reason and another our sailing had been delayed. She was a show ship, the biggest that had ever been out there, and the people in Australia gave the time of our lives. Everything and everywhere it was the Medic.

I was always extremely fond of small boat sailing, and it was partly this amusement that got me into the scrape. I, as fourth officer (since she did not carry a fifth), with four midshipmen, had rigged up one of the ship’s boats. We fitted her with a false keel, and used to sail her all over the harbour, that most wonderful of harbours in the wide world, and the boat was no slouch either.

One day we had been across to Rosecutter’s Bay (sic), and, as an excuse for the jaunt, had taken sandbags to fill up with sand and bring back for the purpose of holystoning the decks. Now, standing in the middle of the harbour is a rock, on which is built a fort, known as Fort Dennison (sic), or more commonly Pinchgut, owing to the starvation diet on which the convicts were kept whilst confined in the fort. Mounted on this fort is a huge gun, that covers the whole of the harbour.

We were coming off with a light breeze, clad in our white ducks, thoroughly enjoying life, and went to pass windward of the fort. The boat did not seem inclined to lie up to it, and as it was of no consequence whatever, we ran close under the lee. One of the boys, Watson by name, lying on his back along one of the thwarts and looking up as we passed close under the fort, noticed the projecting muzzle of this huge gun. “What a lark,” he blurted out, “to fire that gun some night. Wouldn’t it shake ‘em up?” I looked up, and as they say in Yankeeland, fell for it. It was a proposition that appealed. So, with each one sworn to secrecy, we set about what proved to be a task that took over six weeks to accomplish, but it was worth it.

First, there was the powder to get, and, to avoid suspicion, it had to be obtained in very small quantities. There was fuse to get also, but before we committed ourselves very deeply, bearing in mind our very limited exchequer, it behoved us to go off some night and reconnoiter, and find out what sort of gun it was, and if it could be fired. For this purpose we commandeered a scow from Cavill’s Baths that lie off the Domain.

Sydney Harbour is reeking with sharks, as in fact is the whole of the water round Australia; any baths therefore, must have a shark-proof netting, and it is customary to have floating pontoons, on which are built the dressing rooms, and from which the shark-proof netting is suspended. These iron tanks rapidly become fouled in the warm water, and it was for the purpose of cleaning these tanks that this one man scow was used. It was capable of carrying one man, and one drum of tar, with a fair amount of safety.

Two of the boys were wise, and at this juncture backed out of the escapade, so the remaining two and myself boarded our noble scow one night, and proceeded to paddle out into the middle of Sydney Harbour. Our good Guardian Angel must have been pretty wide awake. Although it was dead calm and the surface like glass, we could not paddle quickly because the water came over the bows. As to what would have happened if the slightest breeze had sprung up, doesn’t need a very vivid imagination. However, I cannot say it bothered us; we wanted to get there and we got there, climbing up the lightning conductor and into the turret-like top of the fort.

The interior was a huge circular well, round which this massive gun carriage was supposed to revolve. The gun was an old muzzle loader, and I should think the whole outfit weighed somewhere in the region of twenty tons.

I was walking round the parapet on the inside with cat-like tread, looking to see what I could find, when I suddenly realised there was a face staring at me out of the darkness within two feet of mine. Instinctively I drew back my arm, in a way wondering who would get in the first knock when I realised that my opponent was my own reflection in the glass of the door, which led to the lower regions of the fort.

We found the bore and vent all clear, with ramrod, sponge, and extractor all complete. As the latter two could only be required in the event of a second shot, they did not interest us. If we could ram home and bring off the “One Gun Salute” as it was eventually called, we were going to rest on our laurels. Having completed our examination, we returned down the lightning conductor, into the scow, and back to Cavill’s Baths. That occupied one whole night, from just before midnight until five o’clock in the morning, and not a soul a penny the wiser.

We slowly collected powder, fuse, and masses of white cotton waste, which we marled down, with the object of ramming home in the form of three large wads, and so completing the charge. There were fourteen pounds of blasting powder alone, apart from a similar amount of fine grain, the former, of course, went in the rear of the charge, as it burns slower;

What really topped off the crazy joke, and gave it a real artistic finish, was the idea of hoisting the Boer colours on the flag staff of the Fort.

England was then in the throes of the Boer War, with Australia more loyal, more patriotic, more fervently keen for Empire rights, than was even displayed at home. It is notorious that the Australians are always more British than the English themselves, loyal to the heart’s core, and every thought for the homeland. The scene on the quaysides, and in the towns when a contingent was leaving for South Africa, simply staggered belief. The people were patriotic mad, and had there been the ships and the necessity, every man jack in Australia would have volunteered.

