When the colonisers arrived in Australia, they found a land which, to their eyes, appeared to be untouched by human industry. They saw no towns, no farms, no roads – nothing recognisable as ‘civilisation’. In fact, they had encountered a people who had evolved without ‘beasts of burden’ and, almost unimaginable to the European mind, there were no roads because there were no wagons and there were no wagons because there were no horses or bullocks or camels or elephants to pull them.

It was many years before it was realised that the whole landscape was both town and farm and that long-established pathways navigated between seasonal crops, living areas and cultural centres. The indigenous people demonstrated a peripatetic approach to settlement – moving regularly across their ‘lands’ according to seasons and social calendars. Routes across the land were crucial to survival, connecting important food sources with significant places. However, the indigenous population was ravaged by smallpox in 1789, with mortalities in the order of 70% and the survivors fleeing to the north and west. The new arrivals had little chance to learn anything from the original inhabitants.

The First Fleet arrived with, amongst its provisions,

two bulls, four cows, one stallion, three mares, one colt and two fillies, six sets of harness for horses, twelve ox-bows, three sets of ox furniture, fourteen chains for timber carriages, four timber carriages and six carts.1

The difficulties encountered by the colonisers in the early years are well-documented; amongst these were the quick death of all but two of the horses and the escape of all but one cow within the first six months. Road-making was consequently a low priority but, nonetheless, Governor Philip ordered that the settlement at Sydney Cove was to be laid out to a street pattern, with streets ‘200 feet wide’.2 Following the establishment of the second settlement at Parramatta, a track between the two was identified by 1791, (possibly based upon existing tracks) and subsequent ship arrivals brought replacement livestock.

By 1794, the colony’s stocks included eleven mares, nine stallions, three ‘asses’ and forty oxen.3 Parramatta Road was formally surveyed in 1797 and, from this time, the colonial settlement began to take on a more European appearance.

From 1788

In the early years, with few roads and large distances, shipping was the colonists’ way of moving goods and produce between different parts of the settlement and exploration followed the routes of the coastal rivers from the sea. On land, foot traffic was most frequent in the first decades but, where horses were regularly ridden through bushland, pathways became better defined. Far more frequent were bullocks, the real workhorses of the Colony, broadening these footways and inscribing them deep in the ground.

As horses were unsuitable for the pioneer work of farms and the travelling on the heavy unmetalled roads, the use of bullocks was universal, and the training of them was brought to great perfection.4

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1: ‘A view of the Governor’s house at Rose Hill in the township of Parramatta’, 1790. Source: Collins (1798), 5 NLA

With land rapidly taken up and rural estates established across the country, these tracks widened as routes for carts and drays laden with produce and supplies, for driving cattle and, in time, for coaches carrying passengers and mail.

In the settlement around Sydney, military engineers surveyed and laid out the first rudimentary roads. Augustus Alt, soldier, surveyor and engineer, was appointed Surveyor General for the Colony and arrived with the First Fleet. He undertook many of the earliest land surveys and produced the earliest town plans. A simple log bridge was built across the Tank Stream within the first year, joining the site of Government House with the rest of the settlement. In 1804, Governor King had the log bridge replaced by a more sturdy stone bridge, remodelled in 1810 by John O’Hearne, who was paid with 675 gallons of rum. The first proper road, from Sydney to Watsons Bay, was constructed by 21 soldiers of Governor Macquarie’s 73rd Regiment in 1811. In this same year, Macquarie had the track to Parramatta, established by Philip, reconstructed as a 30 foot (10 m) road, paid for by tolls collected at either end. Lieutenant Foveaux, in his report to Governor Macquarie upon the latter’s arrival in 1810, stated that he had spent the prior two years repairing the principal streets and bridges in the settlement which, two years before, had been in a ‘still more dangerous and neglected state’.6

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2: The stone bridge over the Tank Stream (L) is shown in this 1810 view of Sydney by an unknown artist. Source: MAAS

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3: The 1830 Clares Bridge on the Great North Road is still in use, with the timber superstructure replaced many times on the sandstone piers. Source: Convict Trail Project Inc

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.4: Convict artist Charles Rodius titled this watercolour ‘Convicts building road over the Blue Mountains, PWD NSW 1833’. Source: NLA

Under Governor Lachlan Macquarie from 1810, the colony transitioned from pioneer mode towards an orderly settlement. During his decade in office, Macquarie had the South Head Road, the Parramatta Road, the Windsor Road and the Liverpool Road laid out and constructed, using the plentiful supply of convict labour. Macquarie undertook these works at government expense, earning him the ire of his superior, Robert Banks Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool and Secretary of State for the Colonies. Macquarie’s justification was that, by imposing tolls for their use, the monies would be recouped and, in the meantime, the advantages ‘will essentially contribute to the internal prosperity and general welfare of this colony’.7

By the 1830s, land speculation and pastoralism had alienated vast areas of land through land grants and pastoral leases and the vast profits that followed open land grazing led to rampant ‘squatting’ on unallocated land. By a Government Order dated 5 September 1826, Governor Darling established the ‘limits of location’; settlers were only allowed to take up land within the ‘limits’, the rest being considered Crown Lands.

