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Royal Navy in the Australia Station

Australia Station

In the years that followed the settlement of Australia in 1788 the Royal Navy did not maintain a permanent force in the new colony. The new Port Jackson colony was placed under the protection of the East Indies Station, and vessels were detached occasionally to visit the new colony.

Australian Squadron
Ships of the Royal Navy's squadron on the Australia Station moored in Sydney in 1880.

Click on the image for a better view.
From 1821 the Royal Navy maintained a permanent man-of-war in the colony.

Over the next 20 years the vessels based on Port Jackson included the sixth rate HMShips Alligator, Caroline, Conway, Imogene, and Rattlesnake, and the sloops Hyacinth, Pelorus and Zebra.

In 1848, an Australian Division of the East Indies Station was established, on 25 March 1859 Captain William Loring of the Iris was promoted to commodore and to authorised to assume command as senior officer of Her Majesty's Ships on the Australia Station. These ships were known collectively as the Australian Squadron. This new command was independent of the Commander-in-chief, East Indies.

These changes were partially in recognition of the fact that a large part of the East Indies Station had by then been detached to Australian waters, and also reflected the growing concern for the strategic situation in the western Pacific in general, and in Tahiti and New Zealand in particular.

At its establishment, the Australia Station encompassed Australia and New Zealand, with its eastern boundary including Samoa and Tonga, its western edge in the Indian Ocean, its northern edge just to the south of India and its southern edge defined by the Antarctic Circle. The boundaries were modified in 1864 and again in 1872.

In 1884, the commander of the Australia Station was upgraded to the rank of Rear Admiral, and the boundaries of the Australia Station were enlarged again in 1893.

At its largest, the Australia Station reached from the Equator to the Antarctic in its greatest north-south axis, and covered  1⁄4 of the Southern Hemisphere in its extreme east-west dimension, including Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Melanesia and Polynesia.

On 1 January 1901, the colonies united as the Commonwealth of Australia, and took command of the colonial military forces from the States; and in March, the Commonwealth consolidated the colonial navies to form the Commonwealth Naval Force (CNF).

The Australian and New Zealand governments agreed to help fund the Royal Navy's Australian Squadron, while the Admiralty committed itself to maintain the Squadron at a constant strength.

In 1902, the commander of the Australia Station was upgraded to the rank of Vice Admiral. The boundaries were again modified in 1908.

On 10 July 1911, King George V granted the title of "Royal Australian Navy" to the CNF.

The Australian Squadron was disbanded in 1911 and responsibility for the area controlled by the RN's Australia Station passed to the Commonwealth Naval Forces. The Station was reduced to cover only Australia and its island dependencies to the north and east, excluding Papua New Guinea, which would be added again later; and New Zealand and its surrounds, which became part of the China Station and was called the New Zealand Naval Forces.

In 1913, the Royal Australian Navy came under autonomous Australian command, and responsibility for the reduced Australia Station area passed to the new RAN. With this, the Royal Navy's Australia Station ceased when responsibility was handed over to the Royal Australian Navy; and the RN's Sydney based depots, dockyards and structures were gifted to the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Royal Navy continued to support the RAN and provided additional blue-water defence capability in the Pacific up to the early years of World War II.

Australian Squadron

Admiralty House Sydney
Admiralty House, Sydney, the residence for the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's Australia Squadron from 1885 to 1913
Click on the image for a better view..
As stated above, the Australian Squadron was the name given to the British naval force assigned to the Australia Station from 1859 to 1911. The Squadron was initially a small force of Royal Navy warships based in Sydney, and although intended to protect all the colonies of Australia and New Zealand, the ships were primarily used for surveying and police work.

The isolation of Australia from the rest of the British Empire meant the force was easily neglected, and by the 1870's, was perceived to be useless for its intended role. Following the passing of the Australasian Defence Act 1887, an additional 'Auxiliary Squadron' was assigned to the Station by the British Admiralty with the responsibility for protecting trade in the region.

Royal Navy Ships assigned to the Australian Squadron

This is a partial list of ships that were assigned to the station between 1859 until 1913. Only those for which there is some note of their service are included.


Here is a list of the Flagships of the Australian Squadron.

