Colonial navies of Australia

Before Federation in 1901 five of the six separate colonies maintained their own naval forces for defence. The colonial navies were supported by the ships of the Royal Navy's Australian Station which was established in 1859. The separate colonies maintained control over their respective navies until 1 March 1901, when the Commonwealth Naval Forces was created.

Victorian Navy (AWM 300032)
An artist's impression of the ironclad HMVS Cerberus (left) and the training ship HMVS Nelson (right). The Victorian naval force was considered the most powerful of all the colonial naval forces.

New South Wales

New South Wales Naval Brigade

At the time of the Boxer Rebellion, naval brigades from New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, were part of the British contingent in the field force under General Alfred Gaselee, in the Gaselee Expedition, a successful relief by a multinational military force that in 1900 marched to Beijing and protect the diplomatic legations and foreign nationals in the city from attacks. The New South Wales Naval Brigade included 25 men from the New South Wales Marine Corps.[1] (This unit was completely unrelated, except for its name, to the New South Wales Marine Corps, which accompanied the First Fleet and served between 1788 and 1791.)

New South Wales Naval Artillery Volunteers

During the early nineteenth century the New South Wales Government began construction of naval fortifications in Sydney Harbour. However, security was generally lax. In November 1839 the USS Vincennes was able to slip into Sydney Harbour un-noticed under the cover of darkness, much to the surprise of Sydney-siders the following morning.[2] As Sydney was the major base for the Royal Navy in Australia, the New South Wales Government had no incentive to create their own naval force. This sense of security ended with the outbreak of the Crimean War and in 1854 the government asked for tenders for the construction of a gunboat to assist in the defence of Sydney. The vessel was named HMCS Spitfire and was the first naval vessel completed by an Australian colonial government. Although modified from an existing boat,[3] Spitfire was nevertheless the first warship to be constructed in Australia. Spitfire remained in service with the New South Wales colonial navy until 1859 when she was given to Queensland.

Avernus (AWM 306823)
The torpedo boat Avernus in Sydney Harbour

After the construction of Spitfire (launched 4 April 1855) the New South Wales Government took no further steps in developing a naval force until a naval brigade of 120 men was formed in 1863. There was strong support for the naval brigade and in 1864 it consisted of five companies, four in Sydney and one in Newcastle, with an overall strength of 200 men. The naval brigade headquarters was established at Fort Macquarie, where the Sydney Opera House today stands. Since Spitfire was sold to Queensland in 1859, the naval brigade had no ships of their own. This problem was not rectified until the late 1870s, when the government ordered the construction of two second class torpedo boats, Avernus and Acheron; these vessels were constructed in Sydney.

In 1882, Wolverine was acquired from the Royal Navy. That year the New South Wales Naval Artillery Volunteers were formed as a citizen's auxiliary which would operated the guns on board any warship of the colony when required.[4] HMS Wolverine was paid off in 1893 and the total number of vessels used by the Navy decreased over time as any perceived threat diminished. Meanwhile, the naval brigade continued to grow, however, and reached a total strength of 614 men at Federation.


Paluma (AWM 300024)
HMQS Paluma in 1889

Queensland Maritime Defence Force

One of the many outcomes of the Jervois-Scratchley reports was the formation of the Queensland Maritime Defence Force in 1883. Its purpose was to assist in the defence of Queensland's extensive coastline. To equip the new force the colonial government purchased two gunboats and a torpedo boat whilst port facilities and headquarters were established at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane. The gunboats Paluma and Gayundah were ordered from the shipyards of Armstrong, Mitchell and Company and featured a shallow draft capable of operating in the many bays and estuaries along the coast. Gayundah served as a training ship and conducted the first ship to shore radio transmissions in Australia whilst Paluma was loaned to the Royal Navy to carry out survey work on the Great Barrier Reef and along the Australian east coast. The torpedo boat Mosquito was ordered from Thornycroft of Chiswick. Mosquito was never commissioned but simply placed into service when required.