At the same time, Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell commenced the establishment of the colony’s three ‘Great Roads’ radiating from Sydney: the North Road to the Hunter River area; the Western Road to Bathurst; and the South Road to Goulburn. These roads and their bridges were built by convicts in irons, under military guard, with the help of ‘an immense number of working bullocks’.8

The North Road was well underway in the 1830s, largely engineered by military surveyor and engineer Lieutenant Percy Simpson, with at least two substantial timber beam bridges supported on masonry piers.

David Lennox – 1830s

The building of these major roads required bridges and the arrival, in 1832, of David Lennox, an experienced builder of stone bridges, introduced a new standard of bridges to the colony. Lennox’s first bridge was at Lapstone Hill, on the Western Road, completed in 1833. A single arch of 20 feet (6 m) span, with a road width of 30 feet (9 m), it was constructed using stone quarried near the site. By direction of the Governor, it was named ‘Lennox Bridge’ and it is now the oldest bridge still in use on the mainland of Australia.

In January 1834 Lennox commenced a bridge over the Medway Rivulet on the Southern Road, three miles (4.8 km) south of Berrima. Now known as Three Legs o’ Man Bridge; this was a timber beam bridge supported on three masonry piers, twenty feet (6 m) apart. Completed in 1835, it was destroyed in severe flooding in February 1860.

In 1835, Lennox was building the Lansdowne Bridge over Prospect Creek on the Southern Road near Liverpool. Lansdowne Bridge was a single 110 feet (34 m) span masonry arch, 30 feet (9 m) wide, opened by the Governor on 26 January 1836.

Other major bridges designed by David Lennox include the 50 feet (15 m) masonry arch bridge over the Wingecarribee River at Berrima, opened in 1836 but destroyed by flood in 1860 and Black Bob’s Bridge fourteen kilometres south of Berrima, a single 30 feet (9m) span timber beam bridge completed early in 1837. Lennox also designed Duck Creek Bridge on the Parramatta Road, 21 kilometres from Sydney, built about 1837 as a semicircular brick arch of 30 feet (9 m) span, with the last bridge he designed and built in New South Wales (NSW) over the Parramatta River in Church Street, Parramatta.

A simple stone arch spanning 80 feet (24 m) and having a width of 39 feet (12 m), it was completed in 1839 and named Lennox Bridge in 1867 by Parramatta Council. In 1844, Lennox transferred to Victoria where, for the next nine years, he had charge of all roads, bridges, wharves and ferries and acted as advisory engineer to various government departments. In this period, he was responsible for the design and construction of at least another 53 bridges, retiring in 1853.

Figure 1.5

Figure 1.5: The Lansdowne Bridge, possibly convict stonemason David Lennox’s finest work. Still carries the Hume Highway over Prospect Creek near Liverpool. Source: Roads and Maritime

Self-government & Public Works – 1840s & 1850s

The fifteen years from 1840 to 1855 were marked by several important changes to the colony of NSW

In 1840, the Council of the City of Sydney had been established, followed by the NSW Legislative Council in 1843, both with the electoral franchise for males only and tied to property ownership or financial capacity. These coincided with the cessation of convict transportation in 1842, although ‘exiles’ continued to arrive until 1850 (‘exiles’ were British criminals who were serving sentences in British prisons but who could apply for relocation to the colony on condition of their remaining ‘exiled’).

In 1850, the Australian Colonies Government Act separated the colonies of Victoria and Tasmania from NSW providing for their separate representative parliaments and responsible government. In 1855, the establishment of a Legislative Assembly in each of these colonies gave each a bi-cameral parliament. In NSW as in the other colonies, the Legislative Assembly was elected, originally only by voters who owned property worth £100, or earned £100 a year, or held a pastoral licence, or who paid £10 a year for lodgings. Nonetheless, self-government had been achieved and the development of the colony was no longer directed from London.

While these administrative changes were underway, the discovery of gold at Bathurst in 1851 led to a massive influx of new migrants over the next two decades and a new pressure upon the government for passable roads into the interior of the country.

As the supply of convict labour for public works dried up, the gold taxes and the increased economic activity generated by new arrivals, and the relocation of many original settlers to the goldfields, brought public revenues and an expectation that governments would invest these monies for the good of the Colony. From the late 1850s, much of this investment went towards the construction of railways radiating from Sydney to all corners of the Colony. However, one of the first acts of the newly formed NSW Government was the amalgamation of the office of the Surveyor of Roads and Bridges with the Surveyors Office and Lands Office to form the Department of Lands and Public Works in 1856. The Main Roads Act 1858 gave a statutory base to Mitchell’s legacy, the three ‘Great Roads’ to the north, west and south of Sydney and, from then until the Local Government Act in 1906, construction and maintenance of all main roads and bridges was the responsibility of the Department of Public Works.

