Tim Willasey-Wilsey Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Kings College London
One of the best views of Auckland is from North Head or Fort Cautley near Devonport on the city’s North Shore, where a well-preserved, 8-inch disappearing gun is installed in the South Battery on the south side of the summit. Gun No. 4951 built by Sir W.G. Armstrong in 1886 is mounted ‘en barbette’, on a platform firing over an earth parapet and recoiling or ‘disappearing’ into a pit to enable re-loading with protection from enemy fire. This 8-inch Armstrong gun is one of the few remaining of the type anywhere in the world.
The harbour defences built in the 1880s were state of the art for the time but some of the equipment never became fully operational and none of the guns ever fired a shot in anger. In response to a perceived threat from Russia modern heavy guns were ordered from London including thirteen 6-inch and ten 8-inch breech-loaders (BL). Fort Cautley on North Head was completed and the 8-inch Armstrong gun in the South Battery stamped with the name Arthur Bell, 16-2-1889 as a testament to the date of its emplacement.
By 1900 North Head was well defended with three 8 inch Disappearing Guns as its main armament. In 1886 when these guns were made they were the most up to date weapons of their type available. The barrels alone weighed over 13 tons and they were designed to retract underground using the forces generated by the recoil of the gun when it was fired.
Originally proposed in the 1860s by Captain A. Moncrieff of the Edinburgh Militia, the first model had appeared in 1871. During the early 1880s more sophisticated disappearing guns were produced by Armstrong's Elswick Ordnance Company (EOC). These employed a hydro-pneumatic (HP) system to control the recoil and at the same time to store enough energy to bring the gun back to the firing position. Not only was the equipment of doubtful efficiency, but it’s very size and complexity made it expensive. (Ruffell)
In 1929 the four BL 8-inch guns at Auckland were sold to a scrap merchant who experienced financial difficulties and was unable to complete the deal. . Prior to the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 the Summit Battery gun and carriage were shifted into the South Battery emplacement. (Ruffell) It is this gun which can be seen today and which is shown in the photographs. Two braces have been welded to the disappearing mechanism to keep the gun in the elevated position.
Other artillery at North Head included the 6 inch guns and earlier Rifled Muzzle Loaders (RML), two of which are thought to be the artillery pieces currently in Albert Park Auckland and shown in the accompanying photographs.. These are Mark III 64 pounder and 64cwt guns manufactured after 1871 with their (slightly different) carriages stamped “L W Round Oak Iron Works”. The factory was at Brierley Hill then in Staffordshire. L W stands for Lord Ward who was later the Earl of Dudley, who founded the plant in 1857. 22 of the 64 pounders had been ordered in 1878/9 during another Russian scare (during the Second Afghan War). As with the 8 inch gun they were never fired in anger. The Russian threat to New Zealand was perhaps somewhat overstated.
Auckland Harbour Defences 1885-1896 http://navymuseum.co.nz/auckland-harbour-defences-1885-1896/ (quoted in paras 1 and 2)
Ruffell, Wally. Disappearing Guns. http://riv.co.nz/rnza/hist/dgun/index.htm
(quoted in paras 5 and 6)
The history of the Maungauika/North Head Historic Reserve.
(quoted in para 3)
The fate of yesterday’s guns part 2 (Timespanner) http://timespanner.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/the-fate-of-yesterdays-guns-part-2.html
(used in para 6)
RML 64 pounder 64cwt gun https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RML_64_pounder_64_cwt_gun
(used in para 6)
8-inch B.L. H.P. at North Head Auckland