Inside the Collection

The Australian Navy’s centenary, October 2013

Photograph of Voice-activated ship’s telephone
Powerhouse Museum Collection, object H3204a. Gift of Navy Office, Department of Defence, 1924.

To mark the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy, I’ve chosen to feature this naval phone, one of several that were crucial to the operation of the navy’s first flagship, HMAS Australia. I have a particular interest in that ship because my grandfather served on it for much of the First World War. The ‘loud-speaking’ hands-free voice-activated phone was used to communicate between the bridge and engine room. It was made by Alfred Graham and Co in London, the company that also supplied phones to the Royal Navy and the Titanic. The speaker’s voice caused a metal diaphragm to vibrate, which moved a wire coil within a magnetic field. This generated sufficient current to power the phone.

Photograph of Alfred Edwin Sharp in naval uniform
Alfred Edwin Sharp in naval uniform. Photo courtesy of the Sharp family.

My grandfather, Alfred Sharp joined the navy as a midshipman in 1912. He was on board HMAS Australia when it was commissioned at Portsmouth in 1913 and was awe-struck at being presented to King George V. He was part of the crew that sailed the battle cruiser from there to Australia in 1913. He was on board as it searched for enemy vessels in the Pacific and when it sailed back to the North Sea to help fight the enemy there. As a young officer, he probably took his turn at speaking into the naval phone. And in 1924 he was serving on HMAS Brisbane when it accompanied the flagship to deep water off Sydney to be scuttled, as decreed by the Treaty of Washington.

So what was the Treaty of Washington and why is the phone in the Museum’s collection?

The Treaty was negotiated to prevent an arms race by the USA, Britain, Japan and other countries in the aftermath of war. While Australia was not a signatory, as a member of the British Empire it was bound by the conditions agreed to by Britain. This set a limit on the tonnage of battleships and battle cruisers in service across the Empire. HMAS Australia, proud flagship of a relatively young nation, was doomed when the Treaty was signed in February 1922.

Before the ship was sunk, a good deal of material was removed for re-use by the Navy, items of plant were donated to universities and technical colleges, and some fittings were sold as souvenirs. The Defence Department donated a curious selection of artefacts to the Museum: the phone, several small objects related to the ship’s big guns, a wooden pulley block, two pieces of wooden bar used to turn a capstan, and a piece of steel boiler plate.

One other small object came into our collection in 1981 via the Royal Australian Historical Society. In 1956 the University of Technology (which later changed its name to the University of NSW) donated a very interesting swash-plate engine that had been given to Sydney Technical College in 1924, and that College later donated three steam engines directly to the Museum. Steam turbines provided the ship’s propulsion, so these engines would all have had auxiliary roles.

Do you know of other items of equipment from the ship that are still extant? Are any still held by universities or colleges, or by other museums? Are some being cared for by private collectors? Of special interest would be the Werry engine, an Australian invention that powered the ship’s pinnace; it would be great to learn that a Werry is in preservation.

HMAS Australia proudly led the new fleet as it sailed into Port Jackson on 4 October 1913, two days after midshipman Sharp turned 19. Now two fleets are on their way to Sydney to mark the centenary of that event: one consists of over 40 modern naval vessels, the other of 16 magnificent tall ships. Sydney Harbour will be abuzz on the first weekend in October, with bands, flypasts and fireworks adding to the spectacle. Like me, many people watching the event will be thinking of relatives who served in the Navy. Their thoughts will make the event a memorial as well as a spectacle, just as museum objects are aids to memory as well as artefacts of visual and intellectual interest.

One response to “The Australian Navy’s centenary, October 2013

  • A terrific blog post. Ten years ago in Wingham, I visited the Manning Valley Historical Society’s wonderful museum which featured items from bacon, broom and butter factories. There I saw a water pump originally from HMAS Australia and later used in a butter factory.

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