When the Victoria Bridge opened in 1874, 10 years had passed since the foundation stone had been laid and the cost had almost tripled. The story of Brisbane’s first river bridge is laced with political intrigue, management incompetence, financial crisis and the destructive forces of nature.
The need for a bridge
At the time of the arrival of Europeans in Brisbane, there was an ancient and highly effective means of crossing the Brisbane River in operation. A number of communal canoes could always be found on either side of the river at Kurilpa Point. Anyone wishing to cross used an available canoe, which was then available to someone else for a return crossing.
The first ferry service commenced in 1842 between Queen’s Wharf (North Quay near Charlotte Street) and Russell Street. Dinghies operated spasmodically to carry passengers across the river. If the passenger had a horse it would swim behind the dinghy. Punts were introduced to carry horse drawn vehicles and herds of animals. Later, the “new ferry” started operation between Alice and Ernest Streets.
From its inauguration in 1859, the Corporation of Brisbane pushed the need for a bridge, however it faced a hostile Queensland Government. With only 5 of the 26 members in the Legislative Assembly representing Brisbane, the parliamentary majority wanted funds available spent predominantly in country areas. The expected cost of the bridge was £15,000.
The so called “Ipswich Bunch” of parliamentarians in particular saw the bridge as a threat to navigation up the river and blocked its construction by the Colonial Government.
Whilst disappointed that Ipswich was not selected as the capital of the new colony, supporters of the town still believed it would become a major seaport. Ships would load at Ipswich and sail directly to overseas ports. Significant sums were spent deepening and clearing obstructions on the Brisbane and the Bremer Rivers to allow ocean-going ships to reach Ipswich. For the same reason, the railway from Ipswich to Brisbane was blocked for some 10 years until 1875. At left – the Bremer at Ipswich ca 1872. (State Library of Qld)
Eventually the Brisbane Bridge Act was passed in August of 1861. It gave the Corporation of Brisbane the legal ability to borrow the amount required to build the bridge. This differed from all other bridges which were built by the Colonial Government. The Government would give unsold land in South Brisbane and beyond, later known as the “Bridge Lands”, to the Council to finance the bridge by sale, lease or mortgage.
Two important clauses provided comfort to country members. The design of the bridge was to be approved by the Government, and the bridge was not to “obstruct the navigation of the river Brisbane by sea-going vessels”. Even with these safeguards, all six members representing Ipswich and the surrounding West Moreton electorate voted against the bill.
The Council ran a competition, and in August of 1862 selected a design called “Per Adua” . All 43 submissions were on public display, creating much interest. The winning design was duly presented to the Government for approval.
The reply was highly controversial. By this time, Arthur Macallister, one of the “Ipswich Bunch”, was Minister for Lands and Works. He was responsible for selecting and transferring the deeds for the Bridge Lands to the Council, but he had failed to do so.
“Slippery Mac”, as he was disrespectfully known, neither approved nor rejected the bridge design, but instead opined that managing the construction of such a bridge would probably be beyond the capabilities of the Council. He suggested a pontoon bridge or steam ferry as an alternative.
Towards the end of 1863, Government approval was finally received and the Council called for tenders for the 3 most favoured designs in December.
The bridge of the Engineering company Robson and L’Anson dubbed “Delta” was selected in early 1864, although heavily modified by the Council’s engineer. The design was of a lattice-girder construction, supported by 29 iron cylinders to be filled with concrete and settled some 24 feet, or over 7 metres, into the river bed.
The contractor, tendering a price of £52,559, was John Bourne who had built several bridges over the Yarra in Melbourne. He was at the time also building the new Town Hall in Queen Street. Peto, Brassey and Co., involved in constructing Queensland railways, were to provide the iron work, to be shipped out from England. The contracted construction time was 2 years.
The title deeds to the Bridge Lands were finally given to the Council in 1864. There was a total of 189 acres, 3 roods and 14 and a half perches, or almost 77 hectares.
Governor George Bowen laid the foundation stone on the 22nd of August, 1864. The day was declared a pubic holiday and South Brisbane was illuminated. The description of the event described a viewers platform. “On it were seated a large number of spectators, chiefly ladies, many of the sterner sex gallantly preferring to stand in the area at its foot, to incommoding the ladies who, in these days of ample skirts, took up more than their fair share of room.”
A sketch of the event was published in the Illustrated London News. An image of Lady Bowen, the wife of the Governor, illustrates the ample skirts referred to.
Financing the bridge
In 1864, the Council sought the ability to issue debentures using the Bridge Lands as collateral. This was not granted by Parliament.
Finance was obtained by leasing some of the Bridge Lands and mortgaging the remainder to the newly formed Queensland National Bank. The Bank agreed to advance up to £70,000 at 11% interest.
The first shipment of iron arrived in Brisbane in June of 1865. To assist in construction, ironbark wooden scaffolding was constructed across the river. A lift mechanism was included to allow the passage of ships.
