Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Hobart Gunpowder Magazine

A beautiful and very well preserved example of a "state-of-the-art" gunpowder magazine, a fine example of convict craftsmanship.
It’s the only example left in Tasmania of a properly designed and built Gunpowder house, first put into use in 1851. The structure was beautifully built by convict labour and is in near perfect condition, except for a damaged front entrance, which can easily be repaired.

The Gunpowder house was designed with all the technical and chemical knowledge of the storage and treatment of gunpowder known in the 1840's. Structurally, it’s a superb example of military architecture. Built of sandstone with a slate roof with brick interior and brick vaulted ceilings. The Domain powder magazine, was first built as a double roofed, solid sandstone building, with "vaulted" inner brick ceilings, by the Royal Engineers in 1850-51 and was capable of storing 1600 whole barrels of powder. In 1857 another totally separate bay was added. It remained as Hobart’s main gunpowder storage until 1970.

To overcome the danger from sparks, the only metals used are copper (doors and grills), bronze and brass. In some areas, the floorboards are pegged with wooden dowel. Ventilation is indirect to prevent sparks from bushfires entering the magazine. Two copper conducting rods called "Franklin Rods", (after their inventor, Dr Benjamin Franklin,) protect the building from lightning strikes. These rods run down to two separate water reservoirs to provide safe earthing, a method that was the subject of the first world-wide patent. The small building in the eastern wall is the old ‘shifting house’ in which casks were opened and gunpowder exchanged.

There was a "gunpowder" jetty associated with the magazine for taking deliveries of gunpowder. The jetty was demolished some time after 1970 and all that remains are the stone abutments at the waters edge beyond the slipways towards Government House.

Unfortunately, the site is currently closed and fenced off by the Hobart Council and is not available to be inspected inside. However, you can still walk around the external fence which I did and was able to take the photographs you see here. Hopefully the council will see fit to fully restore and open the site on a regular basis as a tourist attraction in the near future. It's a wonderful piece of colonial and convict history right in the heart of Hobart's Domain precinct.


  1. I think the reason the building looks so handsome is because it was built from sandstone and slate, my two favourite materials. There may well be a brick interior and brick vaulted ceilings, but we don't see them.

    The design is very functional and austere. Was there an architect? Or did the Royal Engineers simply copy the design of other gunpowder houses?

    1. Havent seen any mention of a particular architect, only that the Royal Engineers were involved in the construction. Probably makes a lot of sense that the Royal Engineers would have a hand in designing and constructing building with a military focus, utilising convicts as the labour force. Its a shame we cant see inside the building at this stage but I did find today a master plan from the Hobart City Council for the Queens Domain area from 2013 - 2033 listing the following points:

      Her Majesty’s Powder Magazine (1851)
      - Retain, conserve and interpret the Powder Magazine.
      - Under-take catch up maintenance to ensure soundness
      of the stone and pointing.
      - Remove surrounding fencing to allow greater
      public access.
      - Place power supply underground.
      - Consider night-lighting of the building.
      - Create a bounded gravel and appropriately drained
      ground space around the building.
      - Maintain a low height, matching geometric grass
      space around the gravel perimeter with attention to
      the establishment of a crisp geometry that enhance
      the appreciation of what is a fine, strong piece of
      - Develop interpretive media that tell the story of the
      building and its users within the thematic framework that
      is proposed for the Domain
      - Explore opportunities to make better use of the building
      as an events space and/or for cultural programs.

      All of this sounds great and we can only hope that it comes to fruition.

  2. Multi-chamber magazines aren't that common in Australia - this one may have inspired the later (1897) and more complex magazine at Newington in New South Wales which also has 3 chambers, as well as interior lighting passages that surround each chamber.

    Photos of the Newington magazine can be found here:

    1. Thanks for you comments and especially the link to the photos. The two buildings do seem to have some similarities of design. Would seem that this may be an example of an older effective design being used as the basis to build a newer more substantial facility. if that was the case, then the designers of the Hobart facility would seem to have been way ahead of their time. Fantastic info, thank you. :)