A visit to Spectacle Island is tantamount to travelling back through time.
Located on the Parramatta River near Sydney Harbour, the island is a depository of historical artefacts, collected over more than 100 years of the Royal Australian Navy’s history.
The island is home to more than half-a-million individual items, large and small, that represent every single maritime operation that the Royal Australian Navy has ever been involved in.
Every item stored on the island tells a unique story and collectively the artefacts tell the Royal Australian Navy’s story, and the stories of all the men and women that have served the nation at sea.
As the oldest continuously operating naval facility in Australia, Spectacle Island is a fitting home for the storehouses that keep these items safe for future generations.
The facility first opened in 1884 as the armament depot for the Royal Navy’s Australia Squadron. Spectacle Island was transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia following Federation in 1901, and continued as the armament depot when the Commonwealth Naval Forces became the Royal Australian Navy in 1911.
For most of the twentieth century, Spectacle Island continued its armament role until it was transitioned to into the repository for Navy's heritage collection in the 1980s. The island is also the home of the Australian Navy Cadet’s Training Ship Sydney.
The importance of preserving Australia's naval history is top of mind for the Director of the Naval Heritage Collection, Commander Alex Hawes.
“Preservation of this collection by people who wear, or have worn, the uniform means that the heart and soul of the Navy is carried forward for future generations.
“Spectacle Island has 48 buildings, spread over five acres, many of which are over 120 years old and all of which are heritage listed.
“It is one of the largest collections of its type in the world, and we hope that people will enjoy visiting our public displays where they can see many of the highlights,” Commander Hawes said.
One historical feature that commands attention at Spectacle Island is the large 4.5-inch Mk 6 gun from HMAS Parramatta (III).
Other large items include the casings of torpedos and missiles, and radar and communications equipment from yesteryear.
The facility isn’t just used for storing artefacts, but also preserving and restoring them.
The Assistant Curator at Spectacle Island, Ian Steel, said a ship’s boat from the original HMAS Parramatta (I), that is more than a hundred years old, is a great example of these efforts.
“The boat has been lovingly restored by a few volunteers and one staff member over the past 24 months,” Mr Steel said.
“It will be great to see this boat on display in one of the Navy Heritage Collections facilities soon,” he said.
The storage facilities at Spectacle Island hold a variety of items such as Navy uniforms dating back to the foundation of the Royal Australian Navy and gifts from foreign ships and dignitaries. The collection even includes the entire Commanding Officer’s cabin from HMAS Parramatta (III), exactly as it looked when the ship was decommissioned in 1991.
More unusual items include various swords and arms surrendered to Royal Australian Navy members, and the Night Orders signed by Admiral Nelson on HMS Victory on 20 October 1805 - the night before the Battle of Trafalgar.
While Spectacle Island is not open to the public, due to its role as a collection and storage facility, members of the public can view historical Navy artefacts at the Navy Heritage Centre on Sydney’s Garden Island; the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Nowra; and the Museum of Cerberus at HMAS Cerberus on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
More information on the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Collection and its museums can be found at http://www.navy.gov.au/history/navy-museums.
Imagery is available on the Royal Australian Navy Image Library at http://images.navy.gov.au/S20141389.