Australia’s First Warship – The Torpedo Boat Acheron

Early warships
RAN Ships
None noted.
March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

Which was Australia’s first ‘real’ warship is a question often asked by naval historians. Today, what colony you originally came from or where you now reside, could be important elements in the answer to this important question.


  • the naval sloop Victoria built in the United Kingdom for the colony of Victoria and launched on 30 June 1855, or
  • the wooden gunboat Spitfire launched in Sydney on 3 April 1855 for defensive purposes, but resembling more of a converted merchant ship, or
  • the catamaran hulled gun-raft Elder, built in 1864 for the defence of Melbourne’s Port Phillip, or
  • Acheron, a fast (18 knot) naval vessel built in 1878 along warship lines, and
  • equally importantly, constructed locally?

Over the years a number of books have been published claiming one ship or another of the above was that first Australian warship.

Unfortunately no details have survived as to the duties of the smaller Spitfire in New South Wales service, although she probably participated in a number of harbour defence exercises in her brief four years, before being sold in 1859.

The gun-raft Elder was a very crude local attempt to place a defensive gun onto Port Phillip, and although she fired at targets in December 1864, nothing was heard of the raft after her participation at a Military Review at Flemington Racecourse in January 1865.

That leaves us with the fourth vessel, Acheron; designed along warship lines, built locally in Sydney for the colony of New South Wales and surviving operationally and laid up until 1923. Acheron was a torpedo boat, the first torpedo launch in service with any of the Australian colonies. Armed with her original spar torpedo, then later two 14-inch torpedo tubes, and underway on Sydney Harbour, the surviving photographs depict her as a true warship. She was able to defend the waterways she was designed to patrol, her maximum of 18 knots providing the boat with the necessary speed to approach and then escape from all larger adversaries. During this era of mainly sail and wooden warships, the torpedo boats with the impressive speeds soon developed a new type of naval warfare, employed by many of the world’s navies.

Before Acheron
The early maritime defence of the colony of New South Wales – and more particularly of Port Jackson – was, for most of its recorded history, provided by the Royal Navy ships based on the Australia station. Britannia’s presence had been an integral part of the early colony’s make-up since the arrival of the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip, Royal Navy, in January 1788.

Between 1855 and 1859 the gunboat Spitfire provided a local visible attempt to protect the harbour, but on 1 March 1859, when HMS Iris became flagship of the Australia Station, a continuing presence of the Royal Navy in local waters was guaranteed.

For the next 52 years a further twelve flagships would head the Royal Navy squadron, with occasional visits from special task groups, such as the Flying Squadron in 1869 and the Detached Squadron in 1881. Usually the permanent force would comprise the flagship and between six and twelve other men-o-war, comprising all types, from cruiser downwards.

A Russian Threat
Local residents in the ever-growing Sydney region, although content with the might of Britannia in Sydney Harbour, desired a visible local effort to protect their homes and families. This desire also manifested itself in the other colonies, due to the Russian threat of the 1870s and 1880s – a threat that never eventually materialised.

Frequent reports in the daily press warning of foreign warships off the eastern Australian coast led in 1877 to the Government of the colony of New South Wales ordering the construction of two ‘outrigger’ torpedo-boats, to be built to a Thornycroft design.

Tenders for the two boats, Acheron and Avernus, closed on 17 January 1878, with £8,784 allotted for building. Construction of the two craft in Sydney was a remarkable achievement for the colonials, as this revolutionary type of warship had only entered service with the Royal Navy a few years earlier.

The Atlas Works, located at Pyrmont in Sydney Harbour, was chosen as the successful tenderer, with completion of both vessels scheduled for March 1879, a remarkably short period for any shipbuilder. In Greek mythology Acheron was one of the rivers of the underworld, the name being taken from a river in southern Epirus which flowed through a deep gorge into the Ionian Sea. Avernus bore the name of a small lake near Naples, which ancient civilisations believed to be the entrance to the underworld.

