The Iron Lung of Australia

It was dark, I hadn’t long arrived and I wasn’t quite sure where I was when I caught my first glimpse of Sydney. I climbed up a few steps to see the city lit up against the dark, night sky with not a single person around. In my travels, I’ve often found that the best views are just stumbled upon by chance when the guide book is packed away in your bag. Inside I was bursting with excitement to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but at that moment I was content at taking in the view of the skyscrapers from afar and trying to believe my luck at being in a city I’d dreamed of visiting.

The next day, I hurried to the Bridge, or the ‘Coathanger’ as it is known to Sydneysiders. It was no ordinary coathanger, that’s for sure. There are several places that give terrific views of the Bridge, but the first time I saw it was from The Rocks – an area steeped in historic charm. The Bridge looked majestic in size and beauty and I was in awe of the locals as they made their journey to work by ferry each morning. That is definitely what I call commuting in style.

Recognised the world over, climbed by ‘adrenaline junkies’ and photographed by tourists from every nation, the Sydney Harbour Bridge has become a symbol of Australia. More often than not the only images we have in our minds of the Bridge come from glossy holiday brochures and TV programmes promising families a ‘better way of life’ if they opt to move Down under. Whilst those images have the power to excite even the most unadventurous of people, they are just part of a glossy exterior.

View of Sydney Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay train station

Passing the time at Circular Quay

The Bridge represents the achievement of boiler makers, carpenters, engineers, ironworkers, blacksmiths, painters, electricians, riggers, stonemasons and countless others – many of whom came from Britain. It represents the 800 families who were relocated because they fell in the path of the Bridge. It represents the homes of those 800 families that were demolished with no compensation given to the families. And it represents the sixteen workers who lost their lives during the construction of the Bridge. In October 1929, five years into the construction of the Bridge, the Wall street stock market crashed. The hard times that followed were eased for workers on the Bridge. Individual working hours were reduced to take on more men. The Bridge therefore became aptly nicknamed, ‘The Iron Lung’.

“Every day those men went onto the Bridge, they went the same way as a soldier goes into battle, not knowing whether they would come down alive or not.” 
Lawrence Ennis, Director of Construction, 1932.

The sixteen men who died in the construction of the Bridge were rightly recognised and to this day are remembered. What should also be remembered is the effect building the bridge had on its workers. Painters regularly suffered from swollen limbs, dizziness and sickness as a result of the ‘Bridge Grey’ lead-based paints that were thought to provide the best surface cover for the Bridge. Engineers coped with working inside the dark chords with a lack of oxygen; whist dealing with hot and cold/damp steel in summer and winter respectively. Workers outside learned to deal with the rain, wind and Australian heat. Unsurprisingly many workers went deaf in later life.

Did you know…

1. It took 272,000 litres of paint to give the Bridge its initial three coats.
2. It took approximately 6,000,000 rivets, the largest weighing 3.5kg.
3. The pylons are 89 metres above mean sea level.
4. The total weight of the steelwork is 52,800 tonnes including the arch and mild steel approach spans.
5. The length of the arch span is 503 metres.

*With thanks to the Australian Government website for these top snippets of information. Original source: Mackaness, C. (ed.) 2006, Bridging Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney. 

Vintage poster of Sydney Bridge Celebrations

On 19th March 1932, 750,000 of Sydney’s 1 million population came to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Today it is fittingly still a place where people of all nations gather in celebration.

“Today is the day of days, when political differences are forgotten. New South Wales unites in the glorification of Our Bridge, and added attraction to Our Harbour. The building of this gigantic Bridge is just as much a national milestone as Anzac.” (Labor Daily, 1932)

View of Harbour Bridge from the Botanic Gardens

A charming view of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House from the Royal Botanic Gardens.