It was under these conditions that we conceived the glorious idea of hoisting the Boer Flag and flaunting a real roaring red rag to the Australian bull. It had, of course, to be made, and must not be made out of bunting, otherwise it would at once be traced to some ship in the harbour. Actually it was made out of linen pinched from the surgery, and painted with the Boer colours. All this had to be done behind locked doors, and after many days we were ready at last to put our scheme to the test.

We had located a boat which we could commandeer, and at eleven o’clock one night, with a nice fine drizzle falling, sufficient to keep most people in doors, we loaded up. I had the honour of carrying the fifty feet of fuse round my waist, and the bag of powder slung round my shoulder and under my armpits, covered by my coat. Three huge wads of waste and the coil of signal halyards, for hauling the ammunition up, were distributed equally between us.

With this, the three of us marched up George Street, Sydney, perfectly confident that every policeman we came to was going to arrest us on suspicion and trembling in our shoes in consequence; not so much I’ll say, in fear of ourselves, but that our plot might fail.

It did not.

We got our boat; then out to the fort, and up the lightning conductor. Everything worked nicely to plan. Having hauled up the powder, I laid on my back, and with my heels on the inside edge of the Fort, I was just able to reach the muzzle of the gun, jam in the flannel bag containing the power, and ram it well home. Next followed the two wads of waste, and they also were rammed well home. Then, finally, the third wad, which had first been soaked in water.

Our only disappointment so far had been that we were unable to train the gun until it bore on a Russian man-o’-war then lying in the harbour. If this had been possible, we intended to insert one of the sandstone balls from off the top of Government Garden Gates, which would have burst on impact with her decks, and left little or no trace, but added considerably to the fun. This did not come off, however, as the gun couldn’t be trained.

Having rammed the charge home, until the thud of the rammer was loud enough to bring out the sentry, we quit. The plan was for the other two boys to hoist the flag, let go the piece of signal halyard, that we had used to haul up the ammunition, get down to the boat, turn her stern on the rocks, haul the signal halyards into the boat, lay on their oars, and stand by.

I had allowed three minutes for this operation.

In the meantime the fifty feet of fuse had to be coiled round the breach of the gun; the pricker then driven down the vent to pierce the flannel bag of powder, a small box of fine grain powder poured down the touch-hole, the business end of the fuse stuck down the vent, and then to stand by with a match. All this I finally finished, and there was still one minute to wait; it seemed like an hour.

At last the great moment arrived. Striking the match, I lit the frayed out end of the fuse, and, as it spluttered and hissed, blew out the match, and put it into my mouth. The flag was now gaily fluttering in the breeze, as I dashed for the lightning conductor, to find, in the first place, that Watson had forgotten to let go one piece of signal halyard. This I cast off; then I more fell than climbed down the slide of the fort, on to the rocks below, only to discover that a plank in the boat had been stove in on the rocks, by the wash from a passing tug, and she was half full of water.

There was no choice; the fuse was burning, so we had to go. In we jumped and pulled like mad. The others were both Conway boys, and they could pull. I had to strip off my shirt and jam it into the hole, and hold a foot on to it to keep the boat afloat at all.

It was impossible, in the circumstances, to return her. We had to land, just at the nearest point, draw her up where she would be safe, and scoot for our lives.

We went through the Domain, over the fourteen feet spiked gates of Government Gardens, and across Government Gardens—where Watson came to grief by putting his toe in one of the hoops round a rose bed, turning a complete somersault, landing on his back in the middle of the bed. We picked him up, and some of the more prominent thorns out, and continued the race. As yet we had not stopped even to put on our shoes.

We went over the gates on the far side of the gardens and on to Circular quay. There we pulled up to take breath. They, of course, wanted to know, “was everything all right?” “Had the fuse been lit?” “Would the gun go off?” and so on. I said I’d done everything, but the only thing I had a doubt about was that, in my excitement in driving the pricker down the vent hole, I could not say for certain if it had pierced the flannel bag. If this had not been done, I was afraid the main charge would not ignite, and, of course, the gun would not go off. This was going to be a mighty grievous disappointment; still, we consoled ourselves whilst putting on our boots, with the thought that, at any rate, they would find the Boer colours flying.

At this instant the whole sky lit up with a flash like lightning. Each of us stopped in his tracks, and held his breath. Was it, or was it not the gun? Surely not, with a huge flash like that. More likely lightning.

We waited and waited.

Then it came, and no mistake indeed. There was a crash like thunder, we could feel the concussion even where we stood.

We danced and shouted; threw down our caps and danced on them, and even shook hands, and, in short, behaved like lunatics. We’d done the trick.

