Captain Douglas Elder's Gun Raft

The Elder

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Gun Raft flying the blue ensign with Imperial crown and the initial T.
Initials indicated which government department controlled the vessel. We believe that T stands for the Treasury department.
The Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 February 1865
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The Concept

The Illustrated Melbourne Post, 25 August 1864

Captain Payne and Captain Elder, of the Naval Brigade, have recently designed a raft for carrying a 68 pivot gun. The design is to deck over two long boats of a canoe shape, and finish them with bulwarks to form a cover for the crew. From experiments already made it has been found that this raft will work with perfect safety on an ordinary sea. The great feature of this floating battery is that it will only be two feet above the water, and, therefore, exceedingly difficult to hit from any vessel or shore battery, unless the guns were very much depressed. We believe that the Treasurer has given permission for one of these rafts to be constructed, and as there is now a 68-pounder pivot gun in the colony the experiment will be an interesting one. The cost of one of these rafts will only be something like £350.



The Age, 27 August 1864

Sir,- In your leader of Saturday last, regarding the defences of the port, you state a raft is in process of construction which, when finished, will be armed with a 68 pounder gun; and should the experiment-"which is based on some drawings received from England"- be successful, others of a similar kind will follow. In justice to Captain Elder, of the Williamstown Naval Brigade, allow me to inform you that the raft buildings in no way based on drawings received from England, but the design drawings, and calculations are entirely the work of Captain Elder, of the Marine Yard, Williamstown, and the raft will, in all probability, turn out superior to anything of the kind in existence at home. The rafts recently got up in England, principally for training purposes appear to be larger than a few casks lashed together, with spars and cross-pieces for a deck, and must be towed about and then left stationary; and though low in the water, would not be very difficult to strike with a shot. The raft designed by Captain Elder will be low in the water, and can be propelled by either canvas or sweeps, at least five knots an hour, and, no doubt, will also be capable of going to windward - a very material consideration; and this, the first one, is intended for training purposes; but, as you, say, such rafts judicially placed in shallow water, might materially annoy an enemy, and prevent landing on either side of the Bay. In fairness to Captain Elder, who designed the present raft, and, I believe, is prepared to give designs for a very more effective and dangerous opponent to an enemy's ship, will, perhaps, be good enough to insert this,-I am &c.,


P.S.,- As I am informed there is plenty of the "needful" at St. Kilda, and is mighty scarce on this side, lately, I hope the raft, with some of the "buoys" of the Naval Brigade, will just be employed one fine night or morning, to prevent her bottom getting foul at anchor, to attack and capture St. Kilda, taking the whole of her volunteers and a few of the "rich 'uns" prisoner to be handsomely ransomed thereafter.

Councillor Franklin "Three years ago ..... and on the 20th October I moved that a gun be placed on a raft and handed over to the Naval Brigade."

Williamstown Chronicle, 10 August 1867


The Argus, 25 November 1864

Recently, acting, we believe, upon a hint thrown out by Commodore Wiseman, an attempt has been made to add to our local defences in the place where they are most needed - Hobson's Bay. A gun-raft has been constructed, an ingenious contrivance, to float a heavy piece of artillery in shallows beyond an enemy's reach, to secure a maximum of range with a minimum of exposure. The raft has been launched and the gun has been mounted, and Saturday was to have witnessed a trial of the capabilities of both. Unfortunately, however, a gale of wind was blowing down the bay, and heavy showers prevailed - circumstances which led to a postponement of the test. Saturday next will now probably be the eventful day. In the meantime we quote from The Australasian a detailed notice of the little stranger:- "The raft, which has been built at the Government yards, Williamstown, is what it ought to be - a simple but effective arrangement of common materials. Two broad flat bottomed not very gainly-shaped boats - twin punts, in fact - have been built with good blue gum, and sheathed with good zinc. These punts are bound together with eight-inch by five-inch beams, placed two feet apart, and securely fastened by strong iron knees. The beams are planked over with Oregon pine, and thus a working platform is obtained forty-six feet long and twenty-eight feet broad. They will carry a sixty-eight pounder smooth-bore - the weapon still the pride of the British navy - which will be mounted with circular slides, so that, without putting the craft about, it can be fired in any direction. A sixty-eight pounder itself weights nearly five tones - the piece is classified as a ninety-five hundred weight-gun - and with fifty rounds of ammunition and a full complement of forty men on board, the raft will have to float a weight of ten tons. Such is its buoyancy, however, that its draught of water under these circumstances is not expected to exceed seventeen inches. Much more, indeed, could not be given, as the total depth of the punts is but two feet and a half. The raft steers with two rudders worked by one tiller, and probably it will be rigged with lateen sails. Its light draught will, of course enable it to go where not even a man-of-war's cutter, to say nothing of the man-of-war herself, could follow it; while lying so low on the water, it will afford but a poor mark for the enemy's gunners.


