Even before the 29-year-old Irish surveyor and engineer arrived in NSW, William Christopher Bennett’s career made for an epic tale including an eccentric uncle keen to make him heir to a Tudor castle and a mother who preferred her son surveying in the wilds of British Colombia rather than being shackled to a crumbling legacy. The young surveyor was part of the British attempt to find a route for a shipping canal across the Isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; his heroic initiative in the rescue of a US Navy crew there had Bennett featured in US Harper’s Magazine. NSW read about the young Irishman before he set foot on shore, with coverage of his heroism in The Times in London relayed in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1855. Bennett was then in New Zealand seeking work, but witnessed instead the devastating earthquake that destroyed the 50-year-old town of Wellington.9
Leaving New Zealand for NSW, he found employment in Surveyor- General Sir Thomas Mitchell’s army of temporary staff. The following year Bennett assisted Edward Bell in planning Sydney’s sewerage system, and in 1857 surveyed the extension of the Colony’s first railway south to Campbelltown for Chief Engineer John Whitton.10
In June that year the Colony’s first Commissioner for Internal Communications, including railways, roads and bridges, and the electric telegraph, arrived. A British Army engineer, Ben Hay Martindale’s first report in 1857 made little of Mitchell’s extraordinary contribution, noting some 340 miles of existing roads with ‘scarcely a creek or river bridged’. He soon recruited Bennett, despatching him on an expedition to inspect the Great Southern Road that winter. Bennett’s thorough report included a warning on the new bridge at Marsden’s Crossing place over the Wollondilly River. His advice for folding rather than fixed railings as the plans had the deck of the bridge below flood level was unheeded and he ‘requested that I might not be held responsible for its success’. His asperity was justified when the bridge was swept away in floods in 1870.
By early 1858 Martindale had appointed Bennett assistant engineer in the roads and bridges section of Internal Communications, with his first task that summer to examine the Parramatta-Bathurst route of the main western road. Bennett recommended bridges for Junction Creek and Cox’s River, with his report on the condition of the road justifying the Bathurst Times’ description:
The road from Lapstone Hill to Victoria River was never in a worse condition than it is at present, and, unless substantial and costly repairs are at once commenced, there will be greater difficulty in crossing the mountains next winter than there was last year. It is absurd to suppose that any permanent good can be accomplished with the small amount of funds annually appropriated for the repair of the Western Roads… All that we can say is, something must be done, and that quickly.
That winter Bennett was in Bathurst again, superintending major repairs after severe flood- damage to Weaver’s Denison Bridge. In spring Martindale joined him in an inspection of the road over the Blue Mountains, when at least the approach road through Penrith gratified locals:
It cannot but be apparent to travellers that a vast improvement is being made on the Western Road by the filling up of holes, which process, together with the aid of the sun, has indeed had a wonderful effect in making our main thoroughfare at least passable again.11
When he set out on the western road with Martindale, Bennett had just returned from examining the whole of the main northern road, riding along the route from Morpeth to Black Creek, from there up to the Murrurundi Gap, and on to Armidale. Despite a serious accident when horse and rider fell on a steep decline, Martindale noted the intrepid Bennett was back at work the next day. Among deviations Bennett sought was one to the Armidale route through Salisbury Plain, recommending the more westerly route through Uralla ‘on account of the rising township and gold field there’.
Everywhere his party lodged, locals provided Bennett with ample evidence of the need for bridges. Reporting that the mail contractor was regularly unable to cross Sandy Creek north of Muswellbrook, he noted the site was perfect for a simple timber beam bridge as ‘there is not much driftwood, the bottom of creek is sandy, and ironbark is abundant’. More challenging was the ‘immediate need’ for a large bridge over the Pages River near the Murrurundi Gap, where not only the consignment of mail but all four coach horses had been swept away. He advised equal urgency in bridging the Peel River at the postal township of Tamworth, before the road ascended steeply to the tableland; and bridging the Macdonald River at Bendemeer on the tableland.12
Bennett’s advice extended from engineering to political economy. Like Martindale a firm advocate for letting work on contract, he stressed the need for successful tenderers to lodge securities to ensure their capacity. He grasped rural realities too, and was emphatic that contractors provide task work for capable day labourers so small selectors could
get the means of earning subsistence during the growth of their crops, and an opportunity of acquiring the necessary skill and capital to enable them ultimately to compete for contracts.
Though Bennett cited the success of the contract system in Ireland, in NSW it was more usually considered American, with the Maitland Mercury approving Martindale’s approach in 1858:
We have heard this contract system of maintaining roads in good order much praised, and its working in the United States alleged to be efficient and excellent… Perhaps some of the many intelligent Americans now living in the district will advise.13
But the most pressing problem was finding competent builders.
Martindale and Bennett worked closely together and were in accord on many key matters. The two men were the same age, though as an Army engineer recruited directly from London, Martindale’s had been a more direct and usual path into colonial public works. Everything was experimental, and uncertain, in these formative years of responsible government.
With the new Public Works role of Roads Engineer in place only two months, the Minister, John Robertson, was challenged in the Legislative Assembly by his predecessor with the argument that ‘the gentleman Bennett’ should also be charged with superintending the road surveyors on all three main routes.14 As well as Bennett’s overall responsibility for the routes, construction and maintenance of the main roads, from January 1859 Martindale’s reports state that ‘bridges were designed by the Engineer for Roads, Mr Bennett, CE’, with ten major bridges completed that year and 20 more underway. Of these seven were on the main northern road, three on the main western road, and ten on the main southern road.
The completed bridges comprised six on the main western road and four on the main southern road. Only two of these ten were timber truss bridges, over Cox’s River (see Figure 3.3a) and Junction Creek, but of the twenty large bridges under construction eight were timber trusses: at Falbrook (now Camberwell) and at the Pages River on the northern road; on the southern road at Berrima, Camden, and Jones Creek between Gundagai and Junee; on the western road at Ropes Creek between Parramatta and Penrith, and at Gosling Creek between Bathurst and Orange.
The eighth timber truss was at Albury on the Murray River, the Colony’s southern border. Two of the twenty in progress were the laminated arches being built over the Murrumbidgee River at Wagga Wagga and over the Peel River at Tamworth.15
Bennett described the Cox’s River Bridge as
a queen truss timber bridge on piers, with stone bases and wooden superstructure of two spans of 63 feet, and two of 20 feet each; the roadway is 12 feet wide and six feet above flood level; the total length is 170 feet [51.8 m].
Gosling Creek was based on a king truss, with all the others based on the queen truss. Bennett explained his design in Martindale’s final report in 1860:
For trussed bridges, the simple queen truss with iron suspension rods, in spans of from 50 to 90 feet [15 to 27 m], has been used, as giving the greatest headway and requiring least workmanship. When the headway had not been limited, a modification of this truss with radiating principals has been adopted, with the tie beam passing between the principals; it has been used in spans of from 60 to 100 feet [18 to 31 m], and the laminated arch has been applied in spans of the same dimensions, in some special cases where timber large enough for trusses could not be obtained.16
As Bennett had to train any assistant, he would have done his own calculations for the many bridge plans he drew up in 1859. The shortage of capable builders persisted for at least another decade and getting adequate tenders delayed construction at the Pages River, Albury, Camden, Berrima and Picton bridges, which were not completed until 1861. At Vacy Bridge over the Paterson River at Clark’s Crossing, the tender was let in May 1859 but work stopped when local contractor Stephen Stanbridge failed. The bridge was completed at the end of 1860, just before severe January floods caused major damage when the Paterson River rose nearly forty feet.17