We soon realised that it behoved us not to act like imbeciles, or we should attract attention; so, very sedately and circumspectly, we made out way back on board. The Quartermaster had been disposed of when coming ashore by sending him on a wild goose chase to make some coffee, and whilst he was away from the gangway we slipped ashore unseen. Coming back, our luck was still in, and we each got to our cabins without anyone being the wiser.

How we chuckled during the remainder of our stay in Sydney. The noise, the uproar, the jeers and recriminations. Imagine the feelings of the inhabitants when they found the colours of Britain’s hated enemy, fluttering in the breeze, and on the flagstaff of the harbour’s main fortification. Oh! It was great. The military authorities tried to throw the responsibility on the naval authorities, who retaliated by insisting the the Fort was a military garrison, and not their responsibility at all.

Somehow they managed to keep the papers in the dark for a couple of days, with the result that when the papers did get hold of it, they pulled the official leg, until the authorities were jumping mad, and would have cheerfully hung, drawn and quartered the culprits had they caught them, but luckily for our hides, they never did.



A Strange Story

Who fired the gun?

The police are engaged in investigating a peculiar occurrence which is reported to have taken place at Fort Denison the other morning. The authorities are strangely reticent about the matter, but from what can be gleaned, it would seem that either a big practical joke has been played by someone, or else there are in our midst persons of a very strong pro-Boer temperament. The police are busily engaged in looking for an explanation.

Just as the Post Office clock had struck the hour of 1 a.m., a gun went off at Fort Denison, breaking some of the windows and, the story goes, putting the red light out. How it happened, nobody seems to know. On the tower are several large guns of an obsolete pattern, and it is one of these that is said to have gone off. Moreover, it has been stated that in the morning, a flag with the Boer colours was found flying on the tower. But, whilst this has not been positively denied, an official communicated with last night said he ‘never heard of such a thing.’ At the same time he admitted having received a similar report. A man was dispatched to examine the guns, with the result that he reported that one of them had the appearance of having just been fired. A direct question as to whether it had been fired met with the answer. ‘That remains to be proved.’

Meanwhile the mystery continues and all sorts of stories, possible and impossible, are going about. One is to the effect that a boatman saw a man pull over to Pinchgut; and, making his boat fast, climb up the tower. It was too dark to see what he was doing, and though he watched him for some time, thinking his movements somewhat mysterious; the boatman took no particular notice of the occurrence until he suddenly heard a gun go off. A fuse is supposed to have been employed, and it is also clear that the gunpowder was carried to the fort.

The Daily Telegraph, Sydney Australia, October 11, 1900, p.7



Who Fired That Gun?

“The select committee of the Legislative Assembly, appointed to inquiire into the administration of the Military Department, continued its sittings to-day. Mr. Sleath, M.L.A. presiding. Colonel Roberts, C.M.G., Military Secretary, was again under examination.

Upon the committee assembling the chairman asked Colonel Roberts if he could offer any explanation of the reported erratic conduct of a gun at Fort Denison.

Colonel Roberts: Why, what happened?

Mr. Sleath: Was not the military called out?

Colonel Roberts: No; what happened?

Mr. Cook: What happened to Jones? It was what happened to the gun this time.

Mr. Sleath: The gun went off.

Colonel Roberts: What is the joke?

Mr. Sleath: Are you not in a position to give any explanation:

Colonel Roberts: None whatever. When did this take place, and what was it?

Mr. Sleath then read an extract from the press regarding the reported firing of the gun at Fort Denison in the early morning. Colonel Roberts said Fort Denison was not under his department, being under the control of the naval authorities.

Mr. Sleath: Then Captain Hixson is the man to explain all about the gun?

Colonel Roberts: He ought to be.”

Patrick Stenson. Titanic Voyager: The Odyssey of C.H. Lightoller. Halsgrove, Endurance Productions, 1998. The newspaper source cannot be identified.


City and Suburban Brevities

A gun was fired on Fort Denison (Pinchgut), in Sydney Harbour last week, apparently by some practical joker. The man who loaded and fired the gun must have climbed up the lightning-conductor. Police are investigating the matter.”

The Sydney Mail, October 20, 1900.

Concerns were also raised in the Legislative Assembly

“Mr. SLEATH: I desire to ask the Minister of Defence whether his attention has been called to a report appearing in both the morning and evening newspapers to the effect that one of the guns at Fort Denison was fired the other morning at twenty minutes to four o’clock, the Boer flag being run up the masthead. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will also state whether it is a fact that the guns at Fort Denison remain loaded all night?

Mr. SEE. I did not see the paragraph to which the hon. Member referred, but since my attention has been called to it, I shall make an inquiry in the morning, and I am hopeful of being able to give my hon. friend an answer at tomorrow’s sitting.”


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