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Road Bridge over the Tambo River
Bruthen, Victoria, 1901

"Tambo Bridge looking South. Inspector Hopkins, Jack Fraser, & Frank O'Reilly in foreground 4/7/01."
University of Melbourne Archives, Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Co Collection, BWP-23846 [UMA/I/6501].

Introductory Note

This project provides a case study in the traditional procurement method by which contractors are invited to bid for the task of building a structure already designed by others. Having cut their estimate to the bone in order to win the contract, the successful contractor has an interest in keeping quality to the minimum specified, and in finding reasons to carry out additional work for which it is well placed to charge a comfortable figure. This places the contractor's representatives in an adversarial relationship with the people appointed by the client to ensure the quality of the work and to keep costs under control. Relations on the Tambo project seem to have been particularly difficult, especially in regard to timber quality. This seems to have been to some extent due to unreasonable expectations on the part of the client's Inspectors, and partly to the low quality of timber available in the surrounding countryside. However, there may have been an element of personal animosity.

Innovations such as Public Private Partnerships are attempts to overcome the drawbacks of the traditional system, but of course they have their own disadvantages. There is a school of thought that whatever the contractual arrangements, the most important factors in the smooth running of projects are the personalities and attitudes of the individuals involved.


This timber truss bridge was built by the Monash & Anderson partnership between May 1900 and June 1901. The partners at first tried to persuade the authorities to accept a reinforced concrete bridge with four 92-foot (28m) Monier arches. Under the conventions of tendering, they were obliged to submit a bid for the conventional timber truss design as well. Both M&A's bids were the lowest received, but were still higher than the Shire had catered for. After some delay, the Public Works Department of Victoria took full responsibility for the project and fresh tenders were called. The PWD decided that the site was not suitable for Monier arches, and awarded M&A a contract to build the timber truss version.

The story of the Monier proposal is summarised elsewhere on this website.

M&A appointed their doughty but irascible foreman Chris Christensen to control work on site. The PWD appointed Inspectors Hopkins and Stewart to the task of contract supervision (quality control). On 28 May, Monash, Christensen and three workmen travelled by train to Bairnsdale and then by horse coach to Bruthen to set out the bridge and start work. A recent flood had cut away the southern bank, and the PWD proposed to add two short extra spans with timber girders. An old resident pointed out the levels reached by the floods of 1870 and 1893, and it was decided to raise the level of the deck by 2'-4" (711mm). Monash stayed until the 8th of June, then travelled home with William Davidson, the Inspector-General of the PWD. A certain amount of surveying had been done; but it seems that Christensen was left to mark out the positions for the piers.

The southern extension consisted of an extra pier and two short spans supported by four lines of beams, or "stringers". (See e.g. Chambers 2006, Diagram 2, p.28.)

The first task was to excavate for the northern approach cutting and abutment. The 'powder monkey' must have been liberal with his explosives. According to the Gippsland Times, Robert O'Reilly, of the Royal Mail Hotel, "had placed a cigar in his mouth and was feeling in his pockets for a match to light it with, when a stone which had evidently been sent upwards by the explosion, fell on the fragrant weed and dashed it to the ground."

Gippsland Times, 14 June 1900, p.3, deep within the editorial. (Trove.)

Tension soon arose when Inspector Stewart condemned much of the gravel and sand gathered to make concrete for the abutment. M&A appealed to Houghton's, the timber merchants. "We are sorry to say that we have an Inspector at the Bruthen Bridge, who is amusing himself by condemning all material of every kind that is submitted to him.". They asked Houghton's to bring pressure on Stewart through A C Brabet, a member of the Bairnsdale Council, who was to be the main supplier to the site. They also appealed to Carlo Catani, the Chief Engineer of the PWD. He supported his inspector, but reminded him that the concrete was required for a lightly-loaded abutment, not a reinforced concrete bridge: the gravel was good enough, and the sand could be washed.

The piling rig, 1 December 1900. Pier construction was well advanced. Corbels can be seen on top of the nearest pier, on which the men are standing. University of Melbourne Archives. Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Co. Collection. BWP-23847.

