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Flashback: Tasmania’s Richmond Bridge

Tasmania’s Richmond Bridge is a remarkably unchanged since its construction in the 1820s and is a testament to Australia’s convict heritage.

Tasmania’s Richmond Bridge is a remarkably unchanged since its construction in the 1820s and is a testament to Australia’s convict heritage.Australia’s surviving colonial-age civil structures are a testament to the craftsmanship and innovation of the nation’s early labourers, but not all of them were willing participants. Many roads, bridges and buildings were constructed by a workforce of criminals under the watchful eyes of harsh guards and soldiers.

Convicts were reluctant workers, who would often carve their names into the materials used to build structures. In some cases, convicts would even meddle with the construction process, improperly placing stone blocks, in protest of the manual labour being forced upon then.

Surprisingly, there is no evidence of 1800s graffiti or tampering on Tasmania’s Richmond Bridge. “I think there was probably a bit of pride for the convicts building it,” says historian Dianne Snowden. “The way it was constructed was really thoughtful and considered, and the fact it’s lasted so long is a testament to that.”

Before 1823, there was no real access from the Coal River Valley to the east coast and the Tasman Peninsula. Carts and cattle could cross the river at a ford south of where the bridge now stands, but regular flooding prevented access during spring and winter.

Then-Royal Commissioner John Thomas Bigge recognised the need for a bridge when he visited the area in 1820 as part of his commission of inquiry on agriculture and trade. The solution was to build a substantial stone bridge for people and carts alike to cross the river. “Because of the bridge, the east coast and Tasman Peninsula were opened up to road transport… It was fairly significant in those times,” says Dr. Snowden.

Construction of the bridge began in 1823 under the supervision of Major Thomas Bell. Dr. Snowden says the project’s Superintendent of Stonemasons, William Wilson, is often credited with the superior design of the bridge.

The bridge was constructed out of locally sourced sandstone from the surrounding hills. Convicts had to cut the sandstone before delivering it to the site by handcart. Workers then placed the blocks using rough ashlar work. The design of the bridge includes six spans and four large semi-circular arches, with a smaller arch on each side of the riverbank. Dr. Snowden says that there’s no certainty on how deep the foundations go.

In 1825, after approximately 17 months of construction, Richmond Bridge (originally named Bigge’s Bridge) was complete. Parapets were added to the bridge in 1835.

Dr. Snowden explains that over the years, the bridge has had minimal repairs and realignment work. Today, it is the oldest bridge in Tasmania and the oldest still in use in Australia.

Tasmania’s Richmond Bridge was included on the National Heritage List in 2005 and has become a major tourist drawcard. “It’s probably one of the most photographed structures in Australia,” says Dr. Snowden. “It’s really quite thoughtfully constructed and to last all that time with minimal repairs and realignment is really amazing.”

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