20 March 2012

iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge: 1932-2012

We assume that iconic buildings were always in the site they currently grace. We cannot imagine Pisa without its leaning tower or Paris without its Eiffel Tower. Yet each structure, however iconic now, was once the subject of vigorous council debates, contradictory community input, contested tenders, budgetary problems, technical concerns and finally uncertain public use.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was no different. This week is the 80th anniversary of its opening in March 1932.

Sydney Harbour Bridge today. Note the Art Deco pylons.

Virtually since the beginning of European settlement in Sydney, transportation links between the north and south shores of Sydney Harbour had been problematic. I am very proud to see that my favourite architect from the colonial period,  Francis Greenway, recommended to Governor Macquarie that the North Shore should be linked to Sydney by a bridge. In letters to The Australian in 1825 ex-convict Greenway wrote that such a bridge would 'give an idea of strength and magnificence that would reflect credit and glory on the colony and the Mother Country'.

Over the next few decades, engineers proposed every possible design type  eg truss, arch or floating bridges.

But it wasn’t until governmental engineer John C Bradfield (1867-1943) took hold of the project that Sydney could  make this long-held fantasy a reality. He favoured building a cantilever overpass, without piers, between Dawes Point and McMahons Point.

In 1916 the Legislative Assembly (lower state house) passed the Bill for the construction of a cantilever bridge. It was going to happen, at last.

Of course projects don't necessarily run smoothly. In this case, the Legislative Council (upper state house) rejected the legislation on the grounds that money would be better used for the war effort. This setback did not deter Bradfield who developed the full specifications and scheme to finance the construction of a cantilever bridge. In 1921 he went on a research tour overseas which convinced him that tenders should be called for both cantilever and arch designs.

In the post-war period, the Act for the construction of a high-level cantilever or arch bridge across Sydney Harbour was passed; it was to connect Dawes Point with Milson's Point. The 1922 Act provided for both the construction of the bridge and the construction of electric railway lines.

In 1923 tenders were called for a cantilever or arch bridge. Twenty tenders were received from local companies and from abroad. In March 1924 the contract was given to the English firm Dorman Long & Co of Middlesbrough with a design for an arch bridge at a tender price of £4.2 million. The arch design was not only cheaper than the cantilever and suspension proposals, but had the advantage of greater rigidity. This would be important for the heavy traffic that the bridge was going to be carrying.

Thomas Tait was consulting architect to Dorman Long responsible for the design of the purely decorative pylons. Tait drew on the Roman cenotaph form and on the iconography of Egyptian monuments to add a war memorial symbol after the Great War.

Under construction. Photo credit: National Library of Australia

Construction began in 1923 and of course there was great pain for the location population. The first thing that happened was the demolition of 800 solid homes. The owners of these homes received compensation, but their tenant occupants did not. And eventually there was also considerable morbidity and mortality amongst the workers.

The contractors set up two workshops at Milson's Point on the North Shore where the girders were made from steel. Abutments, which supported the ends of the bridge, were contained at the base of the very Art Deco pylons. They prevented the bridge from stretching or compressing due to temperature variations. The steel used for the bridge was largely imported. 80% came from Redcar in the North East of Britain while the rest was locally made. The granite used was quarried in the south coast town of Moruya, and the concrete used was also Australian made. The total weight of the bridge was 52,800 tonnes, and six million hand-driven rivets held the bridge together.

The two arches met at the centre of the span in August 1930. The road, and the two sets of tram and railway tracks, were completed in 1931. Power, lines telephone lines, water, gas and drainage pipes were all added to the bridge in that year. In January 1932, the first test steam locomotive crossed the bridge without incident.

Bradfield on test-train on Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1932. State Records NSW

Premier Jack Lang opened the Harbour Bridge on 19th March 1932. One moment of ugliness occurred with Francis Edward de Groot, a member of a nasty rightwing organisation called the New Guard, disrupted the opening ceremony by slashing the ceremonial ribbon before the Premier was able to officially open the bridge. But in typical Australian fashion, the ribbon was simply stuck back together and the Premier completed his task.

I'm amazed the opening celebrations were an all-singing all-dancing roadshow since we know that Sydney, like all the world, was suffering terribly from Great Depression in 1932. Yet half a million people participated in the Venetian-type carnival with floats, bands and a procession of passenger ships under the Bridge. It was a very big party!

poster, opening celebrations, 1932

The total financial cost of the bridge was £10 million which was not paid off in full for another 55 years. But the money was well spent. Sydney had a symbol that, from 1932 on, would be instantly recognised around the world.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
What a wonderfully triumphant tale of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is, as you say, more, much more than simply a way of going from A to B. For us, at least, it symbolises the indomitable spirit of a nation, an icon of hope and achievement in the face of adversity. Perhaps as in 1932, the sentiment behind its construction remains the same in 2012. Happy Anniversary!!!

diane b said...

