19 September 2003

History Floating In the Bay

By Marijke Richards

Buildings are not the only historic landmarks in the bay area. Just off Black Rock lies the H.M.V.S. Cerberus, a monument to our naval past with a uniquely chequered history, now in need of help to save it from destruction.

You may not have noticed, but the H.M.V.S. Cerberus has been lying in the waters off Black Rock since 1926 when it was sunk as a breakwater. Since then it has been a reminder of the past - when ships were made to last in the famous shipyards of England and when masts still graced a ship’s deck. Today, rusted and slowly deteriorating, this once proud vessel is badly in need of a little help to stop it disappearing into the sea forever.

So why save the Cerberus? If you are a ‘fan’ of ship building, the Cerberus makes a fascinating study - and there are some very famous fans. The Australian Heritage Commission has said that the Cerberus is ‘a crucial link between the period of timber line-of-battle ships and the more modern battleships’. Prince Phillip added, ‘she is a particularly interesting vessel in herself, but she is also part of the state of Victoria’s history’ and the RSL believe that the Cerberus must be preserved as ‘it’s the only one of its type on earth'.

H.M.V.S. Cerberus was built in 1867, the first of seven ‘near-to-sister’ armoured coastal defence ships constructed in Britain between 1867 and 1877. Constructed by Palmer Ship Building and Iron Co, in the quaint sounding Jarrow-on-Tyne, the Cerberus was the start of the Monitor warships, the first foray into the design of modern warships. Currently one of the three remaining Monitors left in the world, and the only one with its gun turrets intact, the Cerberus combined a raft of cutting edge technology for the 1860s. She was the first ship in the world to not only incorporate the combination of central superstructure with fore and aft gun turrets but dispense completely with sail power and incorporate the shallow draft. The first ever armoured ship built for Australia, the Cerberus boasted the latest in steam power, gun turrets and use of a low freeboard which was covered with armour from stem to stern. H.M.V.S. Cerberus was at the time the most formidable fighting ship in the southern hemisphere. She had a displacement of 3,413 tons and was 225 feet long, with a beam of 45 feet and a draught of 15 feet. Her engines, built by Maudslay and Field, were 1,369 horsepower, giving her a cruising speed of 6 knots and a top speed of nearly 10. She carried 240 tons of coal in her bunkers and consumed 50 tons a day at top speed, and 24 tons a day at six knots.

She was heavily armoured, for her four 10 inch guns weighed 18 tons each and were capable of firing a 400 pound shot up to four miles, using 60 pounds of charge. These guns were housed in two huge turrets that were turned by small engines and represented the most modern armament of any ship of that time. She also carried two six pounder quick firing guns and four machine guns. Cerberus was actually a floating fort and was designed to be partly flooded when in action, so that only her heavily armoured breastwork remained visible. The Cerberus was quite formidable for her time.

It is interesting to note that despite all this armour and impressive hard wear, the Cerberus never fired a shot in anger. The reason this is interesting is that she was designed to be the answer to Victoria’s defence problems. The colony was concerned about protecting its Bay from Russian Pacific action and the ever-present commerce raider from America, the Shenandoah, and had realised that unless the Heads were made impassable to hostile vessels the defenses of the bay would be incomplete. With 80% of the shipping frequenting the port of Melbourne in the 1800s coming from England, it is not surprising that they helped build the Cerberus.

When the Cerberus finally arrived in Melbourne, in April 1871, her arrival made for some interesting headlines after she ran aground at Geelong. This wasn’t the first of her headline-making moves. During Easter manoeuvres five men were killed at Queenscliff when a torpedo accidently exploded.

However, most of the next 50 years after her arrival in Melbourne were spent at moorings off Williamstown. During her time in ‘active duty’ she was flagship of the Victorian Navy (until she was transferred to Commonwealth control in 1901 with the coming of Federation), and in 1911 she became part of a newly formed Royal Australian Navy. Again proving that she was more a support ship than an active warship, throughout World War One she served firstly as a post guard ship, and then as a floating ammunition store. In 1921 she was taken to Geelong where she was renamed H.M.A.S. Platypus and became the depot ship for the fleet of J Class Submarines. When this role ended she was sold to Melbourne Salvage Company for the princely sum of four hundred and nine pounds in April 1924, and two years later was towed to Black Rock where she lies today.

Being the only substantially intact surviving warship of any of Australia’s pre-Federation colonial navies makes the Cerberus a rare ship indeed and understandably a favourite with naval enthusiats.

But it’s not just naval enthusiasts who have fallen in love with the Cerberus. There is a group of dedicated people who have joined together to create the Save the Cerberus group. While they are passionate about the history of the Cerberus and making sure that there is an active and comprehensive website containing facts, stories, features and even fun quizzes on the Cerberus, they are also a serious group of people determined to save the Cerberus from extinction.

Since 1926, the Cerberus has rested in three metres of water and until 1993 there didn’t appear to be any deterioration in its condition. However since then, when a major collapse of the structure took place, the Cerberus has continued to collapse at a rate of 16mm a year. At this rate, the Cerberus may not have a very long life left and for divers the Cerberus is already out of bounds due to the danger of diving near a ship so unstable.

With that in mind, the Save the Cerberus group has been assessing and raising money for its resurrection. The aim of the campaign is to raise the Cerberus and rest her on a supporting structure. The plan is based on the feasibility study carried out by GHD in 2000 and it is estimated to cost $2.5million. Currently the group is commissioning a further study for a more accurate costing.

However, even without another study, saving the Cerberus will cost a lot of money. The Save the Cerberus group has decided to get the support of funding bodies and larger organisations behind them before opening up a public appeal. But there are things that you can do to help. The group is always looking for new funding opportunities, ideas for corporate sponsors, information or anecdotes about the ship or its crew, photos to add to articles or the website, information about relics, or simply supporting the cause by visiting the website, publicising the website or suggesting other ways to save the Cerberus.

If you are interested in reading more about this remarkable ship, or helping Save the Cerberus, visit the Bayside Council website (www.bayside.vic.gov.au) and follow the link to the Save the Cerberus website.