Explosives Magazine and Detonator Store

stratford heritage trail cairns

Howgego family at Powder Magazine House at Stratford, c.1910.
Photographer: Robert Alston.
Image: Cairns Historical Society (A5219).

Cairns developed as a port to supply the gold, tin and copper mining towns. On the diggings the control of gunpowder and explosives was the responsibility of the Department of Mines, but here on the coast control for landing and transporting explosives was the Harbour Master’s.

Initially explosives were stored on a barge anchored in Trinity Bay but by 1900 storage space was at a premium and the government proclaimed a 22 acre explosives reserve here, as the site was close to the port and railway and yet in a sparsely populated area. The magazine, detonator shed (the smaller building) and wooden manager’s residence (now demolished) were built in 1901 at a cost of £2,500. The buildings were secured with a high galvanised fence and a railway siding was built up to the wooden platform for the distribution of explosives, the majority of which went by train to Mount Molloy, Mount Mulligan, Chillagoe and Mareeba.

The 22 acre Government Explosives Reserve was extended in 1911 to 157 acres with the intention of enlarging the magazine. However by the 1930s the increasing population at Stratford meant the development never happened and in 1941 all explosives were moved to the new magazine at Queerah.

The first magazine keeper was John Miller. He was replaced in 1915 by Arthur Howgego who remained as manager until 1939. During WWII the magazine was used by the Australian military and nineteen soldiers were stationed here to guard the explosives. After WWII the building was used as a storeroom for the timber mill. Both buildings are listed on the Queensland Heritage Register and are the oldest brick and concrete buildings in the area.

stratford heritage trail cairns

Detonator Shed.
Image: Dave Phoenix

stratford heritage trail cairns

Powder Magazine.
Image: Dave Phoenix

Heritage Listing

From: http://www.epa.qld.gov.au

Explosives Magazine and Detonator Store (former)

Place ID: 600754
Place Name: Explosives Magazine and Detonator Store (former)

Cultural Heritage Significance.
Principal Period of Significance: 1900s

Criterion A: The former Explosives Magazine and Detonator Store at Stratford is important in demonstrating the pattern of Queensland’s history, being closely associated with the economic development of the Cairns hinterland in the early decades of the 20th century, and in particular with the expansion of railways and mining in the district.

Criterion D: The place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a substantial, early 1900s explosives magazine and detonator store constructed in concrete, and illustrates c1900 techniques for the ventilation of explosives magazines.

Criterion E: The place is important in exhibiting a range of aesthetic characteristics valued by the local community, in particular its contribution through scale, form and materials, to the Stratford townscape, its utilitarian nature, and the intactness of the structures.

