Sydney Harbour Bridge guide

A brief history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge plus a select list of records relating to the design, construction and official opening ceremnony. Also included is a list of records relating to the construction workers employed by the NSW Government.

Historical Overview

The possibility of linking the northern and southern shores of Sydney Harbour was discussed as early as 1815, when the former convict turned Government Architect Francis Greenway reputedly suggested to Governor Macquarie that the North Shore should be linked to Sydney by a bridge. In letters to The Australian in 1825, Greenway wrote, that such a bridge would

'give an idea of strength and magnificence that would reflect credit and glory on the colony and the Mother Country' [1]

Numerous proposals were discussed in the nineteenth century, including a suggestion in 1840 by the naval architect Mr Robert Brindley, that a floating bridge be constructed.

The Sydney engineer Peter Henderson is credited with one of the earliest known drawings of a bridge to connect Sydney with North Sydney, dating from around 1857. Other suggestions included a truss bridge in 1879 and in 1880 a high-level bridge costing £850,000.


A senior engineer who worked for the Department of Public Works, J. J. C. Bradfield is regarded as the 'father' of the Bridge as it was his vision, enthusiasm, engineering, expertise and detailed supervision of all aspects of its construction.

Bradfield favoured building a cantilever overpass, without piers, between Dawes Point and McMahons Point. In 1916 the Legislative Assembly passed the Bill for the construction of a cantilever bridge.

It did not proceed however, as the Legislative Council rejected the legislation on the grounds that money would be better used for the war effort [2].

This setback did not deter Bradfield who developed the full specifications and scheme to finance the construction of a cantilever bridge. In 1921 he went overseas to investigate tenders for the project. Bradfield's overseas research however, convinced him that tenders should be called for both cantilever and arch designs. The necessary Act was finally passed in 1922 — the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act No. 28 — for the construction of a high-level cantilever or arch bridge across Sydney Harbour by connecting Dawes Point with Milson's Point. The Act also provided for the construction of the bridge and its approaches and also included the construction of electric railway lines.

In 1923 tenders were called for a cantilever or arch bridge. Twenty tenders were received from six countries. On 24 March 1924 the contract was given to the English firm Dorman Long & Co of Middlesbrough England with a design for an arch bridge at a tender price of £4,217,721.00 (and 11 shillings and 10 pence) [3].

The arch design was not only cheaper than the cantilever and suspension proposals but had the advantage of greater rigidity, and was therefore better fitted for the heavy loads the bridge was required to carry.


Construction began on 28 July 1923. The contractors set up two workshops at Milson's Point on the North Shore where the steel was fabricated into girders. The granite for the pylons was quarried near Moruya, where about 250 workers and their families lived in a temporary settlement. The two arches met at the centre of the span on 19 August 1930 at 10pm. The two half arches were fabricated from steel in workshops before being loaded onto barges and towed into position. The arches were then lifted up by two 580 tonne electrically operated creeper cranes. The arch spans 503m and the summit is 134m above sea level. Steel decking was then hung from the arches over the next nine months.

Premier Jack Lang opened the Harbour Bridge on the 19 March, 1932. Francis Edward de Groot, a member of the New Guard disrupted the opening ceremony when, disguised as a military horseman, he slashed the ceremonial ribbon before the Premier was able to officially open the bridge. The opening celebrations were surprisingly lavish considering that New South Wales, like the rest of Australia, was in the depths of the Great Depression. It has been estimated that between 300,000 and 1,000,000 people participated in the festivities. The celebrations included decorated floats, marching groups and bands, a gun-salute, a procession of passenger ships under the Bridge and a Venetian Carnival.

After the pageant members of the public were allowed to walk across the deck — an opportunity that was not offered to the public again until the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Bridge in 1982 [4].

Select list of record series

Department of Public Works and Services

NRS 12419[4/7582-88]
Special Bundles Sydney Harbour Bridge — Calculation and design estimates, reports, photographs and papers, 1911-33. These include quantities included in specifications submitted for tenders and the final estimate for the cantilever bridge.
Report on designs submitted in connection with the proposed bridge over Sydney Harbour to connect Sydney with North Sydney. This is a report ordered by the New South Legislative Assembly. It is accompanied by a set of lithographic plans and photographs.
Plans relating to bridge and tunnel communication between Sydney and North Sydney. The plans are of various proposed schemes for the tunnel link and include a subaqueous tunnel and the routes of various bridge and tunnel schemes. They probably resulted from the Royal Commission on Communication between Sydney and North Sydney.
Drawings of Circular Quay Station and railway viaductThe sketches were drawn up by R.C.G. Coulter and signed by J. J. C. Bradfield, Chief Engineer. This design was not adopted.
19 July 1929
Sydney Harbour Bridge plans and sketches. These include the roll plan of the bridge and sketches by R. C. G. Coulter.
NRS 12684(Reel 2716, COD 122, aperture card nos. 2472-2773)
Lantern slides of construction of Sydney Harbour BridgeThese are photographs of the many stages of the building of the bridge, such as excavation of the site, building of the pylons and the arch.
Sydney Harbour Bridge photographic albumsThe albums contain photographs of the construction stages of the bridge and approaches. Many of the images are digitised and can be viewed in our catalogueviewed in our catalogue.