The bundling of Lands and Public Works into a single organisation was soon changed, with a separate Department of Public Works (PWD) established in October 1859. The largest of the State’s civil service departments, the Department was responsible for Railways, the Electric Telegraph, Roads, the Colonial Architect’s Office, Harbours and River Navigation, Steam Dredges and Cranes, Fitz Roy Dry Dock (Cockatoo Island) and Works of Defence (Fortification or Military Works Branch).

Each of the Department’s branches became big and important enough to function as the domain of the man in charge. James Barnet led the Colonial Architect’s Office for three decades from 1862 – 1890. Edward Orpen Moriarty was Engineer-In-Chief for Harbours and River Navigation from 1858 – 1888, William Bennett was Commissioner for Roads and Bridges from 1862 to 1889 and John Whitton was Chief Engineer for Railways from 1856 to 1889. These men were each to have a lasting and personal impact upon the future of NSW.

Roads and Bridges From 1859

Figure 1.6

Figure 1.6: The town of Yass, shown here in the 1870s with the new Hume Bridge, developed from the 1830s on the southern side of the Yass River, at the crossing place of the South Road. Source: ML, SLNSW

Bennett’s first five years in NSW were spent in close inspection of the country; he surveyed first for Mitchell, then for Martindale. His reports reveal close observation of topography, timbers, and seasons, as he examined in turn each of Mitchell’s three ‘Great Roads’. He seemed to listen as closely as he looked, noting the experiences and expectations of locals wherever he travelled. The evidence Bennett gathered records the part that travel and transport played, not only in the grand scheme of colonial progress but in everyday life. Among the people Bennett met, desperation was as likely as ambition to drive the demand for transport. For every wealthy squatter lobbying the Sydney legislature for faster freighting of his wool bales, Bennett had a dozen conversations with families, farmers and itinerant workers, whose greatest concern was carriage of their mail and milk churns.

Martindale accompanied Bennett on some of these journeys, particularly those where Bennett recommended adjustments to Mitchell’s routes. Chain gangs breaking rock for metalling roads and ‘immense numbers of bullocks’ were no longer part of road building and neither were labour intensive masonry bridges. For both men, the urgent priority was bridging rivers and creeks that were impassable or unsafe for the mail coach and other traffic and then the improvement of roads through mountainous and swampy terrains. The two travelled the length of the road through the Blue Mountains several times, perhaps the most memorable being an expedition in the spring of 1860 when a party journeyed by coach as far as present-day Lithgow. The scenes sketched along the way by an observant Mary Martindale suggest the regular newspaper complaints about the challenge of travelling on this road were not exaggerated (See Figure 1.7).

Even the new purpose-built coaches of Cobb & Co, introduced in January 1861, offered no comfort to travellers on this challenging road, with the day’s last 30 kilometres to Blackheath taking a bleak and exhausting six hours when writer Rachel Henning made the trip that winter.9

Figure 1.7

Figure 1.7: The coach ascends one incline while the horse plunges down the next in this 1860 sketch titled ‘Negotiating the Western Road’. Source: Mary Martindale Sketchbook, ML, SLNSW

In 1862, William Bennett returned from overseas to serve as Commissioner for Roads and Bridges in the Public Works Department (PWD). The rapidly growing population during his term in office meant a constantly accelerating demand for transport, with construction of wharves, roads, railways and bridges a feature of the ‘long boom’ of the late nineteenth century.

Closer settlement followed the Robertson Land Acts of the 1860s and created an increased demand for transport, for people, and their goods and for agricultural and mining products. Gold rushes, mining booms and mechanisation all gave impetus to further waves of immigrants and the population of NSW grew from approximately 350,000 in 1861 to over 1.1 million in 189110, of whom only a third resided in the Sydney region.

In 1865, Bennett was able to report the mail time on the western and southern roads had halved, as:

the mails have been able to travel at night on many roads where it could not be attempted in 1857 – that they are not stopped by swollen rivers or creeks, except in one or two instances, and that they can travel much faster on the greater portion of the road, and are not exposed to so many accidents.11

Bennett instituted road construction standards and a system of ongoing maintenance, both things that had been dormant since the Army Engineers had ceased to be responsible for roads in the 1830s. Bennett, like his predecessors, considered that the major problem facing road authorities was the impact of narrow cart and carriage wheels that quickly cut through any road surface and formed deep ruts which then became impassable in wet weather. Martindale had attempted to impose higher toll charges on wagons with narrow wheels in 1857 but this move was politically unpopular and in 1861 the system was amended to allow for toll rebates for wagons with wheels wider than 5 inches (13 cm). Neither approach had the desired effect however, and the problem continued into the twentieth century, when motorised vehicles and pneumatic tyres created a new set of issues.

