View from Porter Hill toward Bellerive ~ photo found here ~

Should the Dorney house on the fort in the summit of Porter Hill be sold?

Mount Nelson above Hobart served a significant role in colonial Van Diemen’s Land, as the site of a signal station for communications between Port Arthur and the capital, relaying reports swiftly to the signal station at Battery Point.

Down the slope to the east of Mount Nelson is Porter Hill, which gained no fame until 1904, when one of the defences of Hobart was built there and called Fort Nelson.

The old signal station on Mount Nelson may have played a role with Fort Nelson, as a row of ancient metal poles can be found leading up from the fort to the mountain, which may have been for phone or telegraph communications.

Wooden military buildings located down the hill are long gone and could have been lost in one of the bushfires that rage through these hills from time to time.

Of all the defences of Hobart, dating from 1804 to 1944, Fort Nelson is unique, being the only one located away from the coast.

Though the hill-top location gave the guns greater reach, the hill-top location also created a weakness in the defence, where an enemy ship could hug the western shore of the River Derwent and be safe from the guns of Fort Nelson, pressing on to attack Hobart.

This blind spot in the defences of Hobart was not fixed until Forts Direction an Pierson were built at the mouth of the river during World War II.

In 1944 Hobart was no longer viewed a defended port in the new era of modern warfare and Fort Nelson was subsequently closed as a defence.

In 1949 a Melbourne architect, Esmond Dorney, found the fort and acquired the property, including the surrounding forested hill.

Dorney built a house on the southern gun emplacement, but this was lost in a bushfire. [1]

He then built a new house on the northern gun emplacement in 1966, but again a bushfire destroyed the home.

In 1978 Dorney built a third house on the northern gun emplacement, which still survives and is an improved version of the second lost dwelling.

The Dorney house is heritage listed, as is Fort Nelson, making them both treasures of the nation: a house on a fort in a hill. [2]

After the death of Esmond Dorney in 1991, the fate and future of the property slowing gathered as a question for the Dorney family.

With the Walker Corporation offering $9 million to pursue a subdivision on the hill, the land came to the attention of the larger community. [3]

A movement had been gathering pace in the 1990s to protect remnant skyline around Hobart, to preserve the beauty of the harbour city.

Skyline protection was the driving force behind the Hobart City Council purchasing Porter Hill, the fort and the house in June 2006 for 5.8 million, which included a $1 million contribution from the Federal Government. [4]

At the time the Lord Mayor of Hobart Rob Valentine said, “It’s a fantastic thing for Hobart and will serve us well into the future.”

Nine winters have now gone by and a plan for the fort and house is still in flux, with suggestion that the City of Hobart could sell the house and fort, after being excised from the hill. [3]

A sale would preserve the main objective of protecting the forested skyline, but a sale would see the historic fort and heritage house locked up in private hands.

Should the house on the fort in the hill be sold?

One argument against any sale to the public could be the fire risk of the site, especially with the primary aim of keeping the hill forested.

Two earlier houses built on the fort by Dorney were lost to fire and it is a sad reality that the current house could, or will be lost also.

The house is located on a forested hill, with a gully to the south and the higher forested slope of Mount Nelson rising above.

A fire in this location can become an inferno that that races to the top of Porter Hill like a fire bomb.

The current or future owner could take extensive measures to protect against fire, but best efforts might not be enough, if the prediction of super fires is realised.

Professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania insists that super fires, which will be beyond human control, “will rip through Tasmania in the coming decades.” [5]

Anyone living on the eastern shore in 1967 will remember watching the hills of Mount Nelson burn, where trees could be seen lighting up like great torches.

In the light of this present and future fire threat to the house on the fort in the hill, it would be better to keep the property fully in public hands to manage the danger.

One critical management detail could be to be ready and able to replace the house should, or when another fire on the hill burns the house down.

Anyone present on the hill in a fire could take shelter in the old fort and this defence against fire could be improved.

