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The Opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge – The Big Day!

Lumsdaine, Jack. 1896-1948. The bridge we've been waiting for [music] - Cover
Music and lyrics for song to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. Source: National Library archives:
Diagram of creeper crane from Sydney Harbour Bridge
Banner for 75th anniversary celebrations of the Bridge opening. Photo by Toni Hurley

The Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge – the Opening of the Bridge (excerpt) [The Institution of Engineers, Australia] 16 MB

Unit 5 ‘Our Bridge’ – its impact and significance

Audio icon
to The Bridge we’ve been waiting for from the National Film and Sound Archive collection.

Australia was suffering the darkest year of the Great Depression in 1932. The Opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19th March provided an opportunity for many to forget their troubles for a day and celebrate. Sydneysiders had watched the bridge take shape for over eight years and everyone wanted to be at the opening party. As the song said, ‘It’s the bridge we’ve been waiting for!’ An estimated 750,000 people from Sydney and around Australia converged on the harbour, crowding the foreshores and the bridge approaches.

Look and Listen

  1. View Part 1, ‘The Bridge’ of the Film Australia series Constructing Australia: Triumphs and tragedies in building a nation. Use the companion guide of Teachers Notes as a discussion starter.
  2. Watch this 2-minute video clip of the celebrations on Opening Day in 1932 and then consider the questions below.

Think about it

  • The 1932 commentator in the video clip spoke about the Bridge having been ‘made in Australia by Australians, for Australians’. What words does the Premier Jack Lang use to talk about those who contributed to the building of the Bridge?
  • Can you account for the different comments of the commentator and the Premier?
  • In the scene that follows, Jack Lang is shown cutting the ribbon to open the bridge. What event immediately prior to this has been edited out of the video clip? Why might this have been done?

The Significance of the Opening

The Bridge has come to mean much more to Australians than a harbour crossing. On the day of the Opening, the following appeared in The Labor Daily newspaper

Source 1 – A national milestone

Today is the day of days, when political differences are forgotten. New South Wales unites in the glorification of Our Bridge, and added attraction to Our Harbour. The building of this gigantic Bridge is just as much a national milestone as Anzac.

Source: Labor Daily, 19 March 1932
cited in Pylon Honour Roll p 13

Think about it – Source 1 – A national milestone

  • The reference to ‘political differences’ is a reminder of the impact of the Great Depression on Australia. What were these political differences?
  • Is the writer correct in saying that ‘political differences are forgotten’? What event on Opening Day suggests this was not the case?
  • The writer in 1932 says that the building of the Bridge is ‘just as much a national milestone as Anzac’.
  • What event is he referring to? What does he mean by ‘national milestone’?
  • Do you agree today, that the building of the Bridge is as significant as Anzac?

Source 2 – Political Cartoon, ‘The Bridge of Size’

Look at the unofficial souvenir cartoon of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at page 3.

Think about it – Source 2 – Bridge of Size – Political cartoon

  • Can you identify each of the four figures standing together on the Bridge?
  • Who are the two speakers? To whom are they speaking?
  • Which conflicts or controversies are suggested by their words?
  • What do both the caption and the image of the men on the Bridge suggest about the significance of ‘size’?

‘JJC Bradfield and JT Lang: the movers and shakers’ has information and activities relating to these issues. See also:

Source 3 – A Triumphant Arch of Steel

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, so long a dream, is to-day a bold and a practical reality. A triumphant arch of steel, humanising our landscape in the ideals of all true Australians, simplicity, beauty and service.

It was a Big Plan; the thoughts and strivings of many men. Its success lies in the loyalty of Engineers and Workmen to the Ideal of a Big Plan. Inch by inch, step by step, they built the Bridge, until to-day it is finished, a work of service, a thing of beauty, which will assert itself long after we are gone.

JJC Bradfield, Foreword to Building the Bridge, by Robert Emerson Curtis, 1933, cited in

Think about it – Source 3 – A triumphant arch of steel

  • What is the significance of the opening of the Bridge for John Bradfield?
  • What different perspectives on the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge are reflected in these three sources?

