The People who Built the Bridge.

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales


   The steel arch and the ten truss approach spans as well as all associated concrete and stonework of the Sydney Harbour Bridge were built by contractors Dorman Long and Co. The employment records of their employees are not known to survive. The rest of the project including the road approaches and the railway as far as Waverton to the north and Redfern to the South, was built by direct employees of the NSW government as ‘day labour’. Earlier in the 20th century the construction authority for new railway routes was the railways section of the Public Works Department. On completion, the completed railway was passed to the NSW Railways (NSWR) to operate and maintain. The Railways had long undertaken significant works such as major upgrades within the existing corridor and the replacement of bridges. On 1 January 1917 NSWR became the constructing authority for new lines and since the City Railway and the Bridge were railway projects all persons working on them were formally employed by the Railways. Later, at the beginning of 1928, the great expenditure on the project was so distorting the Railways budget, that those employed on the Bridge were moved to a specific section in the Public Works Department.

   This distinction has ramifications for record keeping and the survival of information. Since 1890 the NSWR had been obliged by Act of Parliament to compile a list of all employees, their job descriptions and pay rates every third year on 31 December and to publish it in the NSW Government Gazette. Thus for 1923 and 1926 details are known of who built the bridge approaches. The 1920 list is too early and by the 1929 list the bridge builders were gone. Similar lists do not exist for the Public Works Department.

   White collar staff were paid by an annual salary; supervisory staff, such as foremen and gangers were paid at a weekly rate while the bulk of the workforce were paid at an hourly rate. The driver of the Bucyrus dragline seems to have enjoyed a high status. The steam navvy drivers were paid hourly, but the Bucyrus driver paid weekly.

   There were many fine distinctions between jobs and tiny differences in pay rates. In modern terms people would perhaps be all employed as labourers, but in 1923 and 1926 they were listed as Batter Men, Boodlers, Compo Mixers, Fishers Up, Jumpers, Machine Men, Material Labourers, Nippers, Pickmen, Scabblers, Shovel Men, Spawlers, Sinkers, Strikers, Timbermen, Tipmen and more.

   The work of some of these people is obvious from the title and others have been found in industrial awards. The spawler breaks large rocks into small rocks for loading. The boodler is a particularly interesting occupation. It may be a peculiar Australian use of the word, or even more local. While the word exists widely, all dictionary searches yield no other definition than that a boodler is one engaged in corrupt conduct or unsportsmanlike behaviour. On construction sites, in Sydney at least, the boodler shovelled loose material from a floor. That however does raise the question as to how he was different from a Shovel Man.


A small section of the list of employees on 31 December 1926 as published in the NSW Government Gazette on 28 June 1927. Note the fine distinctions in job descriptions and pay rates. Since these people worked a 44-hour week, reasonably round weekly pay rates resulted in hourly rates which included twenty-seconds and elevenths of a penny. The leading Hand on the Concrete Mixer was paid 9/22nds of a penny per hour (0.54 cents) more than a Concrete Barrowman who was paid 3/22nds of a penny (0.18 cents) more than the Helper-at-Mixer.



The employment record card for Roger Butler, a civil engineer specifically working on the Bridge. The red ink entry shows his transfer to Public Works on 1 January 1928. The cited minute records that he is ‘to be treated as dispensed with.’ Roger Butler was the brother of Bradfield’s Confidential Secretary Kathleen Butler. Bradfield gave a paper to the British Institution of Civil Engineers in 1934. In that he says of Roger Butler:
The setting-out of the bridge, the supervision of the masonry substructure, and the check surveys for determining the actual position of the main arch through all stages of its erection, and the deflections and deformations under test load to enable these to be compared with their calculated values, were the work of Mr. R.J. Butler, the Author’s supervising engineer.



The first page of the list of employees of the Metropolitan Railway Construction Branch on 31 December 1926. While this is definitely a NSWR document, all of the men now remembered as the Bridge engineers are included, although many are designated as draftsmen – Amphlett, Lush, Litchfield, Peach, Stuckey, Powys, Holt, and Butler (misspelt Buctler). Especially noteworthy is William Farrow, Supervisor (RH column 11th name). He is paid far more than resident engineers, Keith Fraser and Albert Humphries, and Principal Designing Engineer Robert Boyd. Only Bradfield earns more.


   Most of the people included in the 1923 and 1926 lists worked on the road and railway approaches to the main bridge. However, some of them, especially the engineers, worked on the bridge proper supervising the contract and undertaking test measurements. For instance, the calculation of the jacking force required to close the top chord of the arch in 1930 was made independently by consultant engineer Ralph Freeman and Public Works engineer Gordon Stuckey. Their figures agreed.

   Apart from the huge centre section of the work – bridge and approaches, which was carried out by Dorman Long and Co, subcontractors were also engaged. Trucks for haulage of spoil were hired. The ‘Tramway’ bridge at Milsons Point was built by Clyde Engineering. The retaining wall against Hickson Road was constructed by Dorman Long and Co under a separate contract.

To see the full listing of employees in 1923 and 1926 use the links below.

1923 Employee List || Available here

1926 Employee List | Available here

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