Bennett established a three-tier system for financing road construction: large works were put out to competitive tender; task work contracts for specific works were managed by local road superintendents; and day labour was hired for maintenance and repair works. A road classification system was introduced, identifying Main Roads and Minor Roads, and the Municipalities Act of 1858 created local authorities responsible for local roads. In 1871, Bennett reported that over the previous five years, over 8,000 miles (12,874 km) of roads were under the charge of his Branch and that over 160 bridges had been erected12. By 1906, over 48,000 miles (77,248.5 km) of roads were controlled by the PWD and another approximately 8,000 miles (12,874 km) controlled by local government.13

By 1894, 3,600 road bridges had been built, with the number of men working on road and bridge construction averaging 5,640 monthly, only one quarter of them government workers and the rest employed by contractors.14

Figure 1.8

Figure 1.8: The width of this rural road reserve at Paterson in the Hunter Valley, about sixty metres between the post and rail timber fences of the adjacent properties, was typical throughout the Colony. Source: Bennett Album, CUL

The Western Road extended 544 kilometres from Sydney through Bathurst and Orange to Warren and then another 282 kilometres to the Darling River at Bourke. The 620 km Southern Road (see Figure 1.6) ran from Sydney to Albury, where the Murray River crossing carried this route into Victoria and on to Melbourne. A South Coast Road ran 403 kilometres from Campbelltown, southwest of Sydney, to Coal Cliff, the Illawarra and Shoalhaven districts and across the Clyde and Moruya Rivers as far as the town of Bega. As outlined in Chapter 3 ‘The designers’, the road system then included the roads of ‘colonial importance’ through the Great Dividing Range that Bennett had added to Thomas Mitchell’s ‘Great Roads’ to the colonial frontiers north, west and south of Sydney.15

Figure 1.9

Figure 1.9: This map shows the extent of main roads and railway lines in NSW in 1895. Source: The Roadmakers 16

Roads and Rivers

Figure 1.10

Figure 1.10: PS Corrong passes under the Colony’s first lift-span bridge, completed over the Murrumbidgee River at Balranald in 1881. Source: Godson collection, SLSA

While roads and railways spread across the state in the latter half of the 19th century, the coastal and inland rivers remained major thoroughfares for the transport of goods and produce to Sydney. Brought to the coastal ports and loaded onto steamers, wool, wheat, timber and ores were shipped to the port of Sydney for re-loading onto overseas ships. For large volumes of materials, shipping remained quicker and cheaper than roads, where horses and bullocks still provided the primary means of locomotion. The arrival of railways altered but did not replace this maritime traffic, especially where the cargoes were destined for export. For this reason, unless road bridges across the coastal rivers were built above the head of navigation, they were designed with opening spans to allow the passage of coastal vessels.

The inland rivers were also an important part of this transport system. Soon after Francis Cadell took his paddle steamer along the Murrumbidgee River to Gundagai, there were regular trips upriver as far as Narrandera. On the Murray River, Cadell had taken less than a fortnight on his Goolwa-to-The Darling run in 1853, a journey that took drays nine weeks. The first paddle steamer to navigate from the Murray River along the Edwards River to Deniliquin in 1860 had a barge load of several tonnes of fencing wire for sale to local graziers. It returned laden with a cargo of wool bales destined for the city salesrooms. From these beginnings, the Darling, Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers became the highways of the west and south, with shallow-draught paddle steamers plying along the rivers and delivering large cargoes along the way, or all the way to the port at the mouth of the Murray River at Goolwa in South Australia. The importance of this river transport meant that, when roads reached these rivers, bridges had to be designed with opening spans to allow continued passage. The bridge built at Hay in 1874 had a swing span, while the bridges built at Balranald in 1881 (see Figure 1.10), Bourke (1883), Brewarrina (1889), Wentworth (1893) and Wilcannia in 1896 (see Figure 1.11) all had lift spans for river traffic.

Both NSW and Victoria were keen to keep this valuable trade to their own side of the Murray River border, with the Victorians quicker off the mark, building a railway line to Echuca by 1864. This quickly supplanted the long river journey to Goolwa and Echuca became a major river port. The citizens and investors of Deniliquin in NSW even built their own railway line from Deniliquin to meet the Victorian railway at Echuca – it opened in 1876 but was never accepted by the NSW Railways and was formally taken over by the Victorian railways in 1923.

The NSW Government had the greater geographic problem, with Hay approximately 500 km and Deniliquin over 600 km from Sydney. Governments pushed railway construction forward and the railway line reached the Murrumbidgee River port of Hay in 1882, where six paddle steamers a day passed through the swing span of the bridge.17 That daily tally became the annual total for 1883. The impact was the same when the main western line reached Bourke three years later, with trade along the Darling and Barwon rivers reduced to feeder runs for the railway. Rivers were easily outdone by railways in getting goods from these production regions, with rail tracks less vulnerable to the seasons and favourable tariffs set to encourage farmers and graziers to rail their goods to Sydney markets.

