17 October 2014: Gladesville Bridge

Two weeks ago, on the 2 October, Gladesville Bridge celebrated its 50th birthday.

When it was completed in 1964, the bridge was the largest concrete arch bridge in the world, a record that stood until 1980.  It was also one of the first to be designed by computer, by a young engineer called Tony Gee working for the engineering firm G Maunsell & Partners in London.

The bridge replaced an earlier steel truss bridge built in 1883.  This bridge was one of several built in the 1870s and 1880s to take road traffic across the various rivers and coves as you head west from the city, replacing punts and ferries on the way.  Its nearest neighbour, Iron Cove Bridge (still standing) was completed two years before.

The old Gladesville Bridge c1910. SLNSW PXE 711/194

The old Gladesville Bridge c1910. SLNSW PXE 711/194

The original low steel bridge went across the Parramatta River at a narrow section at Huntleys Point.  The last span on the western side was a swing span that could be opened to allow boats to pass through, heading up or down river.   A number of jams in the mechanism in the 1920’s and afterwards however stretched the public’s patience. The sandstone piers at either end of the bridge, joining it to the land are still in place today.

By the mid-1950s the old bridge was past its use by date.  As a single lane each way, the bridge could no longer cope with the increasing amount of vehicle traffic and traffic jams became increasing common.  The County of Cumberland scheme, a new planning scheme for Sydney released in 1951 had suggested the need for new bridges and freeways, with Gladesville Bridge as one of the proposals.

The first plan was for another steel bridge until Maunsell’s idea for a concrete span was accepted.  The idea of a concrete bridge of the scale required was a bold and innovative plan for the 1950s, and had not been tried before.  Tony Gee, just 22 and recently graduated, was sent out to manage the project.  He suspected that the company thought getting the job was a long shot so they sent the cheapest employee.

Gee wrote and designed computer programs to design the massive structure and work began in December 1959.  The arch consisted of four concrete box arches constructed independently, which share the load of the road deck equally.  Each arch was built in sections and transported to the site where they were constructed on formwork, in the same basic style of traditional stone arch bridges.  When each arch was finished, the concrete load acted to lift the arch from the formwork which was then moved sideways so the next section could start.

It seems Sydney had a thing for innovative, cutting edge concrete design that no-one else was quite confident or crazy enough to take on at this time.  Just down the harbour a bit the start was being made on the other concrete engineering masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House.

Up she goes.  The span under construction in 1963. (NAA L43885)

Up she goes. The span under construction in 1963. (NAA L43885)

As with any large scale construction in Sydney, especially its inner suburbs, the construction resulted in demolitions of many houses along its route and the route of its two associated bridges, the Fig Tree Bridge and Tarban Creek Bridge.  However, it had been planned to be part of the northwest freeway which was abandoned due in part to protests about the proposed demolitions of hundreds of houses in Glebe.

The bridge was opened on 2 October 1964 by visiting Royal Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.

There is plenty more on the Bridge here, with videos of its construction and opening.



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3 Oct 2014: Grand Final Weekend

Well it’s that time of year once again, the rugby league grand final and an all Sydney final: South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canterbury Bulldogs.

The last time these two meet was 1967, South’s winning that one 12-10.

Both teams are strong on supporters, with fierce local fan groups.  They are old teams in the comp, with South’s a foundation club from 1908 and Canterbury joining in the first push of new teams in 1935.

Both have won their fair share of finals too.

South’s won the first grand final in 1908 (and 1909 when their opponents, Balmain, failed to turn up for the game.  Souths kicked off at 2 to an empty field, gathered the ball and scored the winning try) and they hold the record for the most finals for any club at 20 out of 33 appearances.  In the first 20 years of the comp, South’s won 9 finals, including 5 in a row between 1925 and 1929.  Their last win was 1971, beating St George 16-10.rabbitohs

43 years since the last has been a very long time for South’s.  Not only have they not won a grand final, but in the aftermath of the Super League in the mid-1990s, South’s were excluded from the NRL.  Following two Supreme Court challenges and two mass rallies, the first which attracted 30,000 people who marched from Redfern to the Sydney Town Hall and the second that attracted 80,000 league fans from all clubs, they were readmitted to the comp in 2002.  In 2006 Russell Crowe, a lifelong supporter, bought the club, and a new era began.

