Sunday 12 June 2016

And now for something completely different! - Part 1

Turning 50 can make people do some strange and unusual things. When I reached a half century earlier this year I promised myself, that instead of just celebrating on my birthday, that I would make it a year of celebration by doing out-of-the-ordinary things. To this end I committed myself to attending the annual Queen's Birthday Weekend Steampunk Festival in Oamaru. Fellow Southern Strategist, Gavin Bowden (a.k.a Ogilvie VC in wargaming blogging circles), had taken part in this event on several occasions and convinced me that we could have a great weekend at the event dressed as Victorian era officers while also taking in the military sites of interest in Otago . To be honest, at the time I knew nothing about Steampunk and was only interested in the historical side of the trip. For the multitudes of those who know nothing of Steampunk, it's kind of like living history Victorian Science Fiction....inspired by the writings of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and all those other Edwardian types who never lost their childhood imaginations.

I already had a collection of New Zealand militaria items that I could use, which included a white Foreign Service helmet sporting an original NZ Volunteers helmet plate and spike from the 1890s (purchased way back in my youth when I had no mortgage, wife or kids). What I lacked was a red tunic that fitted me. I had acquired a NZ Army Band tunic about 15 years ago, but for some strange reason it appeared to have shrunk over that time. Gavin came to the rescue when he discovered two large fitting Chelsea Pensioner coats at a local army surplus store. So, a few hundred dollars later and with some alterations from Jane, our very talented regimental seamstress, we were able to achieve the look we wanted.

One aspect of Steampunk is that you are encouraged to create a character to go along with the costume. Gavin had already established himself as Captain Reginald Ogilvie VC (with associated blog). With the Victorian theme in mind I came up with Major Septimus Sherlock-Brown of the New Munster Steam Fusiliers, late of the Kawatiri Field Force and mentioned in dispatches for lack of action in the Upper Buller Gorge. I got the name Septimus from a character from a Sharpe movie, while the double-barrel surname came from my maternal grandparents family names. I suggested to Gavin that we use 'New Munster' as a regimental name as this was the original name given to the South Island of New Zealand, while he came up with 'Steam Fusiliers'. Kawatiri is the Maori name for the Buller district where I originally hail from,while the use of the Buller Gorge added a hint of North West Frontier-type action celebrated in British Army history.
Major Septimus Sherlock-Brown, New Munster Steam Fusiliers, in parade dress. The only steampunk item is the goggles on the helmet.
Walking out dress and more suitable for visiting local hostelries. The swagger stick is adorned with a 50 mm shell and bullet. I even ignored the protests from my wife to re-grow my police-issue moustache to ensure the period look.  

 The weekend began with a 4.5 hour drive south to Dunedin to visit the fully restored gun emplacement at Taiaroa Head. Built in the 1880s at the height of the Russian invasion scare, the crowning jewel in the defensive position at the entrance to the Otago harbour mouth is the 6 inch breech-loading Armstrong disappearing gun, concealed within a earth parapet on an old Maori pa site on a hill. Cutting edge technology at the time it was installed in 1889, the gun was able to fire and disappear back into the gun pit below the surface so that the enemy ships had difficulty in destroying it. The gun had a range of 5 miles and a rate of fire of 1 round per minute. The barrel weighs 5 tonne and has a length of 17 feet 6 inches. The gun was raised through a pumped water and air ram system. On firing, the ram system was re-compressed as the gun recoiled into the gun pit for reloading. Advances in technology made the gun virtually obsolete by 1912 but it was still in operation until after the Second World War. It had a crew of 10 personnel and was fed from an ammunition magazine bunker below the gun. A very impressive piece of kit and well worth a visit if you find yourself in Dunedin with a couple of hours to spare.          

A model of the 6 inch Armstrong Breech-loading Disappearing Gun at Fort Taiaroa, Dunedin. 

The fully restored gun mounted below the top of the headland on the Otago Peninsula at the mouth of the Otago  harbour.

Note the measurements around the wall to assist the gunners in sighting the gun and the holes in the wall to allow the breech to be loaded.

The Mess diner of the New Munster Steam Fusiliers at the Criterion Hotel in the old Victorian quarter of Oamaru. We had booked a private room with a fire and rolled leather couches, which just added to the Victorian feel of the event. Of course, the evening was finished with rounds of Port and pipe smoking.    

Sherlock-Brown and Ogilvie VC outside the Criterion Hotel accompanied by Peter, dressed as the under-cover intelligence officer of the regiment.
Sherlock-Brown and Ogilvie sampling the local ale on the first night of our expedition to Oamaru. Hardly a hint of Steampunk-like dress on this occasion.

Part 2 to follow later.