Place:    HMVS Cerberus

Threat:  Destruction and Complete Loss of Heritage Values



HMVS Cerberus at Williamstown Naval Depot


The Cerberus is one of the world’s first ‘Monitor’ style warships, and the last remaining with an essentially intact superstructure. A ‘Monitor’ is an ironclad vessel, with gun turrets and a low freeboard presenting a reduced target to the enemy guns such that the deck is washed by the waves.  A ‘Breastwork Monitor’ has an extra deck that raises the turrets.  It marked the beginning of the central superstructure of modern warship design, as well as the end of sail power on battleships. 

Purpose-built in 1870 to protect Melbourne gold, and for 30 years the flagship of Australia’s largest colonial navy.  The first British warship to be powered purely by steam; the first ship in the world to mount rotating gun turrets on a central superstructure; its heavy iron superstructure and light iron hull represent a radical departure from wooden warships.  The Cerberus’ primary heritage significance is as a unique example of an important early stage in the technological development of the modern battleship.  Its design utilised cutting edge developments in metallurgy, steam power, gun turrets, and low freeboard (‘Monitor’) design. 

The Cerberus sits on the seabed a few hundred metres off the beach at Half-Moon Bay, Black Rock Victoria.  Despite the 1993 collapse of its relatively light hull under the weight of its heavily armoured superstructure, its superstructure remains visible above water. 


Statement of Risk:

Degree of Risk:          Immediate Risk – Solution agreed but not implemented

Threats/Risks:             Destruction

Fate/outcome:             Suffering

Although the heavy guns were removed two years ago (stored on the sea-bed), lightening the superstructure a little, the hull remains under imminent threat of collapse.  A 2002 site investigation report by engineering company GHD warned that if no remedial action is taken, a ‘catastrophic collapse’ of the turrets into the main deck is imminent. 


Desired Outcome / Vision:

Consultant reports advise that the best method of stabilising the Cerberus is to jack up the superstructure, which will cost $5.2 million.   This is a fraction of the $82.9 million being spent to excavate and house fragments of the USS Monitor, which lies at 70 metres depth.  It is also a fraction of the money that has been spent by governments on some other heritage projects around Australia.

While private donors have expressed an interest in the work, the cost would need to be substantially shared by the State and Federal governments.  It was passed over in both the large Bicentennary and Centenary of Federation heritage restoration projects; despite its recent listing on the National Heritage List, the HMVS Cerberus is yet to receive any Federal funding, and only a very small amount of State government money. 


Summary of Heritage Significance:

The many aspects of cultural heritage significance of HMVS Cerberus include:

  • The Cerberus (1867/69-1926), twin turret Breastwork Monitor, was the first British Breastwork Monitor turret ship ever built, and is the last example of this type of warship to survive anywhere in the world.
  • It was an experimental vessel that is recognised as representing an historical turning point in the development of battleship design.  
  • It represented a radical break with British naval tradition of high-sided wooden and ironclad timber line-of-battle warships, and iron hulled ships mounting broadside armament (such as the HMS Warrior of 1860). 
  • It was the first Breastwork Monitor in the world (ie, mounting rotating gun turrets on a central superstructure).
  • It was the first unrigged (fully steam propelled) British warship ever constructed.  Its construction led the way for acceptance of designs for sea-going iron-clad unrigged steam turret ships.
  • It was the first unrigged Monitor to incorporate both fore and aft revolving turrets, thereby taking full advantage of lack of rigging in allowing maximum field of fire. 
  • The Cerberus was the first of the modern battleships.  It was the prototype of the ‘Cerberus’, ‘Cyclops’ and the larger ‘Devastation’ classes - the first British Monitor-type warships.  These Monitor-type warships became the mainstay of the maritime nations’ navies until the introduction of the Dreadnought class of big-gun battleships in 1906. 
  • its ‘floating fortress’ concept - a landmark in warship design - featuring full steam power, a central superstructure with protective armoured midships (breastwork), dual revolving gun turrets, low freeboard, shallow draft, and heavily armoured superstructure, were trialled on the Cerberus because these features were thought suitable for harbour defence vessels.  Its success (in contrast to its ill-fated predecessor HMS Captain) meant that the Cerberus became the model for the design of larger sea-going warships during the remainder of the nineteenth century. 
  • §          It was designed by eminent naval architect EJ Reed, Chief Constructor for the British Admiralty 1863-70.  In his career Reed oversaw the changes from sail power to steam power, and from ship designs featuring 100 broadside guns to ships with 2 or 4 large guns mounted in turrets. With the Cerberus Reed also introduced the central superstructure, and pioneered total reliance on steam power.
  • The Cerberus design is also significant for its association with Captain Cowper P Coles, who developed the rotating gun turret. His design was different to the Ericsson design found in the USS Monitor and was considered superior by Reed.
  • The juxtaposition of its massively armoured superstructure and light iron hull represents a short phase of naval architecture prior to the torpedo era. 
  • Other innovative features included its flat bottom and shallow draft for use in harbours; and its buoyancy tanks, which enabled it to take on water to the extent that the deck submerged, thus presenting a reduced target area during battle.  
  • Its armaments - four 10 inch calibre muzzle loading rifled guns – were by 1860s standards highly powerful.  The Cerberus was never converted to breech loading guns in the late nineteenth century as occurred with many warships of similar vintage, and its original guns still survive. 
  • It has high archaeological (or scientific) significance, as investigation of its fabric has the potential to provide information relating to the development of naval architecture and technology.  
  • It is of historical interest as in 1870 it became only the second (and first ironclad) warship to pass through the newly opened Suez Canal.
  • It is today a unique example of the critical pioneering stage in the design and technological development of the modern battleship. 
  • It is the only Breastwork Monitor known to remain anywhere in the world.
  • It is the only known remaining above-water Monitor warship in the world to retain any superstructure