Spectacle Island Museum
Historic site run by the Royal Australian Navy
Parramatta River, Sydney Harbour
Story by Trevor Patrick
“I was fortunate to go on a guided tour of Spectacle Island with my wife Beverley in the months before the terrorist attack of 9/11 in New York, America. That attack prompted Australian authorities to close the museum to the general public. Since that time, the Royal Australian Navy has created a wonderful Museum at Garden Island, open to the public, displaying artifacts from Spectacle Island.
Spectacle Island is a small island in Sydney Harbour which was first known as Dawes Island as early as the first year of British settlement in 1788 but was later renamed Spectacle because of its shape, being then two small islands joined by a narrow isthmus.
The colonial government selected Spectacle Island in 1865 as a storage site for it’s gunpowder. Plans for the initial group of buildings (centred around the three-bay main magazine) were drawn up in the office of Colonial Architect James Barnet. The buildings were mainly of sandstone and had slate roofs. Before long, more buildings were added; the shape of the island began changing as well, and the isthmus was gradually built up.
The Royal Australian Navy took over Spectacle from the Royal Navy in 1913. By then, there were 40 buildings on the island, the isthmus had been filled in and the area of the island had been increased by about a hectare through reclamation works utilising spoil from the old Balmain coalmine.
During the First World War there was hectic activity on the island and several hundred extra workers were appointed, mainly for shell-filling. Older buildings were remodelled to better deal with new needs. With the end of the war in 1918, Spectacle was used to store unused munitions until they were eventually dispersed.
Spectacle Island once again played an important role in the Second World War in dealing with smaller calibre ammunition, but was soon unable to cope with larger calibre material. After the war the island again was used to store unused munitions. Gradually, Spectacle’s role changed with the growth of harbourside populations and technological change, making the island’s role of explosives handling and storage untenable and obsolete.
Spectacle Island is still used by the Royal Australian Navy to house the Naval Repository, including a collection of relics and artefacts, ranging from small items to vessels.
The island is currently home to Training Ship Sydney, a unit of the Australian Navy Cadets.
You are now able to view naval history at the RAN Museum on Garden Island which is open to the public. The perfect way is to arrive by ferry from Circular Quay. A restaurant is also located here for your total enjoyment.
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Trevor Patrick is author “In Search of The Pennant Hills” award-winning regional history of the three settlements in the Hills District of northern Sydney.
Trevor is also responsible for the management and promotion of Hambledon Cottage House Museum and was recently honoured by The Parramatta Historical Society.