The need for a gunpowder magazine remote from Sydney town was identified in 1832.The existing magazine at Fort Phillip was not only in the town, but was also too small, and had been supplemented by the powder hulk 'Mary Elizabeth'. A magazine on Goat Island was completed in 1839 but by 1861 it was also at capacity. Construction of a supplementary magazine on Spectacle Island commenced in 1863. These magazines stored both military ammunition and 'merchant's powder' (explosives imported for civil purposes, and required to be lodged in government custody pending sale).
During the 1860s and 1870s public concern was frequently expressed at having such large amounts of explosives stored so close to the expanding city of Sydney. Concerns were heightened following a nitroglycerine explosion in a Bridge Street warehouse in March 1866.
In May 1875 the Government appointed a Board to consider the desirability of the removal of the Goat Island magazine. Among its recommendations were 'That a separate and distinct magazine for merchant's gunpowder, capable of storing about 300 tons, be established on the right bank of the Parramatta River...'. However, it was not until 1882 that land was resumed at Newington for 'certain works for and in connection with the erection of a magazine for the storage of gunpowder and other explosives and certain buildings in connection therewith'.
By this time, the greater part of the Newington Estate was owned by John Wetherill and the Benevolent Asylum for Women (under Crown operation) was operating where Silverwater Correctional Centre now exists.
There was further delay, and construction of the magazine did not eventuate until 1897. In the intervening years, Spectacle Island had been handed over to the Royal Navy in 1883 to serve as the ordnance depot for its Australia Squadron. The colonial government in 1882 acquired two powder hulks (also known as floating magazines) to replace the lost storage; these were to survive in Middle Harbour until well into the 20th century.
Although originally envisaged as being for merchant's explosives, by the time construction commenced at Newington, the magazine was purely for military purposes. Tenders were invited in early 1897 by the New South Wales (NSW) Military Forces - the pre-Federation colonial army. Following completion, it was manned by a small complement of uniformed gunners, under the charge of a Sergeant. Upon Federation of the Australian Colonies in 1901, the NSW Military Forces were transferred into the new Commonwealth Military Forces (later known as the Australian Army), and the magazine continued under military control until 1921.
Download 1897 newspaper article describing construction of the Newington Powder Magazine
The establishment of the magazine required major modifications to the natural environment, including the reclamation of mudflats and wetlands and the small island just off the shoreline. Stone sea walls were constructed along almost the entire foreshore of the Parramatta River fronting the site and the mudflats were filled in to gain more land for farms, docks and a wharf.
In 1921 management of the Magazine was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), to allow transfer of high explosive ammunition from the Naval Armament Depot at Spectacle Island.
The magazine was then expanded eastwards into grazing land and wetlands previously part of the adjacent State Abattoir precinct (in the vicinity of the current Narawang Wetlands) almost doubling its area. Further wartime expansion of the depot occurred between 1941 and 1944 when the site expanded south of Holker Street to approximately the line of the present F4 Motorway. This southward expansion provided space for the construction of a US Navy magazine (operated independently by US Navy servicemen) and storehouses and laboratories to support both the RAN's increased activity, and ammunition reserves for the Royal Navy. Between 1942 and 1947, buildings at the State Brickworks were used for ammunition storage. The Burma Road (which still exists in the Newington Armory) provided access between the depot and brickworks facilities, crossing Haslams Creek to the east of the Haslams Creek Bridge that exists today.
By 1947 the brickworks had been vacated, and disposal of excess wartime stocks of ammunition was in progress, mainly by sea dumping. By 1950 some buildings were removed as the depot reverted to a size appropriate to an expected period of peace.
In 1945 the RAN had taken over the ex-US Army Ordnance Depot at Kingswood; thereafter, the Newington and Kingswood depots shared the ammunition storage and maintenance task on the east coast of Australia. In 1961, the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, instructed that all high explosives were to be removed from Newington and relocated to the Kingswood depot. Land use conflicts occurred at Newington in the 1960s, when tear gas escaped from the proof yard and affected workers at a nearby timber mill.
By this time the site covered some 259 hectares, extending from the Parramatta River in the north to the M4 Motorway in the south. Landfilling had been occurring around the site since the early 20th century and there were a number of areas where wastes were dumped or that operated as municipal and industrial waste tips. Naval records indicate disposal of 'arisings' (residues for disposal arising from Depot activities including laboratory wastes, proof yard wastes, burning ground wastes, detonated and burnt ammunition, military waste including containers, boxes, petroleum, obsolete stores and propellants) in the wetlands and other land areas. A large proportion of the wetlands has consequently been fenced off to the public due to the possible existence of unexploded ordnance.
In 1983 planning commenced for a replacement depot at Jervis Bay. The project was announced by the Prime Minister, as part of a Fleet Base relocation proposal, in November 1985. In December 1992 the Minister for Defence directed that the Department of Defence commence planning immediately for the closure of Newington Armament Depot and the associated ammunition supply line between Kingswood and the anchorage in Sydney harbour. This was based on a timetable assuming Sydney would be successful in its bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. In the event, the Jervis Bay proposal did not proceed, being superseded by other initiatives.
The closing of the Newington Depot coincided with growing concern for public safety, the preparation for the Sydney 2000 Olympic bid and the formal recognition of the site as a heritage item. The site was registered in the Australian Heritage Commission's Register of the National Estate and was identified as a Heritage Conservation Area by Sydney Regional Environmental Plan No. 24 - Homebush Bay Area. In December 2010 the site was listed on the NSW State Heritage Register.
The Navy vacated the southern portion of the site in 1996, with ownership transferred to the State Government (Olympic Coordination Authority), to be developed as the Athlete's Village and the suburb of Newington. However, Navy did not leave the Armory Precinct until December 1999. The last ammunition operation was conducted over the wharf on 14 December 1999.
Today the site, now known as the Newington Armory, forms part of the evolving parklands of Sydney Olympic Park. The site comprises a range of historically significant natural and cultural features including former army and navy ammunition storehouses, workshops, offices, small gauge railway and other infrastructure associated with the operation of a naval armament depot.
More detailed information about Newington Armory is available at the RAN Armament Depot Newington website.