Zeitblick / Das Online-Magazin der HillAc - 1. Januar 2011 - Nr. 38

City, My City

Series 4, Part 9

Fortress Wellington
A partial history of the fortification of Wellington and its harbour

"A well regulated militia,
composed of the body of the people,
trained in arms, is the best most natural defence of a free country."

James Madison, 4th President of the United States of America

Tucked away on hillsides surrounding Wellington Harbour, amongst trees, overgrown with brush and on headlands and hilltops may be found some of the remnants of the various attempts undertaken by the New Zealand government to protect its shores from what was perceived at the time as real threats to our peace, our security and our sovereignty. Over the years various preparations have been made to secure our major harbours at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin against expected attacks from Russia in the 1880's and Japan in the 1940's, attacks which fortunately did not occur but which were perceived as actual menaces in their day. Although Wellington has unfortunately lost Fort Kelburn, a memory from my childhood situated on the hills above the interchange joining state highways 1 & 2, and Fort Dorset, located on the shores of Wellington Harbour at Seatoun, history has retained for us forts Ballance and Buckley from the 1880's as well as Fort Opau on the North Island's south west coast near Makara, and the underground maze of tunnels that make up the Wright's Hill Fortress in the city's western hills. Although none of these guns was ever fired in anger (the occasional test firing did occur), and none of the installations was ever used for the purpose for which it was built, this story is dedicated to those who foresaw the dangers to our country, who took real steps towards repelling it and who decided that the value of New Zealand and its people was worthy of this effort and expense.

Map of Wellington Harbour showing the approximate location of Maori "Pa" or fortified villages. This image has been constructed using a basic Google satellite image of Wellington to which I have applied arrows pointing out the Pa sites around the harbour. © Google Maps/Peter Wells 2010

Throughout most of its human occupation Wellington Harbour (along with the rest of New Zealand) has been fortified to one degree or another. Protection for early Maori was created around the concept of fortified villages, known as "Pa" [literal definition being 'to obstruct'], often built on a hilltop, peninsula or headland jutting out into the sea, an arrangement which allowed for almost 360 degree protection from land-based attack. To enhance the security of this type of Pa the bulk of the neck of land linking it to the mainland was often hacked away leaving a narrow and easily defended access way. Maori Pa, formed by a combination of roughly circular palisades, ditches and embankments, were intended as domestic defensive positions only, each protecting its tribe or "Iwi" from its neighbouring tribes should there be any chance of aggression or surprise attack. I am not aware that there was ever any perception by Maori of the threat of invasion from beyond New Zealand's coastal waters. The country was remote enough to make any such venture in those days impractical. Economic and easy to construct [the so called "L-Pa" at Waitara in Taranaki was built overnight by 80 men] Pa were not utilised by their inhabitants as fortresses to withstand a sustained attack by soldiers with musket and cannon. It took, however, some years for the British regiments to figure this out. Well situated in defensive positions, the palisade was often raised a few centimetres above the ground to allow muskets to be fired from underneath rather than over the top, gaps were left in the palisade leading to killing traps and trenches and rifle pits were built to protect occupants. Should the battle not be going the defenders' way the Pa was willingly abandoned in favour of another location which, as we have found, could be quickly and easily barricaded. Wellington Harbour has been ringed by various Maori Pa built at one time or another over the centuries and there were at least 6 in existence when European settlers arrived in 1840 - Pito-One (or Petone), Hikoikoi, Pipitea and Te Aro as well as Pa at various other locations shown in the image above using their present-day English names. In addition two Pa were located on Somes (Matiu) Island in the centre of the harbour as well as one on Ward (Makaro) Island used as a 'Pa of refuge', where tribespeople could retreat in time of war.

Sixty four pound gun at Fort Buckley, Kaiwharawhara, Wellington, 1886. Taken by Edgar Richard Williams. Reference Number: 1/1-025892-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image. An interesting photograph showing the field of fire available to the Fort Buckley battery stepped into the western hills above Wellington. Capable of a rate of fire equivalent to one round per minute, the guns had a range of 3,200 metres and were capable of delivering a shell four fifths of the way to Point Halswell to the south east, effectively protecting the entrance to Lambton Harbour and the city.