From this beginning further vessels were acquired to give Queensland the second largest fleet in the colonies behind Victoria. Five government hopper barges were modified to act as Auxiliary Gunboats. These ships were built by Walkers Limited in Maryborough and at 450 tons they appear to have been the largest warships built in the Australian colonies before federation. The ships had already been ordered for the Queensland Department of Harbours and Rivers when the decision was taken to convert them to also serve a military purpose. This resulted in the fitting of a 5-inch gun and the relocation of the boilers below the waterline. The torpedo launch Midge, mining tender Miner and patrol vessel Otter made up the rest of the Queensland vessels. The Queensland Government also established naval brigades in the major ports along the Queensland coast.

The depression of the 1890s ruled out any further thoughts of expansion and greatly curtailed operations. Most of the vessels were placed in reserve only to be reactivated for annual training at Easter. Despite this, most went on to have long careers in both naval and private hands past World War II. The wrecks of many can still be seen around Moreton Bay today.

The Queensland Maritime Defence Force was not without controversy and difficulties. In October 1888, after a disagreement with the Queensland Government over conditions of service, Captain Henry Townley Wright R.N. commanding officer of Gayundah, was ordered to hand over to his second-in-command, Francis Pringle Taylor.[5] Wright's response was to place his subordinate under arrest. He then coaled and provisioned the ship and threatened to sail her to Sydney. The Queensland Government ordered a police squad to relieve Captain Wright of his command. During the incident Captain Wright enquired from his gunner as to the best line of fire for his guns to hit Queensland Parliament House. The situation was eventually resolved. Of interest is the fact that, as Captain Wright had insisted, although Gayundah was the property of the Queensland government, it had, by Admiralty Warrant been accepted into Royal Navy service and thus as her captain he was only answerable to Rear-Admiral Fairfax the commander-in-chief of the Australian Station.

The 1893 Brisbane flood ripped Paluma from her moorings and left her well above the high-water mark in the nearby Brisbane Botanic Gardens. As locals considered how to return one of the colony's most powerful and most expensive assets to the Brisbane River another major flood just two weeks later refloated the gunboat and she was pulled clear.

Whilst these incidents may have been a source of mirth for those in the southern colonies it is important to note that Queensland officers went on to provide the backbone of the Commonwealth Naval Forces. In 1904, when a permanent Naval Board was established, it was Captain William Rooke Creswell of Queensland and previously South Australia who was appointed as the Director of the Commonwealth Naval Forces and First Naval Member. At this time, 49% of the new force's officers had served with the Queensland Maritime Defence Force.

The Queensland Marine Defence Force was the only Australian colonial navy not to be involved in a foreign conflict.

South Australia

South Australian Naval Service

Protector (AWM A04936)
Protector in 1900

In the 1880s South Australia began initial steps towards the establishment of a naval force. Sir William Jervois, then governor of South Australia, was the strongest advocate for a colonial navy. September 1884 saw the arrival of the 920 tonne ship Protector, at the time the most advanced ship in any of the colonial navies.

Protector was transferred to the Commonwealth in 1901, she also served in China during the Boxer Rebellion. The South Australian government also created a naval brigade to support the Protector. In 1905 the South Australian government negotiated the purchase of TB 191 from Tasmania, this ship was purchased as a torpedo boat and would allow the navy to use its Whitehead torpedoes which had been purchased many years earlier.


TB 191 (AWM 300025)
TB 191

During the mid-1830s, the colony of Van Diemen's Land constructed and operated the armed schooner Eliza. The vessel was built at Port Arthur and was operated by the Convict Marine Service, carrying out anti-piracy patrols as well as helping to maintain the security of the penal settlement. In 1883, Tasmania purchased the second-class torpedo boat TB 191. The ship arrived in Hobart on 1 May 1884 and remained in Tasmania, operated by the Tasmanian Torpedo Corps,[6] until it was transferred to South Australia in 1905.


Victorian Naval Forces

The Colony of Victoria commenced construction of its first armed vessel in 1853,[7] HMVS Victoria which was launched on 30 June 1855 and arrived in Victoria on 31 May 1856. Victoria carried out a large variety of tasks during its life, including taking part in the New Zealand Wars, assisting in the search for Burke and Wills, delivering the first trout eggs to Tasmania, as well as numerous surveying and rescue tasks.

In 1859 the first Naval Brigade was formed. The Brigade was re-organised in 1863 as a half-militia, re-formed in 1871 as the Victorian Naval Reserve as a full militia and re-formed again in 1885 as the Victorian Naval Brigade.