Nonetheless, the river trade along the Murray had become well-established. The railway intercepted freight from more distant areas, but regions closer to the river remained tied to Victoria. It wasn’t until the 1890s that changing markets, new technologies and improved roads within NSW made the comparative cost of transport to Sydney comparable to freighting along the Victorian route from districts between the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. South Australia, having experienced a short boom when Goolwa was the sea port, had lost the trade it had drawn from its neighbours before Federation in 1901.

The 1890s was also important for the development of irrigation for intensive agriculture in the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers region. Adopted initially by Victorian farmers along the Murray, irrigation soon became a major activity on both sides of the border, with Victorian governments sponsoring the establishment of a large irrigation scheme at Mildura in the late 1880s. Inspired by a long drought, irrigation was seen as a major driver for agriculture and was aggressively promoted by both governments.

However, with both governments competing to take the most water out of the rivers, South Australia became concerned about reduced flows for its farmers. Water rights were largely unheard of in this era, so South Australia, in the lead up to Federation, adopted the position that river navigation was a significant economic activity and there was an obligation upon NSW and Victoria to maintain water levels for navigation purposes (even though the trade had virtually ceased by this time). Consequently, despite there being little traffic and the removal of all barriers to trade between the new states, the intercolonial agreements for Federation meant that NSW governments continued to build opening bridges across the Murray and Darling rivers well into the twentieth century.

But the importance of the inland river routes to the Colony’s ‘long boom’ from the 1860s to 1890 was evident in the suite of opening bridges built on the Murrumbidgee, Darling and Murray Rivers. Nineteen of the 66 moveable span bridges constructed in NSW were built on the Murray-Murrumbidgee- Darling River system. The last of these bridges were completed in 1924, with the bascule bridge at Carrathool on the Murrumbidgee River opening in July and the vertical lift bridge at Tooleybuc on the Murray River opening in December.18 A curious sequel occurred in the 1960s, when the replacement of the opening bridge at Wentworth was contemplated. A new opening bridge was erected in 1969, although the only traffic of significance on the river at the time was the historic paddle-wheel steamer operating as a tourist attraction.

Figure 1.11

Figure 1.11: Road and river transport on the Darling River, with PS Nile waiting its turn at Wilcannia Bridge c1900. Source: Godson collection, SLSA

Roads and Loads

Huge logs cut from coastal forests were among the heaviest loads first hauled on colonial roads, usually to the nearest port for transportation by river or sea. In NSW, local timber was an early commodity and it was, in the mid- nineteenth century, considered an almost endless resource. It was highly valued locally for building timber bridges, the hardwoods providing a strength and durability unknown on other continents. However, by 1900, the unchecked exploitation of these resources in NSW meant that the supply of large timbers from old growth trees had dwindled to the point where bridge builders in NSW were pursuing new bridge designs based upon smaller pieces of timber, as discussed in Chapter 4 ‘Timber truss technology’.

Wool bales were the major freight on rivers and on roads, carried all the way to Sydney wool stores from where the cargoes were carted to the nearby wharves. Sheep production for wool had developed as a major export from the first years of the Colony, when improved sheep breeding generated demand in England’s mills for the new fine wools from NSW. From 1860 to 1894, sheep flocks increased at an average 6.9% per annum (from 6.1 million to 57 million), with the increase greatest in the 1860s and 1870s and least from 1890 to 1894, the years of drought and depression. The steep rise in greasy wool production, from 15,700 tonnes to about 121,000 tonnes, reflected a huge increase both in the wool clip and in the loads carried by teamsters.19

Figure 1.12

Figure 1.12: Bullock teams were essential to timber-getting throughout the 19th century, with hauling the hardwoods needed for bridge trusses more difficult as supplies decreased, even in the once-abundant northern NSW districts like this one. Source: Kerry photo, Tyrell collection, MAAS

Figure 1.13

Figure 1.13: A tabletop wagon ready to set out for Dubbo railway station, with a record 17 1⁄2 tonne load of 150 wool bales, c1913. Source: NLA

Figure 1.14

Figure 1.14: Though the photograph was published in full in the Sydney Mail in 1899 titled ‘Arrival of an immense load of wool in Sydney’, the glass negative has been curiously altered to remove the people atop the load. Source: Kerry photo, Tyrell collection, MAAS

The area of cropping land quadrupled between 1871 and 1895 (from about 160,000 to 537,000 hectares), with a fivefold increase in the average area sown to wheat in 1866-1895 producing a sevenfold increase in yield. Production then dropped away before new wheat varieties such as ‘Federation’, improved seasons and more effective harvesting machinery increased productivity.

The relationship of colonial transport and agriculture is evident in the pattern of the 1890s ‘pioneer lines’ on the western slopes of NSW, with the extensive areas planted to wheat forming the catchment served by these railways. This was achieved by government policy, with rail heads, sidings and stations located 10 miles (about 16 km) apart, the distance that animals hauling vehicles could comfortably travel in a day, depending on the load, the size of the team and the terrain. The cheaper cost of rail haulage, as much as 83% less than road freight, was an incentive also underwritten by government policy and, like the roads to rail loading points, reveals the preferential policy status of railways in colonial NSW. However, road bridges could boost wheat production too, even before they were built, as shown in the 1923 Tooleybuc tale told in Chapter 5, ‘People, places and bridges’.

