The Story of the Cannon

Written By David Gordon. 1996.

Tarnagulla's Cannon

Why does Tarnagulla have a cannon and where did it come from?

Tarnagulla's boom gold years had long since disappeared by the turn of the nineteenth century. Whilst many of the deep mines were still operating, the town's population had dwindled from a peak in the heady days some forty years earlier of about 4,000, to 800, and there were vacant allotments where all had once been hustle and bustle. Despite this decline, in 1898 the town still boasted its own newspaper, a model borough council with its own council chambers, three hotels, a school roll numbering some 150 children, a prize-winning flour mill, numerous shops and stores, and the remnants of what had once been a very large Chinatown. Significantly, Tarnagulla in 1898 also boasted two Members of Parliament, Thomas Comrie MLC, and D. J. Duggan MLA. For such a small town - by comparison with other country centres - Tarnagulla was fortunate indeed to have these two distinguished politicians in its midst. An a consequence, Tarnagulla's interests at a state level were very well catered to, and amongst the benefits Comrie and Duggan achieved for Tarnagulla was the acquisition of a cannon in February of 1898. For more than 30 years, HMVS Nelson had served as a training ship for the Victorian Navy. By 1898, she was no longer suitable for service, and the government of the day offered her obsolete muzzle loading cannon to country towns. These cannons were given free of charge except for transport, and preference was given to large towns not already defended by forts. Recipients were towns and cities the size of Ballarat, Bendigo, Ararat, Geelong, Echuca and Hamilton - clearly Messrs Comrie and Duggan were able to exercise considerable influence to be able to get a cannon for little Tarnagulla. Certainty, its acquisition provoked a fairly high degree of jealousy amongst the neighboring towns of Dunolly and Inglewood.

HMVS Nelson, at Williamstown Naval Dockyard

The Cannon's early days at Tarnagulla. The cannon arrived at Tarnagulla on l8th February 1898. It traveled from the Williamstown naval dockyard by railway at a cost of L6-11s-6d ($13.15), of which the railway authorities generously refunded L5-9s-1d ($10.91) as a patriotic gesture. The sheer weight of the cannon (about 3 tons, or 3.1 tonnes) presented a considerable handling problem, and the abrasions still visible on the underside of the cannon's muzzle reveal that it was eventually half dragged, muzzle down, from the Tarnagulla railway station to the recreation reserve - a distance of about two kilometres.
After the cannon had arrived, the Borough Council took a week or two to decide whether to mount it adjacent to the Council Chambers or at the recreation reserve. After some healthy debate, the Council eventually saw decorative benefit in placing it permanently at the recreation reserve, and the cannon therefore went on to spend its next 60 odd years mounted on its original carriage within the reserve.

This photograph, taken in about 1910, shows the cannon in its second location adjacent to the swimming dam.
The band rotunda, originally erected as an unroofed Highland dancing platform, was moved next to the pavilion in 1915.

In the early years of the 20th century, patriotic fervor was kept at a high pitch by the Boer War, and the townspeople were justly proud of their cannon. Great care was taken in painting the carriage and presenting the gun in a military fashion, and the small working parts were carefully secured under lock and key in the pavilion. The cannon was used on four separate occasions for full scale saluting purposes between 1900 and 1902. During this time a series of relatively harmless but spectacular accidents caused by inexperienced gunners led to the Council forbidding the gun's use.
The cannon had at least two separate locations within the recreation reserve itself. There it some evidence to suggest that, initially, the cannon may have been just outside the front gates (which themselves have since been relocated some 100 metres north-west of their early position) and in proximity to a beautiful marble statue called the 'Fighting Gladiator' which bad been donated to the Council thirty years earlier by a prominent sculptor who had been at Tarnagulla during the 1850's gold rush.