History: The powder magazine and detonator store at Stratford, near Cairns, were constructed in 1901 for Queensland’s Marine Department, which was the government authority responsible for storing the large quantity of explosives, both government and privately owned, being shipped into the port of Cairns at the turn of the century. From 1860 to 1963, control of all explosives/gunpowder imported into Queensland was the province of the Harbour Master’s Department (1860-62), the Department of Ports & Harbours (1862-93), the Marine Department (1894-1928), and the Department of Harbours and Marine (1929-63). In 1964, responsibility was shifted to the Queensland Department of Health. Under The Navigation Act of 1876, the master of any ship entering a Queensland port with gunpowder to be unloaded, had to ensure that it was placed in a government magazine. The Ports & Harbours Department therefore was responsible for the provision of magazines and for the safe storage of explosives at Queensland ports of entry. The Act further regulated the conveyance and storage of gunpowder in any place in Queensland, not just in the ports. From the late 1860s, government magazines were being erected at the principal ports and goldfields of Queensland. On the goldfields, magazines were administered by the Mines Department; control of magazines other than in ports was not vested in the Marine Department until 1907, under the provisions of the Explosives Act of 1906. These magazines were constructed of stone, brick, timber or iron, largely dependent on the local availability of materials. At some ports, floating magazines were utilised. By 1900, magazines under the control of the Marine Department were situated at Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Bowen, Townsville, Cairns, Cooktown and Normanton. None of these appears to have been of concrete construction. The magazine at Cairns was a barge, 50 feet by 16 feet, anchored off the east side of Trinity Inlet since October 1884, and was the reason for the naming of Magazine Creek on that shore. In mid-1900, the Cairns magazine was receiving explosives at the rate of 2,716 cases per annum, the amount was increasing rapidly, and traders were clamouring for storage space. Explosives were imported to Cairns by Brisbane-based merchants such as Brabant & Co. and Hertzberg & Co., stored at the government magazine at a cost, and then sold to the mining companies and merchants on the Atherton tinfields and Chillagoe copperfields. As well, explosives were used in the construction of the privately-funded Mareeba to Chillagoe railway, commenced in August 1898. The first stage of this railway was opened in October 1900, opening up new mineral fields and plantations, and creating a greater demand for explosives, in the process. In consequence of this rapidly increasing demand for explosives, the Marine Department requested in 1900 that a new magazine be constructed at Cairns. A suitable site of nearly 22 acres at Stratford was proclaimed a provisional Reserve for Explosives Magazine (R.180) on 30 May 1900. It was five miles from the centre of Cairns, fronted the Cairns-Mareeba Railway (permitting easier distribution of explosives to the hinterland), and was in a sparsely populated area. Designs for a powder magazine and detonator store, brick with concrete foundations, along with a small timber residence for the magazine keeper, were produced by the Government Architect’s office, and the contract was let to JC Thomson in November 1900. During construction, mass concrete was substituted for brick walls, in consequence of which costs were reduced. The buildings were completed in mid-July 1901, at a cost of £2,471. The magazine provided storage capacity for over 6,000 cases of explosives, and was described in the Works Department’s Annual Report for 1901-02 as containing means of ventilation, lighting, and other provision for safety, in advance of the best structures hitherto erected in the State for this particular purpose. Ventilation in the main magazine was supplied by roof ventilators and airholes covered by grates in the thick concrete walls, and the timber floor was built 3 feet above ground to allow air to circulate beneath. The explosives magazine and detonator store were surrounded by a high fence of galvanised iron, and the reserve was fenced with hardwood posts and rails. In addition, the Railways Department had constructed a loop line and siding to the magazine. John Miller, who had been amongst the official party which accompanied David Spence to establish the port of Cairns in 1876, was appointed magazine keeper from 1 July 1901. He was succeeded in 1915 by Arthur Howgego, who remained as magazine keeper at Stratford until 1939. During Howgego’s time, explosives were despatched mainly to Mt Mulligan, Mt Molloy, Mareeba, Biboohra and other tableland areas. In 1911 the explosives reserve was extended to 157 acres, in anticipation of expanding the magazine facilities at Stratford. Reduced quantities of explosives entering Queensland during the First World War temporarily relieved the necessity for expansion, but in the 1920s, the Stratford magazine was handling substantial volumes of explosives once again. By the late 1920s, the spread of population in the Stratford area around the magazine was a cause of concern to the Chief Inspector of Explosives. In 1931 R.180 was cancelled, and a new reserve of 230 acres, further east along the railway line, was proclaimed. Due to budget constraints, however, construction of new magazine facilities was deferred for over a decade, and during the 1930s, the 1901 buildings remained in use on what was by then an unofficial government reserve. At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, a military guard of 19 men was stationed at the Stratford magazine. By early 1940, the Government had made the decision to erect new magazine facilities, including caretaker’s quarters, at Queerah, on the southern outskirts of Cairns. The Queerah magazine buildings were completed in October 1941, and by March 1942, all explosives from the Stratford magazine had been transferred there. The magazine keeper, however, resided at Stratford for the duration of the war, as the military guard were occupying the new caretaker’s quarters at Queerah. From early June 1942 until mid May 1945, the Stratford magazine site was occupied by the Australian Military Forces, who used the concrete buildings to store explosives. During the military occupancy, most of the galvanised iron fence around the magazine buildings was removed. After the Second World War, the site was utilised as a yard and depot by the Department of Public Works, until in 1953, JM Johnston Pty Ltd, owner of the adjacent sawmill, obtained a thirty year lease of the buildings, on about 5 acres. JM Johnston Pty Ltd acquired a perpetual lease on the property in 1956, and freehold in 1980. The former magazine keeper’s cottage has been removed from the site.

Construction Period: 1901 – 1901 July
Description: The former Stratford Explosives Magazine, currently used as a storage facility for the adjoining sawmill, is located on a level site fronting Magazine Street to the south and surrounded by worksheds to the north and west. The magazine consists of two structures, an explosives store and a store for detonators. The explosives store is a symmetrical, rectangular building with a hipped corrugated iron roof on which the word EXPLOSIVES is still visible. Three square ridge ventilators, in sheet metal decorated with classical mouldings, are prominent on the roof. The walls are of poured in-situ concrete with a concrete render, the base of which sits slightly proud. The walls have numerous vents, with the longer north and south elevations having a central doorway flanked by three narrow windows to each side. The east and west elevations have three narrow windows, and the south entry has a small timber landing. All windows have timber frames, which once housed louvres and a wire screen, with timber shutters to the inside. Externally, both doors were copper sheeted fixed with brass screws. The south door has had the copper sheet removed but the screws remain. The store for detonators is a small square plan building, with a hipped corrugated iron roof with a square ridge ventilator, located to the east of the explosives store. The walls are of poured in-situ concrete with a concrete render, with a door to the south and a single narrow window to each side. The door and windows are similar to those of the explosives store, but the windows house glass louvres and do not have timber shutters. Internally, both buildings have boarded ceilings, with the perimeter raked to the exterior walls, with centrally positioned ceiling vents. The railway line, from which the Explosives Magazine was originally linked via a loop line and siding, is located opposite on the south side of Magazine Street.


The Stratford Heritage Trail is an initiative of the
Stratford & Freshwater Community Association