The following sources and weblinks will give you some idea of the flavour of the opening celebrations.

Source 4 – Opening Pageant

Described as ‘the most spectacular of its kind ever staged in the Southern Hemisphere’, the pageant following the bridge opening signalled the start of two weeks of bridge-related festivities across Sydney. Consisting of 27 floats – some horse-drawn, some motorised – together with military marching parties, war veterans, boy scouts, pipe bands, and a selection of historic vehicles, the pageant stretched a distance of around 1.3 miles from spearhead to end, taking around 35 minutes to pass a given point. The pageant was led by the Young Australia League Band followed by 656 children selected by regional school inspectors from public schools in NSW. Joining the children in the ‘spearhead’ were two marching bands, a group of 100 bridge workers, a ‘party of 25 picked Aborigines’ and Lennie Gwyther, who on his pony Ginger Mick rode 900 miles from his home in Gippsland, Victoria, to witness the opening ceremony. The 27 floats in the pageant were arranged in thematic groups of NSW history, primary industry, and Sydney municipalities along with individual floats symbolising the ‘Future of Australia’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Return to Prosperity’.

Source: stories

Think about it – Source 4 – Opening Pageant

Which of the above events of the 1932 Opening would be unlikely to be repeated in modern Bridge celebrations? Can you suggest reasons why?


Find out more about the famous 1,400 km ride of Lennie Gwyther on his pony Ginger Mick to see the Opening of the Harbour Bridge.
For photo of Lennie and Ginger Mick click here.

Source 5 – The Floats in the Opening Parade

Themes of the 27 floats in the opening parade:
Historical pageant – 6 floats representing significant individuals and events :
Cook, Phillip, Macarthur, Macquarie, Federation, the Great War. (The Federation float featured 22 students from Sydney Girls’ High School posed in a maypole arrangement, dressed in tunics with a Union Jack bodice and skirt decorated with the Southern Cross)
3 floats representing: ‘Future of Australia’, ‘Empire’, ‘Return to Prosperity’
Primary Industries Pageant – 6 floats celebrating the state’s wool, farming, mining and dairy industries
Floral Pageant – 10 floats representing the various council districts of Sydney, including: Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern suburbs. The scheme for the Eastern Suburbs float, for example, was inspired by ‘the colour of breaking waves’ and included surf lifesavers and mermaids.

Source: adapted from C. Mackaness (ed), Bridging Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2006, pp. 246-247

Look at the variety of events that were planned to celebrate the Opening of the Bridge in
(i) 1932 Source 1 above.
(ii) 2007

Think about it – Source 5 – The Floats in the Opening Parade

  • What were the highlights of the 1932 and the 2007 celebrations?
  • What are the main similarities between the celebrations then and now?
  • List the main differences between the 1932 and 2007 celebrations.
  • Consider the individuals and events represented in the 1932 Historical Pageant category. What contribution was made by each to Australia’s development?
  • What pageant themes would you choose to reflect Australia’s celebrations today?
  • Suggest 5 individuals and 5 events from Australia’s 20th century history that could feature in individual floats in today’s celebrations. Justify your choices.
  • What do the similarities and differences between the 1932 and the 2007 celebrations reveal about continuity and change in Australia as a nation in the 75 years since the Bridge was opened?

Children’s Day

Did you know that the school children of NSW had a special day of celebrations on the Bridge on 16 March 1932, 3 days before the official opening? 52,000 school children from schools all over the state marched across the bridge on that day. Many also participated in the Opening ceremonies on 19 March when the school captains of Fort Street Boys High School and Fort Street Girls High School delivered a ‘Message of Goodwill and Congratulations’ from the children of NSW. (You can see them in the excerpt from the 1932 Opening Day film clip at the top of this page).

School children on the Harbour Bridge on Children’s Day - 1932
School children on the Harbour Bridge on Children’s Day - 16 March 1932 (photographer unknown,) from Sydney Harbour Bridge Photograph Albums, Vol 10 State Records NSW. (Photo credit: Historic Houses Trust NSW – Bridging Sydney Exhibition, Museum of Sydney)
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