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In early 1885, in what was known in Britain as the “Penjdeh Incident”, Russian Imperial forces attacked troops belonging to the Emirate of Afghanistan in what is now present day Turkmenistan. Unfortunately, the Emirate was also a treaty partner with the British Empire that was then occupying the Indian subcontinent. Thus fearing for the security of the British Raj, Britannia was forced to prepare for a wider Anglo-Russian war across Her Majesty’s global maritime empire. It was in this Great Power context that the British colonial governor of New Zealand and former Commander of the Royal Engineers, Lieutenant General Sir William Jervois, decided to install, in that fateful year, a 64 pounder 64 cwt RML Mark III cannon at Spur Point to help protect the strategic port of Lyttelton against the imminent threat of invasion by the Russian Imperial Navy.
The gun pit, a timber magazine, and rifle butts were built on the point below Sumner Road, in between Windy Point (now the Sumner Road Lookout) and the Battery Point gun emplacements that were built in the same year. The Spur Point gun complemented the Battery Point complex which included two 7-inch guns, a battery observation post, magazine, and barracks for the permanent gunnery force. The whole was designed to work in consort with the Fort Jervois guns being built across the water at the former Ngāi Tahu pā on Rīpapa Island. Cast at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich UK, the Spur Point cannon bears the insignia of the Royal Engineers with the mediaeval motto of the Order of the Garter – “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE” or “shame on whoever thinks evil of it” – surrounding Queen Victoria’s cypher, VR for Victoria Regina.
While the Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour guns saw no action during the ‘Russian scare’ the Battery Point guns remained in place through succeeding improvements to the fortifications over the following two World Wars, making the site one of the few remaining emplacements in New Zealand displaying all three periods of military technology. The Spur Point gun pit, timber magazine and rifle butts remained in use for gun practice by the Permanent Artillery, Naval Artillery volunteers, and Garrison Artillery possibly as late as 1929 before being formally decommissioned in 1943. It was a favoured playground for adventurous locals until, around 1958, the emplacement was destroyed to make way for quarrying works during the building of Cashin Quay, with its gun going to the Burnham Military Camp.
After many years of faithful service at Burnham, the NZDF donated the historic cannon to the Lyttelton Museum, and its founder Baden Norris arranged for its display in the Museum’s courtyard at Gladstone Quay. Following the devastating 2011 earthquakes that demolished the old Museum building, the cannon was lifted into its current emplacement on the site of the proposed new Te Ūaka The Lyttelton Museum. As one of the few items from the Museum’s extensive collection not safely stored away, the public are welcome to inspect Queen Victoria’s cannon on the grounds of 35 London Street, Lyttelton.
Thanks to Michael Biggs for his suggestions, and see also Defending NZ, Ramparts on the Sea by Peter Cooke.