This article originally appeared in our very first journal way back in 1999. As the edition is no longer in print we have made the article available online. Over the coming months we will continue to republish articles from past journals in the hope that this interesting content will reach a new audience.
The Richmond Bridge 1823 – 1998
Source: Richmond Preservation and Development Trust file: ‘The Richmond Bridge’
Reproduced from Coal River Valley Historical Society Inc. Journal No. 1, 1999. Pp. 3-7
1998 marked the 175th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Richmond Bridge, the oldest existing bridge in Australia.
In 1820, John Thomas Bigge visited the Coal River and saw the need for a bridge over the River as travellers wanting to cross it were often delayed by floods. Before the bridge was built, anyone wishing to go to the East Coast or to the Peninsula crossed the Coal River by means of a ford, south of the bridge.
It is not known for certain who actually designed the plans for the bridge – some say David Lambe, but, as he was not appointed colonial architect until June 1824, six months after the bridge was started, this is unlikely. Most probably, it was army engineers who followed the design of English bridges.
The Acting Engineer and Director of Public Works at this time was Major Thomas Bell of the 48th Regiment, appointed in 1818. When a prison ship arrived at Hobart Town, he would go aboard and choose the tradesmen convicts he needed for Public Works.
The first stone was laid on 11 December 1823 in the presence of two magistrates, James Gordon and G W Gunning, and a number of settlers of the district. The bridge was named Bigge’s Bridge in honour of the Royal Commissioner.
Major Bell was in charge of Public Works from 1818 to 1824 when Captain Sydney Cotton of the 3rd Regiment took over. The Superintendent of the Bridge Building was John Turnbull and the Superintendent of Stonemasons was William Wilson.
The sandstone was quarried by convicts from Butcher’s Hill. Cuts made by the convicts in the stone are still visible, as is the road that was used by convicts hauling the stone by handcarts (one pushing, one pulling) down to the bridge site. It is estimated that it took a little over a year for the bridge to be built by convict labour.
The bridge was 135 feet long and had a road width of 25 feet when built. It comprises six spans or arches, uneven in size, being 4.3m, 8.1m, 8.3m, 8.5m, 8.3m and 4.1m wide. The bridge is of random rubble construction, which means the stones were selected to fit together with a minimum amount of cutting and dressing. The height of the main road to the original bed was 25 feet.
On 9 June 1824, Sydney Cotton, Acting Engineer, wrote to Lieutenant Governor Arthur asking that tenders be called for the supply of eight bullocks and two carts for the purpose of bringing stone from the quarry to the ‘Stone Bridge at present being constructed over the Coal River’. Cotton argued that the artificers and labourers were being held up because they had no method of carrying stone; the situation was critical because ‘the year is far advanced towards the season when floods are expected’.
On 18 June 1824, David Lambe, in his report on the state of Public Buildings, wrote to Lieutenant Governor Arthur:
According to your Honor’s instructions I have surveyed the bridge now building at the Coal River under the directions of the Acting Engineer and beg to state it as my opinion, that the work is being carried on in a good and substantial manner.
I took the liberty of suggesting to the Acting Engineer two alterations – the first was that the centering of the arch, the stonework of which was completed, should remain untill the third arch might be begun, that the new additional centering should be made.
The next was, that instead of forming the extrados of the arches with loose stone rubbish, that the longitudinal walls should be built up about two feet apart, and the spaces filled up with loam – this, with submission to your Honor, would be a great saving of expence in the carting of material, and would have a more equal bearing on the arches than loose angular stones. – with these alterations and under the direction of the same overseer Mr. Turnbull, I trust that this bridge, on the largest scale ever undertaken in this colony, may in the ensuing spring, be finished to the satisfaction of your Honor.
A supplement to Lambe’s report, dated 11 February 1825, noted that the ‘Coal-river Bridge’ was ‘opened by the first of January in the present year. The work stands very well as it is found very convenient’.
Completed in September 1824, the new bridge was finally opened to traffic in January 1825, at a total building cost of two thousand pounds. It was the first multiple arched stone bridge to be built in Van Diemen’s Land and was also the first to be built in the bed of a watercourse.
However, less than a year later, in February 1826, Major Tobias Kirkwood, the acting Engineer, reported that the second and third piers were sinking into the foundation and he was surprised that the arch had not broken. Some repairs took place but in July 1828, John Lee Archer, the Colonial Architect, again reported damage to the piers.
