Magazine Bay and Fort Erskine

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Oct 12, 2011
Where??? I hear you ask? This is a location in the small harbour town of Lyttelton in New Zealand's South Island and in the late 19th Century was a military site. Now open to the public as a walking track, I thought I'd take a nosey while in the area and do some research into its military history.

Formerly known as Baker's Bay, the little cove's first permanent structure was the existing magazine block, which was originally built to house explosives for port and roading construction in 1874. A caretaker's cottage was erected above the magazine block at the same time. A small stone jetty was constructed to facilitate the arrival of materials from sea. A picture of the magazine block visible from the western bank of Baker's Bay in 1936, photographed from an on-site interpretation board, with the wreck of the coaling hulk Lota in the foreground. Note construction in support of the bay's military role on the hill above the magazine block.


The building today, covered in graffiti and housing the Thorneycroft Torpedo Boat Museum.


Within the cove a local shipbuilder, John Grubb constructed a workshop and slipway and soon received work from the government. The 1880s Russian scare saw British investment into defending the colony nationwide, and forts were constructed, underwater mines were laid and spar torpedo boats were ordered for the country's busiest ports. Four of these small craft were bought from Thorneycroft, London and were distributed to Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers and were numbered 168 to 171 and unofficially named Defender, Taiaroa, Waitemata, and Poneke respectively. Defender arrived in Lyttelton in December 1884 and was housed in a new facility in Baker's Bay, which was renamed Magazine Bay to fit with the magazine block's new purpose of housing ammunition for the defensive positions built around Lyttelton Harbour. A boat shed and slipway were constructed to house the small steam powered vessel in between Grubb's slipway and workshop in the narrow confines of the bay. In this image taken in 1897, Grubb's slipway can be seen to the right, with the schooner Croydon Lass in attendance, with his workshop roof just visible to the left between the torpedo boat shed and slipway.


The bay today, with picnic tables sited where Grubb's workshop was located to the left and the torpedo boat shed to the right.


Some five acres of land on Erskine Point was requisitioned by the government for military purposes and further up the hill from the magazine block, Fort Erskine was constructed in 1890. This comprised a gun emplacement, above-ground magazine, observation block and guard house. This was manned by the Naval Artillery Volunteers, or the "Navals" as they were called, who were barracked in specially built structures on site. By the turn of the century, both Fort Erskine and the Defender were verging on obsolescence and within a few years, both had been decommissioned, the torpedo boat being sold to a private buyer and the gun site abandoned as a station. Remaining on site until 1934, the seven-ton gun was tipped carelessly over the ramparts down the cliff and was cut up for scrap, while in the 1960s the council blew up the covered magazine, leaving the gun hard standing, external ramparts, and concrete walls around the magazine site. The image below is from an interpretation board and shows Fort Erskine's 7-inch gun still in place in 1934, with recently taken comparison image.

Gun emplacement I

Gun emplacement II

The torpedo boat suffered an equally ignominious fate, as its owner stripped it of valuables and dumped it on Purau Beach, on the opposite side of the harbour from Lyttelton where its dismembered remains were eventually bulldozed into the sand. Various buildings remained on site at Magazine Bay until one by one they were dismantled, leaving walls and steps as signs of their existence behind for curious members of the public who were given access to the site as a walking track. Following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, the site suffered damage and the surviving ramparts at Fort Erskine in particular deteriorated further. The curved concrete forward rampart in front of the gun platform gave way and fell down the cliff, which, to this day is deemed unstable. For a time the site was inaccessible for fear of collapse after the earthquakes, but it is currently open to the public again. An aerial view of Lyttelton taken in 1955, with Magazine Bay at bottom right adjacent to the reclaimed land at Naval Point, the magazine block prominent. (Photo credit Whites Aviation via Alexander Turnbull Library)

Lyttleton 1955

A vertical view of Magazine Bay and Fort Erskine taken in 1967, with pertinent items annotated. (Photo credit Retrolens - Historical Imagery Resource and licensed by LINZ)

Erskine Point 1967

1. The White Gates, entrance to the site from Park Road
2. Block house entrance to Fort Erskine
3. Above ground magazine site covered with earth
4. 7-inch gun emplacement
5. Observation post
6. Caretaker's cottage
7. Guard house/shed
8. Magazine block
9. Location of original stone jetty
10. Location of Grubb's workshop
11. Location of torpedo boat shed
12. Location of torpedo boat slipway
13. Location of Grubb's slipway, support pillars visible

More to come.
Continuing with a look at Magazine Bay and Fort Erskine.