Christensen's next task was to build the piling rig and move it onto the river bed. The first pile for the piers was driven on 27 June. Much effort seems to have been spent in shifting the rig from one pier location to another in order to drive the cut-water, or "fender" piles, first.

Monash had the habit of preparing a one-line-per-day history of each project on completion, and the entry for 27 June records that the crew completed driving the Pier 4 fender pile at 11 a.m. and spent the rest of the day shifting the machine half way to Pier No.3. For 28th it was "All day shifting machine - not within 10 feet of [Pier] 3 - very cold". For 29th it was "Raining all day. Men knocked up", and for 30th "Drove fender No.3".

When Christensen reported that one of the men (perhaps as a leading hand) had not lived up to expectations, M&A told him: "In engaging men like this, we have very little to go upon in judging of their ability. As a matter of fact the whole of those who applied were a very shoddy lot, and we picked the most likely men."

Monash insisted that his foremen provide daily reports of events on site, so that he was kept fully informed by the following day's mail. Christensen was not adept at this task, or at routine book-keeping. Generally, a clerk was appointed to do this for him, and at Bruthen the position was filled by Frank O'Reilly, who seems to have been a member of a prominent local family.

The PWD inspectors proved to be sticklers for quality and detail. The contract allowed only two species of timber: ironbark or yellow box for the piles, and yellow box for the superstructure. Piles were required in lengths up to 56 feet (17.1m), with a diameter of at least 20" (508mm) near the upper end and 12" (305mm) at the lower. These large pieces of timber were required to be "sound throughout, free from shakes, piping, gum veins, or other imperfections". The PWD inspectors seem to have been willing to take this literally.

The modern approach to quality control of timber is to accept that perfection is impossible and to assess the quality of the timber according to the size, number, and location of imperfections, or in the case of mass-produced elements, to subject them to a proof-load.

The timber suppliers, of whom the main one was A C Brabet, had great difficulty in finding timber of the quality demanded by the inspectors. Monash complained that teams were travelling 30 to 40 miles (48 to 64 km) to select the best timber available, and were hauling it to the site only to have it rejected by the inspectors. This of course meant serious loss to them. Work was greatly delayed, and at one stage the timber-getters refused to deliver.

Monash travelled regularly to Bruthen for the monthly certification (by the inspectors) of work done and materials delivered, so that M&A could claim for progress payments. He also visited the site as the situation demanded, using his diplomacy to ease tensions and pushing for the acceptance of timbers that had only just failed to gain approval, so that work could continue at a reasonable pace.

Monash and Anderson traded on their good relationship with Catani, gradually gaining concessions: first for the use of redgum and of hewn timber, and then for the acceptance of some heartwood in timbers of increasingly smaller cross-section. However, they were careful not to push too hard, for fear of jeopardising negotiations for the contract to build Monier arch bridges in Bendigo.

The inspectors resented the fact that Monash & Anderson had gone over their heads, and this soured relationships. To make matters worse, Christensen was no diplomat, and the inspectors questioned his competence. Nevertheless he battled on until, by the end of October 1900, all piles had been driven and the addition of walings, cross bracings, corbels, and cutwaters to the piers was well advanced.

Above. The piers at Bruthen had two rows of piles driven into the river bed. There were five vertical piles in each row. At the downstream end of each row was a raking (inclined) pile intended to prop the pier against the force of the current. At the upstream edge of each pier was a single "fender" or "cut water" pile. Horizontal planks attached to this formed a rudimentary cutwater to deflect the force of the water and floating debris.

In July, M&A began to suspect that there was something wrong with the setting out of the bridge. It took most of the month to clear up the confusion, but it was eventually revealed that the bridge as set out would be 5'-6" (1.68m) too short. The blame fell on Christensen. Monash told his foreman: "This matter has caused us very grave anxiety, and an immense amount of trouble … and has very much aggravated Mr Catani's bitterness, as he is quite persuaded that we have been trying to cheat him of length of bridge, and consequently, will not hear a word about some other important concessions which we are very anxious to get". It had taken Monash more than two hours and a long argument with Catani to convince him not to order the piles withdrawn. Adjustments were made to compensate for the error, the main truss spans being reduced from 77 feet (23.5m) to 76 feet, and the southern extension reduced by 3'-6" (1.07m). The new Shire Engineer at Bruthen, S J Gay, was paid a fee to set out the new measurements.

