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HMVS Cerberus. Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
HMVS Cerberus. LaTrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

attleships have had a long and honourable history. The foundations of which were laid in 1862. when, during the American Civil War, the Battle of Hampton Roads took place. This was a four hour duel between the very first ironclad warships built, the Union Navy's purpose built. USS Monitor and the Confederate Navy's converted frigate, CSS Virginia, more commonly known as the Merrimac,. The Monitor's design ushered in the era of the turreted, centreline, big gunned warship. It was from this design that all future warships were eventually developed. As a result of this battle, naval wooden hulled sailing vessels were rendered obsolete overnight.

The British Royal Navy became interested in the monitor design, however, before committing themselves to a large and expensive capital ship, the design was trialed on a smaller class of gunboat of which the Cerberus was one. It was from the modified 'monitor' design of the Cerberus and her sisters, that lay the foundations for all surface, gun armed warships for a century until the advent of the guided missiles of the l960s.

Lieutenant Panter. Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
Lieutenant Panter. Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
Transverse and longitudinal sections of the HMVS Cerberus. Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Click to view enlarged Cerberus diagramTransverse and longitudinal sections of the HMVS Cerberus. Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
The Cerberus story begins with the Russians and the Crimean War of the mid l850s. With the growth of Melbourne's population following the 1850s Gold Rush and a fear of a Russian invasion with her Pacific Fleet, the decision was taken to prepare Port Phillip against any invasion from the sea. British as well as Colonial interests could well be disrupted by an armed attack. Though the forts at Queenscliffe, Portsea and South Channel provided a static measure of protection in the lower half of the Bay - a mobile reserve was needed. Thus, on the 9th of April, 1871, HMVS Cerberus arrived in Port Phillip. A Lieutenant Panter was sent out to England to bring her home, following the death of her first appointed captain, due to illness. She had an interesting delivery voyage.

There were many delays in sorting out the paper work, however she sailed from Chatham, on the Thames River, on the 29th of October, 1870. Because the Cerberus rolled heavily in bad weather and also because of the recent loss of the much larger turreted 'battleship', HMS Captain due to capsize, the first crew mutinied when the Cerberus, arrived at Portsmouth. Her second crew mutinied at Malta. A third crew was hired, and, with the aid of a squad of Marines to prevent more desertions sailed her on to Melbourne. Lieutenant Panter, the Chief Engineer and the Bosun were among a handfull of men to make the complete voyage.

Cerberus was the first steamship to pass through the newly completed Suez Canal. Although not officially recognized, she was the first warship to do so as well. Cerberus also steamed most of the way to Melbourne using coaling stations in various British Empire ports along her route. Although fitted with sails, these proved almost useless. However, in the Bay of Biscay, they held her into the wind during a storm.

Aerial view of the HMVS Cerberus as a Breakwater at Black Rock, Victoria (4/1/94). Photo Wayne Mitchell, MAAV.
Aerial view of the HMVS Cerberus as a Breakwater at Black Rock, Victoria (4/1/94). Note the massive circular fore and aft turrets with cannon still in place. Photo Wayne Mitchell, MAAV.
Cerberus was destined never to leave Port Phillip. She had the most uneventful combat life of any capital ship. However, on other occasions, she proved her worth. Cerberus never fired a shot in anger. Although. one night in 1878, a small trading vessel tried to sneak up the Bay to avoid paying customs duty. The Cerberus was lying at anchor in Hobsons Bay, in the north of Port Phillip, with her guns pointing out to sea. No one had realised that the tide had turned her around so that her guns were pointing inland. Upon seeing this unidentified vessel, the gun crews sprang into action and fired a shot. They succeeded in blowing the roof of a chemist shop in St. Kilda. Realising their mistake, they trained the guns towards the sea and fired again, this time hitting the Gellibrand Lighthouse. A cease-fire was ordered and the unidentified vessel was not discovered until morning. A more serious incident occurred in 1881, when, on exercises with other units of Victoria's Colonial Navy, an officer and three ratings were killed when a mine accidentally exploded. Those who holidayed at the fashionable Mornington Peninsula towns of Queenscliffe, Sorrento and Portsea had a grandstand view of the annual Easter Naval Exercises. Cerberus had the then novelty of electricity. To the amusement of the spectators on shore, Cerberus would put on a spectacular light show using her searchlights.

Cerberus had the unique distinction of serving in three navies of the one nation. Firstly, she served in the Victorian Colonial Navy from 1871 until 1901. Then, from 1901 until 1913, in the Commonwealth Naval Forces following Federation. Finally, from 1913 until 1924, she served in the Royal Australian Navy. In 1926, a Melbourne salvage company bought her and, after removing the engines and boilers but leaving the 1,800 ton armored barbette, the four 18 ton guns and the two 400 ton turrets - scuttled her as a breakwater, 150 metres off shore at the Black Rock Yacht Club.

HMVS Cerberus as a Breakwater at Black Rock, Victoria (19/9/93)shortly before her collapse. Photo Peter Charlesworth, MAAV. HMVS Cerberus awash in the gale that finally sank her  (4/1/94). Photo Peter Charlesworth, MAAV. View of the collapsed stern HMVS Cerberus (19/3/94). Photo Peter Charlesworth, MAAV.
Before (left 19/9/93) and after the storm (middle 96/12/93 and right stern view, 19/3/94). The rusting hull of the Cerberus finally sucumbed to the elements during a fierce 1994 winter gale. Weakened after years of corrosion the main deck crashed down on to the lower decks, dropping a total of two metres. The bow has dropped, and a large crack has appeared across the deck forward of the number one turret. A unique part of Australia's and the world's naval history has gone. However, her memories and her legacy remain and while they do so, she will not be forgotten. Photos Peter Charlesworth, MAAV.

On the 27th of December 1993 Cerberus succumbed to the elements and in a 90 knot north westerly storm, the 2,000 ton+ superstructure collapsed and sealed her fate forever. After this demise, the Cerberus was considered to be a danger to the public and was declared an Historic Shipwreck, and a 25 metre exclusion zone was placed around the site. This zone prohibits any activities within its boundaries. Plans have been proposed to restore the remains of the Cerberus, or to remove the turrets and place them on shore, but it is most likely that these will not eventuate due to a lack of funding.

In 1983 the MAAV produced a detailed report on the Cerberus telling of its historical and archaeological significance. HMVS Cerberus publication (PDF, 471KB).

         >>A must visit link to a dedicated 'Save the Cerberus' website


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Last modified: April, 2019