In the 1880s there was concern among Empire governments about the threat of Russian expansion into the Pacific, and the implications of this for the defence of those colonies which were more remote from the existing strongholds of British power. In 1880 Col. R.H. Scratchley issued reports assessing the defences of both Australia and New Zealand. He concluded that New Zealand's coastal defences were inadequate and recommended the construction of 'fixed land works' or fortifications at each of the major ports of Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton, Port Chalmers and Bluff. No immediate action resulted. In 1884 the Governor of New Zealand, Sir William Jervois, again raised the question of coastal defences. Cautley was asked to prepare estimates for the work, and early in 1885 he prepared plans for coastal fortification at Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers. In 1885 he was succeeded by Boddam.
The design of the Wellington defences provided for positions at Point Gordon, Point Halswell, Shelly Bay, Mt Crawford, Ngauranga and Kaiwharawhara. The location of Fort Ballance on Point Gordon allowed its armaments to cover the entrance to the channel from extreme range and the inner harbour from close range. The design also included a minefield to be located between Point Gordon and Ward Island in event of war. Electric searchlights were needed to illuminate the channel and the proposed minefield. Supporting gun emplacements were sited nearby at Kau Point and Point Halswell. The fort also mounted an Armstrong disappearing gun as its main armament. This type of gun was standard for all New Zealand forts at that time.
Work commenced in 1885 and while the fort became operational later that year, it was not completed until a later date. The armaments were operated by gunners of the Armed Constabulary, redesignated the Permanent Militia in 1886.
The demise of the inner harbour defence network occurred as technological developments allowed ship armaments to bombard the ports and the fortifications from greater distances. Fort Ballance was Wellington's premier fort until 1911 when Fort Dorset was built at the entrance to the channel.
Fort Ballance was manned during World War 1. It became redundant in 1920 and reverted to a storage area. It was recommissioned in 1940. The armaments were removed in 1945 and since then the site has become an army accommodation area. The remains of the fort were partly buried about 1960 as they were considered to be a danger to children.
Surrounded by pine trees and covered with undergrowth, from the coastal road there is little hint of the existence of Fort Ballance on Point Gordon's sheer cliff-face. At Mahanga Bay an underwater archaeological survey is being conducted where a jetty, destroyed in 1962, was built in 1886 to enable the Fort's stores to be transported to the site. From here the flattened nature of the ridge on which the fort rests is visible, a common sign that a pa existed on the area.
The road leading to the site, re-formed in 1941, was first built in 1888 and a tramway was used to transport goods to the site. The road leads to the rear of the fort, which was originally protected from enemy attack by a slotted, iron lined concrete wall. In 1946 most of the wall was demolished to make way for the army housing that was subsequently removed in 1990.
Now an approach from the rear gives a clear view of the original, rectangular barracks which are topped by a concrete battery observation post. This post doubled as a command centre and from 1899 a ten line telephone exchange connected the commander to all batteries in the Wellington area.
The sheer circular walls of the five gun pits, arranged in a curved line along the brink of the cliff face were built of concrete over brick, and reinforced with iron bars. The two outermost pits originally housed two six pound Nordenfelt guns. The next two pits date from 1885 and once housed the original seven inch RML guns. Dismounted in 1921-1922, these guns may still be buried on the site. They were replaced by six inch BLHPs, which were also used in the central gun pit. To the left a ladder leads to a second observation post.
Well protected from assault, the two pits were converted into magazine areas in 1924 are now bomb-proof, underground rooms. Ammunition was transported from these stores in carts that ran along iron rails still visible in the passageways.
Fort Gordon and the Low Battery, both constructed to support the main fortifications are not visible but both remain intact underground. The searchlight emplacements, designed to illuminate the minefield, were demolished in the 1970s as was the six pounder Twin installed in 1942.
In 1992 the main gun pits were excavated and left open to the elements. The fort, now surplus to army requirements, is not maintained. The ironwork is rusting and many of the written instructions that covered the walls are no longer legible. It appears that this fortification, built to withstand bomb-blasts, may succumb to the more insidious attack of the Wellington weather.
Fort Ballance is the largest of the military installations located on the spur between Mahanga Bay and Scorching Bay. The other positions were known variously as Fort Gordon, the Spur Battery and the Low or Lower Battery. The ruins of these forts and batteries were partly buried about 1960.
Fort Ballance had positions for five main gun pits facing the channel. The concrete gun pits, some of which were closed and others open, are circular or semi-circular and while the guns have been removed the gun emplacements remain intact.
The fort follows the topography of the spur and earthworks were used to build up the centre of the position where the command post and communications centre were located. Earthworks also provided protection for the barracks, ablution areas, magazines and stores to the rear of the gun pits.
The rear of the fort adjoining the accommodation casemates was enclosed by musketry parapets and loopholed walls, parts of which have been demolished.
Fort Gordon, to the south of Fort Ballance, consisted of one gun-pit and magazines. It is now almost completely buried as are the smaller positions lower down the spur. Tunnel entrances have been filled in.
Additional firing support was located at Kau Point and Point Halswell, and the positions were protected from land attack by a further defence position on Mount Crawford.
The ruins were partly buried about 1960.
The majority of the site has been preserved intact.
The written instructions preserved on walls of entrance passages and gun emplacements.
1885 - 1895
Fort Gordon constructed south of Fort Ballance
1921 - 1922
Original guns dismounted
Gun pits converted into magazines
Fort Ballance rearmed and emergency defences added
Part of defence wall demolished
Army housing built
All but one house removed from the site
Site partially excavated
Composed of concrete and plastered brick
5th October 2002
Report Written By
Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)
Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives
1883 A-7; 1885 A-6; 1885 B-19; 1885 D-1; 1886 D-1; 1887 D-4
Alexander Turnbull Library
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
'Wellington City History Newspaper Articles Vol. 2', pp 93-104
G Barrett, 'Russophobia in New Zealand 1838-1908', Palmerston North, 1981
P. Cooke, Defending New Zealand; Ramparts on the Sea 1840-1950s, Wellington, 2000
30 September 1981
An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966
New Zealand Mail
New Zealand Mail
11 May 1878, p15;
5 June 1880, p24;
17 July 1880 p18,
28 December 1883, p18;
2 January 1885, p18;
3 April 1885, pp 17,21;
10 April 1885, p17;
5 March 1886, p15;
2 April 1886, p19.
G. H. Scholefield, A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1940
Wellington City Magazine
Wellington City Magazine
Walzl, T., 'Fortified Wellington; The Guns that Never Spoke in Anger', November 1986, pp.40-49
Barber, 1984 (2)
Laurie Barber, Red Coat to Jungle Green; New Zealand's Army in Peace and War, INL Print Ltd, Lower Hutt, 1984
Walter Fraser, Report on Fortifications at Wellington and Fort Ballance in particular, 1989, copy held by NZHPT
H G Hart, The New Annual Army List and Militia List, London, 1855-1886
Tony Walton, 'Wellington's Defences: A Reconnaissance Survey of the Fortifications of 1884-1945', Department of Conservation, Wellington, 1989
M R Wicksteed, The New Zealand Army; A History from the 1840s to the 1980s, Government Printer, Wellington, 1982
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office.
This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.