Restoring Wellington’s defences
Mike Lee in the tunnels of Wrights Hill Fortress. Photo: Alden Williams
For 20 years the Wrights Hill Fortress Restoration Society has spent thousands of voluntary hours and tens of thousands of dollars restoring the Karori fortress and giving the public access to one of the city’s best kept secrets.
The Wrights Hill Fortress was built in 1942 at the height of public fears of a looming Japanese invasion of Wellington. It was a massive task, with 620 metres of interconnecting tunnels constructed in just two years, the whole project kept secret.
In 1944 two huge 9.2 inch guns were installed after being shipped from England. The guns could fire a 172kg shell up to 30km across Cook Strait towards Tory channel, or up as far as Plimmerton. The guns were never fired in anger but were test fired after the war in 1946 and 1947, resulting in broken windows in Karori.
The fortress was used for training up to the mid 1950s but a government decision in 1960 saw the guns cut up for scrap and sold, ironically, to the Japanese. The gun emplacements were filled with rubble and other equipment was removed.
The fortress was left abandoned until 1988 when the Karori Lions Club began its restoration and opened it to the public for the first time on ANZAC Day 1989. Two years later the Wrights Hill Fortress Restoration Society was formed. The society has been actively restoring the coastal battery to its former state and holding open days allowing the public to inspect the fortress.
Society chairman, Mike Lee, says open days have been the “bread and butter” for the society, providing the funding required for restoring the complex. On Wednesday night working bees society members have dug out gun pits, restored the command post and radio room, waterproofed the tunnels, rebuilt wooden walls and rewired the whole fortress.
“We once got a grant from the Lottery Board to redo all the wooden doors inside,” Lee says. “That was the only time we’ve received money from outside.”
Constructed of concrete, Lee says the fortress remains in a “pretty good state” and most of the maintenance work required has been on the steel and wood work.
“Our next project is the restoration of the plotting room and we’ve now raised enough money to bring a builder in to do that.”
A replica gun barrel, ten metres long, was built out of wood to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the installation of the original guns. Lee says it has always been a dream of the society to have a replica gun constructed and installed at the fortress.
“The restoration of the fortress is a long term project and will take many more years,” Lee says. “We’re always on the lookout for more volunteers.”
The Wrights Hill Fortress will be open to the public on Labour Day between 10am and 4pm. Visitors will be able to self-guide themselves through the tunnels and gun emplacements and there will also be guided tours during the day.