Sydney Harbour Bridge Tour

I went on an “historic walking tour” today, called “Touches of Pathos”, exploring the areas immediately around the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Led by historians Ian Hoskins (North Sydney) and Dr Lisa Miller (City of Sydney), there was a focus on the land resumptions on both sides of the bridge (with the obvious social implications) that were necessary for the construction of the bridge, and on the importance of the bridge for the growth of modern day Sydney.

Prior to the construction of the bridge, vehicles, horses and carts, would need to use one the many ferry services that operated between North Sydney and Bennelong Point (now the site of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). In scenes reminiscent of modern “Australia Day” celebrations, the harbour around Circular Quay would have been full of steam-powered ferries (many of them larger than the current Manly Ferry), belching out pollution.

With daily vehicle movements of around 10,000 (compared with 190,000 today), many people considered the bridge an example of over-construction. The architect and engineer of the project Bradfield, had in mind, however, the bridge as a centre-piece for a major overhaul of the Sydney public transport system, which included more trams, highways and a Northern Suburbs train line.

As with the famous St James Railway Tunnels, there is still some evidence of the grand vision in tram-tunnels located beneath Lang Park (on the corner of Grosvenor and Kent Streets), which is where we began today’s walking tour. Known informally as “Church Hill”, Lang Park was one of the highest landmarks in Sydney prior to the construction of the bridge.

As you stand in the middle of the park and consider there had been a 150ft height restriction on buildings in Sydney, the impact of the bridge’s construction on the skyline of the city becomes clearly evident. It was noted on this tour, that one of the “winners” in the land resumptions that occurred for the construction was the Presbyterian Church, which was expanded considerably thanks to NSW Government compensation. More recently, the church has had a further expansion with a series of apartments and offices constructed on top of the building’s existing structure.

Not everyone received compensation for the land resumed however. In North Sydney, for example, it was estimated that seventy percent of those living in the area were renters, and thus entitled only to minimal support to relocate their furniture. It was also noted, there were large numbers of boarding houses, often run by people with limited means, who also missed out on compensation, and doubly so since many of their tenants moved out when construction of the bridge was confirmed. As you walk around “The Rocks”, the sheer density of living space in the area becomes evident. Density, which would have contributed to the plague in the area at the turn of the century, and which led to the demolition of many houses. The difference between pre-and-post plague construction can be seen in the architecture of many of the buildings, with the older buildings often being made with darker, more Gothic styling.

As a number of those participating in today’s tour were older than us, we found ourselves amongst the first to arrive on the other side, and even that was when we stopped along the way to take some photographs. “Is it too early yet?”, Damien asked. “Nah, of course not”, and so with about ten minutes up our sleeves, we popped into the nearby pub for a midee (a schooner would have been too ambitious), ahead of the other people in the tour catching up with us.

A brief beer, a brief chat, and then it was back to reality with a discussion on the tour about poverty. Although the poverty of “The Rocks” is well-documented, we were also told on today’s tour there was significant poverty at North Sydney as well, with many small terraces and larger boarding houses located in the shadow of the many larger Milson’s Family homes. Significantly, the North Sydney community was literally split-in-two for many years during the construction. It was also explained to us on the tour the sheer volume of individual land resumptions on the north side exceeded those on the south.

Architecturally-speaking, I’d never really noticed before the difference between the north and south sides of the bridge. While on the south, everything is hidden, everything on the north-side is exposed and there are some quite charming shops near the railway station. Although modern, the shops maintain a little of the old-world charm with some of the original “deco-style” shop windows still evident.

Much of the history of the north-side has also been preserved and is well-documented. At Bradfield Park (I think it is), the original street-line indicating the foundations of the buildings prior to construction, has been preserved. Also surviving the construction of the bridge was a lovely little water fountain, where both humans and animals could quench their thirst.

We ended the tour at Christ Church, St Leonards, the Anglican church with spectacular views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Views which were enjoyed by the long-serving rector (whose name I can’t recall now). An avid photographer, he documented the construction of the bridge in many hundreds (thousands?) of photographs, in a monthly newsletter, and in a book entitled, “Parables Of The Sydney Harbour Bridge”, in which he enthusiastically wrote of the bridge as a gift from God, and evidence of God in every day life.

On that note, we caught the train back to the city and had two more beers.

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