Acheron conducted her first trials around Sydney Harbour on 1 March 1879, the trip proving most successful. The Town and Country Journal reported inter alia on 8 March:

‘The strange craft attracted much attention from the persons aboard the various yachts and steamers as she passed everything at a rate that made them seem to be comparatively standing still, even such boats and the Bellbird and Manly ferry steamers being relatively nowhere and being so small and low, the speed appears much greater than it would in a larger vessel’.

A speed of 16 knots was attained on a number of the runs. As well as their defensive function, Acheron and Avernus were deployed for other military purposes and on occasions served as dispatch boats.

A visiting French Admiral, M. Le Petit Thouare, accompanied by some of his officers, inspected Acheron and her sister boat, Avernus in early 1879. He expressed surprise that such boats ‘. . . could be constructed in Sydney and that the final cost of both was some hundreds of pounds less for each vessel than was paid to the leading torpedo boat builder in the United Kingdom, Vosper Thornycroft, by the French Government for similar vessels . . .’ – so reported The Town and Country Journal.

Another trial was conducted in early April, The Town and Country Journal reporting:

“The little steamer left her moorings in Darling Harbour just upon 11 o’clock, and steered around Miller’s Point and towards Fort Denison. Even at half speed she ran past the fastest steam-launches and ferryboats, the passengers aboard which gazed upon her with evident bewilderment. At a distance of 400 or 500 yards she is hardly perceptible, and it was a surprise to all the spectators afloat and ashore to find the craft come suddenly upon them and pass away as quickly, leaving nothing but a disturbed and foamy track behind her.

No alteration whatever had been made in the vessel since she left the slip, but the engineers were somewhat more acquainted with their work, and as she approached Pinchgut to do the mile, it was a matter for speculation whether she would improve on her first ‘performances.’ After passing Fort Macquarie the order ‘full speed’ was given, and the little craft nearly jumped out of the water. The equilibrium of the unwary was immediately disturbed, and the vessel, now pushed on by 200 horsepower, darted through the water like a fish. The wind was right ahead, and the water lumpy, but the vessel passed through rough and smooth alike, taking aboard occasionally a little of the damp element for the entertainment of the principal electrician.

The measured mile between Pinchgut and Bradley’s Head was run in four minutes and 36 seconds. This was not satisfactory. Twice the engines had to be lowered, owing to some oversight below, and the vessel was fetched back. In the next trial the engineers were better prepared, and she did the mile in a trifle under four minutes thirteen seconds. This was the QUICKEST RUN IN AUSTRALIA.

It meant 17 miles an hour, the average of our railway trains, and this wonderful result was accomplished against a strong head wind, and a heavy handicap in the shape of extra weight. As no alteration of propeller, expected to secure an advantage of two knots, had been made, the trial was considered very satisfactory. The distance having been run, the steamer’s head was turned, and at easy steaming overtook the fast (Manly) passenger boat, the Fairlight, and then heading up the Parramatta River, she ran round Cockatoo.

She flew past the dock under a good head of steam and in passing the American mail boat, her rapid movement caused a sensation aboard. The trials over the mile were afterwards repeated with varying but most satisfactory results, and at the close Major Cracknell expressed the greatest satisfaction at the performances.

Internal Arrangements
Acheron, described as ‘the first torpedo launch ever constructed in Australia’, was divided into ten watertight compartments:

  • the first, enclosed by a collision bulkhead bore the torpedo spar and compartment
  • a fore cabin. Moving further after, there was
  • a small stores compartment, then
  • the steering compartment,
  • torpedo compartment
  • the boiler room
  • the engine room
  • the after cabin (for 12 people in the role of dispatch vessel) and another,
  • two separate divisions before the stern.

According to the Sydney Mail newspaper of 8 March 1879:

. . . each boat could be steered from the stern or from a small sunken position directly forward of the funnel. A bullet-proof steel visor protected the helmsman in the sunken position, who also had the duty of launching the torpedoes.

