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Shot Tower

History

Inscription over doorway to tower

Australia’s first shot tower, at Taroona, was built by Joseph Moir and is one of three still existing in the country, the others being in Melbourne. Joseph Moir's factory, which operated for 35 years from 1870, manufactured lead shot for contemporary muzzle loading sports guns. Although the factory struggled for most of its existence its most recognisable feature, the tallest stone shot tower in the southern hemisphere, has been a prominent landmark in the district for well over a century.

Joseph Moir

His Shot Tower on the Kingston Road is noted throughout the colonies, and Mr Moir’s enterprising spirit is there illustrated in a most remarkable manner. Though a speculation of a very hazardous kind, he had faith in its success, and his estimate, as was afterwards discovered, was not found on any erroneous basis. The manufacture of shot was a profitable venture under his management.

Mercury 12 March 1874

Just twenty years old, Scotsman Joseph Moir arrived in Hobart in 1829, one of thousands of hopeful free immigrants who sailed to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s. By 1840 he had acquired several properties, government employment and a reputation as a builder of notable colonial buildings such as St Mark’s Anglican Church, Pontville. He returned briefly to Scotland in 1844 to marry Elizabeth Paxton with whom he had at least five children.

Shot Tower

A prominent businessman, Moir was active in Hobart’s civic affairs between 1846 and 1873, a year before his death. He revisited Britain in 1849 ‘to arrange to carry on an ironmonger’s business’, returning to Hobart with a stock of hardware items and opening a store with his brother at ‘Economy House’ in Murray Street. The business operated until sold by his son, Joseph in 1884. Moir purchased 39 acres on Brown’s River Rd in 1855 and moved to a new house at ‘Queenborough Glens’ (as he called the property) with his family in 1862. He then built the shot tower and its associated buildings and poured his first shot in 1870.

When he died after a long illness in 1874 Moir left his major business concerns to his sons, James and Joseph. Together with Elizabeth (who only survived him by 15 months) and a daughter, Mary (who died in 1853 at the age of seven) Moir was encrypted in the family mausoleum on the cliffs below the shot tower. Their remains were later re-interred in unmarked graves at Queenborough Cemetery after Joseph relinquished the property in 1901. This cemetery’s graves were removed by Hobart Council in 1963 and Moir’s final resting place remains unknown.

The Shot Tower

Shot Tower

This shot tower was built by the proprietor, Joseph Moir, in the year 1870. In its erection he acted as Engineer, Architect, Carpenter and Overseer. With merely the assistance of two masons it was completed in 8 months, when the secrets of shot-making had to be discovered. After many persevering efforts the first shot was dropped 8th September, 1870.

Inscription over doorway to tower

Joseph Moir erected his shot making enterprise on 39 acres subdivided from an 1817 grant of 100 acres to John Williamson. He chose his site carefully. A road frontage facilitated straightforward transport of raw materials and product. A windmill pumped water from a reliable creek to a cistern on the site of the current overflow carpark and substantial timber reserves provided fuel for the furnaces and cauldrons. Sited far from residential neighbourhoods Moir could also relax in the knowledge that toxic fumes would blow safely out to sea or over forestland.

Moir probably began building his shot making works after erecting the family home between 1855 and 1862. A stone building above the cliffs overlooking the River Derwent stored gun powder for his ironmongery as well as stores of arsenic and antimony. Another building south-west of the magazine contained the furnace for preparing lead with the arsenic and antimony.

The tower was constructed of dressed curved sandstone blocks quarried at the nearby abandoned Brown’s River Convict Probation Station. A remarkable tapered structure 48m (157 feet 6 inches) tall it features an internal spiral staircase of pitsawn timber and an external gallery at its top which was probably used to store firewood for the upper cauldron. The staircase provided scaffolding during the construction of the tower and access to the upper cauldron and shot-making colanders. The tower is 10 metres in diameter at the base and tapers to 3.9 metres at the top . The walls are a metre thick at the bottom and thin out to .45 centimetres at the top.

A three level stone factory abutting the tower was erected at the same time, then was extended soon after. The stone for the factory was probably recycled from the abandoned probation station.

The Manufacturing Process

  • Shot Tower Cauldron

    The cauldron at the top of the tower

  • interior of the tower

    The view down the tapering, circular
    interior of the tower

  • looking down from the top of the tower

    View from the top looking down
    upon the roof of the stone factory,
    now a museum.

The manufacture of shot is an industry which in England has always been conducted with the greatest secrecy, and consequently witnessed by very few except the initiated. This industry has recently been introduced in this colony by Mr Alderman Moir, and we learn that it is his intention to throw his Shot Tower open to the inspection of visitors on Monday and Tuesday next, when the process of shot making will be in operation, on which occasion we have no doubt many of our citizens will avail themselves of this opportunity of witnessing the interesting process.

Mercury,10 March 1871.

