Armstrong 80pr RML’s at Portland, Port Fairy and Warrnambool.

by John

10 members of my family had a brief vacation in South West Victoria after Christmas. It was a nice holiday, but with three 5 year olds and an 8 year old, it was noisy.

I took the opportunity to revisit the Armstrong RML’s at Port Fairy and Warrnambool. And to visit the one at Portland for the first time.

Every time I see these cannons I learn something new about them. And I got to talk to a local historian at Port Fairy. Colonial Victoria purchased 25 or 26 of these muzzle loading rifled cannons in 1866. 10 of them are still in existence. I have now seen 5 of them. I believe that there are further barrels at Fort Queenscliff, Point Nepean, and possibly Cerberus which I have not yet seen.

“80pr” indicates that the cannons fired projectiles weighing 80 pounds. On all of these cannons the case of the elevating gears is stamped thus….

I am not sure what M2 GAR. stands for. Could it be an abbreviation of Mr WG Armstrong (later Lord Armstrong), the designer of these guns? R.M.L. will stand for “Rifled Muzzle Loader”. 80 PR will be 80 pound projectile. 6 FT PAR had me puzzled, but when I saw that the guns were designed to sit behind a 6 foot parapet I am pretty sure that will be the solution. And in a smaller font below, WD with a vertical arrow will indicate that the part has been approved by the War Department.

The Portland 80pr RML

From a distance, it looks good. The shapes in the carriage and chassis stand out with the white paint, and the assembly looks reasonably complete, except for absent winding handles and sights. Closer inspection however is disappointing. The cannon was restored in 1985 and the parts which were replaced such as the biggest gear, the elevation quadrant scale and trunnion caps, and elevation gear are significantly different from the originals on the Port Fairy and Warrnambool cannons. They appear to have been cut from mild steel in a fanciful representation of the original designs. Arc welding has been extensively used to join components. It is OK as a tourist attraction, but useless for historic study.

And instead of pointing over Portland Bay, it points at the large grain silo.

PORT FAIRY CANNONS REVISITED

Overdue for restoration works, the carriage wheels are largely crumbling into rust, and the girders have large rusted missing sections. The barrel of number 22 is elevated to a high angle which would never have been used, but is useful for firing blank charges for the entertainment of tourists, and which I enjoyed 12 months ago. Number 17 barrel rests on its parapet, at such a low angle that it too would never have used. The total lack of restoration does allow one aspect of the barrels to be visible, and that is the coil construction of the barrel segments.

Number 22
Close up of the breech steel. Pitted and rusted. Can you see the spiral strips of iron which were bent and hammered as red hot strips up to 200 feet long, around a mandrel?

I measured the widths of the strips, and found that those on the narrowest part of the barrel (the chase, near the muzzle) were the narrowest at 36mm, and those of the biggest barrel diameter, the breech, were 50mm wide.

As a comparison to the previous photo of a coil constructed barrel, this similarly rusted 1861 SBML (smooth bore muzzle loader) shows no evidence of the spiral iron strips, and would have been a cast iron construction with machine bored bore.

I was also able to work out the structure of the girders on the Armstrong RML, and the reason for all of those rivets. The top and bottom pieces are T section iron, and the sides are 3/8″ (9.5mm) plate iron. There are small pieces of iron to fill the gaps at the ends, and where intermediate rivets are used in the middle sections. Using a percussion technique, taught to all medical students for diagnosing pneumonia, I could work out the locations of all of the small middle pieces.

The girder end, showing the T pieces, side panels and middle filler piece.
My sketch of the construction of the girders.
Another family member being introduced to the Port Fairy RML cannon, probably as a fashion accessory.

WARRNAMBOOL ARMSTRONG RML’s

These have been expertly restored, and are the most complete examples which I have seen. They were painted entirely black which makes photographs more difficult to interpret.

Whales are commonly seen in the bay. Unfortunately none on this day.

This is a close up of the projectile loading cradle. The deep groove at 6 o’clock caused me to re-examine the history of studded projectiles and non studded gas check projectiles. Apparently the studded type were used until the mid 1880’s but were discontinued when gas checks were introduced. Gas checks were effective and caused less bore erosion wear than the studded type. The groove at 6 o’clock would have accommodated the lowermost stud. The cradle would have continued to be used with the gas check projectiles.

Next post will include some interesting historical photos, and other restored cannons which were recently installed at Port Fairy.