It is possible that Christensen used a measuring chain to set out the spans, not realising that sag of the chain can make a significant difference to the apparent length.

On 9 August 1900 an accident occurred when two men were working at height, using a heavy chain. The report in The Age suggests they were attempting to pull two driven piles into correct alignment, a procedure forbidden in the contract. According to The Argus, they were lifting a pile into position for driving. The chain broke and snapped back, knocking James Cunningham and David Canavan off the scaffolding. They fell on soft sand, but both were unconscious when workmates reached them. Mr Bond, FRCS, attended and found Cunningham suffering concussion, a broken jaw, and "other injuries about the body". He was taken to Bairnsdale Hospital and was off work for five weeks.

For the Argus article, see Trove.

By early September the southern extension was complete, but bad weather was affecting local roads, and Brabet was having trouble getting timber to the site. In October, floods threatened. With the water rising, the piling machine was moved out of the river and the piers were sand-bagged. A new supplier of timber, Lee & Gilbert now appeared.

At this stage, Catani demanded that Christensen be removed for having insulted Inspector Hopkins and for lacking "skilled knowledge and tact". Christensen himself had had enough, and was ready to go. Arrangements were made for him to take over the forthcoming contract at Bendigo. All piling had been completed on 22 October, but Christensen insisted on staying on the job long enough to show a leading-hand the technique of fabricating the trusses, laid flat on the bed of the river, and of lifting them into position atop the piers.

Major dimensions of the Tambo trusses as shown on a drawing dated 11 June 1900. As shown earlier on this page, the piles comprising the piers were driven in two rows whose centrelines were 4 feet apart. The trusses reached only to the nearest row of each supporting pier. As the piers were intended to be spaced 77 feet apart, centre-to-centre, the trusses needed to span only 73 feet. The drawing of the truss was initialled by M&A's draughtsman / trainee engineer J S Gregory. For the sizes of individual members, see the Appendix below.

The parts of the first truss were laid out on 24 October, and it was completed on 17 November. Thereafter, progress was steady, and the first two trusses were lifted into position over 8th to 10th of December. Christensen then moved to Bendigo, and the bridge seems to have been completed without a foreman. This placed greater administrative responsibility on Frank O'Reilly.

As the need for carpentry increased, Christensen was delighted to take delivery of a 'buzzer' for planing timber to size. Like much of the equipment needed, this was sent from Melbourne to Bairnsdale on the steamer Wyrallah because of the poor state of the roads to Gippsland.

The trusses had been assembled on the ground with a built-in camber of 8 inches (203mm) on the understanding that when they were placed upright on top of the piers, they would settle by 4 inches. This would leave an upward camber before further loading of 4 inches. However, the immediate deflection was only ½" (13mm). A further problem was that the height (or 'depth') of the trusses was not accurate. Monash was not impressed, and wanted Christensen brought back from the Bendigo job. Anderson was keen to keep him at Bendigo, but he did travel to Bruthen on 23 January 1901, perhaps to fix the problem, and stayed for a fortnight or so.

Progress halted on 28 March 1901 when the workforce insisted on taking the day off to attend the Bruthen Races. Nor was any work done on the following day, described in Monash's one-line-a-day history of the job as "recovery day".

As pairs of trusses were installed, the crossbeams were slung beneath them to carry the deck. Monash's summary history shows that the tenth and last truss was assembled late in April and was "launched" on 1st and 2nd of May. The piling rig, which had presumably served as a crane, was lowered on 4th. A note for 27 May states: "Donkey engine left". Thus all heavy lifting must have been completed by that stage. Work continued on the installation of deck planks, kerbs, tar coating, and fences. By 23 May, the deck was complete, though still without the kerbs and handrailing. On 22 June M&A informed Catani that the Tambo River was rising in flood, and that the footbridge and the old ford would become impassable. They were willing to allow traffic to use the new bridge as long as Catani gave his approval.

