Last Sunday was the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. ‘The Coathanger’ has been a source of inspiration for Sydneysiders since construction began in the 1920s. Let’s take a look at its history on the Dictionary of Sydney!
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built to join the north and south sides of the Harbour and at the time of its completion in 1932, was considered the epitome of modern bridge design and a feat of engineering.
Proposals to join these sides of the Harbour with a bridge were actually first put forward in 1815 by the convicted forger turned talented architect, Francis Greenway.
Greenway’s was the first of many bridge plans, but none were realised until 1900 when the NSW Government called for a worldwide competition to design a bridge across Sydney Harbour. The engineer, naval architect and inventor, Norman Selfe, was announced the winner, however the project stalled in 1904 and Selfe never saw it come to fruition as he died in 1911.
The engineer Dr John JC Bradfield reworked the designs between 1912 and 1929, and in 1922, in conjunction with Ralph Freeman, the consulting engineer for Dorman Long (the British company responsible for building the bridge), the overall final two-hinged steel arch design was approved. Construction began in 1925.
Granite for the piers and pylons was quarried at Moruya on the NSW south coast, and just over 20 per cent of the steel was produced in Australia. Over 2,000 people were employed to work on the bridge, including the approaches and surrounding roads. Over the eight years of construction, 16 men died on site due to workplace accidents, with many others injured due to the hazardous nature of the job, for example, the job of the rivet cooker involved throwing red-hot rivets to the rivet catchers, who caught the rivets in buckets and then hammered them into place.
The opening ceremony on 19 March 1932 was not without its controversies. The NSW Premier of the time, Jack Lang, had planned to cut the ceremonial ribbon himself, but just as he stepped forward, Francis De Groot, a member of the fascist, anti-Lang organisation, the New Guard, rode across the bridge on horseback and slashed the ribbon with a sword shouting, ‘in the name of common decency I declare this bridge open’ in front of the 750,000 onlookers. De Groot was taken away by police and the ribbon was held in place again for Lang to cut it
Finally, a few snippets of other interesting Bridge information to close: the pylons are just for show, they were added to give the public confidence in the bridge’s stability; the bridge witnesses about three marriage proposals per week; and in 1932, there was an increase in babies named Archie and Bridget!
The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia has an online exhibition featuring videos and sounds from the bridge’s history here, and you can listen to some oral history interviews with builders of the bridge (and help to transcribe them too!) at the State Library of New South Wales here.
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