Entry to the site is via The White Gates on Park Road, Lyttelton, survivors of the site's original occupation, possibly built in 1874 at the same time as the caretaker's cottage and magazine block.


The entry gate to Fort Erskine, with remaining concrete emplacements from the magazine and guard house to the right at the fort's entrance. Note the sign on the gate warning of unstable ground at the cliff face. Erskine Point Battery was one of four batteries located around Lyttelton Harbour that were built following the Russian scare. Other than Erskine Point, these were Spur Point and Battery Point on Lyttelton's eastern bank, above the reclaimed land of Cashin Quay today, and Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island across the opposite bank of Lyttelton Harbour. The latter was by far the most extensive, comprising two 8-inch and two 6-inch disappearing guns, and two smaller 6-pdr weapons, while Battery Point had two 7-inch guns and Erskine Point and Spur Point had a single gun each. Spur Point was armed with a 64-pdr gun, while Erskine Point had the more powerful 7-inch gun of the type that armed Battery Point. All these batteries became surplus to requirements when muzzle loaded guns were officially rendered obsolete in 1904, despite Fort Jervois' disappearing guns being breech loaded.


Below, the gun emplacement and remains of the ramparts. Fort Erskine was armed with a seven-ton, 7-inch RML (rifled, muzzle loading) gun built by the Royal Gun Factory at the Woolwich Arsenal and fired a 112 to 115 lb palliser (armour piercing) studded shell designed especially for breaching iron hulled warships. This type of gun was originally designed for naval use but in its seven-ton type, was extensively produced for coastal battery use. Originally, however, Fort Erskine was to be armed with a 64 pdr RML gun, the same as that which equipped the Spur Point battery across the town, but the 7-inch gun was positioned instead. This was mounted on a wheeled carriage and could be slid rearwards on its carriage to enable loading. This pivoted on a substantial plinth to enable rotation in azimuth, its guide rails visible today. After the gun was unceremoniously dumped over the cliff face, the severed barrel was recovered and was placed within the Sea Cadet training facility TS Cornwall in the Christchurch suburb of Redcliffs, which has since closed following the earthquakes.


Commanding view from the gun emplacement looking out into Lyttelton Harbour, with Diamond Harbour visible on the far shore. Reclaimed land of Naval Point can be seen below.


An ammunition locker in the concrete wall supporting the magazine, with steps to the magazine entrance visible. Shells were stored in this opening for immediate use and there was another to the right of the gun installation, but this has been destroyed following the collapse of the rampart wall during the 2010/2011 earthquakes. Note the deterioration in the finish, which would have originally been of a smooth patina, but earthquake damage and erosion over time has revealed the inner concrete structure.


Looking toward the entrance to the magazine. This was built above ground but was covered over with earth. In the 1960s the local council demolished the magazine, leaving concrete remnants scattered across the site. The earthquakes caused further erosion to the magazine, which has since become overgrown and is now inaccessible. It is not recommended to scale the site beyond the concrete ramparts owing to the instability of the ground since the quakes.


The observation post for the fort was located to its right on the other side of an earthen bank, right on the cliff face. Nothing remains of the position, apart from brickwork and fleeting foundations among the overgrowth.


All that remains of the caretaker's cottage. These foundation bricks are the surviving evidence of the house that was built in 1874 for the master in charge of overseeing the explosive magazine on the shore of Baker's Bay. A guard house and other associated structures were built near the cottage, but no evidence of these remain. The building was subsequently sequestered for military use following the site's acquisition by the government and remained as one of the last surviving structures on site until demolished in the mid-1970s.


The site on which the caretaker's cottage was built is now a public park, although remnants of its military use can be seen in the access steps that lead from the pathway that leads to the magazine block. At the very cliff edge of this site was the observation block for the Fort Erskine gun emplacement, which sat on the other side of the banking to the left. There were buildings on the flat where the picnic table now sits, these are visible in the image above of the magazine block taken in 1936.


Down the zigzagging pathway can be seen the magazine block and its retaining wall built in 1874. Following the site's requisitioning by the government, it was used as a central storehouse for ammunition that supplied Lyttelton's four Russia scare gun batteries. The concrete jetty built specifically to supply the store from the sea has since long gone, although a wooden jetty was built in its place, but this, too has gone.