The Argus, 5 December 1864

The gun raft, to which during the present agitation of the defence questions some attention has been directed of late; was duly treated on Saturday afternoon. As a detailed notice of the craft itself has already appeared in our columns, we have simply in this instance to record the trial performances. These were of a perfectly satisfactory character and it is now understood that the Legislation will be asked to vote money for the construction of more of such important little auxiliaries to any scheme of defence which may be adopted. The raft was taken out into the fairway between Williamstown and St Kilda, where it had the full benefit of a stiff S by E breeze which was blowing and of a short sharp sea which was tumbling in. Tested in this pretty severe way, the vessel behaved capitally. Though it was only just rigged - a couple of sails having been borrowed from a stone lighter for the trip - it ran out of the Williamstown Bay at a rattling speed, nearly keeping pace with the smart Government boats which accompanied it. As the platform is barely twelve inches from the surface, and as it is in no way protected, the sea, when once the raft got outside, washed over it, but not more than was sufficient to wet the men's feet. Altogether the craft was remarkably steady, and as to its buoyancy, it is sufficient to mention that aimed and fully manned as it was, the draught of water was only eighteen inches. It steered, too, very well, the double rudder apparatus, a rudder one on each punt, answering admirably. As the question at issue was mainly one of the effect of the conclusion of a sixty-eight pounder, the real test was of course the firing of the gun. The raft listed slightly with the training of the pieces which was brought into action on the port side, but there was no recoil after the discharge, and indeed, there was scarcely any vibration perceptible. The crew were able to work the gun with ease and to train it in any direction. This being the case, and the raft not being strained in any way by the firing, but proving a stable handy craft, the authorities pronounced the trial perfectly successful.

The raft was manned by some twenty members of the Williamstown Naval Brigade under Captain Elder and Lieutenant Fowler. A gunboat, a lifeboat cut down to a pinnacle, and mounting a small howitzer in the bows, was taken out by Captain Macfarlane, who had twenty men of the brigade with him. Lieutenant Roach had a second boat, with ten men on board, and two harbour boats, under Captain Ferguson, accompanied the others, quite a little flotilla mustered on the occasion. Captain Payne, staff officer was on the raft, superintending; and the Hon G F Verdon, whose office of Treasurer includes that of "War Minister", was also on board. As soon as the anchor was dropped in the fairway, a target was moored 1,200 yards a-head and practice was then at once commenced. Mr Verdon, who attended in his official capacity, did the honours of the occasion by firing the first shot, and made a capital line, though he went far beyond gunners would have done is uncertain, for it unfortunately happened that, through the roughness of the sea and the weather, the buoy on which the target was rigged was turned completely topsy turvey; and, as it was too late for the mischief to be remedied, practice had to be discontinued when a couple more rounds had been fired. Coming home against the wind, the sweeps had to be put out, and the volunteers had a stiff job to pull in.

Since we described the raft, it has been fitted with a shot and shell rack, which runs round the platform, and which holds thirty shot and thirty shell. A metal lined magazine, it generously arranged to exclude spray and moisture has also been provided. Now that the craft has been painted, it looks a great deal better than it did; but, nevertheless, it will be possible to make the sister vessels, if any are constructed, much smarter in appearance, if not in reality. The fine large platform itself looks well, and indeed quite dwarfs the massive 95cwt gun which is mounted on it. When Mr Verdon fired the piece he, amid hearty cheers on the part of the volunteers, named the raft the "Elder". Not so graphic a designation this as the "Teasers" and the "Snarlers" built in the Russian war obtained, but nevertheless conveying a well deserved compliment to Captain Elder, the master shipwright at the Government yards, and by whom the vessel was both designed and constructed.

