Old Thunder and Lightning – the Origins of the Queensland Navy
IT WAS A RUSSIAN SCARE in the eighteen seventies that caused the Queensland Government of the day to form a defence plan for the protection of the colony. From the naval point of view a gunboat and a torpedo boat were considered sufficient protection for the Moreton Bay anchorage, whilst a second gunboat was required for the defence of the coast. The protection of the Brisbane River itself was to be by a series of batteries and fixed torpedoes, and it was further recommended that small steamers employed on harbour duties in all ports should be fitted to carry ‘spar’ torpedoes, and to be available for the defence of harbours.
The ‘spar’ torpedo was really an explosive charge fitted on the end of a boom and run out over the bows of the vessel. The charge was fired electrically at will. The instructions to coxswains warned them to wait until they heard the spar ‘crack’ before making the firing circuit. The volunteers for these craft were surely worthy ancestors of the midget submarine crews and the frogmen of our time.
The two gunboats for this Queensland Marine Defence Force were given aboriginal names, Gayundah (Lightning) and Paluma (Thunder). They were built by Sir W. G. Armstrong Mitchell and Co. at Newcastleon- Tyne. It would be a most appropriate and fitting gesture if the names of these pioneer warships, which did such yeoman service in our naval development could be given to the proposed frigates to be purchased in the USA.
We can imagine how different service in these ships must have been, compared with our lot of today. They were 120 feet in length, 26 feet in beam, and drew 9½ feet of water. Their displacement was only 360 tons. Originally they had a ‘turtle back’ forecastle over which an 8 in. BL 12 ton gun fired. (The training arc was only 7½ degrees either side of the fore and aft line.) Aft, a 6 in. BL 4 ton gun capable of training to 10 degrees before the beam, either side, was mounted in a shield. The ‘close range’ weapons consisted of two one and a half inch Nordenfeldt guns, one point 45 5 barrel machine gun; one 1 inch 4 barrel machine gun. Two 25 foot whalers and one 24 foot jolly boat and a dinghy were hoisted in davits. A fighting top was originally fitted on the foremast, but removed at an early date.
They were powered by horizontal, direct action compound engines of 400 IHP, designed for a speed of ten knots. During their trials on the 26th September 1884, both ships made over 10.5 knots, and the guns fired both common shell and chilled shot with ‘every satisfaction.’ The vessels were, in appearance, very similar to the Colony of Victoria’s Albert.
Gayundah arrived at Brisbane on 28th March 1885, having come out from Britain via the Suez Canal. The ships carried light yards, but sail was only used as an auxiliary, and then under most favourable conditions.
It was appreciated by the Queensland Government that the colony could not adequately defend itself without the assistance of the Imperial Squadron, and early arrangements were made for their gunboats to work and train with the Imperial Forces. This arrangement resulted in Paluma being fitted for surveying duties on completion of her trials. A workroom replaced the 8 in. gun forward, and a deck house the 6 in. gun aft. Paluma sailed from the United Kingdom with a RN surveying crew, and as a White Ensign ship. Gayundah, on the other hand, came out as a Queensland gunboat wearing a blue ensign. Negotiations to permit her to work with the Australian squadron and the placing of her at the disposal of Her Majesty continued, and with a letter from Admiral Tryon, Commander in Chief in HMS Nelson, dated September 1886, a ‘warrant to wear a White Ensign‘ was forwarded, the services of the ship having been accepted by the Admiralty.
This decision on the part of the Queensland Government led to the famous cause celebre when Captain Wright’s term of appointment drew to a close. He tentatively arranged for leave and pay in advance prior to relinquishing the command, it being supposed he wished to make arrangements to return to UK However, when he made it known he did not intend to leave the colony at the time, he was advised that in view of the altered circumstances advance of pay would not be made. In due time the Colonial Secretary ‘dismissed‘ Captain Wright, and directed the First Lieutenant to assume command of the ship and stores. Wright was unable to ‘accept‘ such a dismissal, and contended the ship wearing a White Ensign, he held his office by appointment from the Admiralty. The case was turned over by the Admiralty to the Crown Law Officers, who ruled that the acceptance by the Admiralty of the ship, and the placing at the disposal of Her Majesty of HMQ Ship Gayundah did make the officers and crew subject to the Naval Discipline Act. But such a decision in the days of slow communications took a long time, and the Colonial Secretary’s Office, anxious to finalise the matter, directed the Commissioner of Police to proceed on board and remove Captain Wright from his ship. This the Crown Law Officers ruled should have been done through the Admiral Commanding in Chief, and is the incident that has produced the legend of the ‘Forts in the Brisbane River firing on the Flagship to prevent her sailing.‘ At this time Paluma was carrying out surveys in Queensland and Tasmanian waters. Paluma was despatched to examine the Adolphus Channel area, after the loss of the SS Quetta, in 1890. It was reported that in a seaway head-seas broke over her bridge and came down the funnel, causing the stokers great trouble in keeping the boiler fires going.’
The great flood of ’93 was ridden out by Gayundah, but Paluma, (Capt. Pirie, RN) which was undergoing a refit in the Brisbane River, was swept away, and deposited in the Botanical Gardens.
She was in good company, for the SS Elamane and Maida were also caught in the flood and deposited high and dry with her. It is reputed that a contract to refloat Paluma was about to be signed when a second flood enabled her ship’s company, with kedge anchors and with the assistance of the Government steamer Advance, to refloat her.
Gayundah paid off in 1893 and Paluma two years later. From this time both ships were manned as requisite for Easter training of the Naval Brigade. The armaments were modernised during the South African war, a 4.7 in. QF gun being mounted aft in Gayundah, while Paluma took 2 5 in. BL guns forward.
To Gayundah must go the honour of being the first British Man-of-war on the Australia Station to successfully operate wireless telegraphy (1900). Captain Creswell and his staff set up Marconi wireless transmitter and receiving sets at Kangaroo Point, and Gayundah was rigged with a long bamboo foretopmast and worked Kangaroo Point from Moreton Bay.
After Federation, both vessels were retained for service with the Commonwealth Naval Forces, being used mainly as training ships for the Naval Brigades. In 1911 Gayundah continued in the role of training ship when universal training was instituted. She only fired one angry shot in her career when she captured two luggers pearlpoaching in Australian waters and took them into Broome. During World War I her turtleback forecastle was altered, which improved her sea-keeping qualities, and she patrolled in home waters, to be sold out of the Service at the end of hostilities. Paluma was sold to the Melbourne Harbour Trust in 1911 and renamed The Rip. For a time she served blasting at the ‘Rip’ and as the ‘Buoy and Light‘ tender. In December 1948 she was in Westernport checking and replacing buoys and marks for the anticipated arrival of HMS Vanguard. This was practically her last useful service, and with the commissioning of the ex-Australian Minesweeper, Whyalla, converted for similar duty with the Melbourne Harbour Trust, the Rip, ex ‘Paluma,’ was laid up in the Maribyrong River near the Footscray bridge.