Early Torpedo Boat Defences in Australasia

New Zealand torpedo boat Taiaroa at Port Chalmers (South Island), ca. 1888
Victorian torpedo boat HMVS Lonsdale hulked at Queenscliff (Victoria), ca. 1915

Between 1884 and 1924, a total of fourteen torpedo boats served in the naval defence of Australia and New Zealand. Australasia's colonial governments purchased these vessels as a consequence of fears of seaborne invasion by Imperial Russia and other foreign powers. They were small, manoeuvrable steam-powered craft designed to attack large warships within the confines of harbours and inland waterways. Although New Zealand's torpedo boats were decommissioned by 1900, the Australian examples remained in active service up to and beyond consolidation of the colonial naval forces into a national navy in 1911. All were eventually put up for sale, but most failed to find buyers and were ultimately stripped and abandoned. Although obsolete by contemporary military standards when discarded, any of these vessels could still have functioned in a variety of non-military capacities, including as launches, tugs, or even barges.

Each torpedo vessel was assigned to a facility that served as its base of operations. In many cases, the infrastructure necessary to house, equip, arm and maintain these boats was simply integrated within preexisting defensive installations known as submarine mining stations; however, some torpedo boats were provided with their own purpose-built facilities, while others were assigned no form of support infrastructure at all. Like the vessels they once supported, the vast majority of torpedo boat stations were decommissioned after the turn-of-the-century, salvaged of their reusable components, and the sites upon which they were located abandoned and never again used in a military capacity.


Project Description

This project has collected historical information about Australasia's early torpedo boat defences from a number of archives and other repositories within Australia and New Zealand. Archaeological data has been derived from four torpedo boat abandonment sites, two of which are located in Victoria and were the subject of archaeological survey and excavation projects during the late-1990s and early 2000s. The remnants of another torpedo boat in New Zealand were recovered in 1998 and are now exhibited at a purpose-built museum in the town of Lyttelton. The fourth site is located near the Australian city of Brisbane and was the subject of an archaeological survey in October 2009. Archaeological surveys have also been conducted at three torpedo boat station sites located near the New Zealand cities of Auckland, Dunedin and Lyttelton. A two-week excavation at the North Arm Torpedo Station site near Port Adelaide, South Australia provided students and community volunteers from the Adelaide metro area an opportunity to actively participate in an archaeological investigation and learn  more about a little-known aspect of Australasia's early military history.

A number of publications have been generated as a result of this project, and include the following:

Gillett, R. and Hunter, J. 2011, Boat with a Bite: HMQS Mosquito Rediscovered. Australian Warship, 63: 48-52.

Hunter, J. 2010, Frontier Navies: An Archaeological Examination of Colonial New Zealand'sTorpedo Boat Squadrons.
In C. Horrell and M. Damour (eds.) ACUA Underwater Archaeology Proceedings 2010, pp. 146-154.

Hunter, J. 2010, HMQS Mosquito: The Rediscovery and Identification of Queensland's First Warship. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 40(2): 1-13.

Hunter, J. and Slaughter, E. 2010, Protecting and Preserving Queensland's First Warship: HMQS Mosquito and Australian Underwater
Cultural Heritage Management. Proceedings of the 2010 World Universities Congress, Volume I, pp. 1553-1562.

Hunter, J. 2009, The Archaeology of Military Mismanagement: An Example from New Zealand's Colonial Torpedo Boat Defences, 1884-1900.
Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 33: 1-10.   

James Hunter photographs the surviving conning tower of the Queensland
torpedo boat HMQS Mosquito, October 2009.
Archaeology students and community volunteers excavate the site of the North
Arm Torpedo Station near Port Adelaide (South Australia), May 2010.
James Hunter is a PhD Candidate in the Maritime Archaeology Program at Flinders University. His doctoral research examines discard trends and elements of
frontier adaptation as they apply to Australasia's early torpedo boat defences. If you are interested in learning more about this project,
please contact him at james.hunter@flinders.edu.au.


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