HMShips Iris - 25 March 1859 until 10 March 1860, Pelorus - 10 March 1859 until July 1862, Orpheus - July 1862 until 7 February 1863, Curacoa - 20 April 1863 until May 1866, Challenger - May 1866 until 3 September 1870, Clio - 3 September 1870 until 17 September 1873, Pearl - 17 September 1873 until 7 September 1875, Wolverine - 7 September 1875 until 21 January 1882, Nelson - 21 January 1882 until 1888, Orlando - 1 September 1888 until November 1897, Royal Arthur - 4 November 1897 until April 1904, Euryalus - 26 March 1904 until February 1905, Powerful - 1905 until 911, Drake - 1911 until 1 January 1913, and finally, HMS Cambrian, January to October 1913, was the last flagship of Australia Station.

First Taranaki War

HMShips Iris, Pelorus, Cordelia, Elk , Niger, Cordelia, Miranda, Eclipse, Curacoa and Esk all undertook operations during First Taranaki War in New Zealand between 17 March 1860 and 18 March 1861.

Invasion of Waikato and Tauranga Campaign

HMShips Falcon, Harrier, Eclipse, Miranda, Curacoa and Esk all undertook operations during the Invasion of Waikato and also the Tauranga Campaign in New Zealand between 1863 and 1864.

Second Taranaki War

HMS Brisk provided escort for operations during Second Taranaki War in New Zealand between April 1863 and November 1866.

Fijian Islands

HMS Challenger conducted a punitive operation against some Fijian natives in 1866.

Solomon Islands

HMS Blanche Undertook a punitive operation in 1869 against some Solomon Islands natives. Three years later, in 1879, HMS Sandfly was undertaking survey operations around Soloman Islands and New Guinea when her commanding officer, Lieutenant Bower, and three sailors were killed by natives on Mandolina Island, near Guadacanal. HMShips Cormorant, Conflict, Beagle and Emerald were sent to the Solomon Islands on a punitive mission in response.

Samoan Civil War

HMShips Porpoise, Royalist, Barracouta and Calliope participated in the Samoan civil war between 1886 and 1894.

Second Samoan Civil War

HMS Tauranga Participated in the Second Samoan civil war in 1899.

New British Protectorates

HMS Royalist was sent to the Gilbert Islands, and the islands were proclaimed to be a British protectorate on the 27th of May 1892; and HMS Curacoa went to the Ellice Islands between 9 and 16 October 1892, and made a formal declaration on each island that it too was to be a British protectorate.

Anti-blackbirding Operations

The last convict slave transport arrived in Western Australia to help boost their flagging economy in 1867, and the Australian Squadron started anti-blackbirding operations in that same year. "Blackbirding", the practice of collecting South-Sea Islanders to work on the sugar care fields, together with the importation of Chinese Shepards, that were being collected with the help of criminal Triad gangs in Hong Kong, were attempts to replace convict slavery with skin-colour slavery on the Louisiana model. The White Australia Policy was introduced to prevent this skin-colour slavery from being established. Between 1867 and 1883, HMShips Rosario, Basilisk, Conflict, Beagle, Renard and Sandfly all undertook anti-blackbirding operations at various times.

HMS Swinger was commissioned at Devonport on 2 October 1883 for service on the Australia Station. She arrived in Australia in 1884 under the command of Lieutenant Marx and was employed in preventing the blackbirding trade. Soon, he came upon the ship Forest King to the East of New Guinea, and sent Mr. Millman, the civil Magistrate, on board to investigate. On finding 60 illegally taken islanders in the Forest King, he told the master that he would be taken into port the following day, and that he would be sunk if he tried to escape. That night Swinger's quartermaster reported to Marx that the Forest King was throwing "coconuts" overboard. Rushing to the deck, Marx could see through binoculars that the blackbirders were throwing their human cargo over the side in order to be rid of the incriminating evidence. Still half naked from their hammocks, Swinger's seamen manned the boats and rescued 18 men from the water; about 20 men had drowned. In the morning Marx boarded the Forest King and carried her into Brisbane, where the master was tried by the Vice Admiralty Court of Inquiry. Marx was warned not to walk the streets in uniform since considerable vested interests were affected. Nevertheless, after three days the court convicted the master of the Forest King and vindicated Lieutenant Marx.

