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Introduction

Also sometimes known as the 'coat hanger,' the Sydney Harbour Bridge has become an Australian icon. Not only is it a symbol of the incredible capabilities of construction, but also the strength and resilience of a nation which had been struck hard by the Depression and which found inspiration in the magnificent structure before them.

The construction

The first English settlement and penal colony in Australia was established at Sydney Cove, a small bay located on the southern shore of Port Jackson, in 1788. The settlement soon grew but found that it could not expand as readily to the north, where it was met by the sea. This problem was first addressed in 1815 by the convict and architect, Francis Greenway, who proposed a harbour bridge which would enable a town to grow on the northern shore of Port Jackson. While his plan was justifiable, it never eventuated. Similar suggestions of bridges and tunnels continued, with a growing number of people having to catch ferries and punts across the harbour, or resorting to the road which involved travelling 19 kilometres and crossing five bridges around the head of the harbour. See image 1

It was not until over a century later that work actually began on the Bridge. Plans for a cantilever bridge to span from Dawes Point on the southern side of the harbour to Milson's Point on the northern side were proposed in 1912 by Dr. John Bradfield, an engineer from the New South Wales Department of Public Works. However, after being accepted in 1913 the plans were placed on hold with the interruption of the First World War. In 1922, 20 tenders by six companies were put forward for a number of bridge designs. The arch design of English firm, Dorman Long and Co. Ltd., was finally accepted at the agreed cost of 4 217 721 pounds, 11 shillings and 10 pence.

Construction on the project commenced in April of 1923, under the supervision of Bradfield who had been appointed as chief engineer. It began with the demolition of many colonial buildings on the southern side of the harbour in Sydney's oldest suburb, The Rocks. On the northern side, workshops were established at Milson's point for the manufacturing of the steel parts for the bridge. At the same time, a settlement for 250 stonemasons and their families was built near the local granite quarries in the small riverside town of Moruya, 320 kilometres south of Sydney. These quarries provided the 18 000 cubic metres of granite blocks which were taken by three ships, specifically designed for this purpose, to the four pylons at the site of the bridge.

The arch was built in two separate halves, stretching out over the harbour until they were joined in the middle. In August 1930, the steel cables which were anchoring the two halves were loosened and both sides of the Bridge were lowered to allow them to be bolted into place. The first of two major phases was complete and it was celebrated with a half-day holiday and a bonus of two shillings for the bridge workers. See image 2 

The second and last phase involved suspending the steel deck from the arch and the road, tram and rail lines being built. Bradfield had stipulated that the Bridge had to be wide enough to accommodate the traffic of the future as well, owing to growth in the mass production of automobiles. The roadway which linked the two sides of the Bridge was named the Bradfield Highway, after his contributions to the conception, construction and completion of the Bridge. The Bridge was then tested by 96 steam locomotives in February of 1932, prior to its opening the following month.

When the Bridge was finished the arch span covered 503 metres, at 135 metres above sea level. The total length of the Bridge was 1149 metres. It weighed a total of 52 800 tonnes, with the entire weight resting on four steel bearings set in high-grade concrete which was dug 12.2 metres into the ground. Consequently, the 89 metre high granite-faced concrete pylons were completely for aesthetic purposes. The deck which originally had a roadway, two railway tracks, two footways and two tramway tracks, was 49 metres wide, making it the widest longspan bridge in the world. That record has remained unbroken to this day, however the deck has since been converted to carry two train lines, eight vehicle lanes, a cycleway and a footway.

The total financial cost of the Bridge was twice the price which was originally quoted. At 10 057 170 pounds, 7 shillings and 9 pence, tolls in both directions were relied on to pay off the Bridge. Owing to only the wealthy being able to afford cars, the toll was charged at a rate per person and was quite high. The Bridge was paid off in full in 1988 and although a toll now applies per vehicle only to south bound traffic, the price has continued to rise. See image 3

The opening and the controversy

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was officially opened on 19 March 1932 in front of three-quarters of a million people. It was a day of remarkable celebration, involving a parade of floats and marching bands, fireworks and carnivals, as well as a procession of passenger ships and an aerial display by the Royal Australian Air Force. After the pageant, the public walked across the deck of the Bridge. Songs and poems were written about the proud opening of the Bridge and stamps were printed to commemorate the event. See video

While the day appeared to be one of joyful excitement and celebration, just beneath the surface was a great deal of political tension. A predominantly middle- class political group called the New Guard, which had formed in Sydney in 1931, had been plotting to use the opening of the Bridge to publicly make a political statement against New South Wales Premier, Jack Lang. The New Guard was an anti-Labor group, thought to have up to 50 000 members in New South Wales at one stage. It was led by World War I veteran, Colonel Eric Campbell. Almost resembling a military organisation in its structure, it strongly-appealed to ex-servicemen. The group considered themselves as nationalists and therefore totally against any socialism or communism. Its members were suspicious of Premier Lang's response to the Depression, believing that he was a communist.

In accordance with their plan, to the amusement of some and to the disgust of others, New Guard member, Captain Francis de Groot upstaged Premier Lang, who was set to officially open the Bridge, by riding in on horseback and slashing the ribbon with his sword. Premier Lang then had to wait for the ribbon to be retied before he could ceremonially cut the ribbon with his golden scissors. Captain de Groot was rushed away by police and later fined 5 for offensive behaviour. However, in a positive turn for the New Guard, Lang was dismissed as the New South Wales Premier only two months after the Bridge opened. After the dismissal of the Lang government, the New Guard had achieved its primary aim and as a result, no longer had a common goal. The Australian economy also slowly began to improve and it caused the group to lose momentum. While this particular movement could not be sustained, similar right-wing notions have continued to play a role in the sphere of Australian politics. See image 4, see animation

Australia's pride for the Bridge

The fact that the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge had to be postponed until after the First World War, indicates that it did not go unaffected by the events which were taking place in rest of the world. When the building of the Bridge got underway in 1923, the Australian economy was thriving. The problem was that the Sydney Harbour Bridge and other large-scale projects were all funded by money which was lent from overseas. It did not take long before the government struggled in making the repayments and when the Great Depression hit Australia in 1929, they were in serious economic trouble. Despite the difficulties of the time, the construction of the Bridge forged on. It provided employment for more than 1400 men who might not have had a job, particularly during the years of the Depression, if it had not been for the Bridge. As a result, to many Australians the Sydney Harbour Bridge symbolises more than just the impressive ability of man- power. It was Sydney and Australia's own symbol of defiance and strength against the Depression. For this reason, the opening of the Harbour Bridge, which occurred in the middle of the Depression, was a spectacular event and a proud moment for all Australians.

Still today, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is admired by amongst Australians and foreigners. It is one of Sydney's main tourist attractions, with the introduction of Bridge Climb tours in 1998 making it an even more popular way to see Sydney Harbour. It also acts as a billboard for special events such as the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, during which the Olympic Rings were displayed on the Bridge. Also in recent times, each year for the New Year's Eve fireworks, meaningful symbols including the word 'eternity' and an image of a dove have been displayed. Since its opening, the Bridge has been closed to vehicles three times. The 50th anniversary of the Bridge was celebrated in 1982 by pedestrians being able to walk over the Bridge, the 'Walk for Reconciliation' was held in May 2000 in a symbolic crossing of the Bridge and the 75th anniversary of the Bridge was celebrated on March 18, 2007. See image 5


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1. Who did the New Guard organisation strongly appeal to?

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