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Sydney Harbour Bridge

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  2. Building The Bridge
  3. The bridge-builders
  4. Working conditions on the bridge
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Working conditions on the bridge

Look and Listen

View the short film clip ‘The Bridge Workers’ from Episode 1, ‘The Bridge’ of the Film Australia series Constructing Australia: Triumphs and tragedies in building a nation. To view the clip go to the following Screen Australia website resources for teachers: Scroll down to the ‘Video clips’ at bottom right of page. Select ‘The Bridge Workers’.

Look at these questions before you view the clip.

Questions for film clip ‘The Bridge Workers’

  • What were some of the dangers the bridge workers experienced?
  • How many men were killed during the construction of the bridge?

Sources: working conditions and experiences of Bridge workers

Moving section of falsework – Argyle Street arch
Moving section of falsework – Argyle Street arch. Bradfield collection:
Erection of main bearing – Dawes Point
Erection of main bearing – Dawes Point
wiki/ Image:ErectionMain

Construction of the Bridge
Construction of the Bridge

Document 1 – ‘Give ’em what they want.’

Up on the arch, the gangers had to fight for height money. They won, when Judge Swindell of the NSW Arbitration Court made the ‘tin hare’ decision. His Honour climbed onto the arch, took one uneasy look and said ‘give ’em what they want’. But they still didn’t have any safety gear. As Stan London said many years later, ‘you just got on with it’. All the men wore sandshoes and overalls, which they had to replace every few months. The engineers and holder-ups worked inside the dark, airless chords. In summer, the steel was hot. In winter, it was cold and damp. Outside, their mates endured the heat, rain and wind. A lot of them went deaf in later life.

Source: J. Holder & G. Harris, Sydney Harbour Bridge Workers: Honour Roll 1922-1932, Pylon Lookout, Sydney Harbour Bridge, 3rd Edition, 2007, p 13 at Pylon Honour Roll

Document 2 – Victor Roy Kelly, boilermaker – survivor!

I am often working near the edge of the bridge, and on many occasions I have thought to myself, ‘Now, if you ever fall, Roy, you had better make sure that you hit the water feet first or head first.’ So, when I slipped and fell to-day, I concentrated upon saving my life. That is all that I thought about. It was the only thing in my mind; the desire to live. I knew that I was very near death. I hit the water. I went under. There was a roar of water in my ears. My lungs felt as though they would burst. Then I came to the surface. I was alive, marvellously, alive.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Workman’s Fall’, 24 October, 1930 cited in
C Mackanness (ed), Bridging Sydney, HHT, p 220


Other accounts of the experiences of the bridge workers can be found in the
Harbour Bridge resource of the National Centre for History Education.


Use the information you have gathered in this unit to prepare a 3-minute speech entitled:
The Men Who Built Our Bridge.
Here are some suggestions for planning your speech:

  • Choose no more than two or three central ideas to develop.
  • Illustrate with specific examples.
  • Include some humour – eg a humorous story about a bridge worker.
  • Think about an opening that will immediately arouse the listener’s attention.
  • Plan a conclusion that brings all your ideas together and sums up your opinion of the men.
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