Baker's Bay embankment, where, to the right sat John Grubb's workshop, with the torpedo boat shed and slipway in the centre where the picnic table sits. When constructed the boat shed and slipway were found to sit too high above the water's surface at all but high tide, which resulted in a 90-foot extension from the shed being added to compensate. Manning the torpedo boat and its shore facility was the volunteers of the Torpedoes Branch of the Armed Constabulary, which, although an army unit had its own naval uniform and customs derived from those employed by the Royal Navy. This was formally gazetted in May 1887 as the Torpedo Corps of the Permanent Militia of the Colony. With the disposal of the torpedo boat in 1901, the Lyttelton Torpedo Corps was disbanded and its members were dispersed within the local artillery garrison.


Magazine Bay looking tranquil in the summer sun, taken from the location of Grubb's slipway. Despite the site's remoteness in being hidden from view of harbour traffic, its unsuitability for the location of harbour defences was made apparent in April 1895 when a stormy south easterly gale demolished 40 feet of Grubb's slipway and twisted the torpedo boat slip "like a huge sea serpent" according to a newspaper report. Another newspaper report was contemptuous of the defences, noting that a sign should be erected on Godley Head announcing that "hostile parties wishing to shell the Port of Lyttelton are requested to time their visit for fine weather, otherwise they cannot be fittingly received by the local authorities"!


The spar torpedo boat was one of those novel inventions that seemed like a good idea at the time, but in reality proved to be practically worthless as a defensive weapon and in New Zealand hands was neglected and disregarded by those that operated it. Costing the Colonial government a combined total of £12,600, the small ships displaced 12 tons and were 62 feet 10 inches long, with a beam of 7 feet 6 inches and a draught of 3.2 feet. Built in 1883, the boats were powered by a two-cylinder compound-expansion steam engine generating 173 hp driving a single shaft, the boats could in theory reach 17 knots. Because of their galvanised steel construction they were stored out of the water, hence the slipway and boat shed built for their use. Built in sequence with similar boats for Colonial Tasmania, they were classified as Second Rate Spar Torpedo Boats, armed with a single 36 foot spar, at the extreme of which was a small explosive charge as its main weapon. This was the McEvoy spar torpedo, named after Capt C.A. McEvoy, a Confederate naval officer who patented several naval weapons. This was the original "torpedo" before the advent of the Whitehead locomotive torpedo that changed naval warfare and rendered the somewhat precarious spar torpedo concept obsolete. The boats were supposed to be armed with a single two-barrelled Nordenfeldt gun, but Defender was never so armed. Experiments were carried out with locomotive torpedoes aboard the last two boats only. Owing to their small dimensions and the low power output of their reciprocating steam engine, they were unusable in everything but a calm sea state and it soon became apparent that they offered no real naval capability at all. A painting of a spar torpedo boat in action in the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, Auckland.

Spar torpedo boat

John I. Thorneycroft & Co, Cheswick, London Yard No.168 Defender, Lyttelton's boat was ordered in 1882 and was the first constructed for the colony, being launched on 30 July 1883. Aptly delivered on the sailing ship Lyttelton, the vessel was deposited at Port Chalmers on 9 May 1884, being towed to Lyttelton Harbour on assembly. Owing to its unsuitability as a naval vessel, its use was confined to public demonstrations and soon the government was publicly criticised for its parlous state owing to its infrequent use and the lack of the provision of a permanent engineer to accompany the Torpedo Corps volunteers. Taken out of service in 1901, Defender was sold to steam launch operator Mark Thomas. As previously recorded, after being stripped of useful equipment, its motor going to the School of Engineering, Canterbury University, the boat's hull was dumped at Purau Beach where it lay abandoned for years until it was buried in a sand pit some 100 feet deep in 1958. Forty years later, armed with metal detectors and digging equipment, local enthusiast David Bundy began digging for the remains of the boat, recovering a substantial segment of its bow. This was partially reconstructed and can be seen in the Torpedo Boat Museum inside the magazine block building. To date I have yet to view this significant surviving piece of New Zealand's maritime history as the museum has always been closed at the time of my visits, even when it was advertised as being open! The spar torpedo boat Defender moored in what was Dampier's Bay, possibly during the Lyttelton Regatta on 1 January 1885, where it proved a popular attraction, its small size apparent.


Thanks for looking.

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