John Bradfield's Second World Trip, 1922

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales

    John Bradfield had been appointed Chief Engineer, Sydney Harbour Bridge and City Transit, in 1912, and as part of that role had travelled to North America and Europe in 1914 on a fact-finding mission about long span bridges and railways beneath existing cities. His report of the trip was published in 1915 and the railway parts of it were the basis of an Act of Parliament the same year to authorise work on an underground railway. Some work was done until financial restraints led to cessation in 1918.

    After the end of the Great War the whole project, bridge and railway, took some time to get started again and on 30 September 1921 worldwide tenders were called for a cantilever bridge between Dawes Point and Milsons Point – the location of the bridge which opened eleven years later. For Bradfield, calling tenders was not just a matter of publishing a notice. It meant encouraging and cajoling potential tenderers who could have been reluctant to invest their time and money in quoting for a project which they were not convinced would ever happen. Abandoned projects had happened several times since 1902. Most of the potential bidders were overseas so the notice in the NSW Government Gazette included dates and contact details for Bradfield in Ottawa and London. Tenders were to close on 31 October 1922.

The notice in the NSW Government Gazette 28 October 1921..
The bridge for which tenders were called in 1921.

    The calling of tenders for the Bridge and the re-commencement of work on the City Railway in February 1922 were fairly blatant political moves by the incumbent Labor Premier, James Dooley.

    Bradfield left Sydney on 16 March 1922 and would not return until 2 October. NSW was in the midst of an election at the time of his departure and although tenders had been called, no Act to authorise the bridge had been passed by the Parliament, so he had a lot of work to do to convince steel fabricators that this time the government was sincere in its intentions to build the bridge. In his absence the City Railway work was left in the hands of his resident engineers Keith Fraser and Albert Humphries, and the passage of the Bridge Bill in the hands of his trusted secretary Kathleen Butler.

    Bradfield travelled across the Pacific and then across North America. By the time he was in New York the election at home had been decided with a new Nationalist-Progressive Government in Sydney and it was having second thoughts. The city bridge was always a cause of concern for country members of parliament as they thought the money would be better spent on developing more remote areas to promote the economy rather than the convenience of north shore commuters. On 23 May 1922 Cabinet met and issued a statement:

SMH 24 May 1922.

The Cabinet discussed the question of the North Shore Bridge, particularly in connection with the position of Mr. Bradfield, the engineer for the works, who is at present in America consulting with prospective tenderers, the terms and circumstances under which he left Australia, and whether he has any plans with him. The Cabinet was not in possession of all the information regarding the position, and was therefore decided that the Minister for Works and the Treasurer should inquire into this matter and report back. In the meantime a cable has been sent to Mr Bradfield instructing him to remain in America pending further advice from the Government.

    Bradfield could not have disobeyed this instruction, had he received it, but he never did. His secretary Kathleen Butler learned of the intended cable but knew exactly where her boss was and so sent a private cable to advise him to leave New York as soon as possible, which he did. The scenario is more plausible when the notice calling for tenders in the NSW Government Gazette is viewed. The addresses given for Bradfield are care of the Minister for Railways, Ottawa, and Australia House, London. The government may have had no better address and it would have taken effort and time for Canadian bureaucracy to pass the cable from Ottawa to Bradfield somewhere in New York. Butler probably knew exactly where he was staying as they were exchanging cables frequently as part of her role ensuring the passage of the Harbour Bridge Bill through the Parliament, and other work.

    In an oral history, now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney Harbour Bridge engineer Harold Peach records this incident, but with some confusion.

    The State Library of NSW website feature on the Bridge includes this quote from Peach:

She [Butler] went overseas, with one of the groups of engineers from his staff, to examine possible tenders for the construction of the Harbour Bridge…. when she was back in Sydney she became aware that there was a movement on hand to recall Dr Bradfield and his staff and put a stop to any further work on development of the bridge itself. They were going to send him a cable, she fortunately knew exactly where Dr. Bradfield was…. and suggested he should be somewhere else for that particular time and it never caught up with him.

    Harold Peach has the 1922 and the 1924 trips collapsed into one. In 1922 Dr. Bradfield was still Mr. Bradfield.

    The great upshot of the trip was that Bradfield learned from potential builders that they would be willing to tender for an arch, which he thought was the better solution. He cabled home to delay the closing date. The 1921 specifications were withdrawn, and a new set, including both cantilever and arch options, was issued on 31st January 1923 with the closing date nine months later, 31 October 1923. The new specifications also changed the deck arrangements to a single roadway and two footways instead of two roadways and one footway. Late in 1923 the closing date was extended to 16 January 1924.

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