Firing the Cannon

In May 1900, the town marked Baden Powell's relief ofMafeking with a celebration at the recreation reserve. As part of the day's fun, self-professed gun expert AIf Reardon loaded the cannon with 10 pounds (4.5 kgs) of gun powder and fired it. The consequent explosion, figuratively speaking, added great impact to the proceedings, and Mr. Reardon was prevailed upon to do it again later in the day. This time, he overloaded the cannon with 16 pounds (7.2 kgs) of blasting powder. A massive explosion followed. The gun leapt off its mountings and is said to have demolished the 'Fighting Gladiator', hessian bags which had been used as wadding in the barrel were blown flaming into the bush and started a small bushfire, windows cracked in houses, and young children ran shrieking in fear to their parents.
As a consequence of this episode, the Council had the cannon remounted and moved into a less constricted position near the centre of the reserve, and in proximity to the bathing dam which had been built in the late 1870's when the reserve was originally created as a public garden and recreation area. In May 1901, patriotic fervour again gripped the town with celebrations for the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia. Again, the cannon was overloaded with blasting powder, fired, and it recoiled almost back into the bathing dam, knocking down an elderly lady on the way. Exasperated, the Council used a team of horses to pull the cannon back into position, and issued strict instructions to ensure more careful loading of the gun in future.

Firing it again!

Twelve months later in June 1902, the cannon was finally fired with success using a light charge to celebrate the end of the Boar War. Emboldened by this accomplishment, the local gun crew self-elect poured in another over-load of blasting powder in July 1902 when they marked the occasion of King William's coronation with another massive explosion which badly damaged the carriage and frightened most of the town out of their wits. Thereafter, the Council forbade unskilled men from using the cannon, and also issued instructions that an alarm mast be given prior to firing.
This deterrent effectively stopped the gun being used at all, and it was not until the end of the First World War that a small charge was fired to mark the occasion with a salute. In the meantime, the recreation reserve underwent great change.

This fine view of the cannon was taken in about 1920. The cannon has by now been dragged backwards about 80 meters to enable the football ground to be constructed.
The carriage is the original form HMVS Nelson. The two young men are locals helping to polish the barrell.

Giving way to progress

In 1915, Tarnagulla badly felt the need for a new football ground. For many years, an old ground on a site on the northern portion of the present-day golf course had been used for football. This ground was poorly drained and was a long way from the centre of the town in those days of horse transport. A decision was therefore taken to convert the recreation reserve into a football and cricket ground. For many months during 1915/16, firstly by working bee and later by Council contract, the reserve was converted from its former use as primarily a public botanic park with running and bicycle racing tracks around the outside, into a sporting oval.

By the 1950's the wooden gun carriage had disintergrated and the barrel had fallen to the ground. In this photograph, the barrel is discernable laying between the two large trees in the foreground, and is in fact in more or less the same position as in the previous photograph.

The cannon was mounted more or less in the centre of the proposed oval, and was therefore one of the first things to be moved. In June 1915, the gun carriage was lashed to a horse dray and dragged unceremoniously for about 80 metres to a point near the reservoir embankment where it was left without ever being properly re-positioned and re-trained. The cannon therefore lost its interest to visitors to the reserve and quickly fell into disuse, particularly after firing its final salute at the World War One Armistice.
Tarnagulla, along with many other country towns, dwindled quickly at this time, and there was little or no incentive amongst the younger generation in maintaining the cannon which was seen as an outmoded weapon from a bygone era. In time, the original wooden carriage rotted away, and by the 1950's the great 3-ton barrel was nothing more than an unwanted piece of scrap metal as it lay half buried in the ground rusting in peace.

The way back

Had it not been for a civic-minded group of locals who came along just in time, the cannon may well have ended its life in a scrap metal furnace. Claude James, Les Williams and others formed a working bee in 1960, and re-erected the cannon in the Soldiers Memorial Park on a concrete carriage which will ensure that the gun will never again fall to the ground. The cannon was fired for the sixth occasion in 1988, when it twice saluted Australia's Bicentenary, although the charge used was a very light one.
Tarnagulla is indeed fortunate in having such a relic as its cannon. This antique gun, and the few others like it which still remain, were procured by the Government well over 100 years ago to protect the fledgling State. Whilst it is ironic that it is the State which must now protect its guns, these relics are nevertheless important to all Victorians and are therefore subject to the official attention of the Curator of Arms of the Museum of Victoria.