In contrast, the Colony’s quantity of cattle remained relatively constant, about 2.3 million head in 1861 and about 2.5 million in 1894. For more than a century, driving cattle to distant markets was the only means of marketing fresh meat where demand was highest, for instance on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, when fresh beef from as far away as the Darling Downs and New England arrived ‘on the hoof’. The town of Deniliquin, gazetted in 1850, developed at the ford on the Edwards River where overlanders crossed with cattle brought along the main stock routes from Queensland, through NSW and on to the Victorian goldfields.

More often entrepreneurs than wage-earners, carriers always preferred to keep costs low. Legislation introduced in 1857 and again in 1861 had attempted in vain to encourage the use of new, broader wheels.

In 1865, when average loads had more than doubled in just three years, Bennett made his exasperation clear:

It is impossible to estimate the extent of the injury caused by the enormous weight carried on narrow wheeled vehicles, drawn by long strings of horses or bullocks, yoked up, half independent of the driver’s control, and following in the same track, making no attempt to avoid a soft place, until by tearing and dragging out, a small rut is enlarged into a dangerous bog.20

The regulations Bennett urged were finally introduced in the 1870s, when the first tabletop wagons, an Australian innovation, carried up to six tonnes of wool or wheat, hauled by draught horses. The vehicles had become much more substantial as loads increased and laden drays were heavy, slow, cumbersome and damaging to the unsurfaced roads even in good conditions; in wet weather their iron wheels turned roads into bogs that dried into rutted tracks. Much larger tabletop wagons, specially designed for wool bales, moved record loads up to 25 tonnes across flatter terrain from the 1890s until the early 1930s (see Figures 1.13 and 1.14).21 Even in the early 20th Century, most road freight was still carried by vehicles that were either horse- drawn or hauled by bullocks.

Bennett’s successors had to find innovative ways to build bridges using less costly materials and labour, while designing for increased loadings. As detailed in Chapter 2 ‘Developing the truss’, John McDonald based his truss design loading on the 16 tonnes, steam-driven British traction engines used in the Australian colonies from the 1880s. Percy Allan’s large truss spans were typically designed for this load, as were those of de Burgh and Dare. The composite traction engines were ‘road locomotives’, able to haul heavy loads but, in NSW, they more commonly travelled between properties where they powered farm machinery at harvest times and were also used for land clearing. Though US made engines became popular as they were lighter and cheaper, most of those imported to the Australian colonies were the more solid British machines.

By 1895 Sydney was the hub of the main roads network as well as ‘the head of the whole of the railway system of the Colony’, as Timothy Coghlan, former Public Works engineer and the Colony’s first government statistician observed:

The railways of the Colony for the most part follow the direction of the main roads, and attract to themselves nearly all the through traffic. The tendency now is to make the roads act as feeders to the railway, by converging the traffic from the outlying districts towards convenient stations along the line.22

The first vehicles powered by the new internal combustion engine were in use in NSW in the 1890s but the impact on loads came only with the increasing use of motor- trucks from 1921. The 3,524 truck registrations that year had become 83,977 in 1939, with load capacity also increasing steeply. The Main Roads Board established in 1925 introduced the first increase in design loading and legal load limits for road bridges; since then, design loads for road bridges have quadrupled, as discussed in Chapter 7 ‘Weighty matters’.

Figure 1.15

Figure 1.15: Cowra teamsters with bullocks yoked up, ready to head west on the Grenfell road for their loads. William Bennett’s 1870 McCallum Truss timber bridge over the Lachlan River is in the background (L). Source: Kerry photo, Tyrell collection, MAAS

Bridge Engineering in New South Wales

Figure 1.16

Figure: 1.16: RRM Ronald’s painting of the 1908 Dare Truss Colemans Bridge over Leycester Creek at Lismore, built on the same central iron pier as the 1886 Bennett Truss bridge it replaced. Source: Frank Oakes, photo David Sciffer

As well as the shortage of labourers, builders, and engineers in the Australian colonies in the 1850s, there was little technical literature to guide the work of building transport systems. The development of the civil engineering profession outlined in Chapter 4 ‘Timber truss technology’ shows the key role of the British Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in establishing standards for civil engineering. The ICE’s admission grade of Associate (AMICE) and qualification as a full Member (MICE) were essential professional steps for colonial engineers. With 17 years of experience in Ireland, Central America and in the Colony, 33-year-old William Bennett gained the AMICE in May 1857 while completing railway survey work for Whitton and he was awarded the MICE in 1864.

In 1870, Bennett and his colleague, Gustavus Morell, were founding members of the Engineering Association of NSW which produced a journal from 1885. Bennett was also an early member of the Royal Society of NSW, whose president for his first five years in Sydney was the Colony’s Governor, Sir William Denison. An engineer, Denison spoke on ‘Principles of bridge-building’ in September 1860 and, a year later, Thomas Woore’s ‘On a new mode of constructing timber bridges’ challenged Railways chief engineer John Whitton’s fixation on iron bridges.

