Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a heritage-listed steel through arch bridge across Sydney Harbour that carries rail, vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic between the Sydney central business district (CBD) and the North Shore. The dramatic view of the bridge, the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera House is an iconic image of Sydney, and Australia itself. The bridge is nicknamed “The Coathanger” because of its arch-based design.

Under the direction of Dr John Bradfield of the NSW Department of Public Works, the bridge was designed and built by British firm Dorman Long and Co Ltd of Middlesbrough and opened in 1932. The bridge’s design was influenced by the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City. It is the sixth longest spanning-arch bridge in the world and the tallest steel arch bridge, measuring 134 m (440 ft) from top to water level. It was also the world’s widest long-span bridge, at 48.8 m (160 ft) wide, until construction of the new Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver was completed in 2012.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was added to the Australian National Heritage List on 19 March 2007 and to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 25 June 1999.

The bridge was formally opened on Saturday, 19 March 1932. Among those who attended and gave speeches were the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game, and the Minister for Public Works, Lawrence Ennis. The Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang, was to open the bridge by cutting a ribbon at its southern end.

Francis de Groot declares the bridge open
However, just as Lang was about to cut the ribbon, a man in military uniform rode up on a horse, slashing the ribbon with his sword and opening the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the name of the people of New South Wales before the official ceremony began. He was promptly arrested. The ribbon was hurriedly retied and Lang performed the official opening ceremony and Game thereafter inaugurated the name of the bridge as ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’ and the associated roadway as the ‘Bradfield Highway’. After they did so, there was a 21-gun salute and an RAAF flypast. The intruder was identified as Francis de Groot. He was convicted of offensive behaviour and fined £5 after a psychiatric test proved he was sane, but this verdict was reversed on appeal. De Groot then successfully sued the Commissioner of Police for wrongful arrest, and was awarded an undisclosed out of court settlement. De Groot was a member of a right-wing paramilitary group called the New Guard, opposed to Lang’s leftist policies and resentful of the fact that a member of the Royal Family had not been asked to open the bridge. De Groot was not a member of the regular army but his uniform allowed him to blend in with the real cavalry. This incident was one of several involving Lang and the New Guard during that year.

A similar ribbon-cutting ceremony on the bridge’s northern side by North Sydney’s mayor, Alderman Primrose, was carried out without incident. It was later discovered that Primrose was also a New Guard member but his role in and knowledge of the de Groot incident, if any, are unclear. The pair of golden scissors used in the ribbon cutting ceremonies on both sides of the bridge was also used to cut the ribbon at the dedication of the Bayonne Bridge, which had opened between Bayonne, New Jersey, and New York City the year before.

Despite the bridge opening in the midst of the Great Depression, opening celebrations were organised by the Citizens of Sydney Organising Committee, an influential body of prominent men and politicians that formed in 1931 under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor to oversee the festivities. The celebrations included an array of decorated floats, a procession of passenger ships sailing below the bridge, and a Venetian Carnival. A message from a primary school in Tottenham, 515 km (320 mi) away in rural New South Wales, arrived at the bridge on the day and was presented at the opening ceremony. It had been carried all the way from Tottenham to the bridge by relays of school children, with the final relay being run by two children from the nearby Fort Street Boys’ and Girls’ schools. After the official ceremonies, the public was allowed to walk across the bridge on the deck, something that would not be repeated until the 50th anniversary celebrations. Estimates suggest that between 300,000 and one million people took part in the opening festivities, a phenomenal number given that the entire population of Sydney at the time was estimated to be 1,256,000.

There had also been numerous preparatory arrangements. On 14 March 1932, three postage stamps were issued to commemorate the imminent opening of the bridge. Several songs were composed for the occasion. In the year of the opening, there was a steep rise in babies being named Archie and Bridget in honour of the bridge.

The bridge itself was regarded as a triumph over Depression times, earning the nickname “the Iron Lung”, as it kept many Depression-era workers employed.