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Princes Bridge

 
This article was first published in the  White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.173 on 19 May 2006.
In that same newsletter you will find some quiz questions related to Princes Bridge.

When the first European settlers arrived in Melbourne in 1835 there was no permanent crossing point of the Yarra River. Over time various punt and ferry operators set up business but there was still no bridge. In those times there was no point in waiting for the government in Sydney to provide a bridge and most of Melbourne’s early infrastructure was provided by private enterprise. On 22nd April 1840 a private company was set up with the intention of constructing a bridge across the Yarra.

In our own time, we have become familiar with activist groups in country towns who agitate for a bypass to be built around their town and then become surprised that after it is built no-one seems to visit there and spend money anymore and much of the employment dries up. Things were different in the 1840s. The traders in Elizabeth Street vied with those in Swanston Street to have the through traffic that would be generated by a bridge. Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe favoured an Elizabeth Street crossing, but despite such official pressure the private company favoured the construction conditions at Swanston Street and it was there in 1840 that they opened their wooden toll bridge. Until that time William Street had been the de facto main street of Melbourne since it led down to the docks, Coles Wharf and the Western Market. With the construction of the bridge, Swanston Street quickly became regarded as the main street and remained so until recent time when the city authorities decided it would be a good thing if  the major carriageway should be closed to most traffic but not open up to pedestrians.

By 1850, the government had caught up and built a fine single span structure of brick and stone, opened it on 15 November, called it Princes Bridge, and made it available to the public for free. Little did they know that within a year, gold would be discovered in country Victoria, there would be a population explosion, Melbourne would become recognised as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and the narrow carriageway on this fine bridge would become inadequate for such a bustling city.

Princes Bridge - 1853

Come 1888 and our second International Exhibition, Melbourne had designed and built the third bridge on the site and the one that we know today. By that time the Yarra River had been heavily modified both upstream and downstream and the major floods of the early years were becoming less common. In the best Melbourne tradition, the bridge is built on solid bluestone bulwarks – none of your flimsy Sydney sandstone here – with plenty of cast iron. Solid yet elegant, befitting the style of the city which had forced itself onto the international map.

When ex-pat Melburnians in London become homesick they make their way down to Blackfriars Bridge and through the mist and the rain pretend that they are gazing at the structure that helped define the centre of gravity of Melbourne.

Some reflections underneath Princes Bridge

This article was first published under the heading Melbourne's Hidden Gems in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.173 on 19 May 2006

If you make your way across Fed Square towards Princes Bridge you will find a set of bluestone steps leading down to river level. At the base of the stairs is a series of vault-like structures cut into the bank that have served many purposes over the years – few of which would be approved of by the polite society crossing the bridge above. In recent months, this area has been turned into a café and wine bar and I sometimes like to sit there at the end of the day and watch the decades slowly flowing past. “Would you like some water sir?” asks the waiter. I remember that Garryowen, writing at the time of the wooden bridge tells us “Originally the city was solely dependent on the Yarra water, which was frequently unfit for man or beast (but) the people of Melbourne had to swallow it, though often rectified with large dashes of execrable rum or brandy.” “No thank you” I tell the waiter – “I’ll have a scotch with no water”.

Underneath Princes Bridge

From this position at the water’s edge it is possible to see little huddles of tourists crossing the bridge and pausing to examine the painted crests on the cast iron lamp posts. That is what their guide book instructed them to do. At water level, indiscernible shapes float past just below the water’s surface and I am reminded of Fergus Humes’ description of the place around the time of opening of the new bridge. “Rats are scampering along among the wet stones, and then a vagrant dog poking about amid some garbage howls dismally. What is that black speck on the crimson waters? The trunk of a tree perhaps; no it is a body . . . floating down with the current. People are passing to and fro on the bridge, the clock strikes in the town hall, and the dead body drifts slowly down the red stream far into the shadows of the coming night – under the bridge over which the crowd is hurrying, bent on pleasure and business.”

Another group of tourists pauses to examine the painted crests. At water level I am reminded that a century ago that this was the time of evening that the other rats would gather - the group of street kids who called themselves the Bourke Street Rats. They could make their way into the centre of the city, rumble some drunks, then meet up back here next to the bridge. The place where I am sitting has probably been used a number of times to divvy up the takings with probably more than the fair share going to the gang leader – a young thug called Squizzy. At around the same time, Clarice Beckett gave us probably one of the best paintings of the bridge as seen from the same position on the other side of the river. The tourists move on across the surface of the city to their next approved stop.

With the fading light it is time to venture underneath the bridge. The city lights reflect strange fractal patterns from the river onto the bridge’s underbelly while the regular rumble of the trams overhead coax the rivets into a song they have sung for over a century. And sometimes – just sometimes – at this time you may see shadows and catch snippets of conversation between the hyperactive 6 year old son of the bridge designer who wants to know how everything works and the young engineer who has been employed to work on the bridge while struggling to support his mother and put himself through university at the same time. The young engineer patiently explains how the interlocking patterns come together to form a larger, stronger structure and is immediately bombarded with five more questions. As I head off along the river I hear John Monash quietly begin his next explanation to the young Percy Grainger.

A bridge can take you more places than just the other side of the river.

Princes Bridge detail

BL

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Other articles in the series Seven Monuments of Melbourne:

Seven Bridges of Melbourne - overview

No. 1 – Princes Bridge
No. 2 – MacRobertson Bridge
No. 3 - Sandridge Rail Bridge
No. 4 – Lines composed upon Spencer Street Bridge
No. 5 - Kane's Bridge
No. 6 - West Gate Bridge
No. 7 - Chandler Highway Bridge

You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.