HMVS (Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship) Cerberus, pictured here at Williamstown, was named after the three-headed watchdog of the underworld in Ancient Greek mythology and served as the watchdog of the Colony of Victoria. Photo courtesy State Library of Victoria collection
One hundred and fifty years ago – on April 9, 1871 – a revolutionary ship arrived at Hobsons Bay. It was the breastwork monitor HMVS Cerberus. A radical departure from the wooden-hulled warships that had previously dominated the navies of the world, her design was based on the Monitor, which became famous in 1862 during the American Civil War. The Cerberus had arrived from Plymouth after a passage of 160 days via the Suez Canal; stops were made at eight ports to load coal. For her ocean trip she was rigged as a barque to reduce her coal use, but this rig was removed on her arrival. Afterwards she always operated under steam power alone, being the first British warship to totally dispense with sail power.
There was concern that she might not survive an ocean passage because she was designed for the protected water of Port Phillip. In normal trim her main-deck was about 1m above the sea, and by flooding her tanks this could be reduced to 600mm. To an enemy she presented a difficult target and was strongly protected by armour plate. The armour on the turrets was 255mm thick and 205mm on the breastwork between them. Her topsides were of 150mm armour. Each rotating turret, one forward and the other aft, mounted a pair of huge rifled muzzle-loading guns each weighing 18 tonnes. These guns had a bore of 255mm and could hurl a 275kg shell a distance of 6.5km. It was accepted by experts that, without any other harbour defence whatsoever, she was a match for the strongest force that might launch an attack.
Cerberus was no beauty. The Melbourne newspaper the Argus reported: “Like almost all the modern vessels of war, the Cerberus is uncouth and unattractive in appearance.” This was true, but for 50 years as flagship of the Victorian Colonial Navy, she guarded Port Phillip and her presence kept the citizens of Melbourne feeling safe.
Sunk as a breakwater at Black Rock in 1926, much of her lower hull has rusted and collapsed over the years under the weight of her turrets and armour. It is a sad situation that this important piece of naval history remains largely ignored as she approaches her end.
Much information about the Cerberus can be found on the website www.cerberus.com.au
BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON
President, Peninsula Ship Society
T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780
The Peninsula Ship Society cannot invite visitors to meetings until further notice.