The contractor John Bourne suggested that the scaffolding, with some modification, could also serve as a temporary bridge. He offered to do this work and also pay the Council £1,500 a year, in return for the right to charge tolls on the temporary bridge.
To the dismay of ferry operators, the Council agreed and the temporary bridge opened in June of 1865. Its life time was expected to be only the few years of construction.
Spanners in the works
In July of 1865, representatives from a boisterous public meeting that had been held in Ipswich met with the Colonial Secretary to complain about the bridge design and the “temporary bridge nuisance”. The Treasurer at the time was Joshua Bell, the member for West Moreton and a highly successful squatter. He built the well known Jimbour House near Dalby.
Bell, highly sympathetic to the Ipswich position, took up the issue and “suggested” that the Council change the design by increasing the swing portion of the bridge, which allowed the passage of large ships, from 54 to 65 feet and raising it by 6 feet.
When there was no immediate reply, a week later Bell threatened to have the temporary bridge removed and work on the permanent bridge abandoned! The Council agreed to increase the swing portion from 50 to 60 feet, the maximum deemed possible from an engineering standpoint. The estimated extra cost for the late change was £20,000, but the eventual cost was far greater.
These events also triggered a spat between the Brisbane based ‘Courier’ that had complained about Ipswich’s interference in “a useful undertaking” and the ‘Queensland Times’ of Ipswich. A remarkable editorial in the latter lambasted the Courier’s complaint.
“when, a year or two hence, the Sydney steamers load and unload at the railway terminus, calling perhaps occasionally at Brisbane, on their up or down trip, “if sufficient inducement offer”-when, in fact, this great town, the head of navigation, the key to the vast interior, the type of substantial enduring progress as opposed to the ephemeral transitoriness of Brisbane’s seeming prosperity … then, even our rapacious eastern enemy will be candid enough to admit that, in the course adopted, we had some other object in view than the obstruction of a “useful undertaking.”
The delay resulting from this late change meant that it was not until July of the following year, 1866, that the first cylinders were bedded into the river. Design changes to strengthen the bridge were required, with the swing section now weighing 300 tons.
By this time, the Bank of Queensland had lent the Corporation of Brisbane a total of £47,411. On the 24th of July, the bank suspended payments. In the wake of the “Panic of 1866” and what were seen as bad loans made locally, the bank’s London based shareholders decided to cease trading
The “Panic of 1866” was triggered by the failure of the large wholesale discount bank Overend, Gurney and Company with debts of over £11M. The ensuing panic led to the failure of dozens of retail banks including Agra and Masterman’s Bank. This resulted in the cancellation of a badly needed loan sought by the Queensland Government. At left : the scene of panic outside Overend, Gurney and Co’s headquarters in Lombard Street , Illustrated London News, May 19 1866.
As the months rolled by, what was hoped to be a temporary suspension proved to be permanent and the Bank’s liquidators sought repayment of the loan, with the interest payable steadily mounting. Work proceeded slowly with the Government advancing endowment payments.
Brisbane Bridge is falling down
In April of 1867, Brisbane experienced one of its regular floods. There was a large accumulation of debris against the temporary bridge, and as a result, part of it collapsed.
Brisbane was by now accustomed to having a bridge, and cross river traffic had greatly increased. Long delays were experienced by horse drawn vehicles waiting for a punt to cross the river.
Repairs were made in June, but the structure was not deemed strong enough for heavy loads such as herds of cattle. In November, a further section collapsed. One of the Seventeen-mile Rocks Sinnamon family later recalled seeing a section collapse, just after the Cobb and Co coach from Ipswich had passed over the bridge.
The wood was being eaten by the Cobra worm, further weakening the structure.
The Cobra or shipworm is in fact the bivalve mollusc Teredo navalis, that resembles a worm. Its natural environment is the wood of trees that have fallen into water. The name Cobra is thought to have derived from its name in the Aboriginal languages of the Hawksbury River area, “Cah-bro”. There is still no treatment for wood to prevent the attack of the Cobra.
At the time work ceased, some of the cylinders had been sunk into the river bed, but they had not been filled with concrete and properly bedded. With the supporting wooden scaffolding fast falling away, one cylinder disappeared into the river and others leaned alarmingly.
Light at the end of the bridge
Before work could recommence, the financial mess which had enveloped the bridge by the end of 1867 had to be resolved. The sum claimed by the bank liquidators and the contractor amounted to over £120,000. The still hostile Government would not take over management of the bridge.
All was finally resolved by December of 1870 through arbitration, court action and negotiation. The Bank’s liquidators agreed to a payment of £75,000 in lieu of the £103,000 they had been seeking. John Bourne, who by this time was insolvent, received £18,372, 5 shillings and tuppence. The new contractor, Thomas Brassey, agreed to complete the bridge for £46,250.
A second Bridge Act was passed allowing the Council to raise the necessary funds through debentures, as they they requested some 6 years previously. In the final arrangement, the Council paid £121,000 with debentures, with yearly 5% interest payments.
The bridge is finally completed
The ensuing contract was not signed until well into 1871, delaying the start of construction until July of that year.