The terms of the British Colonial Defence Act of 1865 allowed for any British colony to establish a navy, however little was done in New Zealand beyond appreciating the occasional presence of a British ship of war or gunboat along with, at that time, more than 10,000 British troops from at least 10 regiments. Some years later the serious fortification of New Zealand from external threat took place in two main stages - in 1876/77 and then in 1885, during what was termed the first and second "Russian Scare", and again from 1942 with the serious Japanese threat in the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbour during World War Two. Following the end of the Crimean War in 1856 and the defeat of Russia by a European alliance of armies including France, Britain and Turkey and other smaller states, the Russians seemed determined to continue to flex their military muscles. Several events occurred in the 1870's and 1880's which caused nations around the world to become increasingly suspicious of Russian intentions beyond its borders. The development of a fast and well-armed naval force by Tsarist Russia, whose Pacific ports were within sailing distance of Australian and New Zealand shores, caused the authorities in our young colonies to become increasingly  aware of the vulnerability of our harbours and to attack by hostile forces. In February 1873 a New Zealand newspaper, the "Daily Southern Cross", published a story under the panic inducing headline "War with Russia, A Calamity for Auckland, Hostile Visit of a Russian Iron-clad". While this story was, as was later admitted by its authors, a well-intentioned hoax, the alarm generated was akin to that produced by Orson Welles' 1938 radio version of "The War of the Worlds" which featured an invasion of Earth by Martians. Many New Zealand citizens, obviously heedless of the footnote explaining the intent of the Russian invasion newspaper story, believed claims that the 954-man Russian warship "Kaskowiski" (a play on the phrase "cask o' whisky") with a dozen 30-ton guns and an advanced "water-gas" weapon had arrived in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. In addition the Russians were said to have captured a British vessel anchored in the harbour, seized the city's munitions and gold reserves as well as holding several of its leading citizens to ransom. A day or two later the newspaper published a follow-up article explaining that the item was a pretence to prove the vulnerability of New Zealand and its harbours to attack. The ruse, however, had worked and the Government now saw how serious had become our distance from and reliance on Britain, the "Mother Country". Like Australia, New Zealand was a British Colony and as such we had always believed we could rely on Britain to defend us from harm. Logically, however, the probability of this defence being provided in time or even at all was becoming less and less likely and it was pragmatic for our government to take steps to defend New Zealand and its ports. Several reports were commissioned on the state of the colony's defences and planning commenced in earnest as a result of the "Russian Scare". The government bought 10 Armstrong BL-8 inch guns and 13 BL-6 inch guns on disappearing carriages [allowing the gun to sink into it's bunker for re-loading, keeping it out of the line of enemy fire]. This purchase  was followed a short time later by the acquisition of a number of RML-7 inch and 64 pounder guns. It was now time to build the forts to house them.

Concrete gun emplacement of Fort Buckley, Kaiwharawhara, Wellington, 2010. This picture depicts the same concrete bunker shown in the 1886 photograph above minus, of course, the gun. After more than 120 years it is good to see that the concrete construction has been well preserved and is still in good condition, but it is likewise a great shame to see the damage caused by the mindless vandalism of graffiti. Photo © Peter Wells, September 2010

In all 16 fortifications were built to protect the 4 key harbours in New Zealand - Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Four emplacements, Fort Ballance, Fort Buckley, Halswell Battery and Fort Kelburn, were built to protect Wellington between 1885 and 1889. All of these, with the exception of Fort Kelburn, remain today. The following is a brief run-down of the status of each of these existing emplacements:

Fort Buckley
My own interest in the defensive structures of Wellington began, when I first read about Fort Buckley 3 or 4 years ago and became keen to visit the site when I found out that the location, on the hills above Wellington Harbour, still existed. Determined to take a look, our grandson Ryan and I drove there one day following directions that we had found on the internet. The path down to the location was extremely steep and slippery, so much so that we had to be careful not to lose our footing. When we arrived there, both conscious that we were entering an historic site which was 125 years old, we found evidence of neglect and mis-use by those whose respect for our history is non-existent. The site was very overgrown, so much so that we had to get down into the gun emplacements before we could see or appreciate their size and structure. They had been liberally daubed with graffiti and there was evidence that fires had been lit in various places. We have visited the site again several times over the years and thankfully recent attempts have been made to restore the site including appropriate signage, the removal of vegetation and a significant improvement to the access path. We both hope that Fort Buckley and similar sites will be preserved and brought back to something like their original condition. Named for Sir Patrick Buckley, Colonial Secretary during the Stout-Vogel government and founder of the Wellington Artillery volunteers. During World War Two an anti-aircraft battery was sited at Fort Buckley.

