If you come around under the bridge late in the day you may be treated to a rococo sky of billowing yellow and pink clouds. If it’s dark you’ll see the lights of Luna Park on your right, rotating and blurring in time with the screams of the riders on the Octopus and the Pirate Ship.
Of all the descriptions of Sydney harbour and its bridge, I love this one, from Marjorie Barnard.
Tens of thousands of homes look out over the harbour, every high building in the city has at least a glimpse of it. It is a playground, a waterway. The little beaches are still there, some of them seem as untouched, and the islands, at least from a distance, are as idyllic as ever. It is as beautiful as ever it was for all that the iron shackle of the bridge has been laid upon it.[i]
The Harbour Bridge’s architect, John Job Crew Bradfield, would have been shocked to hear the bridge described so harshly as an ‘iron shackle’. Not only was he providing a much-needed crossing between the northern and southern shores of the harbour, but he believed that the bridge’s ‘structural relationship to the City as a whole, and its place in the surrounding landscape must be taken into account; it must not mar the beauty of its setting.’[ii]
In 2005 I spoke to Bill Gosling about that ‘iron shackle’. Bill Gosling was born in London in 1913 and spent many years at sea on cargo ships, first coming to Sydney in 1928. Sydney was his ‘favourite port’, so he settled here in 1936, getting a job on the waterfront that lasted until he retired in 1973. When I spoke to him he was 92 and, although we didn’t know it, in the last months of his life. He sat crumpled in his chair, and the tape of our interview includes the big clock striking every quarter hour. His breath was going but his mind, his humour and his memory were sharp. There was still a strong man in that tiny frame.
On one of his trips out to Sydney, before he settled down:
… I was on a general cargo boat. We brought a lot of the steel out from England for the Harbour Bridge, which was a bit of a joke, because BHP were making steel here, every bit as good as the English steel.
Is the whole bridge made of English steel? I asked him.
No I don’t think so, but I know we brought a lot out for it. Brought a lot of steel out for the bridge. It might have been only certain sections but the steel they were making here in Australia was every bit as good. But the point was, business often takes over.[iii]
The contract for construction of the Harbour Bridge was awarded to an English firm, Dorman, Long and Co. Ltd in 1924. The calculations, designs and working drawings for the bridge were made in their London office, where staff also prepared complete lists of the materials needed from England and Australia. Iron ore from Yorkshire was made into steel plates at Dorman, Long’s works in Middlesbrough (North Yorkshire – port, Teesport), while steel rolled in Australia at BHP Newcastle used ore from Iron Knob in South Australia.
Milson’s Point was cleared to make workshops for the fabrication of steelwork for the bridge. Engineers from Dorman, Long supervised the work. The workshops were demolished in 1932 when the bridge was opened. Luna Park (1935) and the North Sydney swimming pool (1936) were built on the sites of the workshops.
[i][i]The Sydney Book. Written by Marjorie Barnard, drawings by Sydney Ure Smith. Ure Smith, 1947, p11.
[ii]JJC Bradfield 1929. Quoted in a caption at Bridging Sydney, an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney December 2006-April 2007.