The Victorian Naval Forces comprised the permanent force known as the Victorian Navy, and a 300-strong Victorian Naval Brigade consisting of the Williamstown Division and the Sandridge (Port Melbourne) Division. Combined the Victorian Navy and the Victorian Naval Brigade were known as the Victorian Naval Forces.

Following the success of Victoria, the Victorian colonial government ordered an ironclad ship, HMVS Cerberus and was gifted the composite steam-sail warship, Nelson.

In 1884 several more warships were purchased by Victoria, these included the first-class torpedo boat Childers and second-class torpedo boats Lonsdale, and Nepean and the third-class gunboats Victoria and Albert. In 1886 the turnabout torpedo boat Gordon was acquired. In 1892, the first-class torpedo boat, Countess of Hopetoun arrived in Victoria.

To supplement the ships of the permanent force a number of government vessels were modified so as to serve as gunboats or torpedo boats. The hopper barges Batman and Fawkner were modified so as to mount a six-inch breech-loading gun at the bow of each ship. Two machine guns were also fitted. Strengthening of the bow, the fitting of a magazine, shell room, crew quarters and some armour protection for the crew added two more gunboats to the fleet. A compressor fitted to Fawkner meant that the torpedo boats could be serviced at sea. The tug boat Gannet and steamer Lady Loch were likewise modified.

The Harbour Trust boats Commissioner and Customs No. 1 had two sets of torpedo dropping gear fitted to each boat thereby adding two more torpedo boats to the fleet. In 1885 the government steamers Lion and Spray were fitted with six-pounder Armstrong guns. Spray was later fitted with two sets of torpedo dropping gear.

Supporting the Victorian Naval Forces were the fortifications located at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay and other sites around the bay. In the years leading up to Federation the Victorian Naval Forces were considered the most powerful of all the colonial naval forces.

Western Australia

Western Australia did not operate a colonial navy in the years before federation. Since Western Australia did not achieve self-government until 1890, the colony was forbidden from operating its own naval vessels under the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865. However, in 1879 a militia unit, known as the Fremantle Naval Artillery was formed to assist in the defence of Fremantle Harbour. The naval artillery unit was made up of ex-Royal Navy men and merchant seamen of good character.

The unit was equipped with two brass 6-pounder field guns; these guns had no limbers, restricting their movement. These guns hindered the primary function of the naval artillery, which was to provide a mobile shore battery for the defence of Fremantle Harbour. In 1889 these guns were replaced by two 9-pounder guns, complete with limbers and wagons. The Fremantle Naval Artillery was eventually disbanded and reformed as the Fremantle Artillery Volunteers.

Royal Navy in Australia

Australia Station Squadron (AWM 304426)
Ships of the Royal Navy's squadron on the Australia Station moored in Sydney in 1880

In the years that followed the settlement of Australia in 1788 the Royal Navy did not maintain a permanent force in the new colony. The new Port Jackson colony was placed under the protection of the East Indies Station, vessels were detached occasionally to visit the new colony. From 1821 the Royal Navy maintained a permanent man-of-war in the colony. Over the next 20 years the vessels based on Port Jackson included the sixth rates Alligator, Caroline, Conway, Imogene, and Rattlesnake, and the sloops Hyacinth, Pelorus and Zebra.

On 25 March 1859 Captain William Loring of Iris was authorised to hoist a commodore's blue pennant and to assume command as senior officer of Her Majesty's Ships on the Australia Station. This new command was independent of the Commander-in-chief, East Indies.