The utility of Australian hardwood for the timber truss construction techniques highlighted by Woore in 1861 had already been demonstrated in some dozen road bridges. Details of these first timber truss road bridges, from the Carcoar Bridge completed by William Weaver in 1855 to the bridges designed by William Bennett in 1859-60, are given in Chapter 2 ‘Developing the truss’ and Chapter 3 ‘The designers’.23

Until 1879, few of Bennett’s bridge engineers were already qualified when appointed to his staff. After two years at King’s College London, John McDonald had completed three years articled to Appleby Bros in Greenwich and he was working for that firm when he was recruited to Bennett’s staff in 1879 for construction of the Gladesville Bridge. He gained the MICE on its completion in 1881. William Warren had trained in a London railway company after studying at Dublin’s Royal College of Science for Ireland and in Manchester, before emigrating to join Bennett’s office in 1881. Ernest de Burgh, another early engineering graduate of the Royal College of Science for Ireland (now part of University College Dublin) joined the PWD on migrating to NSW in 1885. The engaging and energetic young engineer joined Bennett’s office in 1887, with Bennett nominating him for the AMICE he gained that year and his MICE, awarded in 1893.

From 1878, aspiring AMICE candidates could take courses at the Working Man’s College in Ultimo, or, from 1883, courses at the University of Sydney’s new engineering school established under William Warren. Percy Allan, who had completed his cadetship under Bennett in 1882, was among the first to take the non-degree course Warren offered, completing it in 1885. Allan was not nominated by Bennett for the AMICE, waiting until 1890 for McDonald’s nomination, with his MICE given in 1901.

Three of Warren’s first graduates, Henry Harvey Dare, John Job Crew Bradfield and James Waller Roberts, all became PWD bridge engineers. Dare was on Bennett’s staff from February 1889, for the last months of Bennett’s life, while Bradfield and Roberts were appointed during John McDonald’s much briefer tenure as chief engineer.

Dare, Roberts and Bradfield were all founding members of the University of Sydney’s vigorous new Engineering Society in 1896 and were regular contributors to its journal.

For colonial engineers, local knowledge and experience was no less important than access to technical advances worldwide. The trial and error process of using native timbers is an important example; another is the much longer, slower and more costly understanding of floods in NSW. At Royal Society meetings in Sydney, the many papers on meteorology and weather observations were always keenly followed but for the engineers, ‘on the ground’ experience was the better teacher. Whether reliable or not, local recollections were the main source of flood data for Bennett – along with the damaged bridges themselves and, across the Colony, damaged bridges were flood markers that reset deck heights for their replacements.

Bennett’s Marsden’s Crossing Bridge over the Wollondilly River at Goulburn was only three years old when it was destroyed by an ‘overwhelming and unprecedented flood’ in autumn 1870 that reached six feet (2 m) above the previous record set in 1852. Bennett observed:

This flood was most violent in the vicinity of Goulburn, and in the rivers flowing to the west from the table-land Goulburn to Cooma, and was followed by others of more or less local violence . . . the latest being most violent in the north.24

No lesson was wasted and when the ‘most violent’ floods in December 1870 turned the Nymboida River into a destructive torrent, Bennett adjusted the plans of the proposed timber truss bridge to raise the deck another six feet. Noting that, in every case, the most serious damage was done ‘by the accumulation of timber against the bridges’, Bennett designed a central iron cylinder pier for the Orara Bridge, located on the same mountainous road from the northern tablelands to the port of Grafton, and for the bridge over Leycester Creek in Lismore (see Figure 1.16). This innovation is discussed further in Chapter 6, ‘The builders’.

Transport infrastructure for railways, roads and bridges, and harbours and rivers, had dominated colonial public works engineering but, with the new century, the emphasis shifted to water resources. The Water Rights Act 1896 (NSW) transferred all use and control of water to the Crown, enabling the new State to develop a systematic public works program. All of Bennett’s best young bridge engineers, now leading their profession, were transferred across to this area: de Burgh in 1903, Allan in 1904 and Harvey Dare in 1910. The pioneer head of the State’s water conservation engineering, LAB Wade, who had been articled to Bennett as a 16-year-old in 1880, had been transferred in 1892 to the new Water Conservation, Irrigation and Drainage section of the PWD. On Wade’s early death in 1915, Dare succeeded him as head of the State’s Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, serving until his retirement in 1935.

State Economy

The outlay on public works in NSW reached a maximum in 1885, the beginning of the end of the ‘long boom’ of resounding growth from the 1860s. The extraordinary achievement of public works in NSW had been powered by London investment capital. The declining availability of this finance signalled the years of straitened economy that did not begin to ease until 1893, when some 15,000 workers had lost their jobs and years of drought added to economic depression had brought home the harsh realities of colonial life.