Of course the question arises, how far gun rafts are likely to prove useful in the defences of our inner waters. A great authority, Admiral Sartories, has pronounced strongly in favour of harbour defence being entrusted to gun-boards, row-boats and generally to a mosquito flotilla of this description, but the systematic employment of rafts is somewhat of a novelty. As in most other cases, there is a great deal to be said on both sides the question. On the one hand, their light draught enables them to operate among flats and shallows; on the other, the low elevation of the piece they carry renders smooth water necessary, if accuracy of fire is to be obtained. They present little mark for an enemy to fire, at, but if their range were once obtained, a Dahlgren shell would probably settle the raft at the same time. They may be given a maximum of range, but unless it is in running canvas before a wind, they possess only a minimum of mobility. These points and others, the authorities will doubtless duly weigh before they commit themselves to any particular scheme of action. One consideration, too important to be overlooked is that if the rafts are useful at all we can make them ourselves in any quantity. If not the best means of defence, they are, at any rate, available.

The Williamstown Naval Brigade, having brought the raft into play, the members of the Sandridge division are shortly to have an opportunity of working it. Practices will probably be arranged at once, to take place on Tuesday and Friday in each week.


The Australian News for Home Readers, 19 December 1864

On Saturday, 3rd inst., a trial of the new gun raft intended, we believe as the first of a flotilla of similar vessels hereafter to be constructed to assist in the defence of Hobson's Bay, was made at Williamstown, in the presence of Mr Verdon and several officers of the volunteer marine service. The raft, which was built at the Government marine yard, under the superintendence of Mr Elder, foreman, originated in an idea which suggested itself to Mr Verdon when examining some plans sent out by the Admiralty, of newly designed pontoon boats for crossing rivers, &c, and was again brought under the notice by a contrivance adopted with success during the New Zealand war in which a boat having been divided longitudinally and boxed in at the sides, was covered over with planking and converted into a highly useful raft. With materials somewhat similar, but applied in a more useful manner, the present raft has been constructed. Two large and broad flat bottomed boats, of the best blue-gum timber, sheathed with zinc, are joined together with stout beams eight inches by five. A distance of six or eight feet being allowed between the two punts. A covering of Oregon pine completes the construction and gives a fine large deck forty-six feet long and twenty-eight feet broad for working the gun, a sixty eight pounder. This weapon has been selected, after due deliberation, in place of rifled cannon, as being more reliable; and we may mention, in connection with this subject, that it is intended to replace the thirty two pounders now in some of the batteries, which are found to be almost entirely, useless, with guns of this calibre, which, to be rendered still more effective, will be supplied with steel - shot instead of that at present in use. It is believed that a weapon of this description, which will be terribly destructive at as long a range as 2000 yards, will answer all the purposes which will be required; and, indeed, for so small a craft, the calibre of the gun is enormous. In order that the direction of the fire may be readily changed, the gun is mounted with circular slides, on which it may be directed to any point without turning the raft, -a process which would necessarily be of some difficulty. The valuable properties of the raft may be gathered from the fact that, although bearing, when fully armed and manned, a weight of upwards of 10 tons, the draught of water is only 18 inches, which will enable the craft to enter water totally inaccessible to ships, and too shallow even for boats. The steering apparatus consists of two rudders, one to each punt, which are yoked together, and worked by one tiller in the centre. Her immense breadth, and the impossibility of being overturned in any wind, will enable the raft to carry an enormous area of canvas, which will give her no mean sailing power. Even on Saturday, when rigged in a more make-shift manner, a speed of eight miles an hour was obtained, a result which will be far exceeded when the proper sails (large lateen zones) are used. Provision has been made, in the shape of ten heavy sweeps, for moving the raft in the event of a sudden calm or an adverse wind. Not more than a foot of the raft is visible out of the water, so that she would present, a very small mark for the enemy, and one very difficult to hit. The deck, which is protected by a handrail, is of course much exposed to the water, and for that reason the ammunition is contained in metallic cases, perfectly air-tight, with the exception of the shot, which are ranged round the sides in racks capable of containing sixty rounds. A day better calculated to test the capabilities of the raft could not have been selected. The wind was strong, and the sea very heavy. The raft, however, sailed out very steadily, and, on being anchored at about three-quarters of a mile from the jetty, proved to be less influenced by the waves than had been anticipated. The men who had been selected to man her a party of the Naval Brigade, under Capt. Elder and Lieut. Fowler were mustered at the jetty at about half-past two o'clock, and a start was shortly afterwards made, the raft being accompanied by a new gun boat which has been recently been converted from a life boat and mounted with a twelve-pounder howitzer, and which also made her first trial on the occasion. Lieut. Roach commanded a boat filled with small-arm men also of the Naval Brigade, and the expedition was accompanied by the harbor-boat under Captain Ferguson. The target upon which the trial was made consisted of a buoy moored at a distance of 1200 yards, but which, unfortunately, got overturned almost at the commencement of the experiments. Mr Verdon fired the first shot, which, by the way was a remarkably good one, and, having named the raft the 'Elder,' after her designer and constructor, he called for three cheers from the men, who heartily responded to the invitation. Notwithstanding the heavy calibre of the gun, the explosions produced very little vibration, and the practice made was, considering the circumstances, very good. Altogether the trial must be pronounced decidedly successful, and will encourage the Government to proceed with the construction of what may, no doubt, be made a very valuable means of defence. These rafts would be very useful in scuttling burning ships, and with them could be accomplished with safety what otherwise would be highly dangerous and even impossible. There is another purpose to which they could be applied, namely, as points from which torpedos, placed in the narrow channel through which all vessels must sail when proceeding up the Bay, could be fired. The total cost of the raft was only 350, so that for a few thousand pounds quite a fleet might be constructed.


