The arch of strength and beauty

Published: 
Collection

The Sydney Harbour Bridge — fondly nicknamed ‘the coathanger’ — celebrated the 90th anniversary of its opening on 19 March 2022. 

Mrs Smith standing on the transport deck of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 24 April 1931
Mrs Smith standing on the transport deck of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 24 February 1931


Sweeping majestically across the skyline, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is among the world’s most recognisable structures, spanning one of its greatest waterways. Built amid global economic crisis, the Harbour Bridge became a symbol of hope and triumph over adversity to all who witnessed its construction. 

One of the largest urban development projects ever seen in Australia, the design and building of the bridge was a modern-day technological marvel. Connecting the city to its northern suburbs for the first time, it provided more than a link between Sydney’s two shores. Sydneysiders, caught up in the excitement of the spectacle taking place before their eyes, were moved to draw, paint and write about what they saw. One keen amateur photographer, known only as Mrs Frank Smith, took on the bridge as the subject of a personal ‘passion project’ spanning three years — from June 1928 to March 1932. 

A gifted enthusiast, Mrs Smith was presumably well to do as photography was a costly hobby at the time with expenses for cameras, film and developing. Modelling her pictures on iconic bridge views by Sydney’s leading commercial photographers and camera artists of the day, her prize-winning entry in a bridge photo competition was published in the Sun on Friday 6 June 1930. Mrs Smith’s album is autographed by several of the English engineering consultants working on the bridge project which may suggest she had a personal connection to the construction team. Her photographs also confirm she had rare access to the bridge site at key moments. Several shots are taken during construction of the transport deck and high up in the steel work of the arch. 

Work on the northern and southern approaches to the bridge had begun in mid-1923. By 1928, when erection of the arch got underway on 26 October, Mrs Smith had her camera at the ready. Travelling back and forth across the harbour, she snapped shots from the decks of ferries, gliding under and around the massive structure rising overhead, diligently seeking the best vantage points from which to record each construction milestone. 

 

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Sydneysiders watched in awe as the specially designed giant ‘creeper cranes’ moved up each side of the archway, lifting men and materials into position to create the steelwork inching gradually out over the harbour. As the massive arms of the huge arch reached towards each other, seemingly suspended in mid-air, the city heaved a sigh of relief when the two halves met and were finally joined on 20 August 1930. Over the next nine months, the creeper cranes made their way back down the arches and dropped hangers into position along the way to support the transport deck. Then the pylons were built at each end of the bridge, with the last piece of granite added on 15 January 1932. The opening of bridge on 19 March 1932 was witnessed by over one million spectators. The celebrations ended with a magnificent fireworks display, and the bridge remains a powerful site of celebration to this day. 

On the dedication page of her album, Mrs Smith proudly declared herself the photographer of this series of Sydney Harbour Bridge construction images which she prefaced with a poem: 

Magnificent, majestic, far-flung across the sky, 
Your arch of strength and beauty, and emblem raised on high, 
‘Here’s to the men who thought you’, 
And ‘Here’s to the men who wrought you.’ 
A never-ending tribute as the years pass by. 

Mrs Smith donated her album to the Mitchell Library in May 1937. Known only to us by her married name, we are hoping that her identity will one day be uncovered. 


Margot Riley, Curator, Research & Discovery.