Shot manufacturing is thought to have been invented by Prince Rupert in the seventeenth century. It seems likely that Moir studied William Watts’ patented method of 1796 while in Britain in 1849-50. Moir’s exact process is unknown — considerable experimentation was required by most manufacturers to perfect what is a very complex process requiring a detailed understanding of physics and metallurgy. Most of Moir’s raw materials would have been imported increasing his costs substantially

Moir’s process was probably as follows:

  • Lead was prepared in a furnace at the south-eastern corner of the property. Moir added 900g of arsenic (to decrease surface tension) and 6.35kg of antimony (to harden the shot) to every 45.35 kg of lead.
  • The resultant ‘poisoned lead’ was cast into 7.7 kg ingots, conveyed to the factory, then remelted in cauldrons on the upper level of the factory for small shot and the top of the tower for larger shot. Firewood had to be winched to the upper cauldron. The molten lead was then poured through colanders, forming droplets which became spherical as they dropped. They fell into a tub of water at the base of the tower. The size of the shot depended on the amount of arsenic, the size of the holes in the colander and the height of the fall. Watts’ patent stipulated that large sized shot required a fall of 45.75m (150 feet), hence the height of Moir’s shot tower at 48m with the colander 46.36m above the base.
  • The lead cooled partly while falling, then completely in the water. The antinomy hardener ensured that it maintained shape under the impact of the water.
  • The cooled shot, green in colour, was winched to the factory’s upper floor where it was dried and run over inclined glass planes to separate out defective shot (which did not roll true). Imperfect shot was remelted and the process repeated.
  • The shot was polished in a revolving drum (likened to a farmer’s barrel churn) using plumbago (graphite) then lowered through a trapdoor to the ground floor where it passed through ten sieves for grading into sizes ranging from fine birdshot to large balls. The graded shot was bagged into 12.7kg (28lb) handsewn linen bags stencilled with the manufacturer’s name and sent to market. At its peak the factory produced 100 tons of shot per annum.

Working Conditions

Little is known of working conditions in Joseph Moir’s shot tower. The work was highly skilled, noisy and almost certainly dangerous. That workers took great pride in their trade is indicated by an engraving in a window in the factory, reading, ‘George Matson Premier Shot Maker Tasmanian and Australian’. No further information about George Matson is known. The following descriptions of a contemporary works, Melbourne’s Coop shot tower (now incorporated in the Melbourne Central complex on Little Lonsdale St) provides some indication of the nature of the work involved.

Pouring the lead was ‘an operation which needs great skill and constant watching. The man is used to his work but the novice would probably make a considerable bungle of it’. As the lead droplets fell there was ‘a sharp incessant shower of silvery rain . . . mak[ing] a noise very like that of an overflow waste pipe high up in one’s wall’. When shovelling shot from the water tub it was ‘quite certain that if the man who is so energetically shovelling . . . was to cease from his labours for any appreciable length of time the tank would be soon full of lead. . . . all the while the strange shower descends the man with the shovel is busily at work’. The noise of grading the shot through the sieves was ‘well nigh deafening’ while a woman sat with needle and thread sewing the 12.7kg linen bags for the finished shot.

House and Garden

View of Joseph Moirs house from
top of Shot Tower, showing the
circular tower which it is believed
was Moir's "practice run" at building
circular towers!

Joseph Moir began building his residence soon after acquiring the property in 1855. Family lore suggests that he built the battlemented tower as practise before attempting the more substantial shot tower. By 1885 the property was well known for its gardens and orchards with its hot houses, summer houses and conservatories.

Mr [James] Moir has a prolific little orchard and kitchen garden, which latter, the flower garden and conservatories are watered from a considerable storage reservoir above. An amusing freak of the owner is to invite strangers into a summer house, and to be seated a moment or two out of the sun. He predicts rain shortly, however cloudless the sky — when hey presto: a shower immediately commences, a real earnest one. It is brought about by turning the tap of a pipe connecting with the circular piping on top of the summer house, the latter being perforated round its outside. A little defectiveness in the roof allowed of my receiving a slight baptism of spray, so I must be considered initiated.

Tasmanian Mail,13 June 1885

Perhaps the youthful James Moir (he was 30 in 1885) had a better sense of fun than business sense. He had mortgaged the property the previous year and defaulted on his payments two years later.

Later History

Moir’s sons, James and Joseph, carried on the business after his death in 1874. Although James won merit certificates at the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition and the 1880-81 Melbourne Exhibition the business struggled and it was leased by the mortgagors to his brother, Joseph in 1887. Joseph found himself unable compete with mainland competitors when generous colonial tariffs were removed after Federation. He relinquished the lease to his brother-in-law, William Baynton who continued the business until closing its doors in 1905. During these years Baynton’s wife, Florence, operated a tea house in the residence.

The property subsequently passed through several hands until 1956 when 3.24 hectares was purchased by the Tasmanian government and proclaimed a Scenery Reserve. Although it included the tower and residence, the reserve excluded the powder magazine, conservatory, antimony furnace and mausoleum. The reserve was gazetted as an historic site in 1971 under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. Since 1956 it has been leased to several concessionaires and has been open as a tourist site. Various conservation works have been conducted at the shot tower over the years to maintain its heritage significance.

Further Information

Bowler, J.C.S. (1980). The Shot Tower and its Builder Joseph Moir. Published by Richard Lord, Taroona, Tasmania. Copies available from the Shot Tower Museum.