A significant problem was clearing the river bed of the debris from the collapsed wooden scaffolding and flooding. Divers retrieved stone work and the iron cylinder that had sunk into the mud of the river bed .
The work was finally completed in June of 1874, 10 years after the foundation stone was laid.
The bridge was given a coat of white paint and the opening ceremony was held on the 15th June 1874. It was a grand occasion. A long procession comprising three bands, the Fire Brigade, Caledonian Society, Hibernian Society, Manchester Order and Grand United Order of Oddfellows, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Independent Order of Good Templars, the Independent Order of Rechabites, the Sons of Temperance, the Total Abstinence Society, as well as the Mayor and Council, proceeded across the bridge and back again.
The Council had suggested to the Governor, George Phipps Marquis of Normanby, that he name the bridge either “Brisbane”, “Normanby” or “Victoria” On opening the bridge, he announced that it would be known as “The Victoria Bridge”.
In order to pay the interest payments on the issued debentures, the Council levied tolls. These were widely criticised, especially as a toll was payable not only for a vehicle, but also individually on each passenger and animal.
Tolls collected were far less than expected, as the railway from Ipswich did not terminate at South Brisbane but at Roma Street, another act of the “Ipswich Bunch” to impede growth of shipping from Brisbane.
Under mounting community pressure, in 1876 the Government took over ownership of the bridge and responsibility for the debentures, following difficult negotiations with the bank liquidators who held the mortgages to the Bridge Lands. The land titles were transferred back to the Crown and the tolls were removed.
Sale of the Bridge Lands
Ironically, development in South Brisbane, which was to have been stimulated by the bridge, was held back by the Bridge Lands not being able to be subdivided and sold. They had been mortgaged as security for debenture holders. There were large tracts of unsightly undeveloped blocks across South Brisbane.
Following the return of the land, the Government commenced subdividing and selling it in 1880.
In one interesting occurrence at a sale of Bridge Lands in September of 1880, the auctioneer requested buyers to refrain from bidding on 2 lots on Cordelia Street, so that Presbyterian Church trustees could purchase the land. The Park Church was built there in 1885, and is still standing today.
Based on the upset price, the value of the South Brisbane Bridge land in 1880 was about £30,000. Much of the southern “suburban” Bridge Land was used for Government purposes, including the Woolloongabba (now Dutton Park) State School, Boggo Road Prison and a reserve for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind (now part of the Princess Alexandra Hospital).
The bridge of sighs
A water pipe was laid across the bridge in 1877 with an ingenious hydraulic mechanism to seal it whilst the swing was in operation.
Over the years, the passage of ships dwindled and then stopped altogether. Additional water pipes as well as a gas pipe were laid without a disconnection method. Electric telegraph wires were strung across the bridge at a height that would interfere with high masts.
In 1885, the council refused to operate the swing for a ship owner who wished to pass. It’s doubtful whether the mechanism still worked, as the bridge had settled further into the river. The ship owner took the issue to the Supreme Court and won his case. As a result, the Government swiftly passed a law removing the need to open the bridge.
The following year, tracks were laid across the bridge for the new horse drawn trams. Despite concerns about the wear and tear on the bridge as well as accidents due to crowding, a second track was laid.
Maintenance costs were rising. By 1884, the floor was in a dangerous state, having been attacked by white ants. One correspondent to the Brisbane Telegraph dubbed it the “bridge of sighs“. The Council tried hard and unsuccessfully to avoid taking back ownership of the bridge, which was by then standard procedure. In 1886, the Government lent the Council £4,250, and a similar amount was paid by the Tramway Company, to resurface the bridge.
By 1893, it was once again in need of repair.
In 1893, Brisbane experienced a major flood. Hundreds of houses and other buildings were carried down the river and impacted the bridge. Sickening crunching sounds could be heard all over town. Around 4am on the 6th of February, with a crowd watching, one supporting cylinder gave away and half the bridge collapsed in a domino effect.
A temporary wooden bridge was constructed by September, and plans were made for a new bridge. Once again, unpopular tolls were introduced. The new bridge would be built in two parts, with the first to the side of the existing bridge.
Construction of the first half of the new bridge commenced in 1894. Nature hadn’t finished with the old bridge, and it was damaged in another flood in 1896. Huge amounts of debris piled up against the temporary structure and despite the efforts of up to 100 workmen and the use of dynamite, a number of piles collapsed. The bridge sagged over a metre, requiring repair.
With the completion of the first stage of the new bridge later in 1896, the old bridge was demolished and the second stage built in its place.
The story of the old bridge had one more chapter in 1901, when sunken girders from 1893 were deemed to be a hazard to navigation. It was a difficult job using divers to raise them from below up to 4 metres of mud and gravel. Drawings in a 1960s study for a replacement bridge shows remnants of the old bridge still lying sunken in the river bed.
Due to Government interference, financial crisis and poor contracting, the first Victoria bridge took 10 years to build at enormous cost. Nevertheless it transformed the southside of Brisbane in its 20 years of operation.
© P. Granville 2020