If, or when, the Dorney house is rebuilt on the fort in the hill, it may be possible to use more fire resistant materials.

If the decision is to keep the Dorney house and Fort Nelson in public hands, we can wonder and dream about the future life of the site.

One role could be as the key attraction in a tour of the defences of Hobart, which run through time from 1804 to 1944 and extend around the harbour and to the mouth of the river.

This idea has been floated by military history enthusiasts for many years, who have brought history alive with re-enactments and the firing of muskets and cannon at the Kangaroo Bluff Battery at Bellerive. [6]

In this role the Dorney house could become a tea room with a view, where tours by coach and ferry could begin and end.

Keeping Fort Nelson public would allow the military history to be given interpretation there.

Another role for the site could be in homage to the house and the architecture of Hobart, including tours and interpretation.

Because of the severe fire risk at this site, the story of fire management could also be included, as a very real living experience, including the use of the underground chambers as a fire shelter.

A sculpture park could be developed around Porter Hill, with works in stone and steel that do not burn.

If further space is desired for the arts and history, this could be developed underground at the site.

Rather than rushing to sell, could these ideas be floated with an exhibition, trial tours and public meeting?

If an approach is agreed to that includes all the defences of Hobart, three councils could be involved, as well as the State and Federal governments.

The oldest forts are located in the City of Hobart, with the Bluff Battery and Fort Direction in Clarence and Fort Pierson in Kingborough.

The State government owns the Kangaroo Bluff Battery and the Federal government still own Fort Direction, which is used by the Army, unless this has changed since 2011.

Just as the time was ripe in 2006 to protect the skyline of the harbour at Porter Hill, could the time now be right to develop a project that includes all the defences of Hobart?

Tasmania now attracts over a million visitors a year, so there is a need for quality experiences in the heritage island. [7]

Creating quality visitor experiences will also create employment and good work is needed in Tasmania.

Could a house on a fort in Porter Hill inspire this to happen?


My interest in the forts around the harbour began as a kid with the Bluff Battery in Bellerive, which was a great place to play. In the 1970s I began exploring ideas for the Fort and for my efforts found my way into the ‘History of Clarence’ by Dr Alison Alexander, page 323. In 2005 I worked as a volunteer with the managers of the Bluff Battery to develop visitor information, including a pamphlet and a display in the Rosny Library, which also travelled to the Glenorchy Library. Investigating local military connections in Glenorchy to include in the display there, I found that the first powered flight in Tasmania by Delfosse Badgery from Sydney happened at the Elwick Show Ground in 1914 as a fund-raising event for the war. Badgery went on to serve as a pilot at the front in the Middle East. Last year I attended the centenary celebration of powered flight in Tasmania at the Elwick Show Ground, where I met up with members of the Badgery clan. in 2012 John Sargent, collaborating with the Bellerive Historical Society, produced a book on the Bellerive fort called ‘Kangaroo Bluff Battery’, which includes some of my suggestions from 2005 on page 55. In 2005 I sought to raise awareness of the visitor potential of the defences of Hobart and applied to hold an exhibition in the Town Hall, but this was turned down. Could the time be right now to revisit this vision? There is much that can be revealed about the defences of Hobart, including a hidden fort at Sandy Bay and much that is yet to be found.

Should anyone be interested in these proposals, I’d be pleased to hear. I am currently living on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, but in October will be returning to Tasmania, to be based in the central midlands, where there is some very interesting history waiting to be explored from both World wars ~


[1] Fort Nelson House (1978) Revisited
James Jones, 23 August 2012, Architecture AU

[2] Single House Under Threat
George Wilkie & Bob Broughton, 2009

[3] What to do with city icon? Council weighs options for Dorney House future
Emma Hope, 6 September 2015, Sunday Tasmanian

[4] Hobart secures Porter Hill bushland
Editor, 20 June 2006, ABC News Online

[5] ‘Super fire’ fears raised
Chris Clarke, 29 August 2015, The Examiner