Monash made a last visit to the site on 4 July and it may be he who took the three photographs of the completed bridge in the University of Melbourne Archives collection (BWP-23846, 23849, and 23850).

On 23 July M&A prepared their final claim for payment. The total value of works, as agreed between M&A and Mr. Inspector Hopkins, was now £4081-4-0, compared with the original contract price of £3294-13-4. The extras included about £400 for the southern extension. When Monash presented the bill to Catani, the Chief Engineer agreed to the main figure, but insisted that M&A adjust a dip that had somehow appeared or been built into the bridge. Although M&A were paid £22 for the task, Monash considered it "most unfair", presumably because it meant re-assembling a gang, and perhaps sending workers from Melbourne. However, he told O'Reilly: "there are good reasons why we should not quarrel with the Department" [namely, the contract in Bendigo, and hopes for further Monier projects].

M&A sent a photograph of the bridge to the American steel bridge designer J A L Waddell with the comment: "This will show you the type of bridge which is most in favour in Australia … with our Australian hardwood, the average life is about 30 years, which makes the timber bridge, at ordinary rates of interest, a formidable competitor with steel, at even the lowest prices."

The Bruthen bridge was formally opened on 11 March 1902. The Argus reported next day: "The Ministers of Public Works and Railways, accompanied by Messrs. Foster and Keogh, M.L.A.'s, and Mr D. E. Martin, arrived here yesterday. Mr. Griffiths, a Labor member of the New South Wales Parliament, was also with the party. In the afternoon Mr. M'Culloch formally opened the new bridge over the Tambo. He congratulated the district on the splendid structure." Trove

Frank O'Reilly sent Monash & Anderson a photograph of the occasion.

Tambo Road Bridge, Bruthen. Opening ceremony, 11 March 1902. University of Melbourne Archives, Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Co Collection, BWP-24350. There is a larger image on UMAIC with Record ID UMA/I/6501.

Summary of Images

Images held by the University of Melbourne Archives

The prints of this bridge in the UMA collection were either over-exposed or had faded prior to accession. They are listed below. Those that also have a UMA/I/nnnn number may be seen on UMA's website UMAIC by searching under "Record ID" for that number.

BWP-23846 "Tambo Bridge looking South. Inspector Hopkins, Jack Fraser, & Frank O'Reilly in foreground 4/7/01."
BWP-23847 Piling rig;
BWP-23848 Piers almost complete, 1 Dec. 1900  [UMA/I/6291];
BWP-23849 "Bridge looking N. West. O'Reilly's in background 4/7/01"  [UMA/I/6327];
BWP-23850 "Bridge looking S. West"
BWP-24350 Crowd at opening ceremony, 12 March 1902  [UMA/I/6501].

Images held by the State Library of Victoria

Professional photographs of the completed bridge may be seen on the SLV website by searching for the following Accession Numbers:

See also: Nos. H91.330/3300 and H23505.

Appendix: Further Details

More about the trusses

Member dimensions of the Tambo trusses as shown on the drawing dated 11 June 1900 are as follows.
AC 12" × 12"; CF 9" × 9"; AH 12" × 12"; BP 8" × 6"; PD 9" × 9"; DM and NE 8" × 4". Diameters of tension rods: BQ 1½"; CP 2¼"; DN and EM 1½". The ends of the cross-beams can be seen, slung under the bottom chords. They were 18" × 12". There was a tension splice in the bottom boom between N and M employing iron cover plates on the sides, and 7 coach bolts each side of the joint (sizes not specified on this drawing).

Metric equivalents: 4" = 102mm, 6" = 152mm, 8" = 203mm, 9" = 229mm, 12" = 305mm, 18" = 457mm, 1½" = 38mm, 2¼" = 57mm.

