View from Porter Hill toward Bellerive ~ photo found here ~

IN the shadow of Mt Nelson as the sun sets there is a smaller rise called Porter Hill where one of Hobart’s defence batteries was set atop the hill in 1909.

The guns were never fired in anger, but training shells did fly over Sandy Bay below — luckily, none fell short.

The view is commanding, out to the east and south, to watch for any hostile shipping.

The watch turned hot in 1914 when Australia went to war and invaded the German colony in northeast New Guinea, now part of Papua New Guinea.

Later defences were built during World War II at the mouth of the River Derwent, with Fort Direction and Fort Pierson, which served until 1944, when Hobart was delisted as a defended port.

With the gun batteries not needed after the war, Fort Nelson and surrounding land on Porter Hill were put on the market by the Australian Government.

An adventurous young Melbourne architect found the fort and bought the land. Esmond Dorney built a house on the fort on Porter Hill, where he gained inspiration for modern building designs for homes, churches and businesses, some of which are now heritage-listed, including his house up the hill.

Fires other than from guns have struck the hill, destroying the first and second houses Dorney built, but he rebuilt on the fort, which also served as a fire shelter in the ammo bunker beneath.

With Dorney’s passing, the family let go of the house and its bush setting around the hill.

Developers were keen to take the hill and made offers for the commanding views.

Some, however, believed the panorama was better with trees on the skyline.

A debate raged over skyline protection around the city and conflict between community expectations and development opportunities influenced Hobart City Council to buy Porter Hill in 2006.

The main motivation of the council was to preserve the skyline. With this achieved, Dorney’s house and Fort Nelson were secondary.

With no clear vision for the Dorney house or Fort Nelson, the council contemplated subdividing the fort and house away from the larger property and selling the top of the hill.

The skyline would be safe, but should the Dorney house and Fort Nelson be sold for the commanding views or preserved for the people?

Selling Fort Nelson and its house may be off the table for now, but the problem of what to do with it remains.

Could the existence of Fort Nelson be the key to divining a future for the Dorney house?

Tasmania attracts more than a million visitors a year, so could a tour of the defences of Hobart by coach, ferry — or self-guided with a brochure — become an attraction for the visitor with a thirst for history?

The defences of Hobart date from its founding in 1804. Such a tour has been mooted by military enthusiasts for decades. Included on the tour would be the Kangaroo Bluff Battery in Bellerive, where one of the great guns once fired a shell that struck the sand dunes at Sandy Bay, terrifying the citizens of Hobart — the last day a live shell was fired from the Bellerive fort.

Could the big guns of Clarence, Kingborough and Hobart work together with the State Government on this?

The Government owns the Kangaroo Bluff Battery, Fort Pierson is in the Kingborough municipality and the Federal Government runs Fort Direction for remnant military reasons. Canberra came to the party with $1 million for the purchase of Porter Hill so it may be interested in what happens next.

The defence tour would need to meet Tasmania’s only warship, a long, narrow vessel that sat low in the water and was often called a submarine. Known as TB 191, it was a torpedo boat stationed at Hobart in the 1880s. It would have had to motor up to an enemy ship and place a mine on it, and then retreat in haste.

The tour could include the cement bunker at the northern end of Roches Beach, a surviving example of the extensive defence works in WWII when we feared Japanese invasion.

In this mix of history, there could be a role for the Dorney house as a tearoom to enjoy the harbour view, with Fort Nelson beneath restored to show military history. The house could have a display of Dorney’s architecture in Tasmania and interstate.

With military history married to heritage architecture on Porter Hill, a companion brochure of significant architecture found on a tour of the defences of Hobart could be produced.

A Dorney house at the southern end of Bellerive Beach can be seen from the Kangaroo Bluff Battery, which also offers a magnificent panorama of the harbour, including a view of Porter Hill and those sand dunes once blasted from across the river.

If such a vision was realised, with a celebration of history, architecture, skyline, fire survival and rebuilding lost homes, it would be natural to consider a sculpture trail through the Porter Hill bush.

Sculptural works on such a trail may need to be made of stone, iron or concrete to survive the next wildfire.

When looking at maps of Porter Hill, who could overlook the nearby Truganini Reserve, lending a deeper era of Tasmanian heritage?

Should a third brochure be considered of Tasmanian Aboriginal tradition found around the River Derwent?

During the last Ice Age the ocean was 120m lower than the present shore. Look at a nautical chart of the river that shows the depths, and a depression in the river floor can be seen extending from Hobart to South Arm, where there is a rise before going down again into the depths beneath Storm Bay.

It appears there has always been a body of water near Hobart where Aborigines could have lived by the shore, until the ocean began filling the harbour by Hobart.

Geology crops up again when we learn Fort Nelson was chosen for a seismology station by the University of Tasmania in the International Geophysical year of 1957.

Sometimes there is more history to a place than meets the eye and the keen observer will find iron telegraph poles running from the fort up the hill, which suggests Mt Nelson played a role in the defences of Hobart as an observation post, offering a more commanding view to the sea.

Military history overlaps with the colonial era, when Mt Nelson served as a semaphore and signal station to pass on reports of the convicts on the Tasman Peninsula to the government in Hobart.

When the picture is filled out on Porter Hill, there is a very rich canvas of cultural heritage that can be seen. It deserves more recognition.

Kim Peart was raised in Howrah from 1952, often playing at the Bellerive Fort with local gangs, which later led to an interest in the history of the site and, in turn, the defences of Hobart. Kim now lives in Ross.

First published as Mercury Talking Point HERE

EARLIER on Tasmanian Times …

Fate of a House on a Fort on a hill