Canterbury have played 17 grand finals in their 79 years in the comp, winning 8.  They won their first in 1938 just 3 years after joining the comp, the quickest win for a non-foundation club until Melbourne won in 1999.  Like South’s the Bulldogs had a long drought after early success. They won in 1942 and then not again until 1980, 38 years later.

The 1980s were the Bulldogs glory decade, appearing in 5 and winning 4 grand finals, including 1984 and 1985.  Another 3 played in the 1990s with a win in 1995 and their latest win in 2004.

Bulldogs logo 1935-1977

Bulldogs logo 1935-1977

While South’s have long been known as the Rabbitohs, Canterbury have been through a series of names in their history.  At first, the logo  was a B inside a C  and so they were nicknamed the See-Bees.  Then in the later 1940s, with a lot of country players in the team they were called by their detractors the Country Bumpkins, then the Cantabs by the media (doesn’t really roll off the tongue that one) and then the Berrie’s.

In 1978 under pressure from the league marketers to come up with an animal mascot (Canterbury and Newtown were the only 2 teams without an animal mascot), the club asked the fans what it should be.

Overwhelmingly the decision was for a Bulldog, and so it was.


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19 Sept 2014: Sydney’s War Trophies

In late 1916 the British Army fighting in Europe began to collect captured artillery pieces, mortars and guns for display as trophies of war and establish a war museum collection.  In May 1917, at the urging of journalist and historian Charles Bean, Australia established the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) to collect for our own purposes. Over two years the AWRS collected over 25,000 objects as well as written records, manuscripts, maps and other war related material for a proposed war museum.  The collection formed the basis of the Australian War Memorial.

While most of the material was destined for the proposed memorial, a selection was to be offered to all the States for distribution to local communities for display in parks and at schools.  The distribution was to follow a set of guidelines put forward by State Trophy Committees.  For towns, distribution depended on size of population: the more you had the bigger the trophy.  If your town had more than 10,000 people you could get two artillery pieces and two machine guns, less than 3000 and only a machine gun was available.

Suburban Councils and Sydney schools were also allocated a trophy, although not everyone got one.  Across NSW about 3000 were distributed, with close to 10,000 around Australia.

A German 7.7cm field gun.  The gun of choice for war trophies (AWM P00438).

A German 7.7cm field gun. The gun of choice for war trophies (AWM P00438).

While it was expected that the trophies would be warmly accepted, the war had left deep wounds in some communities.  The enormous loss of life and the trauma caused by the conscription debate had left many with a bitter taste and a real hostility to the glorification of the war.

In Sydney a number of Councils rejected the trophies.  Redfern Council in the inner city was offered a German field gun in 1921 for mounting in Redfern Park.  The Council rejected it, stating that the people had had enough of war and there was no need to display guns to impress upon them the active marks of war.  The Council declared that instead of bothering about guns, the government should be helping those men who had returned and who needed their aid.

The local community was split, with a committee of citizens being formed to accept the gun in the suburbs behalf, in spite of the Councils stand.  And so it was that Redfern got their gun, mounted opposite Redfern Park, as the Council refused to have it on council property.  The Council was denounced as a pack of Sinn Fein supporters (a hint at growing sectarianism in Australia), disloyal to Australia and Empire.  In 1922 the gun was pushed from its pedestal by unknown persons.

Sydney City Council also refused to allow war trophies to be displayed in the city.  Although they had taken the Emden Gun in 1917, by 1920 the mood had changed and no more were wanted.  Willoughby Council was also torn over the issue.  As with Redfern, councillors called on the mayor to reject the offer and to help the returned veterans instead.  One councillor called it rank hypocrisy to accept a trophy when men were in need.  Memorials were one thing, but garish prizes quite another.

