Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Shot Tower, Taroona

Australia’s first shot tower, at Taroona, was built by Joseph Moir and is one of three still existing in the country, the others being in Melbourne. Joseph Moir's factory, which operated for 35 years from 1870, manufactured lead shot for contemporary muzzle loading sports guns. Although the factory struggled for most of its existence its most recognisable feature, the tallest stone shot tower in the southern hemisphere, has been a prominent landmark in the district for well over a century. It was the first built in Australia and is the only circular stone shot tower remaining in the world.
Just twenty years old, Scotsman Joseph Moir arrived in Hobart in 1829, one of thousands of hopeful free immigrants who sailed to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s. By 1840 he had acquired several properties, government employment and a reputation as a builder of notable colonial buildings such as St Mark’s Anglican Church, Pontville. He returned briefly to Scotland in 1844 to marry Elizabeth Paxton with whom he had at least five children.

A prominent businessman, Moir was active in Hobart’s civic affairs between 1846 and 1873, a year before his death. He revisited Britain in 1849 ‘to arrange to carry on an ironmonger’s business’, returning to Hobart with a stock of hardware items and opening a store with his brother at ‘Economy House’ in Murray Street. The business operated until sold by his son, Joseph in 1884. Moir purchased 39 acres on Brown’s River Rd in 1855 and moved to a new house at ‘Queenborough Glens’ (as he called the property) with his family in 1862. He then built the shot tower and its associated buildings and poured his first shot in 1870.
Joseph Moir erected his shot making enterprise on 39 acres subdivided from an 1817 grant of 100 acres to John Williamson. He chose his site carefully. A road frontage facilitated straightforward transport of raw materials and product. A windmill pumped water from a reliable creek to a cistern on the site of the current overflow carpark and substantial timber reserves provided fuel for the furnaces and cauldrons. Sited far from residential neighbourhoods Moir could also relax in the knowledge that toxic fumes would blow safely out to sea or over forestland.
Moir probably began building his shot making works after erecting the family home between 1855 and 1862. A stone building above the cliffs overlooking the River Derwent stored gun powder for his ironmongery as well as stores of arsenic and antimony. Another building south-west of the magazine contained the furnace for preparing lead with the arsenic and antimony.

The tower was constructed of dressed curved sandstone blocks quarried at the nearby abandoned Brown’s River Convict Probation Station. A remarkable tapered structure 48m (157 feet 6 inches) tall it features an internal spiral staircase of pitsawn timber and an external gallery at its top which was probably used to store firewood for the upper cauldron. The staircase provided scaffolding during the construction of the tower and access to the upper cauldron and shot-making colanders. The tower is 10 metres in diameter at the base and tapers to 3.9 metres at the top . The walls are a metre thick at the bottom and thin out to .45 centimetres at the top.

A three level stone factory abutting the tower was erected at the same time, then was extended soon after. The stone for the factory was probably recycled from the abandoned probation station.
Little is known of working conditions in Joseph Moir’s shot tower. The work was highly skilled, noisy and almost certainly dangerous. That workers took great pride in their trade is indicated by an engraving in a window in the factory, reading, ‘George Matson Premier Shot Maker Tasmanian and Australian’. No further information about George Matson is known. The following descriptions of a contemporary works, Melbourne’s Coop shot tower (now incorporated in the Melbourne Central complex on Little Lonsdale St) provides some indication of the nature of the work involved.

Pouring the lead was ‘an operation which needs great skill and constant watching. The man is used to his work but the novice would probably make a considerable bungle of it’. As the lead droplets fell there was ‘a sharp incessant shower of silvery rain . . . mak[ing] a noise very like that of an overflow waste pipe high up in one’s wall’. When shovelling shot from the water tub it was ‘quite certain that if the man who is so energetically shovelling . . . was to cease from his labours for any appreciable length of time the tank would be soon full of lead. . . . all the while the strange shower descends the man with the shovel is busily at work’. The noise of grading the shot through the sieves was ‘well nigh deafening’ while a woman sat with needle and thread sewing the 12.7kg linen bags for the finished shot.
Joseph Moir began building his residence soon after acquiring the property in 1855. Family lore suggests that he built the battlemented tower as practise before attempting the more substantial shot tower. By 1885 the property was well known for its gardens and orchards with its hot houses, summer houses and conservatories.
Moir’s sons, James and Joseph, carried on the business after his death in 1874. Although James won merit certificates at the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition and the 1880-81 Melbourne Exhibition the business struggled and it was leased by the mortgagors to his brother, Joseph in 1887. Joseph found himself unable compete with mainland competitors when generous colonial tariffs were removed after Federation. He relinquished the lease to his brother-in-law, William Baynton who continued the business until closing its doors in 1905. During these years Baynton’s wife, Florence, operated a tea house in the residence.

The property subsequently passed through several hands until 1956 when 3.24 hectares was purchased by the Tasmanian government and proclaimed a Scenery Reserve. Although it included the tower and residence, the reserve excluded the powder magazine, conservatory, antimony furnace and mausoleum. The reserve was gazetted as an historic site in 1971 under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. Since 1956 it has been leased to several concessionaires and has been open as a tourist site. Various conservation works have been conducted at the shot tower over the years to maintain its heritage significance.
The top of the tower can be accessed via a 259 step circular staircase and offers spectacular views up, down and across the Derwent River. There is a museum at the base of the tower and a tea rooms alongside, as well as toilet facilities for the disabled.
It is highly recommended as a historic site to vist. Make the climb up the internal stairs to the top for fantastic views of the Derwent Estuary and surrounding areas. Drop in and say hi to current owners Peter & Steve, indulge in a devonshire tea in the adjoining tea rooms and then check out the souvenir shop and take a stroll in the onsite gardens.