Retrenchments imposed across the civil service might have had less impact in road and bridge construction, as this was a main provider of unemployment relief work. Restricted availability of materials was a major problem though, affecting both imported and locally manufactured components. Local timber in the long and large sections needed became more expensive as it was scarce, so both financial and resource constraints drove the design of the Allan Truss bridges introduced in 1894.25

From 1860 to 1894, the development of colonial transport networks was primarily directed by the agricultural development that established farming populations and service towns across the Colony. Railways dominated, challenging road as well as river transport in the cause of intercolonial competition, until Federation meant the disappearance of border customs stations. Public Works Minister James Young’s response to sharp parliamentary questions from veteran parliamentarian Sir Henry Parkes in 1894 shows the comparative cost of the largest timber road bridges in NSW was a quarter of that of the largest iron road bridges. The timber truss bridge was a major reason that NSW had achieved an operational and maintainable road system at moderate cost to the public purse.26

At the Federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, the new nation’s roads were still basic, narrow and formed just enough for drainage, with the surface unsealed so that in wet weather they were often impassable. In NSW, under the Local Government Act 1906, most roads other than the State’s main roads, with their 3,575 bridges, were transferred to local councils. Under the classification of ‘national works’, the main roads and most timber truss bridges remained the responsibility of the Public Works Department. The timber truss bridges in operation then included some 90 McDonald Truss and 20 de Burgh Truss bridges, along with the tally of the first decade of Allan Truss bridges. Some of these replaced the approximately 150 Bennett Truss bridges built by 1886, making the actual number of timber truss bridges in operation in any year difficult to determine.

The evolution of road freight transport from bullock and horse-drawn vehicles to modern motorised trucks is marked by continued changes to road and bridge technology. In 1936, the State’s last timber truss bridge was completed by the Department of Main Roads. By then, the use of timber in road bridge construction had declined in favour of steel and then concrete, as detailed in Chapter 4 ‘Timber truss technology’. The pendulum swing of government policy in the 20th century also meant the decline and closure of much of the State’s railway network, with roads now the major means of moving both freight and passengers.

These new conditions have put new emphasis on bridge design, with the early years of the 21st century perhaps the start of a new story of bridge building in NSW.


  1. Philip to Lord Sydney 9 July 1788; Historical Records of Australia Vol 1, Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, 1914
  2. An Account of Livestock in the Settlement; Historical Records of Australia (1914)
  3. Grose to Henry Dundas 5 July1794 Historical Records of Australia (1914)
  4. JBM (1883), Reminiscences, Sydney, Camden Times, pp.6-7
  5. David Collins (1798), An account of the English colony in New South Wales, London, Cadell & Davies, published [facing p 125] this engraving by James Heath of Edwards Dayes’ watercolour, after a sketch made in the Colony in about 1790
  6. Foveaux to Macquarie 27 February 1810; Historical Records of Australia, Vol 7;
  7. Macquarie to Liverpool 17/11/1812; Historical Records of Australia,Vol 7
  8. JBM (1883), p.7
  9. John Low (2011), ‘The Martindale Family and the sketchbook of Mary Elizabeth Martindale’, Blue Mountains History Journal, 2, September
  10. Coghlan T; Wealth and Progress of NSW (1893), cited in Kelly& Crocker, Sydney Takes Shape ;University of Sydney; 1977.
  11. William Bennett (1865), ‘Report on the state of the Roads 31 March 1865’, reprinted in Sydney Morning Herald 12 December 1865
  12. Department of Main Roads NSW (DMR) (1976), The Roadmakers, Sydney, DMR
  13. ibid
  14. Coghlan (1896),pp.704-05
  15. Bennett (1865); Coghlan (1896), p.703; DMR (1976), The Roadmakers, Sydney, DMR, 1976, p.47
  16. DMR (1976)
  17. The Age (Melbourne) 25 June 1881
  18. Riverine Grazier 29 July 1924; Riverina Recorder 28 February 1925; GHD (2015), ‘Movable Span Bridge Study’, Report for Roads and Maritime Services NSW
  19. Coghlan (1896), p.705
  20. Bennett (1865)
  21. HH Dare (1904), ‘Recent Road-Bridge Practice in New South Wales’, Min. & Proc. ICE, p. 392; Percy Allan (1924), ‘Highway bridge construction: the practice in New South Wales’, Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, Aug-Sept, p.285; A Grant (1984), ‘An analysis of selected aspects of horse drawn vehicles and coachbuilding in south-east mainland Australia from colonisation to present’, MSc Thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney, p. 202
  22. Coghlan (1896), p.704; Lee (2000), p.253
  23. William Denison (1860), ‘Principles of bridge-building’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September; Thomas Woore (1861), ‘On a new mode of constructing timber bridges’, published in The Empire, 13 September
  24. Bennett Report (1871), published in the Maitland Mercury 28 March 1871
  25. PWDAR 1893-4, p 123
  26. NSWLA V. & Proc.(1894), 2nd session, Question 5 of 11 December 1894