Redfern's 7.7cm War Trophy, toppled by persons unknown (Evening News 22 March 1922)

Redfern’s 7.7cm War Trophy, toppled by persons unknown (Evening News 22 March 1922)

But even for those who accepted them there was still tension.  Auburn, who received a trench mortar felt hard done by, believing their efforts in the war deserved more recognition, particularly since Parramatta had got such a big gun.

Gun envy was a common complaint where the size of the weapon became synonymous with civic pride and what they did in the war.

But where are they now?  Almost 80% of the guns allocated have disappeared, scrapped, put in storage, sold or simply lost.  Ironically those remaining represent one of (if not) the best collection of WW1 German artillery pieces in the world and has become a significant heritage and military technology collection.

If you want to follow this further, here is a full thesis on the topic.




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29 August 2014: Elsie

This year celebrates to the 40th anniversary of the Elsie Women’s Refuge.

Elsie Women's Refuge in 1974 (image courtesy Druisilla Modjeska, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3997705)

Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1974 (image courtesy Drusilla Modjeska, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3997705)

Today there are hundreds of women’s refuges across Australia, which provide women and children with an environment safe from abusive and violent partners.

In 1974 there were none, until Anne Summers and a cohort of 14 women (including the indomitable Bessie Guthrie, then in her 70s) broke into and squatted two terrace houses on Westmoreland Street in Glebe. Within six weeks, the shelter had provided short term accommodation for just over 40 women and their children.

Within two years, Elsie had helped 3000 women – two thirds had been provided with accommodation, while the other third received advice from counsellors and staff about their ‘grim marriage situations’.

A laneway nearby was named Elsie Walk in honour of the refuge in 2012.

But Elsie is in threat due to the recent NSW government shake up funding of homelessness under the ‘Going Home, Staying Home’ reforms.

There is a rally today (29 August 2014) at 12pm at Minogue Reserve in Glebe, opposite the school, to help save Elsie and the other women’s refuges across Sydney. More here. And more here from Anne Summers on the fight to save women only refuges.

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22 August 2014: The Halvorsen Story

Last month Carl Halvorsen, renowned Sydney boat builder, died one day short of his 102nd birthday.  Carl arrived in Sydney in 1924 from Norway via South Africa, with his mother and siblings to reunite with their father Lars who had come on before them.

Lars was a boat builder, as was his father before him.  He built his first in 1902 in Norway, and soon gained a reputation for fine workmanship.  In 1922 economic factors forced him to move the family to South Africa, where he met an Australian who encouraged him to bring his skills to Sydney.

Lars first boatshed was in Drummoyne where he built the timber sailing yacht Sirius. By the time he had finished it he had two more commissions and the business began to grow.  In 1926 Carl, then 14, left school and joined his father and brothers in the trade.  His expertise with wood working saw him given the task of fashioning the 21m mast of the yacht Utiekah II by hand, using adze and planes.

The reputation of the company for their yachts was growing rapidly and many of Sydney finest racing vessels were made by the family.  One, the restored Sirocco was sold to Errol Flynn for his sailing adventures in New Guinea in 1929.

In 1936 Lars died and his sons took on the business under the name Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty Ltd.  By now they were operating out of a large boatshed in Neutral Bay but relocated to a larger site on the river at Ryde in 1939.  The new site was once part of James Squire’s colonial brewery, a landmark on the Parramatta River since the 1820s.

A Halvorsen Fairmile gunboat in WWII (AWM P01047003)

A Halvorsen Fairmile gunboat in WWII (AWM P01047003)

When war erupted in the Pacific in 1941, Halvorsen’s joined the effort building over 250 small and medium sized boats for the Royal Australian Navy, US Navy and Dutch Navy including air-sea rescue boats, gun boats, supply vessels and patrol boats, including the Australian commander Sir Thomas Blainey’s command craft.  At its peak, the company employed 350 workers to keep up with the wartime demand.

In 1949 Carl took one of their motor cruisers, the Tooronga, to the USA attracting the attention of the post war Hollywood crowd.  Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart were both keen on the boat, being photographed taking her for a spin (although didn’t buy it).

Yachts and motor boats now dominated the business.  In 1962 the company built the America’s Cup challenger Gretel, the first serious challenger from Australia for the coveted yachting prize and the first challenger to win a stage in 28 years.

