Clunes Cannon

Mar 21, 2017
From: Curator's Articles

For several decades two cannons were positioned on the heights above the current sports oval. Every New Year’s Eve, one of the cannons was given a blank charge, (gunpowder but no cannonball) and was fired at the stroke of midnight to announce the start of a new year.

Cannons have a long and illustrious history which began shortly after the Chinese invented gunpowder more than 1000 years ago. European wars were fought with bows and arrows, yet at the same time Chinese armies employed cannons. 

The earliest cannons were little more than cast pipes made from bronze or brass that had a uniform smooth bore and fired a spherical ball projectile. Very few of these early cannons exist today since efforts to increase their range by adding more and more gunpowder led to bursting of the cannon wall.

As the use of cannons in warfare spread from Asia to Europe over the next 700 years the only major improvement in cannon design was to increase the wall strength by switching materials to cast iron. This change permitted a higher charge of gunpowder to be used, giving the cast iron cannon a much greater range than a cannon of the same size made from bronze. 

Cannonballs were spherical and made to a standard weight, which related to a standard bore diameter. Typically the weight of the gunpowder charge was one third of the projectile weight, so the Clunes cannon, which has a 32lb (14.5kg) cast iron ball projectile, would be loaded with an 11lb(5kg) load of gunpowder.

All cannons were heavy, and although smaller cannons could be mounted on horse-drawn carriages and moved about, this was impractical for larger cannons, which were mounted in fixed locations such as a fortress wall or on the gun deck of a sailing ship.

When the Colony of Port Phillip District became the independent State of Victoria there was a need for defence from potential international aggressors. The State of Victoria purchased a warship in 1867, the HMS Nelson, which had been launched in 1814. By 1898, the cannons the ‘Man o’War’ sailing ships fired became obsolete. The government of the day offered these muzzle loading cannons to country towns free of charge except for transport. Preference was given to regional towns not already defended by forts. 

Two were secured by the township of Clunes and for several decades were positioned on the heights above the current sports oval. Every New Year’s Eve, one of the cannons was given a blank charge, (gunpowder but no cannonball) and was fired at the stroke of midnight to announce the start of a new year.

At 11am Paris-time on the 11th of November, 1918 The Great War ended. There were wild celebrations in Clunes with singing and dancing in the streets, liquor flowing freely, together with regular firing of the two cannons on the hillside. In charge of the Artillery was Mr Bill Davies who had overly indulged in refreshments, and as a result lost count of which cannon had been loaded with gunpowder. This resulted in one of the cannons being loaded twice and on detonation, the cannon shattered into pieces. One piece landed in front of the Clunes Town Hall, while other chunks fell on residents properties. 

Fortunately no one was killed, but a young boy sustained a lacerated leg and was taken to Clunes Hospital where the local doctor attended to his wound. The medical treatment was carried out at no cost, however a bill was submitted to the boy’s parents for transport to the hospital. The bill was returned unpaid with a note that it should be paid by the Council. The council returned the bill with a request that it should be forwarded to Mr Bill Davies, the man who detonated the cannon. Mr Davies returned the bill as he could not recall who fired the cannon, and insisted it could have been fired by anyone in the crowd. It seems the bill was never paid.

Many townspeople have been curious as to the location of the surviving Clunes cannon. It is has been to Geelong Maritime Museum, but is now currently on loan to ‘Seaworks’ at Williamstown Dock under cover, on display in front of reception. It is anticipated that our cannon will return to Clunes once suitable shelter can be built for it.

Addendum A recent communication from Marine History researcher, Mr Keith Quentin, has indicated that the Clunes Cannon may have come from HMS Victoria, not HMS Nelson as first thought. It is expected his research will be finalised later this year and will positively establish the source of the Clunes Cannon.

Continued in Clunes Cannon (Part 2)