The remains of Dawes Point Battery are located under the southern approach to Sydney Harbour Bridge. Intended as a permanent fortification, the battery stood ready to defend Sydney from naval attack for almost 120 years, during which time Britain feared attack from Spain, France, Russia and even the United States.
In 1789 a gunpowder magazine, or store, was constructed on Dawes Point, at the northern end of George Street. In 1790 a dispute arose between Spain and Britain over claims in the Pacific, highlighting how vulnerable the colony was to attack; this led to the construction of a series of fortifications, including Dawes Point Battery, around the harbour.
Dawes Point Battery, completed in 1791, was initially armed with guns taken from HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet. In 1798 the colony was again under threat of attack, this time from the French. Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to block England's access to its Asian and Pacific colonies, and the defences of Sydney were scrutinised for improvement. Captain Edward Abbott of the New South Wales Corps was appointed engineer and artillery officer with responsibility for the defences of the harbour, and was given the task of improving the batteries. In 1801 Governor King was able to state that Dawes Point Battery “has been reconstructed and is now capable of annoying any vessels with effect”. In 1810 Napoleon ordered an attack on Sydney from Mauritius, but the French colony was captured before its ships could sail. During the Napoleonic War French and Spanish ships were captured in the Pacific Ocean, and were saluted by the guns of the Battery as prizes of war as they were brought into Sydney.
Ceremonial salutes were fired to mark celebrations, such as the arrival and departure of early governors, royal birthdays, and the overthrow of Governor Bligh in the ‘Rum Rebellion’ of 1808.
In 1820, following the final defeat of Napoleon, the Battery was given a complete makeover by Governor Macquarie, who ordered his architect, Francis Greenway, to design a decorative castellated guardhouse and a semicircular battery with improved breastworks. The 1789 powder magazine was incorporated into the works as the basement of the new guardhouse.
In 1839, at a time of tension between the USA and Britain, two American sloops peacefully slipped into Sydney Harbour at night, alarming the city and highlighting its lack of defence. A dozen years later Britain sustained a serious defeat at the hands of the Russians at Petropavlovsk in the northern Pacific during the Crimean War (1854–56). Since New South Wales was undergoing an economic boom following the discovery of gold, the setback aroused fear of a Russian naval attack on the colony. In response, the forts at Bennelong Point (Fort Macquarie) and Dawes Point were enlarged, with additional batteries constructed at Kirribilli, Mrs Macquaries Chair and Fort Denison.
THE ROYAL ARTILLERY
Detachments of the Royal Artillery were sent to Sydney in 1856 following additions to the Battery by Lt.-Col. George Barney of the Royal Engineers. These improvements included the Officers' Quarters, built to the north of the Greenway guardhouse; a barracks to house 120 artillerymen and their families on the western side of Lower Fort Street; and five 42lb mounted cannon on traversing platforms installed at the Upper Battery which can still be seen. A Lower Battery was added further down the slope with a dozen guns facing the harbour, and two new subterranean powder magazine rooms were accessed by a circular stair cut deep into the rock from the Upper Battery.
The last remaining British troops departed Australian shores in August 1870, replaced by local military and naval militia raised by the NSW Government. ’A’ Battery of the NSW Artillery, raised on 1 August 1871, had its headquarters at Dawes Point until 1904, when the land became public open space. After World War I it was used as a repatriation college for returned soldiers, teaching skills as diverse as tractor driving and silversmithing.
DEMOLITION AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATION
The construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge between 1925 and 1932 necessitated the demolition of Dawes Point Battery and Greenway's guardhouse. During demolition the foundation stone for the first gunpowder store was found, inscribed ‘RR 1789’ for Major Robert Ross, then Commander of the Marines and Lieutenant Governor. This stone can now be seen in The Colony exhibition in The Rocks Discovery Museum.
In 1995 archaeological investigations were carried out at the Battery site, and the findings were incorporated into a new interpretive park. Opened to the public in 2001, the park was named ‘Dawes Point (Tar-ra)’ in recognition of the Cadigal people’s original name for the point. Visitors to the park today can see conserved archaeological remains and discover stories of the site’s past.