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INTERVIEW Bill Phippen

I read in the intro that the Hawkesbury railway bridges are wonders of engineering; can you tell more about it?

The 1889 bridge was one of the largest in the world at the time, and did have the deepest foundations of any bridge in the world.  The fact that it was built in remote Australia after being fabricated in Scotland and assembled by just a few American engineers using local labor was pretty amazing.

The technology for the 1946 bridge was more established,  but the fact that it was all done completely  ‘in-house’, during the crisis years of the Second World War while there was every expectation that the old one might cease to be useable at all at any day, made the story of its construction even more amazing.

For both bridges the flotation of the huge steel spans from their place of manufacture on the shoreline to their mid-river destination was civil engineering at its most spectacular.

Was it common at that time to have engineers coming from overseas? Is there any other Australian construction/building that received a similar procedure?

Most of the very early engineers who built the NSW railways were overseas trained, as they had to be since there were no local training facilities. Up until the first Hawkesbury River Bridge, large bridges were designed in Sydney, by a team led by John Whitton, who, although an English man, worked for the greater part of his career in NSW. The bridge was then made in Europe and shipped to Australia for assembly.  The big change for the Hawkesbury Bridge was that the design was made in New York, and that the winning designers had to make the bridge, bring it to Sydney and put it together, all in the one package. Australian engineering capacity grew quickly so that it was partly designed in Sydney and fully fabricated in Australia.  English engineers had a big role in its design and erection. The second Hawkesbury Bridge was 100% local, in design, fabrication and erection.

How long did it take you to write the book?

I first became interested in 2010, when I took up the job of RRC manager and found five albums of construction  photos of the second bridge. Until then I didn’t know much about the bridge. The discovery of the 1889 photograph albums in Washington in 2014 really made the thought of publishing them quite attractive. With all the material assembled writing the book didn’t take too long once I got started as there is so much information – enough to fill a book twice the size.

Writing a book is a big task, and I see you received plenty of support both locally and internationally. Who are the people who helped you putting this book together?

There is so much information about the bridges spread across the world. The Railway Resource Centre in Sydney probably has enough to write a pretty good book, but once I found the photo albums in the Library of Congress, the engineer’s scrapbook in Kansas City, the works diary in Hornsby Library, and boxes of papers at NSW State Archives the book was just going to get better and better. The staffs at all those places have been most helpful.

What made you evolve from engineer/railway enthusiast to writer? What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?  

As I worked as manager of the Railway Resource Centre I saw so much that was interesting and I wanted to share it with other enthusiast and engineers.  I could see that applying my engineering eye to pictures and plans I could explain to non-engineers how it all worked.   So many collections of photos are so haphazard. Put into some sort of order they make a lot more sense.

What was your previous book? When did it come out? 

I have written several articles for Australian Railway History but never had a book published before. I have been working on a manuscript for a long time, about the history of Technical Aid to the Disabled, a charity I have been involved with for a long time.

Are you going to keep writing? Any hint on the next book?

While the Hawkesbury Book was underway a comprehensive collection of photographs of building the railway under Sydney in the 1920s came to light, so that has been developed into a book. It is expected to be published in September.

You have an amazing career one must say. What is it that you are the most proud of? 

Limiting the question to matters outside my family, I suppose being part of Technical Aid to the Disabled for more than 40 years, watching it grow from nothing and being asked to be its President for 16 years must be my proudest achievement. More than 400 blood donations is also a quiet and private contribution about which I feel very good.

A book like Hawkesbury River,  however, is such a concrete thing, something which will sit on shelves in libraries for a long time is a pretty good achievement too.


Sophie Nicolas

Bookshop Manager