Kathleen Muriel Butler, 'the Bridge Girl'

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales

    March 19, 2022 is the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but the year also marks the centenary of the series of events which led to that day. Most of the engineering was done years before the ceremonial ribbon cutting and indeed the 100th anniversary of some events has already passed. The first invitation for tenders was issued in 1921, and although this was not for the arch bridge which was eventually built, the process was continuous from that time.

    Through all these years and more, since at least 1912, John Bradfield had driven the project and is rightly remembered for his contribution – but there is another contributor who is not so well known who ought to be celebrated for her role – and, yes, a woman. Young, formally unqualified she might have been, but Bradfield said he could not have built the bridge without her. Edith Bradfield, wife of John, was interviewed by BEEDEE for the Australian WOMEN'S MIRROR in March 1932:

   Quite rightly Mrs Bradfield, when I interviewed her for the MIRROR, emphasised that the big structure has been a man's job. In fact she maintained stoutly that at the opening celebrations there should be no women on the platform.
   Mrs Bradfield, who, being the wife of Dr. Bradfield knows what she is talking about, added that only one woman has had anything to do with the actual bridge work. That woman is Mrs. Kathleen Hagarty, who, as Miss Kathleen Butler, had so much to do with the Bridge when Dr. Bradfield selected her as his confidential secretary that she became known as the Bridge Girl.

Kathleen Butler observing the second act of construction of the bridge - drilling holes for blasting at the site of North Sydney station. Ten minutes earlier she had personally performed the first act by throwing the switch to start the air compressors for the drills. Included in the group are resident engineer Keith Fraser, John Bradfield, Public Works Secretary TB Cooper, Minister RT Ball and Railways Commissioner James Fraser.

    Her story extends over 15 years and will have to be told over many instalments of these essays, but who was she? K.M. Butler was born in Lithgow in 1891, to an Irish mother and an English father. He was a railwayman who spent virtually his whole career at Mount Victoria where he rose to be the station master. Kathleen was educated at Mount Victoria Public School and then by the nuns at Katoomba. When she left school, about 1907, she got a job as a clerk and typiste in a government office at the Lithgow Iron Works where her engineering education began.

    In 1910 she moved to Sydney, living a Hurlstone Park, with her job now in the Public Works Department, where she must have soon met Bradfield. The engineer must have seen in Butler the abilities he needed in an assistant, and in 1912, when he formed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and City Transit Branch within PWD, she was his first appointment. We will never know, but her typing and organisational skills in having documents prepared for printing probably went into Bradfield’s 1915 report which was the basis of the City Railway. All the while she was absorbing engineering, with Bradfield’s encouragement and perhaps deliberate intent.

    In 1922 she would support the bill for the proposed harbour bridge through the NSW Parliament while Bradfield was overseas for months. The government sent a cable to him in New York to wait for instructions as they were having second thoughts about the bridge, but he never received it. His Confidential Secretary knew better than the government about where he was and sent him a message to be on the Atlantic before the cable arrived. Then in 1924 when the contract was signed to build the bridge a team of four – three young male civil engineers and Butler - went to England for eight months to sort out details with the winning contractors, but she was in charge, paid more than the men. Bradfield did not follow until three months later.

A stylised portrait of Butler as published in the British magazine John Bull on 29 November 1924 during her time in England. The artwork is clearly derived from the photo at right.
A photograph of Butler as it appeared in the English newspaper The Vote, The Organ of the Women's Freedom League on October 10 1924. The image had in fact been commissioned by the Women's Engineering Society in the UK as part of their celebration of Kathleen Butler during her work on the bridge in London.

    Later In 1924 Mr Bradfield became Dr Bradfield with the award of the degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering, and in that document he expends half a page to praise the work of Kathleen Butler. He concludes:

The first officer appointed to the Branch was Miss K.M. Butler, now my Confidential Secretary; she has at all times carried out her duties with foresight, tact and marked ability. In preparing the Specification for the Sydney Harbour Bridge she was my only assistant; the technique of the Specification is hers, and it would I think be impossible to find a better arranged or better printed specification. During my absence abroad in 1922 she carried out all correspondence with tenderers throughout the world, herself; she is present at all interviews with tenderers in Sydney, and myself alone excepted she alone knows of the many issues involved in tendering for the Bridge. Her conscientious and efficient help has materially lightened the responsibility which the design and construction of these great engineering works have entailed, and in this Thesis I wish to place on record my sincere thanks to the lady for her invaluable assistance.

    There is much more to the Kathleen Butler story, too much to tell here, but it will be told as events reach their centenary.

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