Sunday, June 14, 2020

History on the Harbour: The great Lennox Bridge debate

Source: Parramatta City Council

[The text below is derived from interpretive panels installed inside the bridge's pedestrian walkways, (portals) themselves a source of some controversy. Links are my own]


Darug people crossed the river using stepping stones or canoes. After 1788, a wooden bridge was built from bank to bank. Later, a stronger crossing was built from stone and wood. In 1836 it was agreed that the growing town needed a strong, reliable bridge

Image: By water to Parramatta, with a distant view of the western mountains, taken from the Windmill-hill at Sydney, 1798. J. Heath. From Dixson Library; State Library of New South Wales.


A strong and reliable bridge needed for a growing town

Lennox Bridge was completed in 1839, it's one of the oldest road bridges still in use in New South Wales. Most colonial bridges were built of timber beams, but when David Lennox arrived from Scotland in 1832, the colony had an expert in stone bridge design and construction.
This bridge was the last built by David Lennox in New South Wales. The style of his 'Parramatta Bridge' is similar to his other stone bridges, and considering the traffic in the 1830s, the bridge was unusually wide with a generous roadway and footpaths.

If you look carefully under the wide stone arch over the river, you'll see it is in three sections. The eastern section 5.5m (18ft) wide, and the central section 6.5m (21ft) wide, show that the original bridge was completed in two parts. The western third is the 1930s extension.

Lennox, always an artisan, cleverly used sandstone of different colours to accentuate elements of the bridge.


Devil in the Detail

Are there always disagreements when a major project is being planned?

In 1836, the engineer David Lennox, and the Governor of the colony, Bourke, had very different ideas about the way the bridge should be built. Lennox had strong ideals, and lots of experience but Bourke didn't agree.

How high should the bridge be? What shape should it take?

Letters went back and forth between them showing that the Governor had strong opinions about the important bridge and that the delays were frustrating Lennox as he struggled to gain final approval to start building.

The design for Lennox Bridge took over a year to prepare and be approved - an unusually long time for a much-needed bridge. There were 3 designs, and much debate about who should have the final say. Throughout, Governor Bourke and others requested specific design details that differed to Lennox's expert recommendations.

One early sketch included a single arch span bridge, with arches at each end, not dissimilar to the modern portals - although Lennox considered that the openings did not serve any useful purpose.

Governor Bourke approved Lennox's third design in May 1836. In acknowledging the Governor's approval, Lennox wrote: "I am sorry that my ideas of Bridge Building do not coincide with that of his Excellency the Governor."

But that wasn't the last of it, the original plan was reinstated as it was, in Lennox's mind, 'much more elegant, more substantial and less expensive. The Government was asked to reconsider Lennox's original design and eventually it was "willing to allow him the full benefits of his arguments founded on practical experience."

Finally, work commenced in July 1836, Lennox's expertise having prevailed. In the end, it all worked out and Lennox oversaw the building of a remarkable and resilient bridge.

Note: Lennox and Bourke didn't correspond directly but through government administrators.


Challenging Heritage 

Elizabeth Farrelly: 'Two brutish square-jawed
faux-functional holes whose every semiotic cue
says, "enter here and invite Clockwork
Orange-style violence upon your person"
will increase the heritage value how, exactly?
This is a clear instance of architectural
theory running roughshod over the facts.'
The 1830s debate was mirrored in 2013 when the portals through the Lennox Bridge walls were proposed to provide access for all along the riverbank

There was intense interest from the Parramatta community, and the media weighed in. -
Many people thought that the portals would destroy the beauty of the historic bridge, but the former Parramatta City Council wanted to allow access along the Parramatta River foreshore for families, cyclists and wheelchair users.

Because of its significance to the State of NSW, the Heritage Council was involved and they were persuaded that the modern portals were a good idea, even though many of their advisors disagreed. There was robust debate between two key players: the Sydney Morning Herald's architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly, and the then Chair of the Heritage Council, architect, Lawrence Nield. It centered on the rightness or wrongness of 'heritage policy'. Should the portals show their modern credentials, or should they mimic the shape of Lennox's historic design?

Crossing the River

Right here, where Church Street crosses the River, is the earliest known river crossing in the Parramatta District. Knowledge of Darug people crossing the River nearby has been passed down through generations, so it may have been an obvious place for a bridge from the earliest years of colonial settlement. Over time, three bridges were built, each stronger and more reliable than the previous one.

A Timber Bridge

The first known timber bridge was constructed here in 1794, under the orders of Major Grose. It didn't last long, it was washed away the following year.

Gaol Bridge

Lithograph of the Gaol Bridge in Parramatta in 1826. The horses are standing behind where the Riverside Theatre now is.The bridge was built on stone piers with timber railings. Photo: State Library of NSW

Two years later, in 1797, a replacement bridge was built with stone piers holding a timber roadway above the River. It was a stronger river crossing for a growing community.

This bridge connected the early township on the southern bank to the area across the River where the gaol stood. The bridge soon became known as the Gaol Bridge, but by 1826 it was in a state of serious disrepair.


In 2013, when excavations were underway to prepare for the new portals through the stone bridge walls, archaeologists were surprised to discover remnants of the Gaol Bridge. This caused great excitement because much could be learnt about the earlier bridge.

Look carefully behind you to the left, and you'll see the marker that shows were a stone pier was found. Parts of the original timber girders were uncovered too.

Another remarkable find was a remnant of a retaining wall which allowed public use of the half-built Bridge while the eastern side of Lennox's bridge was completed. It is a well-built sandstone wall. Fragments of the original road surfaces were also found.

All the archaeology is conserved under the Lennox Bridge for future generations, but you can see some of the historic construction in the diorama to your right.

Last 30 Days' Most Popular Posts