Thanks for the interesting history of the bridge. Happy Birthday beautiful bridge, There is nothing better than flying home from overseas and looking out the cabin window and seeing the Aussie icon bridge greet you home.

John Tyrrell said...

Fascinating. Another building with similar iconic status is of course Tower Bridge in London (1894). I wonder if our generation will have left behind any such buildings.

Incidentally Sydney Harbour Bridge has its imitator in the UK, a bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey begun in 1956 and opened in 1961. English Heritage has accorded it Grade II listed status.




Hels said...

Jane and Lance

you are so right... The Great Depression was so appalling that building a mammoth construction was amazing. It was for transport of course, but it seemed like a symbol of triumph.

Will the Olympic Games do it for Britain?

Hels said...


I know that feeling EXACTLY. I love going overseas each July (if funds allow) and love every moment away. But there is something tear-filled about seeing something iconically Australian before landing.

Hels said...


Britain has a much bigger population and a much longer history, so there may be many iconic buildings.

If I had to choose, I might go for St Paul's cathedral. It represents all that was amazing about London's dogged recovery from the Great Fire.

Travel France Online said...

It is a truly beautiful structure and it is amazing to think thatmany of these metal architecture were not supposed to last forever and were more of a display in those time. I ma not surprised as metal archi (along with the Eiffel Tower etc...) was so in breach with the previous styles and could have been regarded as "working class style' in a way. There are a real feat of architecture and they perfectly blend in their surroundings, so glad previous governements were wise enough not to get rid of them!
The only dispaapointment i had about Sydney bridge is that you can't walk on it and that the "Rock" to which it links is so "small". But i presume it's the wat it goes for most of us , reality is always quite understated compared to our imagination! But still a splendid structure as i wrote earlier on!

Jim said...

Great tribute for the old girl.

Anonymous said...

I heard that if it was built today, it would be a concrete construction. That wouldn't look so impressive. But then I think what about the Anzac Bridge? It is mostly concrete but still quite impressive.

Hels said...


I am never sure why one monument immediately wins the hearts and minds of the local citizens, and another is despised by half the population.

The Eiffel Tower is a classic case; it avoided being destroyed only accidentally i.e when people saw that the tower could be used with communications.

But working class style? I don't know. Perhaps too ugly, too cumbersome, too modern, too industrial.

Sydney Harbour Bridge had one great advantage - it had arguably the most beautiful harbour setting in the known world.

Hels said...


old girl is right :) Happy 80th birthday this week :)

Hels said...


great choice, for a comparison. ANZAC bridge has elegant pylons and cables, yet I bet there wouldn't be a soul outside Australia who could pick it out in a photo. Even outside Sydney!

The Harbour Bridge, on the other hand, would be recognised by almost everyone.

elegancemaison said...

Thank you for this post. I have a family story that connects with the building of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the 80th anniversary, that I posted about on my blog yesterday. (Not to mention two beautiful Australian grandchildren who live not far from the bridge.)

Hels said...


thanks for dropping in. We have a lot in common - my older son married an Israeli girl and lives there. I know how difficult it must be to have your grandchildren in Australia, on the other side of the world. However it is a great excuse to travel.

Something you mentioned that I had totally forgotten - the bridge history exhibition at the Pylon Lookout. Important for visitors to read.

Deb said...

I hate to ask the blindingly obvious, but what did North Shore people do, before the bridge?

Hels said...


The NSW Government (Sydney Harbour Bridge) page says:
Before the Bridge was built, travellers to the North Shore went by steam ferry. Two ferries operated, _originally conveying horse-drawn vehicles and later motor cars_. One ferry service went from Bennelong Point, to the Jeffrey Street terminal at Milsons Point on the northern side of the harbour. The other went from Dawes Point to Blues Point on the northern side.

Milsons Point operated as the ferry–train–tram interchange for the North Shore until the Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed.

elegancemaison said...

Hels thank you for your comment on my Bridge blog post. Isn't it funny/strange how our darlings flee the nest and end up on the other side of the world? But good for them, I say and these days at least we have electronic communications - Skype/email and cheap phone calls.

I miss both our daughters who now live in Australia and soon our son who is planning to relocate in California. All great holiday destinations, but we are choosing not to choose between them and probably settling for our own dream of a home in France. C'est la vie.

Don001 said...

Interesting article and thank you for the prompt that the bridge was now 80 years old. I then wrote my own blog but hopefully without stepping on your toes! Thank you for your interesting blogs, keep up the good work.

