First Fleet Cannons Still Survive in NZ
by RH Thorburn
This article was first published in the Journal of the Whanganui Historical Society Inc., Vol. 20, No. 1, May 1989, and is presented here with permission. Spelling and terminology have not been adjusted.
In 1988 Australia celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the European occupation of the continent after the despatch of the first and second Fleets from Britain landed their mixed draft of immigrants to establish the first early settlements. During this period one of the vessels engaged in the transport either was wrecked on the coast near Sydney or was compelled to shift the weight of displacement for extra cargo assigned for the return voyage to Britain. This was apparently simplified without resorting to complicated equations by multiplying the combined weight of four cast-iron deck cannons of identical size and transferring them to the dockside. Whatever the reasons or arrangements made for their future they were soon forgotten as further ships' jetsom piled on top of them as the decades of the 19th century continued to pass by.
All these guns are cast-iron with bores of three to four inches firing round shot weighing four to six pounds with the barrel weights the same at 6 cwt 3 qrt 19 lbs. Most have breeching loops which identifies them with sea service use. Three have flared muzzles and one has not while the length of barrels reach to five feet with a diameter of eleven inches at the breech. The chase at the breech of no. 3 are marked B P & Co 6 3 19 denoting the casting by the London firm of Bailey, Pegg & Co iron founders and Contractors to the Board of Ordnance (now Ministry of Defence) and supplied guns from 1760 - 1870.
During the year 1859 the construction of the brig "Lady Denison" took place at Sydney, Australia and the vessel is described from the shipping lists of that year as a wooden hulled vessel rigged as a brig of 129 gross tonnage, length 93 feet by 18.5 feet wide with a ten foot draught and commanded by Captain William Walton. The eighteenth century cannons rusting on the dockside were most suitable for ballast and the Captain promptly had all four hoisted on board and lowered to the bilges carefully placing two to each side of the vessel. The "Lady Denison" was named after the Governor's wife and in 1862, Hobart, Tasmania became her home port and from there she traded across the Tasman. Eventually she was purchased by the Wanganui firm of Messrs Taylor & Watt and was then captained by Thomas Ballardie Taylor throughout the rest of the 1860's acting as a commissariat supply ship along the west coast of the North Island at the time of the Taranaki Wars. It is recorded she ran aground at Patea during the abortive campaign by General Cameron (the 'lame seagull') to capture the Weraroa Pa, was successfully refloated, but on 12th June, 1865 while inward bound with 160 tons of flour again went ashore on the South Beach at the mouth of the Wanganui River. The owners decided to lighten the ship, take it over the sand spit and refloat it into the river and Mr W. Calman with his wife and children lived on the Lady Denison for three months during preparations for salvage. The four cannons were first to go from the bilges and she was then successfully refloated.
In 1871 the ship was sold to Sydney owners and on this delivery trip Captain Taylor was lost overboard and according to Museum archives was 'Drowned at Sea' on the 16th July, 1871 'By falling overboard from the Brig Lady Denison in Cooks Straits, N.Z.' Thomas Ballardie Taylor aged 54 years - universally regretted. And from this time on the Brig continued her eventual career until at Cossack, Western Australia was broken up in the year 1887. After the guns were removed all were taken to Wanganui later in 1865 and two were sited at the steps of a new home built by Mr Watt. On his death they were willed to the City of Wanganui and moved to a site at Virginia Lake and in 1979 were mounted on new garrison carriages by the Wanganui Regional Museum and removed to their present site at Veteran Steps across from the Museum. In 1986 the Wanganui Historical Society were concerned that no plaque had yet been placed by the guns associating them with the Lady Denison but they now bear such a notice. Survey diagram
The history of the other two cannons is not so well documented but numbers 3 and 4 as they are now documented were acquired in 1865 by Alexander Hatrick who was Mayor of Wanganui and an officer in the Volunteer Forces. No 3 cannon lay without a carriage by the front door of his residence in Oakland Ave and cannon no 4 he presented to Mr A.G. Bignell well before the turn of the century and more recently his son a past president for many years of the Wanganui Museum in a letter to the writer in 1983 explained that cannon no 4 had been in his family for at least ninety years and his father had always displayed it alongside a large flagpole at his various residences until his death. At the present time it still remains with the Bignell family, but is now located at Palmerston North. Mr A. Hatrick's cannon no 3 was noted in 1948 by Museum staff to be quietly disappearing into the ground by his front door and when finally purchased by D.I. Carran in 1964 he stated that only the breeching loop could be seen above ground and the whole cannon had to be excavated. In 1972 he moved to Whangarei taking the rather forlorn rusted barrel with him and when in 1979 another move came he decided to offer it for sale by tender to members of the N.Z. Antique Arms Association. In 1979 the writer was the successful tenderer and no 3 was shipped south to Turangi where it was mounted on a tressle and restoration work commenced and the gun mounted on a new naval garrison carriage of the period 1760-80. It is interesting to note now that these four eighteenth century guns in 1989 are alive and well after passing from their days of glory in the fleet to the hapless scrap pile on the Sydney docks, their life out of sight in the bilges of the Lady Denison and then the slow bid of nearly a century to claim recognition and their final preservation for posterity.