Carl Halvorsen [right] with his boats for hire at Bobbin Head 1968 (NAA A12111)

Carl Halvorsen [right] with his boats for hire at Bobbin Head 1968 (NAA A12111)

To take advantage of a growing leisure time for Australian workers and families, the Halvorsen family opened a boat shed at Bobbin Head and built small motor boats that could be hired.  Renting a Halvorsen cruiser for the day became one of Sydney’s most popular harbour activities from the 1950s.  At its height their marina had 63 motor cruisers for hire, as well as smaller boats and row boats.  The family sold the lease in 2006, by which time it was their main operation, the Ryde boatshed having closed in 1980.

Since starting in 1975 the Halvorsen’s built over 1300 boats on Sydney Harbour.  His services to the sailing industry (and his own long sailing record) were recognised with an Australian Sports Medal, awarded to him and his brothers Magnus and Trygve in 2000.  Carl himself had also been made a Knight First Class of the Royal Order of Merit by the King of Norway in 1991 for his contribution to sailing in Australia and Norway and his charitable work with state wards.

Vale Carl Halvorsen.

For more check Randi Svensen’s history of the family, Wooden Boats, Iron Men: The Halvorsen Story.


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15 August 2014: Tall tower blues

The Blues Point Tower is one of the most contentious buildings in Sydney. It was designed by Viennese-born architect Harry Seidler and built in collaboration with Dutch-born building entrepreneur Dick Dusseldorp, who helmed the construction firm Lend Lease. Together, these two men, with their European sensibilities, set about reshaping Sydney in the post-war world. Blues Point Tower was their second collaboration after Ithaca Gardens in Elizabeth Bay.

The base of Blues Point Tower in 1976 (Graeme Andrews 'Working Harbour' Collection: 80164)

The base of Blues Point Tower in 1976 (City of Sydney Archives, Graeme Andrews ‘Working Harbour’ Collection: 80164)

The Blues Point Tower was an echo of a much larger planning scheme for Blues Point, which had been devised by Harry Seidler in 1957 on behalf of the McMahons Point and Lavender Bay Progress. His scheme was in response to North Sydney Council’s plans to rezone the peninsula for industrial use.

Seidler’s modernist scheme was replete with eight high-rise towers (including a hotel) as well as several mid and low-rise apartment blocks, all separated by open space. It was intended to accommodate up to 15,000 people. See here for a plan of Seidler’s 1957 scheme.

The scheme never went ahead. But one element of it did, in the form of a 25-storey tower right on the tip of the point. The site had been envisaged for the hotel in the earlier scheme, but in 1959, construction started on Sydney’s first skyscraper apartment block.

Blues Point Tower has been derided as the ugliest building in Sydney, but it did have an egalitarian intent, in that all the apartments were orientated to have harbour views and  adequate light from two directions. Importantly, the apartments were designed for families and included built-in laundries to meet their needs. It was also the first building installed with sprinklers for fire mitigation. Seidler always maintained it was his best building. See here for Seidler’s scrapbooks featuring the Blues Point Tower.

Aerial view of Sydney Harbour looking west, showing the Blues Point Tower all on its lonesome, 1991 (Graeme Andrews 'Working Harbour' Collection: 80586)

Aerial view of Sydney Harbour looking west, showing the Blues Point Tower all on its lonesome, 1991 (City of Sydney Archives, Graeme Andrews ‘Working Harbour’ Collection: 80586)

Although apartment living had been a feature of urban Sydney since the 1920s and 30s, the post-war period saw an increase in the city’s population, who were demanding more housing. This population boom coincided with an increase in private ownership of apartments following the abolition of rent control in 1954. On the scene in the late 1950s to meet the demand were a number of large property development companies, including Lend Lease and Reid Murray. These large companies managed the finance and construction of Sydney’s new apartment developments, along with their promotion and sale.

