Centre joint top chord, west truss (detail), photographer unknown, 3 September 1930, from Sydney Harbour Bridge Photographic Albums 1923-1933, Main bridge vol. 6, State Records NSW
'Now who will stand on either hand and build the bridge with me.'
The story of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge unfolds like an epic tale. The proposals, planning materials, maps, photographs, artworks and contemporary written sources offer a wealth of information and fascinating insights into the history of Sydney.
In its glistening and unrivalled location on Sydney Harbour the bridge has inspired generations of painters, poets and photographers as well as thousands of Sydneysiders. In particular, the era of its construction has left a wonderful legacy of beautiful and dramatic photography and paintings by artists such as Harold Cazneaux, Henri Mallard, Grace Cossington Smith, Will Ashton, Herbert Gallop and Jessie Traill.
An investigation of the ideas and aspirations to link the north and the south of Sydney reveals much about our notions of ‘city’ and town planning, influence of world events and developments in technology and transport, as well as politics and politicians, economic and social circumstance.
Proposals for a harbour crossing date back almost to the foundation of the colony in 1788 and the idea gained public and political momentum as the 19th century progressed and the colonial outpost became a metropolis.
The creation of a harbour crossing had been anticipated by North Shore residents since the 1880s when Sir Henry Parkes, as MP for North Sydney, had campaigned with the slogan: ‘Now who will stand on either hand and build the bridge with me’. The North Shore rail line from Hornsby to Milsons Point opened in 1883, but commuters still had to travel by ferry to Circular Quay. The ferries were cheap, but increasingly congested.
In 1900 the outbreak of bubonic plague in The Rocks area and other city problems encouraged renewed investigation of options for suburban expansion and transport infrastructure, and forced the State Government to take greater responsibility for public health and town planning. The entire plague area was resumed and in Sydney’s largest public works project before the construction of the Harbour Bridge, the waterfront was rebuilt from Circular Quay to the foot of Darling Harbour.
In a period influenced by national and international developments in urban planning and technology, the bridge became a serious possibility, prompting the first design competition in 1900. But the competition’s lack of success and the need to deal with planning issues led to the Royal Commission on the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs, in 1908–09, which created broader discussion around the shape and direction of ‘modern’ Sydney. Leading the push for a bridge was the ambitious and capable engineer from Queensland J J C Bradfield, who had a much wider planning vision for Sydney than he was able to implement. With the harbour bridge at its core, his scheme encompassed the construction of the city railway as well as the electrification and extension of the suburban railway lines as far afield as Narrabeen.
Following Bradfield’s appointment as Chief Bridge Engineer in the NSW Department of Public Works in 1912 and the acceptance by the Public Works Committee of his cantilever bridge proposal in 1913, the bridge crossing was almost realised with the vigorous attempt to pass a Sydney Harbour Bridge bill in 1916. At its second reading in the Legislative Council of NSW the Hon J D Fitzgerald argued:
'The work has been too long outstanding. It has been so long outstanding that it has become a scandal. I use the word ‘scandal’ advisedly, in the sense that it has been dereliction of the duty of Government after Government; that the absolute necessity of this work has not been realised...Therefore, I hope that … the policy of procrastination, will not be the perpetual policy of this House.'
If Australia’s resources had not been being directed towards the war effort at this time, it is likely that Sydney would have had a different bridge – a cantilever design instead of an arch. But it was not to be. The bridge would have to wait another six years to come before Parliament again and was finally assented to in 1922.
Consistent with developments in bridge and steel technology internationally, tenders were invited for either an arch or a cantilever design, but ultimately Bradfield determined that the arch was more suitable. Construction began in 1925 and work was completed in March 1932, transforming the physical and social character of Sydney forever. Built at the cutting edge of bridge technology and fabrication, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was, and still remains, an impressive engineering feat – renowned for both its technical specifications and for overcoming the construction challenges of the time. Its realisation signified Australia’s capacity and maturity as a nation and heralded a spectacular and unprecedented period of celebration to commemorate the achievement.
The bridge story has touched many lives in Australia and overseas – individuals with ideas and vision and those with skill and foresight, the people who lobbied for a bridge and those affected by its construction in the loss of their homes and livelihoods. And there are also the people who worked with dedication and energy to create the bridge we know today. From the very first ideas voiced or considered, to the realities of its construction, the story of the bridge is vast. Many are fortunate to have personal stories and connections and in this way the bridge is truly the people’s bridge.
In the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the opening of the bridge it is interesting to reflect on and celebrate its place in Sydney’s history. The HHT’s exhibition and publication, produced in collaboration with State Records and the Roads and Traffic Authority will mark this occasion.
First published in Insites, Summer 2006
Bridging Sydney was on at Museum of Sydney 16 December - 29 April 2006