Northcote's cannons - defending the neighbourhood

High Street, Westgarth

For the last ninety years two cannons have straddled High Street in Westgarth, defending Northcote from invasion. In March 1913 the Northcote South Ratepayer’s Association contacted the Council requesting permission to install the two cannons on rockeries existing at the corner of Walker and High Streets in Westgarth.

The Northcote Council had mixed feelings about the idea. Councillor Mason thought that the cannons would have “…a valuable effect in instilling a military spirit into the boys.” Councillor McDonell took the opposing view, arguing that “the less military spirit that they instilled into the minds of the lads, the better.” However, the Ratepayer’s Association finally won out and in June 1913 the guns were moved to their new home in Westgarth. The cannons are Mark VII 8 inch breech loading rifled guns and were built in 1884 and 1885 by W.G. Armstrong and Co. of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northumberland in England. The cannons weigh just under 12 tons each, or about 12,000 kilograms and could fire a shell weighing 95 kilos over 7.5 kilometres.

During the late 1880’s there was a fear that England and Russia would go to war and that there was a fear of a Russian invasion of Australia. In these days it seems a highly unlikely scenario but at the time the Australian government took it extremely seriously and began building a series of forts to defend the coastline.

A number of forts were built around Port Phillip, including the South Channel Fort, built on a sandbar about 5 kilometres from Sorrento. This was a substantial fort with bluestone foundations and a platform supporting the two cannons. Iron plates covered the sides of the fort and altogether formed a very formidable defence. So strong were considered the defences of Port Phillip that for a time it was referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of the South.’ The Victorian Government had purchased the two cannons from England in 1887 for £4,500 each. But the cannons never fired in anger and by 1896 they were obsolete and the Government was forced to replace them.

By 1901 the cannons had found a new home at the Naval Ordnance Yard at Williamstown. They remained there until 1913 when the Northcote South Ratepayer’s Association came to collect them. In 1989 the South Channel Fort was restored and attempts were made to relocate the guns back to their original home. The mood in Northcote to this suggestion were mixed. Some considered the cannons an eyesore whilst one Councillor said they “…were aimed at the yuppies in North Fitzroy.”

The Victorian Tourist Commission took the Northcote Councillors to the South Channel Fort to try and sway them but after a poll of ratepayers recommended they stay, the Council rejected the Commission’s request. So the cannons continue to guard Northcote from potential invaders, whether they be a Russian fleet or North Fitzroy yuppies, just as they have done for the last ninety years.

Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.