The Tenders and the Contract

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales

    16 January 1924, at noon, was the closing date for tenders for the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge This had been a drawn-out process which had begun on 30 September 1921 when tenders were first called. The accompanying specifications and invitation to tender had been withdrawn after John Bradfield’s 1922 trip abroad. A new set of specifications and plans had been issued on 31 January 1923 and it included the option of an arch bridge. The closing date was at first 30 November 1923, but the period was extended to 16 January 1924 at the request of some tenderers.

    From the often-published image of officials, ‘opening the tender box’ it might be assumed that the documents in question were of modest size, capable of being placed through a slot, albeit a large one, into the secured tender box. This was not true at all. The tenders were immense works.

The scene in the Minister's office at the opening of tenders. Left to right the players are J J C Bradfield, T B Cooper, K M Butler, E H Swift and R T Ball. The tender box is to the left, perhaps between Cooper and Ball may be the packing crate. 16 January 1924 SARA NRS 12685

The headlines above the article describing the scene in the Minister's office on the afternoon of receiving the tenders. The Sun, Wednesday 16 January 1024 p7.

    Under the headline “THEY’RE OFF!” and the sub-heading Suit-cases, Boxes, Books, Bags, Envelopes, The Sun on the day of the closing, reported that offers had been received from six firms, and that these comprised: -

    A leather suitcase stamped in gilt: “To the Secretary for Public Works”.

    A wooden packing-case, eight by four [feet presumably], with a big red seal crusted on one side.

    A gigantic cardboard envelope tied with red tape and covered with green ink.

    A library of leather-bound books. Each about 4 by 5 feet, embossed in gilt and covered in pale olive.

    The press were invited to view the proceedings and saw the offerings

    ‘scattered over the floor of the Minster for Public Works’ Office to-day, the exhibits in an historic ceremony. As noon crashed out from the city belfries the tenders for the construction of the harbour bridge closed. The boxes and the bags and the books were the tenders’

    'Half-a-dozen engineering companies sent in their idea of what the bridge should be. The first of the morning’s arrivals was from a Canadian company, and it was so bulky that the slot in the tender-box had to be enlarged to receive it. The details which accompanied other tenders were far too vast even for inclusion in the box and they were carried into Mr Ball’s office on the shoulders of perspiring messengers. The leather suitcase, stamped on its side “Tender for Harbor Bridge,” seemed to be the neatest idea for holding the papers.

    At 12 o’clock the fat box which contained the smaller communications was carried in by two myrmidons, and placed at the side of the Minister’s table. Close by, the rest of the tenders were ranged, looking rather like the exhibits at an inquest. The great moment had come when Mr Ball’s choice was to be made. Fate hung in the balance.

    Staring out in their side-whiskers in a dazed fashion, the portraits of long-dead former Ministers blinked down from the wall, in rather mild surprise. They seemed to be muttering among themselves. At last – in 1924 – the bridge, which each of them had probably promised a score of times in his career was started on its way. Though, as Mr. Cooper (the Under-Secretary) explained in a gloomy voice, this is the second time tenders have arrived for the construction of the bridge.

    The group which assisted Mr. Ball to-day included Messrs Cooper, Bradfield (engineer-in-charge), Swift (Minister’s secretary), and Miss Butler (Mr. Bradfield’s secretary).

    Mr Ball is going to have a busy time now amongst the logarithms. Meanwhile the competing companies are praying for luck.

    Kathleen Butler wrote of the day: -

    I was the only woman present in the Minister’s room when the tenders were opened. It was a most exciting time. (Nambour Chronicle, 16 January 1925).

    To ensure that any comparison between estimated and tendered costs would be honest and unquestionable, just before the closing time of the tenders, John Bradfield had handed to the Minister a sealed envelope containing his estimate for the cost of the work.

    The officials quickly registered the submissions, and it was announced on the day that six firms had offered 20 tenders. One firm had offered five arch designs and two cantilever. Another firm one arch and one cantilever; another one arch and one inverted arch; another, three for a cantilever, an arch and an inverted arch; another for a cantilever and two alternatives, and a lone firm submitted just one design for a cantilever. Ball named the tenderers.

