Spitfire – The First Australian Built Warship

Early warships, Ship design and development
RAN Ships
December 1981 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

SINCE THE FORMATION of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911 hundreds of Australian built ships have served under the White Ensign, ships ranging in size and types from small Channel Patrol boats through to destroyers, cruisers and the 10,500 ton destroyer tender Stalwart. The Australian shipbuilding industry’s finest hour occurred during the Second World War, when, as well as providing support for Australian and Allied navies, the dockyards built destroyers, frigates, corvettes and other minor types. This tradition of Australian naval construction had its beginning, like most of Australia’s history, on the shores of Port Jackson with the launching of the Spitfire.

The wooden gunboat Spitfire was ordered by the NSW Government to help protect Sydney against Russian warships based at Vladivostok. Designed and built by the Sydney shipbuilder John Cuthbert, she was a sturdy little vessel which was to render valuable service to two Colonial governments and numerous private owners.

After the appropriate ceremonies, the Spitfire was finally launched by Mrs. Cuthbert at 10.30 am on the 3rd April 1855. The sight of the Spitfire gracefully gliding into the waters of Port Jackson filled the assembled crowd with a sense of pride and achievement, for this was the first warship built in Australia for a Colonial government.

Constructed entirely of ironbark and blackwood with copper fastenings, the Spitfire was a graceful yet solid little ship. Her hull was sheathed with 22 oz copper, which was to prove invaluable in her latter career in Australia’s tropical north. Accommodation onboard consisted of a four berth cabin aft as well as some temporary berths in the ship’s hold. The hold (which had an overall depth of 7ft 3in) also served as the magazine and storeroom.

The main armament, consisting of a smooth-bore muzzle loading 32 pounder, was mounted on a traversing carriage located between the fore and main masts. To cater for the weight of the gun and carriage the deck was strengthened by the addition of diagonal braces and metal knees. So that the gun’s crew could obtain a clear field of fire, the bulwarks were capable of being rapidly lowered.

Rigged as a ketch, the Spitfire was originally fitted with a running bowsprit, but this was later altered to a fixed bowsprit.

Very little is known about the service of the ship in New South Wales, where she remained in service for only four years. Most of this time would have been spent as a training ship, and exercising with the Sydney Forts.

Spitfire was transferred to the Queensland Government in 1859, where her new masters immediately put the ship to work as the pilot cutter on Moreton Bay. She was also to serve as a transport for government officials and visiting dignitaries.

During the latter part of 1860 the Governor of Queensland, Sir G. Ferguson Bowen, despatched an expedition to try and locate the mouth of the Burdekin River, the party sailing aboard Spitfire in August for Rockhampton, where they were to transfer to another vessel. On arriving at Rockhampton this vessel was found to be unfit for sea, so the expedition continued in the Spitfire. Those taking part in this exercise were: Captain Joseph W. Smith – in overall command, Mr. G.E. Dalrymple – Commissioner for Crown Land, Mr. R.P. Stone – Surveyor, Mr. Fitzallen – Botanist Mr. Bausfield – Master of the Spitfire, plus seven seamen and two aboriginals.

Spitfire arrived off Port Denison 11th September 1860, and members of the expedition began to explore the port and surrounding areas. After failing to locate the mouth of the river they sailed for Halifax Bay. Shortly after landing in Halifax Bay the shore party was approached by a group of aboriginals, who began to crowd the exploration party and making gestures that were interpreted as being hostile. The white men opened fire and returned to the ship where they were informed that two canoes of aboriginals had tried to board the ship. History later revealed that the natives were trying to lead the expedition to Mr. James Morrill, a white castaway living with them.

On Sunday, 23rd September, after morning prayers, the party located a large river delta, which was later identified as the mouth of the Burdekin River. After exploring the river delta the expedition returned to Port Denison and examined the suitability of the area for a settlement. The township of Bowen was later established on the site surveyed by the expedition.

After the successful completion of the expedition, during which the little ship travelled a total of 767 miles, the Spitfire returned to Brisbane where she resumed her more mundane tasks.

With the discovery of gold in the Palmer River, North Queensland, the Spitfire was transferred to Cooktown, where she became the first pilot boat. The Spitfire was to remain in Cooktown until she was sold out of service in 1885.

Probably the most unpleasant task undertaken by Spitfire during her period in Cooktown was the recovery of the remains of a Mrs. Watson, her child and a Chinese servant. Mrs. Watson worked at the beche-de-mer station on Lizard Island, north of Cairns. As the beche-de-mer had been finished out around the island, the two men who operated the station left to search for a new location. Soon after the two left a group of aboriginals landed on Lizard Island. The aboriginals ambushed and speared both Chinese servants who worked on the island, killing one of them. Mrs. Watson fled the island, taking her child and the wounded Chinese with her. When the authorities arrived at the island they found it deserted and assumed that Mrs. Watson and the others had been killed.

The mystery of what happened to Mrs. Watson was solved on 19th January 1882 when the master of the schooner Kate Kearney sighted a small boat in mangrove swamps along the coast. Onboard the boat were the remains of Mrs. Watson, her child and the Chinese; they had died of thirst after escaping. The Spitfire was despatched to recover the bodies and return them to Cooktown for burial.

Spitfire was finally sold out of service around 1885, when she was purchased by Captain Alex Mathewson, who converted her to a beche-de-mer fishing vessel. She was sold once more in 1892, when she was taken over by Messrs. Dan Moynahan and S.B. Andreassen. These gentlemen also used her in the beche-de-mer trade. Whilst in the employ of Moynahan and Andreassen the Spitfire was badly damaged during a cyclone off Hinchinbrook Island in 1896, and had to be sailed back to Cairns under jury rig.

During her civilian employment the Spitfire was almost completely rebuilt, with a new stern, new bows, new masts being added.

Spitfire’s career finally came to an end in December 1899 when she was sunk off the Piper Island Light during a cyclone. Though gone, the memory of this hard working little ship lives on in the names of many bays, reefs and other navigation marks along the Queensland coast.

Details of Spitfire
Type – Ketch rigged wooden gunboat
Designer – John Cuthbert
Builder – John Cuthbert
Built at – Millers Point, Sydney
Launched by – Mrs. Cuthbert
Launched – 3rd April 1855
Tonnage – 60 tons
Length (oa) – 62 feet
Length (keel) – 51 feet
Beam – 16 feet
Draught – 5 feet 6 inches
Armament – One long SB 32 pounder on traversing carriage.

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