The Hawkesbury River Railway Bridges [review]

In the latest Engineers Australia Heritage e-magazine this ARHSnsw publication received a wonderful review.  We thought it would be great to share this with you.

Book Review: “The Hawkesbury River Railway Bridges” by Bill Phippen

We announced the publication of this book in the previous issue of EHA Magazine. I have since had the opportunity
to read the book , and for the purposes of introducing it, I can do no better than repeat what I wrote before:
Bill Phippen’s book fills a gaping hole in the recorded history of Sydney’s connections with Newcastle, northern NSW
and Queensland, even further north. This is a detailed and profusely illustrated account of the design, construction and
history of the two successive Hawkesbury River railway crossings.

One thing that struck me when doing historical research into the early days of industry in the Hunter region, was the
almost palpable frustration recorded at the difficulties encountered in communicating (and trading) with Sydney, just south of
the Hawkesbury River. There was the Great North Road – for what it was worth – but if you wanted to go to Sydney faster
than a horse and cart could, you had to catch a ship.

By 1888, you could catch a train from Newcastle about 1000 miles north to the Queensland border, change trains and be
in Brisbane a couple of hours later – but there was no train from Newcastle 100 miles south to Sydney. The Sydney link was
still incomplete. The besetting problem was the wide and immensely deep drowned valley of the Hawkesbury River, needing
a bridge of a size which had hardly been envisaged before. But it had to be done. The first Hawkesbury bridge was designed
and built by the Union Bridge Company of the USA, and all steel was sourced from Scotland. Work began on it in the early
1880s and it was opened in 1889. Fifty years later it had to be replaced – an urgent need in wartime – and notably (unlike the
1880s bridge), with design and construction done in-house, by NSW Railways, and all materials sourced in Australia.

In 300 pages of very readable text (not counting the Appendix), there is rarely a page without at least one illustration –
maps, diagrams, drawings, cuttings, but principally the most wonderful collection of photographs. And every photograph is
pertinent to the text and has a descriptive and explanatory caption. I found myself taking so long poring over those
photographs, soaking up every detail, that I would lose track of the text. So many images I decided to count them and came
to the extraordinary number of 400, plus a few small ones overlooked – and every one sharp and clear and part of the story.

But it is not just a picture book. It is a lesson in how to make a potentially dry and dusty tome, with a subject almost
unintelligible to the layman, into an absorbing and penetrating story, accessible to most readers. The author covers pretty well
every topic needed to give a clear picture, from developing the decision to build the Hawkesbury crossing, through the
politics, the tender process, the finished designs, and then the construction – from the massive operation to build the
foundations, then the piers, the trusses and, most importantly, how it was all built. With the first bridge, we learn much
about the contractors and workers and their lives on the Hawkesbury, in an age which seems impossibly long ago and far
away. I felt I was almost re-living the vicissitudes and longueurs of building in the 19th Century, with no power tools, no
motor cars, no telephones. However, we are fortunate that they did have the use of cameras, and that the author’s research
discovered so much invaluable material, including the Appendix – a transcription of the Record Book of Ryland and Morse.
These 1880s contractors kept a day to day record of who was there and what they were doing, even to the church service on
Sundays and occasional entertainments for staff and their families.

We also get an interesting and penetrating discussion of why and how the first bridge gradually failed, the efforts which
were made to overcome the problems and the accelerating deterioration in 1937 which triggered an in-depth examination of
the failing members and the consequent decision to build a new bridge, while struggling to keep the old bridge safely in
service until its replacement could be opened.

After a fairly brief discussion of design work on the new bridge, the author launches into an even more interesting,
indeed fascinating, detailed description of the whole construction process, from building and sinking the foundation caissons
to building the piers, making the bearings, fabricating the steel components at Chullora workshops in Sydney, assembling the
spans in the yard on Long Island, floating the finished spans out on the river to be seated on the piers and finally, laying
tracks across the new bridge. And the author hasn’t neglected the proof testing (with 6 big locomotives on the bridge at
once), then the formal opening on 1st July 1946, and last, the dismantling of the old bridge.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and I have few criticisms. The index is somewhat sparse, and although the book does have a
chapter on Basic Terminology, it would have benefited from an additional Glossary. The editing has been commendably
thorough, and with the exception of a classic typo in the Introduction, any flaws are extraordinarily few and far between. I
commend this book to a wide readership, including anyone interested in how such things are made or in the history of
development in Australia – not just to railways buffs or bridge fans.

Margret Doring
Editor, EHA Magazine.


This Review has been republished from the September 2018 issue of EHA Magazine, with permission.