Important components of a truss bridge of this type are the sloping stays that prop the top boom CF against sideways movement (buckling) that might occur due to the compressive force. They can be seen on the left hand side of each truss in the photograph of the opening ceremony (above). The lower end of each stay was bolted to the projecting end of the corresponding cross-beam, which ran under the deck. Below the left-hand line of trusses can be seen the timber cutwaters intended to protect the piers from floating debris which was a major danger during floods. A single "fender pile" was driven just upstream of the pier and, as can be seen, timber planking was attached horizontally to deflect debris.

More tales of timber quality

At the end of July, Inspector Hopkins made a concession by permitting the use of Redgum and of hewn (rather than sawn) timber, and a fortnight later Catani, after "a great deal of trouble" on the part of M&A, reluctantly agreed that the 18" × 12" (457 ×mm) cross-beams could include heartwood. In mid-August 1900 Inspector Stewart passed only three piles out of ten delivered, the rest being declared doubtful. As a result there could be no pile driving that day. Monash travelled to Bruthen to appeal to Hopkins, and told him that Stewart had insisted that the piles were to be "faultless". Hopkins had laughed and said "Of course that all depends what you mean by faultless - no pile is faultless". He promised to speak to Stewart, and confessed that his fellow inspector "was a bit meddlesome". He promised to remain at Bruthen all of the following week and to send Stewart to Omeo for a while. Four more piles were now approved, and driving resumed on 23rd. Monash advised Christensen to try to remain friends with Stewart "and if he is too meddlesome, palaver him and take no further notice".

In the meantime, Anderson had dropped in to PWD head office to lobby Catani for more Monier in the coming year. He mentioned that Monash was in Bruthen, causing Catani to "flare up", suspecting a scheme to pressure Hopkins to allow heartwood in 12" × 12" timber. Anderson told Monash: "... I have no doubt that the trouble with the inspectors has been intensified from the fact that we have defeated them so often by dealing direct with Catani, and consequently have raised an opposition and resentment, which though not exhibited to us, nevertheless exists, and might possibly lead to an ultimatum."

Problems continued throughout the fabrication of the trusses. M&A complained to Catani: "We are still meeting with all sorts of difficulties in regard to timber for the Bruthen Bridge ...", and telegrammed to Frank O'Reilly "Try induce Inspector Stewart as matter of great urgency to pass best two nine by nines [9" × 9" timbers] for truss number four".

In August 1900, A C Brabet & Co had refused to deliver more timber to site. There was another crisis over timber supplies in mid-February 1901. M&A wrote to Catani: "The supervision is so exacting that one gang after another of timber getters has knocked off and no one will touch any orders for us, except at exorbitant rates, viz: 20/- and upwards 100 super (0.236m³). At the present time, timber is being brought in from upwards of 30 miles (48 km), and the bulk of each consignment is regularly condemned, although our suppliers declare that it is the very best timber available. Seeing that they lose not only the value of all their labour, but also the cost of carting the timber in, we can readily believe that they would not send in any but the very best timber available. The way the timber inspection is being carried on, is a scandal throughout the district, and hundreds of pounds worth of serviceable timber has been ruthlessly condemned on the smallest pretext. The amount of timber delivered to site has been nearly double the amount needed for the bridge." Monash argued that if the timber were passed, the bridge could be finished in six weeks.

This was followed up by another letter of the same date giving specific details under three headings. One concerned "small chock-blocks" where the main members intersected. M&A had taken to cutting these out of sound portions of condemned timbers, but the inspector had now ruled that they must not contain any heartwood. The second was that M&A had been ordering timbers slightly over-size in order to compensate for any minor defects (13½" × 13½" instead of 12" × 12"). The inspector now demanded that these be cut down to the specified size, a procedure for which M&A could see no logical reason. The final matter concerned the 9" × 9" diagonal members. Eight pieces were on hand, but all had been condemned by the inspector, who refused to accept any heart or sap. Of recent consignments, 75 per cent of all 9" × 9" sent in had been condemned. During the previous two months, the timber getters claimed there was no timber available of this size of sufficient quality to satisfy the inspector. M&A asked Catani to tell Stewart to "exercise some discrimination" regarding these pieces as they were the least important on the whole frame as regards stresses.