In 1886 at St. Agnau, the Swinger had been trading with some natives, and, considering them friendly, Marx decided to go ashore. He was attacked and described the assault: "On shore I met one of the natives who had been on board during the morning, to whom I made a present, the other natives were very shy but I distributed some tobacco amongst them through the medium of the same man. After about 10 minutes when I was within 10 yards of the boat and there being three of our party on shore close to me I handed him some more tobacco for things he had brought down. As he took it with one hand, he struck me over the head and right hand with a large trade knife he had in the other and jumped into the bush. Dr. Mc Kinlay who was close to me fired at once at him but without result. A large number of men with arms were seen hiding behind a rock at the same time. I think his premature action spoiled a plan for an attack on a larger scale." - Lieutenant John Locke Marx 1886.

Swinger recommissioned in Sydney on 4 May 1887. She left the Australia Station in August 1891.

Boxer Rebellion

HMShips Wallaroon, Mohawk and Lizard participated during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. HMS Mohawk escorted the New South Wales Naval Brigade to China.

Native Uprising, Vanuatu

HMS Torch, after a refit, recommissioned at Sydney on 29 November 1913. In July 1914 Torch, in company with the French cruiser Kersaint, was involved with a native uprising on the Island of Wala, Vanuatu. Five men were killed and four injured, and one native prisoner was captured.

Survey Operations

Surveying and map-making were a major part of the Australian Squadron's work. They were not only charting the Australian coast, but also New Zealand, New Guinea and the islands out as far as Fiji. In chronological order, these HM Ships were engaged in this work.
HMS Beatrice - Conducted survey operations around Northern Australia between 1862 and 1880.
HMS Hecate - Conducted survey operations of Botany Bay and Moreton Bay and Brisbane River between 1863 and 1864.
HMS Salamander - 1864 and 1867 - Conducted survey operations along Great Barrier Reef, and between Wilsons Promontory and Port Phillip Bay.
HMS Virago - 1866 and 1871 - Conducted survey operations along Great Barrier Reef, Norfolk Island and New Zealand.
HMS Basilisk - 1871 and 1874 - Undertook survey operations around Eastern New Guinea.
HMS Blanche conducted survey operations of Rabaul Harbour in 1873.
HMS Alacrity - 1873 and 1882 - Undertook survey operations around Fiji and Soloman Islands.
HMS Renard - 1873 and 1883 - Undertook survey operations around Fiji and Russell Islands.
HMS Sandfly - Undertook survey operations around Soloman Islands and New Guinea. in 1879.
HMS Meda - 1880 and 1886 - Undertook survey work along North West Australia.
HMS Lark - 1882 - Undertook survey work in the Bougainville Strait, Choisel Bay and San Cristobel Island.
HMS Flying Fish carried on survey duties between 1885 and 1886.
HMS Egeria - 1887 and 1894 - She undertook survey work around Western Pacific islands and around Hobart.
HMS Myrmidon - 1885 and 1888 - Undertook surveys along the North of Australia, Darwin and Bass Strait.
HMS Rambler - 1889 and 1890 - She undertook survey work along North Western coast of Australia.
HMS Penguin - 1890 and 1888 - She undertook survey work around Western Pacific islands, New Zealand and Great Barrier Reef.
HMS Waterwitch commissioned in 1894 for service on the Australia Station. She made lines of soundings in Esperance Bay, Fiji and the Tasman Peninsula in preparation for the running of telegraph cables.
HMS Fantome - 1906 and 1913 - Undertook survey work along the North and Eastern coasts of Australia and New Guinea.
HMS Sealark - 1910 and 1913 - Undertook survey work in the Torres Strait and Solomon Islands.
HMS Clio started her career on the Australia Station in May 1904. In July she made an Island trip and visited Noumea, Suva, Tonga. The visit was in connection with the proposal of the Admiralty to examine the various reefs in the Cook and other groups, to make safe entrances for the surf boats, and the discharge and loading cargo. After visiting Mangain, Aitutaki, and other islands, the Clio proceeded to Tahiti. After blasting passages through the coral reefs at Savage Island and other islands she reached Auckland in September and stayed for two months in New Zealand waters. Planning to return to Sydney for Christmas, she visited Fiji again, where she stayed at the disposal of the Governor because of political problems at Tonga, around which she made some tours. In February she finally returned to Sydney.