Halswell Battery
Built in 1889 on the foremost tip of Point Halswell, a location named for Edmund Storr Halswell a member of the New Zealand Company who was here in 1840, it is now covered by the Massey Memorial which commemorates the life, work and death of William Ferguson Massey, a New Zealand Prime Minister of from 1912 to 1919 who remained in parliamentary office until his death in 1925. The underground rooms which once made up the Halswell Battery still exist below the public area of the memorial and, in fact, the marble-lined room in which the remains of Massey and his wife, Christina, rest was once the original gun pit for the Halswell Battery. The Massey Memorial was originally a three-sided pyramid built over the gunpit however in 1930 it was extended he rest of the present-day memorial was completed. Today it is a registered Category 1 Historic Place preserving the memory of W F Massey, his historic burial place and the legacy of one of Wellington's early defensive works.

Fort Ballance
Fort Ballance was named for John Ballance, Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister between 1891 and 1893. Work commenced on this structure in 1885 and was well advanced by 1888 when it consisted of magazines, engine rooms and barracks fitted out with two RML-7 inch guns, a BL-6 inch, two 6 pounder QF Nordenfelt guns. In the early 1890's a "see-saw searchlight" was installed on the hillside forward of the main building, the only one of its kind installed in New Zealand. These experimental defensive lights proved to be ineffectual, however, and the Fort Ballance example was removed in the late 1890's. Reached by a steep climb up from the coast road, the site itself has a commanding view of the harbour entrance and the main channel towards the inner harbour therefore one can see from standing atop some of its highest points why the location was chosen. Partially re-used during World War One and World War Two, the structure was decommissioned after 1957. Although most of the original structure still exists, both above and below ground along with nearby Fort Gordon, today it is a run down and graffiti daubed shadow of its former self as seen in the comparative photographs below showing the fort in 1887 during its development and a picture I took in October 2010. A sad indictment on those responsible for our culture and our heritage.

Fort Ballance, Scorching Bay, Wellington c 1887, taken by Henry Charles Clarke Wright. Reference Number: 1/1-020667-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image. On its promontory above Scorching Bay on the shores of Wellington Harbour, Fort Ballance occupies a commanding view of the harbour entrance at Wellington Heads and a sweep along the eastern arm of the harbour sufficient to provide a deterrent to any force attempting to attack the Capital by sea. In the distance may be seen Ward (Makaro) Island and the coastline of Eastbourne.

Fort Ballance, Scorching Bay, Wellington October 2010. The overgrown grass surrounding the structure is mainly waist high, empty spray paint cans proliferate, BB pellets litter the floor inside the above building and the detritus of decades of neglect is strewn everywhere. It is a sad commentary that even the surface of the approach road is festooned with graffiti and we were left wondering who would climb a very steep hill merely to deface this building and leave their "tag" in a place very few would see it.

After their telling blow to American naval supremacy in the Pacific, the Japanese invading forces moved unfettered down through Asia and the Pacific and World War Two saw the appearance of another threat to New Zealand. As with the "Russian Scare" of 50 years before, defensive positions were built throughout New Zealand and in Wellington. This time, however, they were more extensive, more ambitious and more aggressive, designed to deny access to the harbour rather than to repulse an invader once they had entered through Wellington Heads. Fort Opau was built on the south-western coast near Makara to defend the  entrance to Cook Strait; Palmer Head sat squarely above the harbour entrance, ready to harry an invading sea force; Fort Dorset was located just inside Wellington Heads should the invaders break through and the resurrected Fort Ballance was situated further up the entrance channel to continue to ravage the invader. Atop all of this, at one of the highest points in Wellington on Wright's Hill in the suburb of Karori, the mighty Wright's Hill Fortress complex was constructed. Based on a British design although not as large as similar overseas constructions, the structure was still fairly extensive consisting of two massive 9.2 inch guns in purpose built gun pits, an engine room housing two 184 HP Ruston & Hornsby diesel generators providing power to manoeuvre the guns, magazines, plotting rooms and more all linked by 620 meters of tunnels. Construction of the site progressed extremely quickly, however by 1943 when the situation in the Pacific has started to turn in favour of the Allies, the pace of construction was slowed and the big guns were eventually installed in 1944 by which time, short of a complete reversal in the fortunes of war, they would no longer be needed. These guns, of course, were never fired in anger as with all guns housed in the various defensive positions throughout New Zealand. They were, however, test fired by the army in 1946 and 1947 the army reporting that the "proofings" were most satisfactory although in both instances windows at the fort were broken by the blast. Thankfully today Wright's Hill Fortress has been preserved through the timely intervention of the Karori Lions Club and is now periodically open to the public. I must get there one day.

© Peter Wells, Wellington, New Zealand