As the dispute over quality continued, M&A wrote to Brabet on 8 March explaining that: "In some very heated discussions which we had with Mr Catani, about the timber inspection at the Bruthen Bridge, he made the statement that there was a lot of timber [of suitable dimensions] being delivered at Bairnsdale, free from both heartwood and sap, and quite easy to get." They asked Brabet, "as we feel sure this is untrue", to please write and contradict it.

Length and resistance of piles

Inspector Stewart argued that the piles should be driven to the depths shown on the contract drawing. However, M&A had difficulty forcing them to attain that depth. According to M&A, pile driving was stiff, the ground showing good resistance. The "set" or penetration per blow of the 2 ton monkey (hammer) had reduced to ½". M&A asked: surely this is sufficient to cease driving? M&A again appealed to Catani, and Monash informed Christensen that the Chief Engineer "very much objects to belting the top of the piles to pieces", and that he had "promised to send instructions to the Inspector not to be so exacting". On another occasion when M&A queried the length of pile required, Catani claimed that he had never specified a precise length and that it was left to the inspector's discretion.

Foreman vs Inspector

On 11th September there was another flare-up between Christensen and Hopkins who had apparently ordered that work passed by Inspector Stewart should be re-done. M&A assured their foreman that they would strongly support him. The dispute seems to have concerned detailing of timber construction, namely trimming the ends of cross-bracing members where they partially stuck out beyond the outer piles of the piers. In a letter to Catani M&A explained the problem was that Hopkins rarely came to Bruthen, but when he did he condemned work approved by Inspector Stewart. Monash travelled to Bruthen with Catani on 21st and spent the next day with him on site.

Early in October Catani announced he would recommend to Inspector-General Davidson that Christensen be removed. Monash and Anderson appealed to Davidson and later told their foreman that at a "stormy" meeting they had "scored on every point" in his defence and had then "opened an attack" on Hopkins. They told Christensen to prepare for a visit from Davidson, and to keep on friendly terms with Stewart. Two days later, Christensen reported that pile driving was continuing and that Hopkins was "humble".

Responsibility for design

There is no clear evidence in the M&A project file or the J Thomas Collection of drawings to show who designed the Bruthen bridge. Timber bridges of this type were built in large numbers, and must have been thoroughly standardised. In response to the sudden need for the southern extension, the PWD provided M&A with a small-scale elevation showing the basic idea of what was required (four main beams marked "Logs not less than 16" diam.") and it seems to have been left to M&A to produce the large-scale working drawing showing full dimensions and details of the connections. It is possible that the same procedure was adopted for the main spans, but if so, the overall layout drawing has not been preserved in the M&A project file. In addition to the working drawing for the extension, the project file does include a drawing entitled "Detail of Pier Tambo Bridge", initialled by J S Gregory as draughtsman, and signed "Monash & Anderson 8.6.00" in Monash's hand. The working drawing of the truss, dated 11 June 1900, is also initialled by Gregory.

Money matters

The first certificate was drawn up at a meeting on site between Monash, Christensen, Hopkins and Stewart, in mid-July 1900. According to the contract, M&A was entitled to claim for the value of work satisfactorily completed, less 10% and for the value of materials delivered to site, less 25%. For this first certificate these figures were £353-8-0 and £207-15-4, entitling M&A to claim £561-3-2. However, the PWD paid only £500. By 24 August, the total work done and materials delivered, less percentages, had reached £1303, and a claim for £800 was submitted. This process continued each month, except that Monash seems to have left Hopkins to do the paperwork for the later months. The final claim was submitted on 8 July 1901.

Monash made regular analyses of the financial situation, and in September 1901, calculated that materials had so far cost £1599-13-9, and Plant £142-17-3. From the latter figure he deducted £100 for resale value. He put the cost of Supervision, Insurance, etc at £140-11-0, and petty cash £25. The total cost so far, exclusive of local labour and charges was therefore £1833-4-9. In addition, an amount of £431 had been spent locally. He estimated future expenditure of all kinds would be about £700, giving an estimated total cost of £2964. He estimated total final returns at £3876, suggesting a margin of £912.


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