Port Fairy’s historic Battery Hill primed for a revival

EVIDENCE of Port Fairy’s colourful history is not limited to its 19th-century streets.

Daily firing of the largest of the Battery Hill cannons for summer tourists is the only time the fortifications are in the spotlight. 100103RG20 Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

Daily firing of the largest of the Battery Hill cannons for summer tourists is the only time the fortifications are in the spotlight. 100103RG20 Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

Many fascinating objects are to be found at the bottom of the sea.

Among them are cannon balls which were fired out into the bay from high up on the Battery Hill fortifications.

While the Battery Hill cannons were never fired in anger at an enemy, Port Fairy historian Marten Syme says they were far from idle.

“In the late 1800s there used to be competitions as to how far and effectively you could shoot the cannons,” Mr Syme said. 

“There is a report from The Warrnambool Standard from 1894 that tells of such a competition between Port Fairy, Geelong, North Melbourne, Portland and Warrnambool.

“A target would be placed in the bay and you would get marks for how close you could get to the target and how quickly you could do it.”

Mr Syme is a passionate advocate for the six cannons that stand at Battery Hill. 

He yesterday attended a Moyne Shire Council information session into the future of the historic military site.

The council is seeking ideas on the area’s redevelopment which will be funded through a $200,000 allocation from the shire and state government.

Work will include improved signage, new pathways and the restoration and relocation of the cannons to a more prominent position.

The first of Battery Hills six cannons, a 32-pounder, arrived in 1867.

The size of each successive cannon gradually grew and by 1889 an 80-pounder arrived. It was set in its current elevated position for maximum impact against any invader. 

Mr Syme said there were two main reasons behind the cannons’ placement.

“At that time there were a lot of ships carrying gold out from the Victorian goldfields so the government was worried about the potential for these ships to be robbed while at sea.

“There were also concerns about the movements of the Russians, so cannons became commonplace around (coastal) Victoria.”

They lost their relevance once it became clear they were not going to be needed to head off any invasion or major criminal activity.

The defence department sold them to the Port Fairy Borough for just a pound each.

The borough council shifted the four smaller cannons to the Gardens Oval and King George Square as decorative pieces.

They stayed there until 1984 when history enthusiast, the late Pat Glover, successfully lobbied to have them brought back to Battery Hill as part of Victoria’s 150th celebrations.

There they have remained: a piece of Port Fairy history almost hidden away at the end of a no-through road. A weekly firing by volunteers during the summer holidays is the only time the main cannon is in the spotlight.

There are hopes the area’s redevelopment will ignite more public interest.

Mr Syme said the historical significance of Battery Hill could not be underestimated.

The cannons and their carriages were extremely rare and to have a full set of the six was even rarer. 

He said the powder magazine, located in the scrub a stone’s throw from the artillery, was also significant. 

Built in 1861, it housed gun powder which, interestingly, wasn’t used for the cannons but for civil purposes such as blasting through rock. It is one of the few buildings of its kind and vintage still in good condition, most others either in a poor state or long demolished.

“This side of the river has never been as well publicised as the other and that is a shame because Battery Hill is a wonderful area,” Mr Syme said.

“This is a great opportunity to really make a difference and make this funding work so we get the best result for the future of Battery Hill.”

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