The story behind the Cooktown Cannon

posted in: Cooktown, History, Uncategorized | 3
Cooktown Garrison c1886
Cooktown Garrison c1886

It has long been said that  in 1885, Cooktown Town Council decided  Cooktown needed to be defended against the threat of Russian invasion. A wire was sent to the Premier requesting him to supply arms, ammunition and a competent officer to take charge of same, as the town was entirely unprotected.

It must be noted here that no evidence of this wire or anything pertaining to the cannon have been found in the Municipal council minutes of the time.

BREAKING NEWS – It has just been discovered by pouring over Trove on the web,   that a huge mixup has occurred with regards to the wire from Council.  Just found on Trove  is the following entry:-

The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), Saturday 18 April 1885, page 601, 640 ,  National Library of Australia

COOKTOWN, April 10.

H.M.S. Espiegle left to-day for the North. Her destination is unknown.

April 15.

There is great excitement here in consequence of the probability of war between England and Russia, especially as no provision

has been made for the defence of this port. H.M.S. Raven, which is now in port, is keeping her Fires banked night and day.


The news of the fighting in Afghanistan was published here at noon

to-day and caused considerable excitement. The Municipal Council

met, and wired to the Premier, asking for arms, ammunition, and competent officers. It was also decided to hold a public meeting for the purpose of organising a Volunteer corps.


It would seem that it was Townsville Council that sent the wire not Cooktown, which would account for the lack of mention in Cooktown Council Minutes.

Queensland periodically experienced feelings of insecurity. There were recurring Russian War scares and France was expanding its influence in the Pacific. Germany under Bismarck, with its interest in New Guinea and the PacificIslands, also posed a threat. Raids on the coastal ports of the colony were anticipated.

In 1882, when war between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan seemed imminent, there was an outburst of naval activity. The newly arrived gunboat Gayundah was put on a war footing. The small steamship Otter was purchased and armed, and the steam launch Pippo, a vessel of 25 tonnes and capable of eight-knots, was armed as a patrol launch with two 24-pounders.

In October 1883, Maj. George A. French was appointed as Commandant of the Local Forces of the Colony, with the rank of Lt. Col. It was reported in the Votes and Proceedings of 1883-84 that:

“Applications for the enrolment of additional companies were received from the following places:- Brisbane, mounted Infantry; Maryborough, a second company of Infantry; Rockhampton, an additional company of Infantry; Gympie, two companies of Infantry; Cooktown, one company of Infantry; …”

In 1885, the Cooktown Garrison Battery was inspected by Lt. Col. Blaxland, who reported that the Battery was backward in drill, an instructor having only recently arrived, however the members were eager for instruction. At that time, there were three officers, and 40 other ranks.

Unfortunately, in 1888, Capt. Ralston left Cooktown, and Lt. Edmund Olive was promoted to captain to take command of the Cooktown Battery. Ralston was obviously the driving force behind the successes enjoyed by the Cooktown Garrison Battery, and  by 1889, the Cooktown Garrison Battery had ceased to exist. Its demise seemed to be caused primarily through falling numbers of volunteers.

It is far more likely that the gun was sent to Cooktown for training purposes, but when?

3 Responses

  1. Great Update. With my Leslie, Russell & Millar family living in Cooktown in that era, it makes for interesting reading. Great photo as well!

  2. Thanks David. The one thing I haven’t found yet is the arrival of the cannon in Cooktown. The Garrison was defunct by 1889 and the cannon left uncared for until the 1930s. It would be interesting to find the arrival date.

  3. George Clarke

    I will be visiting Cooktown April 2017 to visit the grave of a long lost ancestor in Captain Ross Hovell who died and was buried in the local grave ‘Cooktown’ 1888. I am also interested to know if any of his descendants still live in the area. My mother is of the Hovell family.

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