These days Sydney Harbour is better known for its yachts, motor boats and tourist ferries than as the front line of defence for Sydney town.  But if you have a bit of a look around, you might notice that the foreshores are dotted with old forts, gun emplacements and lookouts left over from a time when the harbour bristled with guns.

From the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, Europeans were aware of the isolated and potentially vulnerable situation they occupied.  French ships had turned up the same day as the Fleet.  So on arrival in Sydney Harbour Governor Phillip unloaded guns from the Sirius and mounted them on the western point of Sydney Cove at Dawes Point and the eastern side at Bennelong Point to protect the anchorage.

Guns at the ready at Mrs Macquaries Fort 1875
Guns at the ready at Fort Macquarie 1875

These were augmented in 1795 by guns on Garden Island and then in 1801 with a redoubt built at Obelisk Point near Middle Head.  The plan was for Obelisk Point to engage any ships entering the harbour and then Dawes Point and Bennelong Point to provide a cross fire at any ships that made it close enough to attack the town.

These batteries remained the main forts on the harbour until 1839.  Governor Macquarie had upgraded them between 1810 and 1821, renaming the Bennelong Point battery as Fort Macquarie, but gunners complained that when the cannons were fired in test firing exercisers the stones of the redoubt were dislodged.

Sydney needed some defence in case any enemy of Britain arrived unannounced.  With tension in Europe not uncommon, it could be 3 to 4 months before news of any war with Britain might arrive in Australia, by which time any patrolling enemy could have come into the harbour and bombarded the town.  Further, with European nations such as France, Spain and Russia as well and the United States expanding their colonial ambitions into the Pacific, Sydney felt a long way away from help.

In 1835, Captain George Bailey was commissioned to review the defences.  While recommended a number of new forts, debates over spending and whether the forts were needed at all delayed work.  Then, on the morning of 30 November 1839 Sydney woke to find two American warships at anchor in the Sydney Cove.  They had come in overnight without the assistance of a pilot and unseen by any of the forts.

As the Captain of the flagship Vincennes said, they could have open fire on an unsuspecting Sydney.

Funnily enough debates about the need for new forts vanished and work began immediately on new positions on Pinchgut Island, now known as Fort Denison, Kirribilli and Bradleys Head.  Work proceeded slowly however and the forts were not completed until 1857, by which time Britain had been at war in the Crimea with Russia and new fears of attacks on Sydney had risen.

On the guns at Watsons Bay, South Head 1875
On the guns at Watsons Bay, South Head 1875

Upgrades to the existing batteries were coupled with new installations at South Head, Inner South Head and Middle Head in the 1870s and 1880s.  Eventually guns were placed from Dawes Point to South Head, at North Bondi, Bare Island in Botany Bay and Shark Point near Coogee.

But technology moves quickly, and so by the turn of the twentieth century the forts were obsolete.  New, larger warships could attack from offshore, out of range of the shore batteries.  Planes could fly overhead and bomb the city. Submarines could slip past unnoticed. And so, although modernised during the First and Second World Wars, the forts were gradually decommissioned, the guns scraped and the bush allowed to move back in.  The guns never fired in anger.

But the forts are still there, now part of Sydney Harbour National Park and other public reserves and well worth a visit as they occupy on the best spots, ever vigilant.