Illustrated Melbourne Post, 24 December 1864

A most interesting and important experiment was very quietly and unostentatiously conducted at Williamstown, on the afternoon of the 3rd inst. Some time ago Mr Elder, of the Government Marine Yard, suggested that in the absence of more suitable ships of war it might be possible to defend our port and shipping by means of a number of rafts, each carrying a sixty-eight pounder gun, smooth bore, or if procurable a hundred-pounder Armstrong. The idea was considered so good that the hon the Treasurer at once sanctioned the outlay necessary for the construction of one raft, which, if found to answer the expectations of Mr Elder, is to be speedily followed by others; and the experiment of Saturday having most clearly demonstrated the perfect suitableness of the raft, we may expect to see a sum on the Estimates for about four or five more vessels of this description. A description of this vessel having already appeared it will be sufficient to state that the principle is that of two punts with a platform connecting them, which gives the idea, to one looking at her form above, of about 30 feet square of a man-of-war's deck cut out and turned adrift, with a great sixty-eight pounder with all its belongings lashed amidships. Two small temporary masts, a couple of sails borrowed from some lighters, and twelve immense oars or sweeps are the means at present in use for her propulsion. Whilst at the jetty alongside which she was moored, some doubts were entertained amongst the looker-on, as to whether the strong wind then blowing and the high seas running outside the breakwater would not prevent the trial coming off, but uncertainty was set at rest when a crew of twenty-four as fine fellows as one could wish to see made their appearance on the wharf, followed shortly afterwards by the hon Mr Vernon and Captain Payne, the arrival of whom was the signal to get under weigh. Sweeps were got out and the raft moved off at a rate of about four knots an hour. Clear of the pier, sails were set, and to the surprise of everyone she soon was slipping through the water at the rate of about eight knots. True the wind was aft, but to get outside the breakwater it was necessary to bear up close to the wind, and in doing so she proved to be very Weatherly, making about five knots nearly close hauled. The breakwater was soon passed, and it was found that the heavy sea which same said would sweep her decks seemsly sprinkled them. Her buoyancy was perfect, although from her shortness she pitched considerably. About a mile outside the breakwater the anchor was let go, and the possibility of working the immense 68-pounder upon what at a distance appeared a mere chip on the water, was clearly proved by the facility with which the gun was trained right or left, at one moment pointed over the bows the next over the stern. While these tests were being made, a target had been placed some thousand yards off. The gun being now loaded and laid under the direction of Mr Verdon, and the first shot was fired by the hon the "Minister for War". The line and elevation were admirable, and no doubt had the target stood up it would have been struck, at least so it was said, and three cheers were given accordingly. Another shot having been fired at the recumbent target, it was thought that enough had been done to prove the perfect adaptability of the raft to her requirements. The anchor was then got up, and all sail set for Williamstown. On rounding the pier it became necessary to lower the sails and get out the sweeps as the wind was direct ahead, but her progress was slow and apparently laborious, and it appeared to be with much satisfaction that her twenty-four stout rowers relinquished their oars and accepted a friendly tug from one of Messrs Dove and Oswald's steamers.

