The first military works at Queenscliff commenced in 1860, with the construction of a sea wall along the top of Shortland’s Bluff. Built from sandstone quarried at Point King, this sea wall was positioned directly east of the site of the original upper lighthouse. Designed in a quatrefoil pattern, it was designed to strengthen the cliff face and allow the positioning of heavy-calibre guns in an elevated location, right on the edge of the Bluff.
The building of this battery required the construction of new lighthouses. In 1861, contracts were let for the lighthouses to replace the timber-framed leading light built in 1854, and the badly decaying sandstone upper light. Both new lighthouses were built in dressed basalt and by February 1863 were operational. The timber light was subsequently re-erected at Point Lonsdale as the first Point Lonsdale Lighthouse. In 1862–63, lighthouse keepers’ quarters were erected at the Bluff for both Queenscliff lighthouses. The upper quarters still survive within the Fort. Between 1864 and 1879, the rate of military construction at Queenscliff declined. In 1870, as the last detachment of British troops left Victoria, the debate on the Colony’s defences remained unresolved and the future of the Queenscliff battery was by no means certain.
The Fort, which underwent major redevelopment in the late 1870s and 1880s, became the headquarters for an extensive chain of forts around Port Phillip Heads. Its garrison included volunteer artillery, engineers, infantry and naval militia, and it was manned as a coastal defence installation continuously from 1883 to 1946.
New works recommended by Scratchley and Jervois were started and formed the basis of the layout of the Fort as it stands today. In 1879, two contracts were let for the construction of an upper and a lower battery. The lower battery was to contain four 80-pounder rifled muzzle-loading (RML) guns, and the upper battery three 9-inch RML guns. Both batteries were completed by early 1882, although not armed.
By design Fort Queenscliff became the command centre for the Heads defences, probably because of its strategic location and established telegraph links with Melbourne. In recognition of its importance, a landward defensive system around the Queenscliff guns was commenced in 1882.
In 1882, work commenced on the walls of the Fort and a keep and proceeded erratically until their completion in 1886. A year later a ditch or dry moat was excavated around the Fort walls to provide a further defensive measure. An array of support facilities were also erected, including a drill hall (1882), barracks (1885), assorted sheds and stores, a guard house (1883), and a separate cell block (1887). These buildings were all constructed from timber and corrugated iron, were purely functional and had little architectural embellishment. Many of them still exist today. By 1886 Port Phillip was the most heavily fortified port in the Southern Hemisphere.
With the erection of the wall, the civilian presence in the Fort came to a virtual end, and by 1887 both the lighthouse keepers’ quarters and the post and telegraph office were turned over to military use. From this point on, regular civilian entry to the Fort has been restricted.
In 1889, two BL 9.2 inch (234 mm) Mk VI breech-loading ‘counter bombardment’ British Armstrong guns were installed, one on a Hydro-Pneumatic mounting enabling it to function as a ‘disappearing’ gun, and one on a Central Pivot Barbette mounting. Two of the BL 9.2 inch (234 mm) Mk VI guns on Hydro-Pneumatic carriages were also installed at Fort Nepean, and three (one each), at Ben Buckler Gun Battery, Signal Hill Battery, and Shark Point Battery in Sydney.
After 1890, apart from continual improvements to the Fort’s guns and their emplacements and the construction of search-light apertures, little development took place within the Fort until World War I from 1914–18. Around 1915, substantial development occurred along the northern boundary of the parade ground which involved the removal of an old shrapnel mound from behind the wall and the erection of a number of timber barracks and mess buildings.
All the old barrack buildings were demolished in 1936 to allow the construction of the present red brick buildings. One of the more unfortunate aspects of development since the 1930s has been the encroachment of structures outside the Fort Walls, especially on the Hesse and King Street sides. In terms of layout and despite some changes in architectural style, the Fort, as it stands today, is almost the same as it was in 1889.
From about 1936, Fort Queenscliff was the main recruit training centre for the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) for Australia. It was also the Headquarters for the defence batteries located at Crow’s Nest, Franklin, Lonsdale, Nepean, Pearce, and Queenscliff.
The Fort ceased to be a coast defence installation by 1946 when it became the home of the Army’s Staff College until the single service staff colleges were combined in Canberra in 2000. Since that time it has been the location of the Army’s Soldier Career Management Agency.
Fort Queenscliff Museum which opened in 1982, is part of the Army Museums Network under the aegis of the Army History Unit and is open to the public for tours.
Royal Australian Engineers Projects at Fort Queenscliff
Over the years the Royal Australian Engineers have helped restore a number of displays and are establishing an area to show their involvement in the Fort Queenscliff history.
1993 – 80 Pounder Gun Carriage Rebuild
In 1993, 91 Forestry Troop (55 Resources Squadron) Royal Australian Engineers, undertook to rebuild the 1862, 80 Pounder Gun Carriage at Fort Queenscliff.
2021 – Two Gun Carriage Rebuilds
In 2021, building company Melcon Building Services P/L together with the Royal Australian Engineers Association (Vic) have rebuilt two 64 pounder Gun carriages. Built from recycled Yellow Gum timber that has been reclaimed from part of the Cowes pier renovations on Phillip Island.
2022 – Royal Australian Engineer Display Area
This area has been allocated to be used for showcasing the Royal Australian Engineers involvement with Fort Queenscliff. To be started after Covid restrictions are lifted in 2022.