Sydney Harbour Bridge: the past in the present

Topic: The past in the present
Learning Activity
Schools & Teachers
Stage 1
Students explore the Sydney Harbour Bridge through time and reflect on the importance of historic places. 

Learning intention

We are learning to: 

  • understand why the Sydney Harbour Bridge is important to Sydney, now and in the past. 

Success criteria

What I'm looking for: 

  • I can explain why the Sydney Harbour Bridge is significant to the local community. 

Student Activities

Sydney Harbour Bridge: a special place

Students explore the Sydney Harbour Bridge through time and reflect on the importance of historic places. 

Number of set tasks:

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum History K – 10

HT1-2 identifies and describes significant people, events, places and sites in the local community over time

HT1-4 demonstrates skills of historical inquiry and communication 

The importance today of an historical site of cultural or spiritual significance; for example, a community building, a landmark, a war memorial (ACHHK045


  • Identify a historical site or sites in the local community. 
  • Discuss their significance, why these sites have survived and the importance of preserving them. 

Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts

  • Distinguish between the past, present and future (ACHHS032, ACHHS048)

Use of sources

  • Explore and use a range of sources about the past (ACHHS034, ACHHS050)


  • Pose questions about the past using sources provided (ACHHS033, ACHHS049)

Explanation and communication

  • Use a range of communication forms (oral, graphic, written, role play) and digital technologies (ACHHS038, ACHHS054)

Continuity and change: some things change over time and others remain the same

Significance: importance of an event, development or individual/group

Learning across the curriculum

  • Literacy
  • Critical and creative thinking  

What aspects of the past can you see today? What do they tell us?

What remains of the past are important to the local community? Why?

Background notes for teachers

The construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was a story of tumult and triumph. The State Library of NSW’s online resource and podcast The Bridge is a five-part series which traces the journey of this enormous undertaking and tells the story of the people who made the Sydney Harbour Bridge a reality. It was a public works feat that made it a marvel of its time. 

When Europeans first settled in Sydney, they lived around Sydney Cove on the southern side of the harbour. As the town grew, people began to move across to the north shore; however, they could only get to the north side by travelling across the water by boat or by land around the harbour. Soon people began to have ideas about building a bridge to join the north and south shores. 

It would take over 100 years, four government bridge plan competitions and over 70 designs for those ambitions to be realised. In 1878 a floating bridge was proposed to connect the two sides of the harbour. In 1885 a tunnel under the harbour was suggested. Sydney and the north shore continued to grow. In 1912 engineer Dr John Bradfield was appointed to design a bridge to span the harbour, but construction was delayed when World War I started in 1914. The State Library of NSW has many drawings of suggested designs for the Harbour Bridge, and several alternate bridge designs can be viewed in 3D using the State Library of NSW’s Bridge Explorer resource.  

After World War I the government decided to go ahead with the bridge which would be a single arch across the water. Construction was started at the same time on both sides in 1922 and they finally met in the middle in 1930. The deck for the road and the railway were added later. Sydney Harbour Bridge was officially opened on 19 March 1932 with a huge celebration. 

Sydney Harbour Bridge could have ended up looking very different to the bridge we have today. During its development people could have made different decisions that would have changed the whole thing. They could have chosen not to build it because it was too expensive. They could have chosen to build it in a different place. They could have chosen a bridge design that looked very different. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is now an Australian icon and has had enormous importance to people living in and visiting Sydney for almost 100 years.  

Recommended reading

 To the Bridge: the journey of Lennie and Ginger Mick by Corinne Fenton

 The Day We Built the Bridge by Samantha Tidy & Fiona Burrows

 Lennie the Legend: solo to Sydney by pony by Stephanie Owen Reeder