Commonwealth Naval Forces

The battlecruiser HMAS Australia

The colonies maintained control over their respective navies until 1 March 1901, when the Commonwealth Naval Force was created. Initially, like the colonial forces that proceeded it, this new force also lacked blue-water capable ships, and its creation did not lead to an immediate change in Australian naval policy. In 1909, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, while attending the Imperial Conference in London, sought the British Government's agreement to end the subsidy system and develop an Australian navy. The Admiralty rejected these approaches, suggesting instead that a small fleet of destroyers and submarines would be sufficient. Deakin was unimpressed and had previously invited the American Great White Fleet to visit Australia in 1908. This visit had fired public enthusiasm for a modern navy and in part led to the order of two 700-ton River-class destroyers. The surge in German naval construction prompted the Admiralty to change their position in 1909[8] and the Royal Australian Navy was subsequently formed in 1911. On 4 October 1913, the new fleet steamed through Sydney Heads, consisting of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, three light cruisers, and three destroyers, while several other ships were still under construction. As a consequence the navy entered the First World War as a formidable force.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Creighton, Kenelm (18 April 1986). "Our First Military Adventure in Asia" (PDF). Royal Australian Navy News. Volume 29 (No. 7). p. 8. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  2. ^ Dean Boyce, 'The Wolves are at the door: Sydney's century of invasion fears', 2011, p. 39.
  3. ^ The Maitland & Hunter River General Advertiser, 11 August 1855
  4. ^ Turner 2016, p. 50.
  5. ^ Frame, Tom; Baker, Kevin (2000). Mutiny! Naval Insurrections in Australia and New Zealand. St. Leonards, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. p. 52. ISBN 1-86508-351-8.
  6. ^ McIntyre, Paul; Chris Wisby (9 May 2009). "When's a submarine not a submarine?". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  7. ^ U.S. Gazette 10 December 1853
  8. ^ Dennis et al 2008, pp. 466–470.
  9. ^ Macdougall 1991, p. 23.


  • Dennis, Peter; et al. (2008). The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (Second ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand. ISBN 978-0-19-551784-2.
  • Gillett, Ross; Colin Graham (1977). Warships of Australia. Rigby Limited. ISBN 0-7270-0472-7.
  • Macdougall, A. (1991). Australians at War: A Pictorial History. The Five Mile Press. ISBN 1-86503-865-2.
  • Turner, Trevor (2016). "'Brave Hearts and Loyal': The New South Wales Naval Artillery Volunteers 1882–1902". Sabretache. Military Historical Society of Australia. LVII (4, December): 50–57. ISSN 0048-8933.
BL 5-inch gun Mk I – V

The BL 5-inch guns Mk I – Mk V were early British 5-inch rifled breechloading naval guns after it switched from rifled muzzle-loaders in the late 1870s. They were originally designed to use the old gunpowder propellants. The 5-inch calibre was soon discontinued in favour of QF 4.7-inch.

BL 8-inch Mk I – VII naval gun

The BL 8 inch guns Mark I to Mark VII were the first generations of British rifled breechloaders of medium-heavy calibre. They were initially designed for gunpowder propellants and were of both 25.5 and 30 calibres lengths.

China War Medal (1900)

The China War Medal 1900 was a British campaign medal approved on 1 January 1902 for issue to British and Indian land and sea troops who served during the Boxer Rebellion, between 10 June and 31 December 1900.

HMQS Miner

HMQS Miner was a vessel built for the Queensland Army before being transferred to the Queensland Maritime Defence Force. She was not taken on strength by the Commonwealth Naval Forces at Federation in 1901 and subsequently sold.

HMQS Mosquito

HMQS Mosquito was a torpedo boat operated by the Queensland Maritime Defence Force and Commonwealth Naval Forces. She entered service in 1885 and after Federation was transferred to the Commonwealth Naval Forces, serving as a training vessel until she was paid off in 1910.

HMQS Otter

HMQS Otter was launched in 1884 and served as a patrol vessel that served with the Queensland Maritime Defence Force and Commonwealth Naval Forces. She was paid off and sold in 1906, but the Royal Australian Navy requisitioned her in both world wars.

HMQS Paluma

HMQS Paluma was a flat-iron gunboat operated by the Queensland Maritime Defence Force and later the Royal Australian Navy (as HMAS Paluma). She entered service on 28 October 1884, was decommissioned in 1916 and then sold to the Victorian Ports and Harbours Department, who operated her under the name Rip until 1948 when she was retired. She was scrapped in 1950–51.

HMVS Albert

HMVS Albert was a gunboat of the Victorian Naval Forces which was requisitioned for service with the Royal Australian Navy during World War I.

HMVS Childers

HMVS Childers was a torpedo boat of the Victorian Naval Forces, Commonwealth Naval Forces and the Royal Australian Navy.

HMVS Countess of Hopetoun

HMVS Countess of Hopetoun was a torpedo gunboat of the Victorian Naval Forces, Commonwealth Naval Forces and the Royal Australian Navy. She was named after Hersey, Countess of Hopetoun and later Marchioness of Linlithgow, the wife of the 7th Earl of Hopetoun, the then Governor of Victoria and later the first Governor-General of Australia.