Misfortunes and Disasters

Service in the Australian Squadron was not free of danger.

HMS Orpheus was wrecked in Manukau Harbour, New Zealand, on the 7th of February 1863, with the loss of 189 seaman including Commander-in-chief, Australia Station Commodore William Farquharson Burnett. 70 crewman survived.

HMS Harrier participated in rescue operation when HMS Orpheus was wrecked, but Harrier was also grounded, although she was successfully refloated.

HMS Clior ran into a reef and was holed in Bligh Sound, New Zealand in 1871, but survived and was repaired.

HMS Dido ran aground at Hobart, in 1875 but was refloated successfully.

On HMS Pearl, the Commander-in-chief, Commodore James Graham Goodenough and two sailors died from poisonous arrows fired by natives from Santa Cruz Islands in 1875.

In May 1877 HMS Sappho was at Tonga when the tsunami from the Iquique Earthquake struck the islands, however, the natives blamed her for bringing the tsunami. In August 1877, she participated in the search for the missing crew and passengers of the civilian ship Queen Bee that had run aground on Farewell Spit, New Zealand. She successfully found the third mate whom she took to Nelson. While at Nelson, her crew participated in a number of fund raising concerts for those shipwrecked. She left the Australia Station in August 1878 and returned to England.

HMS Sandfly's Commanding officer, Lieutenant Bower, and three sailors were killed by natives on Mandolina Island, near Guadalcanal in 1879.

In 1883 HMS Lark, under C. F. Oldham, transported the crew of the barque Illie, which was wrecked in the Solomon Islands, to Brisbane.

During practice firing on HMS Cordelia, on the 28th of June 1891, one of her guns burst, killing five sailors.

HMS Harrier was wrecked upon Reef F, of the Great Barrier Reef, near Cooktown in July 1891.

One of HMS Wallaroon's boilers exploded on the 7th of January 1904, killing 4 sailors.

HMS Ringarooma was grounded on a reef at Malekula Island, in the New Hebrides on 31 August 1894, but was towed off successfully by a French warship.

HMS Pyramus was grounded on a reef near Cooktown on 22 June 1907, but was successfully refloated.

Colonial Ships

Several of the ships in the Australian Squadron were either built in the Colonies, owned by a Colony or gifted to a Colony at the end of their service with the Royal Navy.

HMS Beatrice - 1862 1880 - Jointly owned by Royal Navy and Colony of South Australia until purchased outright by South Australia in 1880.
HMS Meda - 1880 1886 - She was sold in 1887 to the Colony of Western Australia.
HMS Renard - 1873 1883 - Built by John Cuthbert in Sydney.
HMS Alacrity - 1873 1882 - Built in Sydney as Ethel. Sold to Colony and later served as a powder hulk.
HMS Beagle - 1873 1883 - Built by John Cuthbert, Darling Harbour, Sydney.
HMS Sandfly - 1873 1883 - Built by John Cuthbert, Darling Harbour, Sydney.
HMS Paluma - 1884 1895 - Built for Colony of Queensland, she was commissioned in Royal Navy on loan, and returned to Queensland in 1895. She was then re-named HMQS Paluma.
HMS Wolverine - 21 January 1882 - Sold to Colony of New South Wales and served as a training ship.

Royal Australian Navy

HMS Penguin was transferred for harbour service at Sydney before being commissioned into the RAN as a depot ship, HMAS Penguin.
HMS Psyche was later commissioned in RAN in 1915 as HMAS Psyche.
HMS Encounter - Commissioned as HMAS Encounter on 1 July 1912.
HMS Pioneer - Commissioned as HMAS Pioneer i in 1913.

New Zealand Ship

Only one ship went to New Zealand. She was the HMS Sparrow, who was commissioned into the New Zealand Marine Department as training ship NZS Amokura in 1905.