Lieutenant Commander Capper assumed command of Her Majesty’s Magazine and Ordnance Depot on March 1895. Capper was one of the first lower deck men to be commissioned in the Royal Navy for over 200 years. His account of his tour of duty at Spectacle Island is human, humorous and historic.
MY POST WAS RESIDENT OFFICER on Spectacle Island, at the mouth of the Parramatta River, which was both a Magazine and an Ordnance Depot. There were four other families of the storekeeping staff, and a guard of twelve marines under a Lance-Sergeant, also resident. All of these had their boats for communication with the mainland, and for my convenience a service boat and an able seaman was also borne.
We quickly arranged to purchase a fine little sailing whaler, and in this my wife and I had joyous times throughout the five years of our residence in Sydney.
Our home was a bungalow built by convicts in the days when New South Wales was a penal colony: it was of stone, both exterior and interior walls being about two feet in thickness, thus ensuring a temperate atmosphere in even the hottest time of the year.
A wide veranda was built on three sides, the glorious views over the water to the surrounding land, over a mile distant, and up the Parramatta River, being quite unobstructed and delightful. A small garden on these three sides was bounded by palings and the huge hedges of geraniums which grow in this country; and outside these there stretched a flat, uncovered at low tide, on which a vast bed of oysters flourished, fed by the scour of the river. It is seldom one can be stationed officially in such a fairyland and with such material luxuries as oyster beds in the front garden, yet this was our pleasant lot for five happy years. We initiated a plan for dispatching a bag of these bivalves to each officers’ mess upon the arrival of the warships from sea, and they were an appreciated luxury.
About 1,000 yards distant is Cockatoo Island (Biloela of the aborigines), a high rock upon which was the original jail for unruly convicts (in our time used as a place of detention for short-sentence offenders). Around the central rock was a plateau, not much above high-water mark, with two excellent dry docks. The smaller of these, we were told, had been cut out of the solid rock by gangs of convicts in chains, by chisel and hammer, in days before the introduction of blasting. Here was established the colonial dockyard. Equidistant from these two was a tiny islet below the rocks of the mainland, Balmain, called Cat Island; we were told by some of the oldest residents that on many occasions they had in the old days come down at 8 a.m. to see some convicts receive floggings, seized up to frames on the islet.
Calling at Cockatoo was a service of steamers from Parramatta town to the main wharf at Sydney, and a journey in these was a constant delight, for the many bays and coves which bisect and intersect the harbour are each more beautiful than the last.
My wife had a somewhat trying experience one night when she had been visiting friends in the town, and returned by the last steamer. It was the custom of the Captain of the steamer, on disembarking passengers at Cockatoo for Spectacle Island, to give two blasts on the steam whistle as a signal for a boat. On this night he left the wharf and failed to give the signal. The sentry and I both noted there was none, so I came to the conclusion she had remained with our friends for the night, and returned to my reading, then finally went calmly to bed.
Meantime, my wife was ploughing her way around the eerie and wholly unlighted island in the hope of finding a house with a friendly light beaming from its windows, or some other sign of waking humanity, but in vain, nor could she make herself heard by calling to Spectacle Island because of the high wind. At last, after some two hours of unsuccessful peregrinations on the plateau, and almost deciding to try to sleep in the open waiting-shed, in spite of her fears she pluckily decided to climb up the rocky path toward the jail, and after some time found herself in familiar surroundings by the house of the dockmaster, whom we knew. On her knock at the door, that kindly functionary at length appeared at his window in night attire, but quickly dressed, manned his boat, and sculled the weary partner of my joys to Spectacle, where she arrived somewhere about 3 a.m., to find her husband peacefully sleeping.
On the fourth side of our bungalow was a fine kitchen garden and large run for fowls and goats, so that many wants were provided for.
Living was phenomenally cheap. One could purchase a live sheep for six shillings (the pelts, horns and hoofs to be returned), or mutton, even the best parts, was but 1½d. per pound, or 9d. for the whole hind quarter of lamb. Butter 5d. per pound, and so forth; but manufactured articles, clothing, etc., were correspondingly highly priced.
At various periods on the island the men had for pets a monkey, a dingo, and a wallaby. I am not sure which was the greatest nuisance. The monkey when loose would in an hour do more mischief than could be remedied in a week. The dingo one evening inside of five minutes killed forty hens, while the fright of finding a huge wallaby rushing through the house and settling on one’s bed was not a happy experience, yet this happened several times. All the same, these animals when properly secured were the cause of much fun and amusement.
Almost from the first day of taking over charge, I was able to make many alterations from an old and traditional procedure which it had occurred to no one before to vary. For example, when a ship, or ships, returned to Sydney it had been customary to send in a demand for the munitions required for replacement. Then the Ordnance officer in charge requisitioned the vessels for an appropriate number of men to fill cartridges and shells with powder, etc., and the ships supplied these and waited until the quantity of stores required was ready. If more than one ship came in at one time there was, of course, much congestion, but the principle was to distribute the labour, and therefore cost, of the establishment fairly over the ships in the Squadron.
What amazed me was the fact that all the reserves of ammunition for the fleet in magazines and store-houses lay in their constituent items: powder in barrels, empty shells, cartridge bags, and fuses in storehouses. Had war with a ‘Great Power’ taken place, the ammunition to replace that in the ships – which last might easily have been fired away in one general engagement – would have occupied, by night and day labour, not less than three months’ effort; and meantime disaster might have ensued. In order to terminate this critical situation, which seemed not to have been noticed by anyone from the Commander-in- Chief down, I proposed to the senior naval officer the employment of a couple of officers and forty men to live on the island and work continuously until every shell and cartridge was ready for immediate issue to the fleet. Captain W. McC. F. Castle at once saw the vital necessity of this operation, and made arrangements for the party asked for; and after six months’ strenuous application to the task there was not an ounce of loose powder remaining in the magazines: while all subsequent receipts from England were filled as soon after arrival as possible.
Thereafter demands for ammunition were complied with within an hour, and the gratification of the Commander-in-Chief, the Captains and gunnery officers of the ships was full repayment for the extra efforts which had resulted in this preparedness.