HMVS Victoria (1884)

HMVS Victoria was a gunboat that served with the Victorian Naval Forces and Western Australia before being sold into private use.

List of navies

This is a list of navies, present and historical.


Marines, also known as naval infantry, are typically an infantry force that specializes in the support of naval and army operations at sea and on land and air, as well as the execution of their own operations. In many countries, the marines are an integral part of that state's navy. In others, it is a separate organization altogether, such as in the United States, where the Marine Corps falls under the US Department of the Navy, yet it operates independently (and similarly the UK's Royal Marines come under Her Majesty's Naval Service). Marines can also fall under a country's army like the Troupes de marine (i.e. the French marines) and Givati Brigade (i.e. the Israeli marines).

Historically, tasks undertaken by marines have included: helping maintain discipline and order aboard the ship (reflecting the pressed nature of the ships' company and the risk of mutiny), the boarding of vessels during combat or capture of prize ships, and providing manpower for raiding ashore in support of the naval objectives.

With the industrialization of warfare in the 20th century the scale of landing operations increased; this brought with it an increased likelihood of opposition and a need for co-ordination of various military elements. Marine forces evolved to specialize in the skills and capabilities required for amphibious warfare.

Military history of Australia

The military history of Australia spans the nation's 230-year modern history, from the early Australian frontier wars between Aboriginals and Europeans to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 21st century. Although this history is short when compared to that of many other nations, Australia has been involved in numerous conflicts and wars, and war and military service have been significant influences on Australian society and national identity, including the Anzac spirit. The relationship between war and Australian society has also been shaped by the enduring themes of Australian strategic culture and its unique security dilemma.

As British offshoots, the Australian colonies participated in Britain's small wars of the 19th century, while later as a federated dominion, and then an independent nation, Australia fought in the First World War and Second World War, as well as in the wars in Korea, Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam during the Cold War. In the Post-Vietnam era Australian forces have been involved in numerous international peacekeeping missions, through the United Nations and other agencies, including in the Sinai, Persian Gulf, Rwanda, Somalia, East Timor and the Solomon Islands, as well as many overseas humanitarian relief operations, while more recently they have also fought as part of multi-lateral forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In total, nearly 103,000 Australians died during the course of these conflicts.

Queensland Maritime Defence Force Auxiliary Gunboats

After the formation of the Queensland Maritime Defence Force in 1884, the colonial government purchased two gunboats and a torpedo boat to equip the new force. However, given the number of ports along the Queensland coast it was realised that additional ships were required. Five ships had already been ordered for the Queensland Department of Harbours and Rivers when the decision was taken to convert them to also serve as auxiliary gunboats. This resulted in the fitting of a 5-inch gun and the relocation of the boilers below the waterline.The ships were as follows: Bonito, Bream, Dolphin, Pumba, and Stingaree.Steam-propelled twin screwed "hopper barges", these ships were built by Walkers at Maryborough and, at 450 tons, they were the largest warships built in the Australian colonies before Federation. The depression of the 1890s greatly curtailed operations with most of the vessels placed in reserve and being used as training vessels. Stingaree served until 1895 whilst Pumba remained on strength at the time of Federation in 1901, before being sold to Pioneer Gravels (Queensland). She was rebuilt in 1958 and renamed Enterprise, serving as a cargo vessel beyond the late 1970s. Bream (1963), Dolphin (1963) and Stingaree (1966) were sunk off Tangalooma, Moreton Bay.

Ship prefix

A ship prefix is a combination of letters, usually abbreviations, used in front of the name of a civilian or naval ship which have historically served numerous purposes, such as identifying the vessel’s mode of propulsion, purpose, or ownership/nationality. In the modern environment prefixes are used inconsistently in civilian service, however, in government service the vessels prefix is seldom missing due to government regulations dictating a certain prefix be present. Today the common practice is to use a single prefix for all warships of a nation's navy, and other prefixes for auxiliaries and ships of allied services, such as coast guards. For example, the modern navy of Japan adopts the prefix “JS” – Japanese Ship. However, not all navies used prefixes; this includes the significant navies of China, France and Russia.


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