The Blues Point Tower also has another claim to fame, in that it was the building that innovated and brought strata title to the rest of the world, a blessing or curse depending on your experiences of apartment living. In fact, Dick Dusseldorp played a leading role in the introduction of strata law. He engaged a lawyer to expedite the process, arguing that the price of apartments would drop with the introduction of this new type of land title system. Strata title allowed for the purchase of individual apartments rather than a share in company, as per company title, or tenants in common, which had been common previously. With strata, owners had freehold title of airspace and communal responsibility for the maintenance of the building and its grounds. The Conveyancing (Strata Titles) Act was passed in 1961.

Read more about Blues Point Tower and apartment living more generally in the book Homes in the sky: apartment living in Australia, published in 2007.

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8 August 2014: Samuel Lyons and Sydney Auctions

Sydney is a city that has been fixated with auctions since the first stirrings of commercial trading.    The very first edition of the Sydney Gazette published in 1803 has an auction notice for goods, clothes and hardware.  While some rudimentary shops were trading by this time, most got their food, clothing and household goods either via auction houses or through trading with the government stores.

One of the first of the merchant traders was Simeon Lord, who had regular sales from his warehouse near the harbour by 1803 and even operated a small shop there to sell household goods and foodstuffs.  In the second addition of the Gazette, Lord advertised two auctions which included quills, ink powder, sealing wax, tape and metal buttons in one and rigging, sails, seal skins, muskets, beef and pork, iron bolts, lead and shot in the other.  The following week he advertised a house for auction behind the barracks in George Street.  The shingled and weatherboard hut in Back Row (now Kent Street) was the first house in Sydney advertised to be sold at auction.  As now, the house was open for inspection prior to the sale.

Despite this early example, most houses and land parcels were sold by private tender rather than auction as supply and demand were on a relatively equal footing.

Lord was soon joined in the trade by David Bevan and Robert Campbell, and together they dominated the Sydney selling market.  Even as shops as we understand them began to open auction was the dominant form of trade in the colony.  Often ship owners would sell their cargoes directly to the auctioneer, who would then onsell to the public and the small number of retailers to stock their own shops.

In 1825 Samuel Lyons, who would become one of Sydney’s most successful auctioneers started in the business.  Lyons is the classic convict makes good story.  Arriving in Sydney under a life sentence for theft in January 1815 he immediately tried to escape on a ship outbound in April.  Detected when the ship was in the Torres Strait, he was returned to Sydney, then to Hobart where he tried to escape again, before being sent to Newcastle in 1819 for breaking into the Government stores.

Married and back in Sydney in 1823, Samuel opened a small shop in Pitt Street before getting an auctioneers license in 1825.

Like Lord and the others, Lyons’s first advertised sale was a jumble of household goods, haberdashery, condiments and clothes.  By 1830 Lyons had also started selling land, with a sale of four lots overlooking Cleveland House, still standing on the edge of Surry Hills, near Central.  Lyon’s sales of land and houses soon dominated his business and in 1834 he yielded £61,872 from it.

Having received a pardon in 1832, Lyons sent his 3 children back to England for schooling, took up a grant in Fort Street, purchased property in Newcastle and Bathurst and moved into a new, architect designed house and rooms in George Street.  In 1836 he announced his retirement, just 13 year after starting and he returned to England.

Lyons Terrace, built by Samuel Lyons in 1842.  Sydney's premier address. (Dixon galleries, SLNSW DG218)

Lyons Terrace, built by Samuel Lyons in 1842. Sydney’s premier address. (Dixon galleries, SLNSW DG218)

Lyons returned to resume his Sydney business in 1839 and quickly rebuilt his business to be the second largest operation in Sydney after Cooper & Levey’s Waterloo Warehouse (where the Gowings Building is now).  Lyons was turning over an estimated £5464 a day (when an average wage was around £2 per week!).

His success had made him respectable, influential and popular.  When he died in 1851 at the age of sixty, his funeral procession was made up of 80 vehicles.  No mention of his convict beginnings were made in the obituary’s at the time.  There is plenty more detail on him here if you are interested.

So next time you are at an auction, for a house, a car or a box of sundries, remember Sam Lyons and know you are taking part in a historic ritual at the very heart of Sydney’s sense of self.



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