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JJC Bradfield and JT Lang: the movers and shakers

Portrait of John Job Crew Bradfield  (1867 - 1943)

John Job Crew Bradfield
(1867 – 1943), by H. C. Krutli,
courtesy of National Library of
Australia. nla.pic-an23278893

The names of two men stand out in the story of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. They are Dr John Job Crew Bradfield of the Public Works Department and John (Jack) Thomas Lang. Bradfield was a civil engineer who for over 30 years was the most active and influential person in promoting and overseeing construction of the Harbour Bridge. The Bridge was part of his grand vision for the electrification of the suburban railway network with a new electric train terminal at Sydney Central station and the city underground railway. While Bradfield has been immortalised in Australian history for his contribution to Sydney’s transport there has been controversy regarding the amount of credit he deserves for the Bridge’s design.

Bradfield’s ideas for a bridge moved from a suspension bridge, to a cantilever bridge, to a steel arch bridge, the last being influenced by the Hell Gate Bridge over the East River in New York completed in 1916. In the event the tenders for the design allowed for either a cantilever or an arch bridge. The winning design was for a bridge that closely resembled the Hell Gate Bridge that carries four rail tracks, although the span of the latter at 1038 feet was 612 feet shorter than the Sydney bridge. The detailed design of the Bridge, which is superb, was by Ralph Freeman, consulting engineer to the bridge contractors Dorman, Long & Co. Ltd. of Middlesbrough, England. Freeman was later knighted.

Portrait of John Thomas (Jack) Lang  (1876 - 1975)

John Thomas (Jack) Lang
(1876 – 1975), by unknown
photographer, courtesy of National
Archives of Australia. A1200:L21428

Jack Lang was Premier of NSW for two terms, 1925–1927 and 1930–1932.  Lang was a ‘shaker’ – a big, colourful, outspoken firebrand of a man who made things happen (hence his nickname, ‘the Big Fella’). He was a staunch supporter of Bradfield and his Bridge plans and helped to raise the necessary finance for the bridge’s construction.  However, Lang’s second term as Premier and his contribution to the bridge project were overshadowed by controversy.

During the Great Depression when thousands of people were out of work, Lang ensured the continuation and completion of the Bridge by maintaining the government’s financial support for the project. He also funded other public works projects to ensure employment for as many people as possible. His financial plan, known as ‘The Lang Plan’ was, however, highly controversial. It created deep political and social divisions and Lang faced bitter opposition in his attempt to implement it. In fact, Lang’s actions at this time were to result in his being dismissed from office. This had never happened before and was not to happen again until 1975 when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed from office.


De Groot cutting the ribbon on the
Harbour Bridge.
Source: photographer unknown,
19 March 1932, Bradfield Collection,
Rare Books and Special Collections
Library, University of Sydney.

One of the most dramatic examples of the opposition to Lang occurred during the formal opening ceremony of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March 1932. Lang had decided that he, himself,  and not a representative of British royalty would perform the opening ceremony.

However, at a critical moment in the proceedings, Captain Francis de Groot, a member of the New Guard, galloped up on a horse and slashed the ceremonial ribbon. As he did so, he uttered the following words: ‘I declare this bridge open in the name of His Majesty the King, and of all decent people’.

Find out more about John Bradfield and Jack Lang and the controversies surrounding their role in the Harbour Bridge story in the following activities.


Construct a brief biographical outline for either Bradfield or Lang by using the Australian Dictionary of Biography or other entry.

  1. Your timeline should include birth and death dates and about 10–12 highlights of his career.
  2. Choose two or three images to illustrate important events in his career.

Useful sites for the biography of John Bradfield:


Useful sites for the biography of Jack Lang

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