Railway Commissioners of New South Wales

Records relating to the construction, opening and operation of the Sydney Harbour Bridge [Department of Railways]. This series consists of correspondence, plans, pamphlets, reports, photographs, souvenirs, a publication and memorabilia relating to the construction and opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.Included in the series are tenders, plans and the contract for construction of the bridge, reports on designs and tenders proposed for the bridge, lithographs for the proposed bridge, a plan showing the proposed bridge and recommended approaches, letters relating to bridge design and to the thesis submitted by J.J.C. Bradfield.

Chief Secretary (Colonial Secretary)

NRS 906[5/5242.3]
Special Bundles Sydney Harbour Bridge — arrangements for opening ceremony

Department of Education and Training

NRS 3830[20/12847 pt]
Special Bundles, Subject Files Sydney Harbour Bridge Celebrations, 1932View the full Item List of Subject files, 1875-1948 »

Government Printing Office

Correspondence concerning the Sydney Harbour Publications Committee

Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board

Miscellaneous plans of Sydney Harbour Bridge approaches and the City Railway. These plans, drawn up by the Public Works Department and the New South Wales Government Railways, are of the approaches to the bridge, track layout Centre-Line location and underground railways. 

Premier's Department

NRS 12061[12/8655]
Special Bundles Sydney Harbour Bridge Opening Celebrations — Pageant and seating

Sydney Harbour Trust

NRS 9794[6/5234.3]
Special Bundles Sydney Festival — including papers relating to the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge 1932-33 

Construction Workers


NRS 12685 (Photos)
Sydney Harbour Bridge photographic albums. This extensive collection of c.2000 photographs documents the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the turning of the first sod to the final steps of construction, the official opening and the early use of the bridge by the public. While the photographs often include workers few individual names are recorded.
NRS 17420 (Photos)
State Rail Photographic Reference Print CollectionThis series includes a large number of images relating to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As with NRS 12685 listed above few individual names are recorded. Some of these photographs are available to view in the catalogue.

Published sources

  • Sydney Harbour Bridge Workers, Honour Roll, 1922-32, Jo Holder and Gavin Harris, A Pylon Lookout Publication, Sydney November 2000.

This includes an alphabetical listing of 2,500 people who helped build the Bridge and 16 men who died from injuries incurred in bridge-related workplaces. A copy is available in the reading room.

Employee Records

Records of workers employed by the NSW government in the construction of the bridge may be found in the following series. NRS 12535 and NRS 12922 (below) should both be checked as some workers were employed by more than one agency during the course of the construction.

NRS 12534[2/8386-8389]
Public Works: Register of Officers. Information given includes name, date of birth, date of first appointment to Government Service, date of appointment, promotion etc., position, district where stationed, salary - permanent and temporary staff; termination of services - date and cause, and remarks.
NRS 12535[7/11489-11500]
Public Works: Staff record cards The cards are arranged alphabetically by staff member's name. Information given is similar to that in NRS 12534.  These cards are digitised and can be viewed in our catalogue.
c.1890-Jun 1953
NRS 12922[11/16552-16745]
State Rail: Personal History cards - Employees born before 1900 The cards cover employees born before 1900, who were employed as at 1910 and onwards and who subscribed to the superannuation fund. These cards are digitised and can be viewed in our catalogue.
NRS 12395[8/2599-2733]
Public Service Board: Employees' history cardsThe cards record name of individual, department, division, date first appointed to public service, date, position and salary and remarks. These cards are digitised and can be viewed in our catalogue.
Public Service Board: Public Service Lists are arranged alphabetically and are available in the reading room on microfilm.


The Sydney Harbour Bridge Workers, Honour Roll, 1922-32 referred to previously lists workers who died from injuries incurred in bridge-related workplaces.

  • NRS 343 and NRS 344, Indexes and Registers of Coroners Inquests and magisterial inquiries *ARK

Records of Dorman Long & Co Ltd employees

Some Dorman Long employee records are held by the Teesside Archives, Middlesbrough, England.

NRS 3829[5/16124.1]
School Files Granite Town, 1926-31Granite Town was the site of the Moruya granite quarries operated by Dorman Long & Co Ltd to quarry the granite for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A school was established for the children of the workers. Only a few children's names are mentioned on the file.


[1] The Australian, 28 April 1825, p 1, Column 4.

[2] The Australian Encyclopaedia, The Grolier Society of Australia, Vol. 9, Sydney, 1983, p. 251.

[3] Ibid.

[4] op cit​