The experience of Saturday shows that the raft with her armament can be readily moved to any point where she may be required; that she suffers nothing from the recoil of the heaviest gun; that in moving the gun from side to side there is no perceptible heeling over; that she is extremely buoyant, and that with the addition of about twenty feet more length in the points she would pitch less in a seaway, and probably be easier to pull against a head wind. Upon the whole, then, Mr Elder and the country may be congratulated on the perfect success of the raft.

Manoeuvres of Williamstown

The Argus, 26 December 1864

The colonel-commandant inspected the Naval Brigade afloat, on Saturday last. At three pm the Sandridge and Williamstown divisions mustered in their boats off the Anne street Pier, Williamstown, and took the new gun-raft in tow, towing her outside the breakwater, where she was moored. The gun-boats then went through numerous evolutions incidental to boating operations, and the raft then commenced firing the sixty-eight pounder at a target moored about 2,000 yards distant. This was succeeded by the gun-boats firing from their twelve-pound howitzers and rifles. The practice was very good, and the men behaved in a remarkably steady manner.

New Year's Day Manoeuvres at Flemington

The Argus, 3 January 1865

The Naval Brigade mustered 220 strong. Captain Fullarton was in command, with Captain Elder and Captain McFarlane. The Brigade manned the sixty-eight-pounder gun raft, two gun-boats carrying twelve pounder howitzers, two rocket-boats, and six light boats belonging to the Customs department.

......It may be remarked that the concussion of the 68-pounder which the gun-raft brought into action was something out of the ordinary way, causing the grand stand to vibrate with each discharge.

The Argus, 25 January 1865

In brief, the object of the proceedings may he stated as the forcing the passage of the Saltwater River in the face of an enemy. The naval brigade, with their gun boats and the sixty-eight-pounder gun-raft, advanced up the river to where their advance was checked by a double line of booms. Under cover of a heavy fire of artillery from the heights, and from the flotilla, the brigade pushed forward a party, and cleared away those obstructions by submarine explosions, which were well-managed, and had a capital effect. Upon this the boats dashed up the stream, and landed a body of engineers, who set to work to construct an earthwork to protect the head of a pontoon-bridge, which was then thrown across.

CSS Shenandoah

The Brisbane Courier, 16 February 1865


The Government having been informed that the Captain of the Confederate steamer Shenandoah was shipping men, instructed the police to search the vessel. Permission to board her was refused, and the police are now on guard to prevent any seamen being embarked.

Later News.
A large body of police and a detachment of the Royal Artillery have taken possession of the Government slip, and have stopped any communication with the Shenandoah. The Government have refused to permit her to be launched until the search warrant has been executed.

Tho Captain of the Shenandoah persists in refusing permission to the police to board his ship, and has notified his intention of abandoning his ship and holding the Government responsible if she is not launched today.

The Victoria, colonial steam sloop, and a gun raft have been manned, and have anchored alongside the Shenandoah.

Great excitement prevails.

The Shenandoah has been released.

In addition to the other steps taken for the purpose of enforcing the law the Elder, raft, which carries two 68-pounders, was moored at a short distance off, in rendiness for action. The Age, 16 February 1865


The Argus, 16 February 1865

Events then proceeded in the order related yesterday. Some fifty men of the Royal Artillery were sent to the railway station to start for the scene of action, but they were countermanded whilst in Spencer street. An officer came down to the fourteen or fifteen men on duty at the Williamstown battery, but, as high ground intervened, the guns would be of no use to bear upon the Government slip, nor were the guns at the pier, which would have commanded that spot, interfered with. Amusing stories were also told to the effect that one of Mr. Verdon's gun-rafts was moored near to overawe any possible demonstration of strength by the Shenandoah.


Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 February 1865

In these days of invention and innovations, especially as regards the appliances and munitions of war, any new object which is brought forward necessarily excites a good deal of attention. The gun-raft, designed by Mr Elder, of the Marine Yard at Williamstown, is the latest addition which has been made to our defences. On each occasion upon which its capabilities have been tested it has been found eminently adapted to the purposes for which it was designed, and, should occasion require, it remains to be seen how far it would carry out the views of the constructor in proving, as is intended in conjunction with other raft, a dangerous opponent to a single ship. Viewed from a height the raft presents the appearance of a portion of a man-of-war's deck which has been cut adrift with a 68-pounder gun lashed amid-ships. A full description of the raft and its mode of construction has already appeared in the Illustrated Post.


The Argus, 27 February 1865

In such a case we have the gun-raft! We have a helpless, shelterless, floating platform, armed with a gun; but unless it were hid amongst the reeds at the mouth of the Yarra, it would be utterly useless, even as a battery. Where are the volunteers to be found who would go to certain death in this floating man-trap? Once seen by an enemy, our raft-of-war would simply be an excellent target, large, and easily hit. A single shell would suffice to upset the gun, fire the powder and shell, and sweep every unhappy soul upon it into eternity.

Scuttling Ships on Fire

The Argus, 30 October 1866

Councillor Franklin moved, "That the Government be requested to place a gun on the raft now in their possession, for the purpose of scuttling ships when on fire, such raft to be under the command of Captain Elder, or some other competent person." A lengthy conversation took place upon this resolution, which was finally agreed to.

Prince of Wales Birthday Manoeuvres at Flemington

H.M.C.S.S. Victoria and the Naval Training Ship were dressed man-of-war fashion, and at noon a Royal salute was fired from the Victoria, in honour of the occasion. In the forenoon the Government steamer Pharos, with the Naval Brigade on board, took in tow the gun-raft Elder, and quite a flotilla of gunboats belonging to the Victoria and the harbour department, and with this "mosquito fleet" proceeded up the Saltwater River, to assist in the Volunteer demonstration.

The Argus, page 4, 10 November 1866

...at this time there came up tho rivera flotilla of gun-boats, under Captain Fullarton, and manned by the Naval Brigade and a few boys from the training-ship, who subsequently served as boat-keepers. There were four boats manned by sixty men, and each carrying 12-pounder howitzers; four others manned by fifty men, and each carrying 6-pounders; one gun-raft carrying two 32 pounders, and manned by thirty men; and six light boats, manned by forty-fivo men, carrying small-arms. The S.S. Pharos, armed by a 32-pounder, was expected to come up, but her draught of water was too great. The raft remained below the drawbridge, and opened a brisk fire on the enemy, as also did the gun-boats which passed farther up the river. Believing that the river was full of torpedoes, the light boats were ordered to search for them, and while the bridge was constructing several were exploded...

The Argus, page 5, 10 November 1866

1876 Queen's Birthday Manoeuvres

Moored about a mile from Sandridge was a raft holding four guns, supposed to represent a powerful fort. The raft kept up a fire, upon the Nelson, which would doubtless have been highy effective, so far as the imagination goes, if the ship had been two or three miles closer at hand.

Williamstown Chronicle, 27 May 1876

This raft was moored near the first white buoy, and the fort would be one of the chief defences against any attempt by a naval force to enfilade the batteries on the Sandridge beach. Fire was now vigorously opened by this fort on the Nelson, and the advantageous position would have rendered its fire exceedingly effective against the enemy with heavy guns, with which undoubtedly the fort would be manned. Its representative, however, only carried 32 pounders, and these sounded more like pop-guns than cannon in comparison with their bigger brethren on shore.

The Argus, 25 May 1876

A raft armed with three guns lay at the entrance of Hobson's Bay for the purpose of impeding the entrance of the hostile vessel.....The raft fired about six rounds.

Illustrated Australian News, 12 June 1876

Throughout the action the men of the Naval Reserve showed themselves, as on previous occasions, to be a fine body of men; the manner in which they served their guns, both on the Nelson and on the raft, leaving little to be desired.

The Australasian Sketcher, 10 June 1876

Williamstown Chronicle, 14 December 1878.

Ships Index
Much of the above research was undertaken by Frank Noonan.