    In the Taree Northern Champion (19 January Page 5) he is reported to have said that the tendering, when considered in the light of the estimate could be regarded as satisfactory, and that no serious difficulty was anticipated in the preparation of a report on the tenders. Within a reasonable time, the cabinet should be able to consider the acceptance of a tender.

    He is quoted as saying:

    The bridge will be built. That is a definite statement from me.

    In the Maitland Weekly Mercury of 19 January, it was reported that the Minister thought that the bridge would be completed in five to six years – probably less.

    The task now fell to Bradfield to assess the huge volume of documents and to prepare a report. In this task he was assisted by Kathleen Butler and engineer Gordon Stuckey. Stuckey was a recent graduate from Sydney University and just 24 years old. Bradfield had no deputy chief engineer.

    In Butler’s own words, the next month was hectic for the three. They worked through Saturdays and Sundays Not only would the contents have to be digested, but a report drafted, proof-read and printed. The type-script original and the proof copy from the Government Printer exist in Bradfield’s papers at the National Library of Australia.

    We were working on the report six weeks, night and day, because the tenderers were all waiting to hear their fate, and we wanted to let them get back to America, England and Canada as soon as possible. I think I know that report and the specification off by heart. Those were exciting days. (Nambour Chronicle 16 January 1925, but this cites The Evening News)

    Butler and Stuckey were both granted bonuses of £50 in recognition of services rendered with Sydney Harbour Bridge Tenders. That sum was about one seventh of their annual salary and would in modern times be in the order of $15,000. (SARA NRS 12922). When the report was finished and printed it would carry the signatures of both Bradfield and Butler.


The note on Butler's employment record card authorising the payment of the bonus. The amount is to be debited against the Public Works Department as Butler had formally been an employee of the NSW Railways since 1 January 1917. SARA NRS 12922.
The bonus as recorded on Gordon Stuckey's employment record card. SARA NRS 12922.

    There was great public and press interest in the process and premature speculations were rife.

    Only five days after the closing date it was reported that Bradfield and his team were making greater progress than anticipated (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate 21 January) and the next day the Hobart Mercury suggested that a preliminary first report dealing with those tenders which, owing to their price, are considered as having no chance of acceptance would soon be made. There was a report on 25 January (Daily Witness) that the choice had already been reduced to two, though Ball and Premier Sir George Fuller insisted that this was mere speculation and that the decision would come by proper process in good time. Much of the discussion was about the source of the steel and the site of fabrication. There was a strong opinion from business and unions that as much of the work as possible should be done locally.

    Sir Charles Rosenthal MP had a letter published calling for the appointment of a body of experts to assess the tenders, rather then Bradfield alone. Ball rejected the suggestion as he had complete confidence in Bradfield.

    ‘The more I see of his work, the more I am convinced that he knows it from A to Z.’ (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate 29 January)

    Other reports also recognised that Richard Thomas Ball was himself an engineer and a member of the Institution of Engineers Australia and thus quite competent to read and understand the report when it came. The agreed process was that Bradfield would make his report to Ball, the Minister for Works, and if he accepted the advice would carry the recommendation to State Cabinet who would make the final decision.

    On 6 February Ball is reported as saying that he expected the report ‘by the end of next week. Mr Bradfield was still working hard on the tenders.

    He is working things out in a methodical way, and I think there will be no fault to find when the facts are known.

    According to the Maitland Daily Mercury on 18 February this time schedule had been achieved and the that the report was now in the hands of RT Ball. The expectation was then of an announcement of the successful tenderer in a day or two.

    Cabinet met on 19 February and under the headline ‘Sydney’s Bridge, NOTHING DEFINITE YET’ as if expecting an imminent birth, The Daily Witness opined that the decision was not likely to be made that day, though it did believe that the choice was down to two – the tenders of Arrol Coy of Glasgow and Gorman Long and Coy of Middlesborough (sic). This speculation was in fact not correct. Bradfield’s report made a clear recommendation for Dorman Long and Co’s tender A3.

The Daily Witness, of Young, 19 February.

    On 20 February The Maitland Daily Mercury reported, correctly, that the recommendation was for Dorman Long alone but that at the Cabinet meeting Ministers wanted time to read the report thoroughly. The report is 94 pages long, with plans, tables and photographs so digesting it, especially for a minister not versed in engineering, would take time.