The steel plates for the hull were the only portions of the material imported. The vessels were designed as 80 feet long, with a 10 feet 3 inches beam. They were fitted with engines of a novel description, constructed nearly altogether of steel, and had cylinders 11 inches and 19 inches diameter, and 14 inches stroke. These engines were fitted with a surface condenser of copper, intended to run at about 350 revolutions per minute. The engines were mounted on steel columns with wrought-iron sole plates to obtain the maximum power with the minimum weight.

The Sydney Mail also reported:

when not employed, Acheron and her sister were maintained out of water, on special cradles at Berry’s Bay, and though there was little probability that they would be used for other military purposes than drill and practice, they were employed of dispatch purposes. The boats’ after cabins, with space for about a dozen people, were neatly fitted out; and throughout the work, the builders embellished the dangerous little craft, as far as possible, without sacrificing the useful to the beautiful.

The spar weapon was a lengthy wooden rod, pivoted at the bow and fitted with an explosive at its tip. To attack an enemy ship and at the same time avoid detection, Acheron and Avernus would be required to make a ‘stealthy’ approach to the vessel, at low speed, most probably at late evening or in the dark of night. The single funnel on each boat would be lowered during such an action.

With a 62 foot long torpedo spar, about 45 feet of the weapon would protrude over the bow, the remaining 17 feet on the boat designed to keep the weapon steady. Orders to fire the explosive into the side of the intruding warship and go astern were to be given simultaneously to avoid damage to Acheron. Within a few years of introduction into service, the two torpedo boats were converted to carry the more modern 14 inch torpedoes, launched from cradles mounted along the port and starboard sides, about halfway along the vessels’ length of 82 feet 6 inches. Tests were carried out with the new weapons on 9 May 1885, after both boats had been modified in Morts Dock in Sydney.

In Service
The careers of both Acheron and Avernus were confined to the waters of Sydney Harbour, with each almost exclusively active at weekends and on public holidays. Fortunately for Sydneysiders and the boats’ crews, the two craft were never called upon to meet an adversary; what the results might have been are now only conjecture.

Experiments with the boats’ propellers were carried out in 1879 in an effort to increase speeds, but sadly, these proved unsuccessful. By April 1885, just seven years after being built, Acheron and Avernus were reported in a state of disrepair and in need of drydocking at Cockatoo Island. Another docking was conducted in May 1885.

Neither boat saw active duty in 1886 and late in that decade they were being described as Sydney’s third line of defence, the first being the Naval Artillery and the second, the defensive mines. During May 1896, both boats were again refitted, their boilers lifted and repaired and hulls overhauled.

On 1 March 1901 Acheron and Avernus were integrated into the Commonwealth Naval Forces, presented by New South Wales to the new ‘Australian fleet’. However, on 6 November 1902, it was announced that the two boats would be sold by the Federal Government, the state receiving reimburse-ment from the sale. The next month Acheron fetched £425 and Avernus £502.

Acheron received a new lease of life as Sydney’s quarantine boat, named Jenner, before being paid-off in the late 1930s. Avernus had a less spectacular ending to her career, being abandoned on the shores of Rushcutters Bay before finally being sunk for reclamation of land at Glebe in the 1940s.

For many years, nothing but the history remained of Australia’s first true warship. However, in the mid 1990s a long thin hull, thought to be the remains of Acheron, was detected by a Navy workboat equipped with a side scan sonar, west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Acheron and Avernus – Data as completed

Type Second class torpedo boat
Displacement 22 tons
Length 82 feet 6 inches
Beam 10 feet 6 inches
Draught 4 feet
Machinery Surface condensing engines, 200ihp, single screw
Boilers Multi-tubular type
Speed 16 knots (normal) 18 knots (maximum)
Bunkers Four tons of coal
Armament Two sets of dropping gear for 14 inch torpedoes
(originally spar torpedo)
Cost £8,784 (total)

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