Hels said...


not at all. The more people writing history blogs, the better!
I will create a link to your post straight away.

Xenophon said...

The pylons look very interesting indeed, could also be German of the 1930s.
Futhermore its this historicism which decorated bridges with neo-gothic, neo-classic and whatever towers. To me it looks kind of neo-egyptian? Which reminds me of some publich buildings in France.

Hels said...


good comment!

since the pylons had no function at the time and were purely decorative, I suppose the designers could feel free to choose to build in any style they liked and to use any material they liked. http://tinyurl.com/cc9zrza

The Sydney Harbour Bridge Honour Roll says that Thomas Tait was the consulting architect to Dorman Long
on pylons. In designing Sydney's pylons, Tait drew on the Roman cenotaph form and on the iconography of Egyptian monuments, to symbolise the British Empire’s
mourning for those who had died in the Great War.

I will add the reference to the original post, so thank you.

Intelliblog said...

All great buildings have a more or less chequered history. Seeing the SHB is such a vital structure for the functioning of Sydney, no wonder there was controversy surrounding its construction.
Considering it's quite old now, it's still going strong! Happy anniversary!

Hels said...


that is so true - all public structures have a rocky road, after they are created, but particularly beforehand when the details are yet to be set in concrete (pun intended).

Sometimes the controversy goes on for ever. Think of Tate Modern, built in the former Bankside Power Station in London. 4.5 million visitors a year, and 5 million opinions regarding the management and development of the gallery.

Car Rental Perth said...

what a wonderful bridge thanks sharing the picture blog....

4WD Ute Hire said...


Hels said...


thank you. However I do like to think of Art and Architecture, mainly as a history or an art history blog, not a picture blog.

Megan Payne said...

It's rare to see a perfect arc-structured bridge like "The Coathanger." The Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932 and, according to the Guinness World Records, it is the world's widest long-span bridge. If I'm not mistaken, its design was influenced by New York's bridge called Hell Gate.

Hels said...


isn't that interesting. When we look at The Hell Gate Bridge that connects Wards Island to Astoria Queens in New York, the influence is clear. And the timing is right too: Hell Gate 1916 was completed before Sydney Harbour Bridge was designed.

The Hell Gate Bridge is certainly mentioned in non-scholarly architectural texts like Wikipaedia. So now I will go back to the original histories to see what Bradfield knew about New York bridge designs. Many many thanks.

jeronimus said...

Shame that a New Guard martinet tainted the opening of the bridge.
One of John Howard's sons has said that JH's father was probably a member of the NG. He certainly agreed with their ideas. Some of NG adopted the nazi swastika, and their is evidence that they were planning a coup in NSW. If they had been successful, it's not inconceivable that Australia could have ended up with a nazi style fascist government.
Very few people know about this part of our history, dismissing de Groot as a lone nutter.

Hels said...


Historical analysis of 1931 and 1932 certainly supports you regarding NSW. The most dissatisfied elements of the returned soldiers from WW1 were faced with the worst depression in our history, a popular state Labour party with progressive social programmes and increased laws for the rich.

The New Guard was a thoroughly nasty fascist group that would have taken down the democratically elected government of NSW. But not, I think, the other states. Victoria's rightwing League of National Security did not plan to oust the state Labour government and imprison the premier, EJ Hogan.

So while NSW (state) could indeed have been taken over by fascists, it seems less likely that Australia (feds) could have ended up with a nazi style fascist government.

Mind you, have a look at the British Union of Fascists, formed at the same time as NSW's New Guard :(

Alphonse Daigle said...

I'm impressed with what Megan said. For this reason, I assume, she knows a lot about bridges. The Hell Gate Bridge was once the world's longest steel arch bridge until the Bayonne Bridge was opened sometime between 1931 and 1932. It was surpassed again by the Sydney Harbour Bridge. If I'm not mistaken, the original design of the bridge which was made by Gustav Lindenthal, had a gap of 15 feet (4.6 m) between the steel arch and the masonry towers.

Hels said...


I love these comparisons, thank you. Gustav Lindenthal was indeed the civil engineer who designed the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City, completed in 1917. It still reminds me very much of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I knew that Bayonne Bridge between NY and NJ was designed by bridge-builder Othmar Ammann and was opened in 1931. What I did not know was that Gustav Lindenthal was Ammann's teacher. So thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi Love the Harbour Bridge Picture, im from Kodak and I need a picture of the bridge. Would I have permission to use your photo?

Hels said...


it is a fine structure, isn't it? I would happily share any photo that is over 100 years old without official consent, but alas this is a relatively new photo.