Premier George Fuller is quoted as saying: -

    Mr Ball brought along Mr. Bradfield’s report, which is a fairly lengthy one and the members of the Cabinet all desire an opportunity of perusing and examining it. (Newcastle Herald and Miner’s Advocate 20 February 1924).

    The paper still thought there was a choice between Arrol and Dorman Long, though by their edition of the next day they had learned of the sole recommendation.

    The Kalgoorlie Miner, under the date Sydney 20 February cited an ‘authoritative source’ that the recommendation was Dorman Long and Co.

    Dorman Long’s office in Sydney declared that they had received no advice but hoped for success.

    The next day, 22 February the recommendation of Dorman Long was taken as a given, but the question became whether Cabinet would accept Bradfield’s and Ball’s advice. (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate)

    The same day The Northern Star, again with apparently firm knowledge of the recommendations, reported criticism of the government for the delay. George Fuller responded by saying that a week was a slight delay in so big a contract.

    The Government has absolute faith in its expert adviser, but that does not relieve it of its own responsibility in the matter.

    The Register of the same date had learned that a majority of ministers had made up their minds that there should be no delay. The Cabinet meeting of the next Tuesday was thus expected to finalise the matter. The ‘reliable source’ had given them the figure of £5,000,000 for the tender and that the accepted design was an arch.

    On 25 February Ball received a report from Railways Commissioner James Fraser, another civil engineer. The Newcastle Herald and Miner’s Advocatereported that Fraser was averse to Bradfield’s recommendation, but this was untrue.

    When Cabinet met at shortly after two o’clock on Tuesday 26 February both Bradfield and Fraser were present for a short time. Fraser supported the recommendation, though would have built one of the variants of Dorman Long and Co’s tender – the same arch without the expense of the unnecessary abutment towers – to reduce the cost.

    The meeting deliberated for three hours and subsequently Premier Sir George Fuller made the statement:

    The Government to-day accepted the tender of Messrs. Dorman Long and Co. for the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the cost of £4,217,721/11/10. The bridge to be constructed is of the arch type, and is the one recommended by Mr Bradfield in his report to the Minister for Works and by Mr. Ball in his report to Cabinet. The amount of the accepted tender is £111,809 less than the estimate of Mr Bradfield and is substantially less than the amount authorised by Parliament which, with resumptions and approaches totals £6,325,000.

    The Premier announced that Ball would hand out a lengthy statement, and that copies of Fraser’s report and Bradfield’s voluminous report would also be available for anyone to read. Fuller affirmed the Railway Commissioner’s support for the arch design. Fraser had suggested that the wide specifications should be amended to remove all references to details no longer relevant now that a specific type of bridge had been agreed. Fraser did not like a provision for increase in cost of the work owing to wage rates being increased by industrial agreement but left that matter to those preparing the contract.

To see the full Report on Tenders for the Sydney Harbour Bridge follow this link. Click Here

    Dorman Long was one of only two tenderers who would fabricate the bridge locally. They would also source as much steel as possible from BHP in Newcastle. Of the 50,000 tons in total 25,000 tons could be Australian made, though BHP suggested that 18,000 tons would be a more reasonable estimate. The heavy plates could not be rolled in Australia at the time and the cost of establishing a mill to produce them, without any other market for the product after the relatively short run to produce the Bridge plates was not remotely economic.

R T Ball signs the contract ti build the bridge. 24 March 1924. SARA NRS 12685.

    It took well into March for the Crown Law authorities to draw up the contract. It was signed by RT Ball in his office on 24 March. Witnessing the event were J.J.C Bradfield, Under Secretary T.B. Cooper, R.G. Allman, solicitor for the department and Miss K.M. Butler. The signature was made with a gold fountain pen belonging to Bradfield. It had been given to him by the people of Gordon a couple of years before. One of the several press photographers covering the event thoughtfully photographed the signature and reproduced it in the Evening News of the same date.


The account of the signing of the contract as published the same afternoon in the Evening News.
The signature of the secretary for Works and Minister for railways, RT Ball on the contract. Evening News 24 March.

    Lawrence Ennis, representing Dorman Long and Co was not present. He signed the contract later.

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