How a bridge of hope united a city

sydney harbour bridge

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Joni

Many families today are struggling with the rising cost of living. They are doing it tough. Rent, fuel, food and energy costs are all rising but wages are not. It is hard for families to make ends meet. It is hard to maintain hope for the future. This is not just a modern problem as you will see when your read about how a bridge gave hope and united a city during The Great Depression of the 1930s. Like most things in life, it too had happened before. Life is a series of cycles and change is a constancy in life. We have to roll with the punches, dodge the bullets. That is life.

The Great Depression of the 1930s

During The Great Depression of the 1930s many, many families had no money, no job, no food or home. It was a terrible time in most countries of the world as it was a follow on from the Wall Street Crash of 1929. For any one job, there were queues of desperate hungry men applying.

Men unable to secure employment often went ‘bush’ to the countryside hoping to pick up some casual farm work. In America this time, coincided with a drought and many states became dust bowls. It was a depressing difficult time captured in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men.

Women left at home struggled to feed their children, often going without food themselves. Begging was rife and women turned to prostitution as they have throughout history. It is the oldest profession available to women when all else fails.

The joys of the early twenties and the Jazz Age were fading as was hope for a bright future. Once the Great war of 1914 to 1918 ended, the world had been hopeful of a bright, peaceful future filled with plenty. It was not to be. Economies are fickle things. Like empires they rise and fall.

The bridge that offered hope

In Sydney, Australia, families suffered like most worldwide. But one thing gave hope to hundreds if not thousands of Sydneysiders. It was the building of The Sydney Harbour Bridge. Now an iconic tourist attraction like the nearby Sydney Opera House, the bridge took years to build and employed many men at a time when work was sorely needed. The bridge united a city in more ways than just crossing the harbour.

Until the bridge spanned the harbour, Sydney was a city divided by water. The only way to get from north to south was by a long round about car or tram trip or by ferry. The bridge construction started with the clearing of land on either side of the harbour.

Unfortunately, progress has its cost and historic buildings, shops and houses had to go. There was little compensation for the resumption of these properties and so many people were made homeless in this initial stage. They had to live in tent cities to the south of the city at La Perouse jokingly called Happy Valley.

The bridge construction meant jobs for men

Warehouses established on this now vacated land stored the steel rafters for the build and also served as workplaces for the scores of men who cut the steel to size. Then there were granite pylons for each side and the huge cables set into the seabed. Building a bridge to span a harbour is a huge job involving many trades. To employ as many men as possible and spread the work around, men worked only four days each.

My grandfather was one of the lucky few who scored a job as a tradesman for the building of this arched cantilever bridge. He swung out on a rope, holding on to the steel rafter to be put in place next. This job was called ‘donkeyman’ and was a perilous role as high above the water below, the donkeyman had a long way to fall if something went wrong. And it did for quite a few young fellows. But Grandpa was not one of them.

As well as onsite work by the harbour, there was work on the South Coast at Moruya. This was where the rock for the pylons was sourced from a quarry. Then truck drivers had work driving back and forwards for the rock so more jobs arose. Also, at the same time underground tunneling was preparing the way for the underground railway tracks of the City Circle Line linking Central Station to Circular Quay. The bridge was uniting the city and giving hope to Sydneysiders, both north and south of the harbour.

Women made ends meet

While my grandfather risked his life to earn a living for his five children, Grandmother would have been hard at work making ends meet. There were meals to prepare from frugal supplies available, clothes to mend and housework to complete with few labour saving devices. Women of these times were resourceful and hard working. Their mantra was ‘waste not want not’ and ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’

Nothing was wasted. Clothes were either mended or reinvented to fit a younger child or converted into dish towels or peg bags. Tiny slivers of soap bars were grated into the sink for washing the dishes or used to wash your hair. Shampoo had not yet hit the market nor had dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent or handwash. Cold cream was the best you could do to keep your skin nice and blue dye the best to keep white clothes white as they washed in the copper.

Washing machines came later. Women stirred the laundry in a big copper of hot water then later wrung them out over the ringer into the laundry tub. It was hard work. Even in the 1950’s women were still washing this way. In many places in the world women still wash in rivers and bash the clothes over rocks. We don’t all get spin cycle washers.

The Story of the Bridge

But one thing kept Sydneysiders a little happier than their interstate citizens was the progress of the bridge. Slowly, ever so slowly, from 1923 to 1932, the bridge inched its way across the harbour until the two arms finally met in the centre. Even then it was not finished. Roadways, walkways and rail lines had to be added to enable all manner of vehicles and pedestrians cross the harbour. Then the rail lines would link with the underground rail tunnels also being built. This all provided work for the men while the Depression raged.

Building anything from the ground up is a positive, interesting process. The construction of this very visible, beautiful structure was a perfect tonic for Sydneysiders during these dark economic times. The bridge gave them hope, work and a reason to get up in the morning to see its progress. It was like a monotone grey rainbow on the horizon of the harbour offering hope and unity for a city.

Its history through eyes of two children

There is nothing like history told through the eyes of a child. The diaries of Billy Thompson and Alice Carson compiled by Vashti Farrer in 2012 offers a fascinating and humorous snapshot of 1930s life. Through the words of the children, the reader realises the huge impact of the construction of the bridge over the harbour in the lives of their families. We see how their parents did it tough to weather the economic difficulties of interwar life.

Modern day residents and visitors rarely give a thought to the history of the bridge as they drive over it. There are many interesting facts and figures about this structure in this link. Visitors can do a bridge climb experience which offers a spectacular view of the nearby Opera House, another building with a fascinating story.

History is human

But I believe it is the human history woven into a city that is most fascinating, the history of its men and women. When I write historical fiction, there is so much to research before you can correctly describe the time in words. The history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is part of the research for my novel Last Time Forever, the final book of my Time Trilogy. Start with Whispers through Time. This is based on the life of my grandparents who emigrated from London to Sydney just after the Titanic sinking. If you love to read about the Titanic, there are more articles on its tragic sinking and the women survivors. History is fascinating and teaches us about the constancy of life and the hopes and aspirations of its people.

photo source

Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; and has her own website;


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