Floods were an early problem:
Richmond 17 September 1828: After a few days of fine weather which led us to hope that the floods were over, and spring set in, a heavy fall of rain commenced on Monday evening, and continued without intermission until this morning until about nine o’clock. The Coal River has risen nearly 15 feet above its usual level, and overflowed all the low grounds in the neighbourhood, sweeping large trees up by the roots, and carrying everything before it. The mill dam was nearly all carried away yesterday before the flood had risen near its greatest height. In the course of last night the water broke in the mill, and poor ‘Paddy the Miller’ had to retreat to the upper storey, where he passed a miserable night, expecting every moment to be swept away with all his premises. The violence of the flood tumbling his cask and boxes about the apartments below, the fowls scrambling on top of the shingles, made such a noise as led him to expect the house was falling about his ears, while the cats and rats forgetting their natural antipathy and fearless of his presence join[ed] him in his forlorn retreat, served to heighten his despair. At day light this morning Mr. Lascelles [went] to request that Mr. Lord would send his boat up in a cart, to rescue Paddy from his dangerous situation. The constable who carried this message having returned and expressed some doubt of Mr. Lord being able to get at his boat, three of the constables ventured through…
In November 1828, James Kestell Buscombe stated that he thought that the heavy floods in September had weakened the bridge considerably and wrote to the Colonial Secretary about it.
By February 1829, John Lee Archer recommended that two of the piers should be rebuilt; this was completed by June of that year. It was the weakening of these piers which started the familiar wavy outline to the parapet of the bridge.
The Hobart Town Courier 4 April 1829 p. 2 col. 2 noted that the bridge on the Coal River ‘is now repairing, after the injury it had sustained in the flood last spring’. It was shortly after this period that George Grover, the man whose ghost is said to haunt the bridge, died. [See Peter MacFie’s article later in this journal which will be published on this website in the weeks ahead.]
Even with the rebuilding of the piers to strengthen them, the problems were not over. The original parapet walls were very low and considered to be very dangerous to the public, so the height was raised on the town side of the bridge in May 1835, and it is still quite easy to see the original outline of the wall below the present level.
Early in August 1835 during a visit to Richmond, John Lee Archer, Colonial Architect, noted the progress on other public works, including St Luke’s Church, the Schoolhouse and the Courthouse. He also noted that the parapet walls of the Coal River Bridge had been raised, and that a temporary privy had been erected at the Gaol. This work was carried out under the supervision of Thomas De Little.
There was a severe flood in 1846, and again in September 1860; then, the first and second arches of the bridge were damaged, as was the lettering on the date on the sides of the parapet. By the late 1860s, the Director of Public Works, William Rose Falconer, reported serious damage and, possibly, the imminent collapse of the whole bridge due to the river bed soil having been disturbed by floods to more than four feet below the original paved bottom. One of the central piers had been removed from its foundation. He suggested that the bridge be underpinned and the riverbed paved to form an inverted arch between the piers to prevent further erosion. He also added that should the bridge collapse it would cost five thousand pounds to rebuild it.
By July 1884, work was again underway to stabilise the bridge. The piers were cased with stone and cut waters added to aid the flow of floodwaters round the piers.
On 8 December 1923, celebrations were held in Richmond for the centenary of the Bridge. More than a thousand people crowded onto the bridge to see Sir John Evans unveil the engraved stone at the corner of the bridge. This stone commemorates the laying of the first stone and the presence of James Gordon and G W Gunning at that ceremony. The idea for this came from the Council Clerk, Mr J Gatty.
In recent years the faithful old bridge has carried far more than the horses and bullocks for which it was designed. Everything from heavy log trucks to tourist coaches to giant supermarket trucks have passed over it. It is beginning to show its age and although local residents have made several representations to both State and Federal Governments, promises have been made to provide a second crossing of the Coal River but nothing has been done. Soon it will be too late and it will take a bit more than William Falconer’s five thousand pounds to fix it, and an important piece of Australia’s heritage will be gone forever.
This article has been adapted from an article included in the Richmond Preservation and Development Trust Collection. No author is recorded. It appeared in the first journal published by the Coal River Valley Historical Society (1999), from pages 3 – 7.