Technical Details

As a piece of military ordnance, Tarnagulla's cannon has an extremely interesting pedigree. Its design and initial construction in 1861 and subsequent modification in 1867 came during a period of great advancement in artillery, and the cannon has historical significance on that score alone.
For hundreds of years big cannon had been required to do nothing more than shoot at big targets, often wooden sailing ships, at fairly close ranges firing spherical shot, or cannon balls, out of smooth barrels. By the late 1850's, ships were being built of iron and propelled by steam engines. Therefore, cannons would now be required to fire big projectiles hard enough to penetrate iron and accurately enough to hit ships at a much greater distance. The answer came in cylindrical projectiles, pointed and aerodynamic at one end to spear through hard targets, and fired from a rifled barrel which imparted spin and therefore increased both accuracy and distance.
Tarnagulla's cannon was designed and built on the old system to fire a round projectile, or cannon ball, weighing 32 pounds (14.4 kg) along a smooth tunnel, or bore. It was cast in iron during 1861 at Sir William Armstrong's Elswick Ordnance Factory at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and weighed almost three tons (3.1 tonnes).

Sir William Armstrong Designer & constructor of Tarnagulla's cannon.

Within a year or so of manufacture, this cannon, along with thousands of other cast iron smooth-bore British cannons, had been rendered obsolete almost overnight by the new rifling system described above and which was by then being used in all new ordinance. To simply scrap the old cast iron cannons would have been expensive and wasteful, and in 1863 Captain (later Sir William) Palliser of the Royal Artillery, devised and patented a scheme to convert the old smooth-bore 32 pounders into modern rifled ordnance pieces capable of firing 64 pound (28.8 kg) shells.
Tarnagulla's cannon received its Palliser conversion in 1867. A tube of coiled wrought iron was fitted into the cast iron barrel and was then rifled, so that the converted cannon as it now stands consists of a wrought iron inner tube supported by a cast iron jacket.
The rifling itself is based on an early French design consisting of three shallow grooves in the bore of the cannon with corresponding studs let into the side of the projectile.

An 1892 design shell suitable for use in Tarnagulla's 64Pr-RML. The Woolwich rifling studs are clearly illustrated.

After a great deal of experimentation by British artillerists, this system was modified slightly and became known as Woolwich rifling. In technical terms, Tarnagulla's cannon is a Sixty-four pounder Rifled Muzzle-Loader, or 64-Pr RML. The whole ordnance history of Tarnagulla's cannon can clearly be seen on and in the barrel of the gun today. The Palliser tube and Woolwich rifling are in clear evidence, and the date and serial number of this conversion (1867, 1718) are stamped on the trunnions (or supporting axles), as is the name of the original manufacturer (Armstrong). The date of the original casting (1861) appears atop the barrel at does the weight (58 hundred-weight, or almost 3 tons). The somewhat elaborate V.R. in relief, also as this point, indicates Royal Naval origins from the time of the original casting. At the rear, or cascabel, of the cannon is stamped CV, N, and C. These letters indicate technical enhancements too detailed to be included here, but suffice to say they stand for Copper Vent, New Gun and Cone.
HMVS Nelson was an old ship when she arrived in Victoria is 1867 to defend the young colony. Originally the keel had been laid down in 1805, and the ship was belatedly launched in 1814. The Nelson was a huge three-gun-deck wooden battleship carrying 126 guns, and she was the largest ship of her type built in England to that time. Converted to steam and partially modernised in the 1850's, she was re-gunned in 1867 prior to the trip to Victoria. Tarnagulla's cannon was installed in the Nelson at this time. After another 31 years spent defending Port Phillip Bay against an invader who never materialized, the cannon made its long journey to Tarnagulla in 1898 to begin this story.