Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Richmond Bridge

Richmond Bridge is a lasting symbol of Tasmania’s convict heritage. The sandstone arches of Australia’s oldest known large stone arch bridge have spanned Tasmania’s Coal River since its completion in 1825. Built by convict labour, the Richmond Bridge reminds us of the forced migration that contributed to the development of Australian society. The Coal River district was first explored by Europeans in 1803; in 1819 Macquarie granted Lieutenant-Governor Sorrell land at ‘the crossing point of the Coal River’.  As settlement and cultivation of Richmond developed (from about 1820 it was known as ‘the granary of Australia’ and all available land in the district was being cultivated with wheat commanding high prices), increased road traffic made a bridge over the Coal River a necessity.

The crossing place where the wagons could ford the river, south of where the bridge now stands, was frequently flooded in winter and spring, creating delays or posing a risk of carts and stock being washed away. By 1820 road construction to Richmond had commenced, following a route south, through Cambridge.  The necessity for a bridge was pointed out (it is claimed) by the Royal Commissioner John Thomas Bigge when he visited in 1820 as part of his Commission of Inquiry on the state of Agriculture and Trade.  (So, initially, the bridge was known as Bigge’s Bridge.)

The Coal River was forded at what became Richmond, this being the nearest convenient crossing point from where the river narrowed about a kilometer upstream of the tidal flow.  The relatively low height of the river escarpment at this point provided an ideal approach for a bridge and thus the bridge later provided a focus for town development.

Built by convict labour it was probably under the superintendence of Major Bell of the 49th Regiment, who was Acting Engineer and Inspector of Public Works, and William Wilson, who was superintendent of Stonemasons.  David Lambe, Colonial Architect, visited the site before it was completed.

The attribution of the designer is not certain – both Thomas Bell and David Lambe have been attributed with the design but it seems more likely that it was Bell who had six years experience as Acting Colonial Engineer and overseer of several building constructions rather than Lambe who would have had to design the bridge as a twenty year old just arrived from England, site unseen, and at least eight months before his own appointment as Colonial Architect by the Lieutenant-Governor, and indeed the latter’s own appointment.
 The building of the bridge meant that heavy traffic was able to proceed without delay between Hobart and the East Coast, and Tasman Peninsula, when the Coal River was in flood, though the two Pittwater ferries still continued to operate for people.

The Hobart Town Gazette of 13 December 1823 announced that the first stone had been laid (11 December 1823) in the presence of James Gordon and George Western Gunning and ‘a number of the respectable settlers of the vicinity’.  The construction of the bridge and the establishment of the Richmond township are closely linked events.  Within two months of the bridge work starting, the township of Richmond was named.
 The bridge was opened in 1825.  This early date ensures that it is the oldest, existing, Australian bridge.

The bridge served to consolidate Richmond as a focus for commercial and institutional development.  The township developed to the south-west of the new works, being along the road to Kangaroo Point where a ferry/punt connected with Hobart.  The early town layout is shown on two undated plans from the mid-1820’s.  The first buildings constructed in the new town were part of the police and penal systems – a court house, gaol, gaoler’s quarters and residence for the Police Magistrate.  Several private houses soon appeared and within ten years two inns were catering for local trade.

It is widely recognised across the nation featuring in numerous publications, tourist and historic literature and in the work of major Australian artists. Images of Richmond Bridge have also appeared on postage stamps.
The fame of the bridge has magnified the status of Richmond far beyond its size and population. The bridge and its surrounds draw almost two hundred thousand visitors annually to Richmond to experience the idyllic setting with its connections to the beauty of a past era.

Australia’s oldest bridge is said to be haunted by the ghost of George Grover, a flagellator supposedly thrown off the bridge by the convicts he tortured during its construction. Grover was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1825 for stealing and by 1829 records show him as the Flagellator at Richmond. His death in early March 1832 resulted in an inquest concluding that he had laid down whilst drunk and “fallen or was pushed” from the parapet of the bridge, 27 feet in height.” Grover’s ghost is said to appear on the bridge at certain times”.

The ghost of a large black and white dog, sometimes called ‘Grover’s Dog’, is also seen on the bridge. One lady reports it appearing at her side on several occasions as she walked the bridge at night. It would walk alongside her from one end to the other, and then disappear as quickly as it had come.

Main Text & Information Source
Australian Heritage Database