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Wheeler's Bridge.
Monier arch bridge at Lawrence, near Creswick.

Coordinates: -37.323, 143.8916.   Photo: Wendy Tonkin, 2008.

For historic images, including the opening ceremony, see University of Melbourne Archives Image Collection or Picture Australia. Within UMAIC search under Record ID for: UMA/I/6187, 6201, 6208. Any enquiries to UMA should refer to the Location Numbers of these images, respectively BWP/23828, BWP/23829, BWP/23831.

Preliminaries.

This project was initiated largely by J.T.N. Anderson while Monash was preoccupied with legal cases. After his return from Perth in July 1899, Monash gradually took over supervision of construction and liaison with the client Shire and its Engineer.

In May 1898 Carlo Catani, the Chief Engineer of the Department of Public Works of Victoria, reported on the dilapidated state of the old Wheeler's bridge. This had been erected about 1864 and consisted of a timber superstructure with stone abutments and pier. About 1887 the level of the deck had been raised some 2.7m by extending the pier and abutments. By 1898 these were distressed, and the timbers were rotting. Conventional options for replacing the bridge, as proposed by Catani were (a) a timber bridge of four spans with a total length of 47.5m, costing about £900 and (b) a single stone arch with a span of 15.2m costing about £2750. However, on 14 May the Shire Engineer Mr W. H. Gore, accompanied by his father, visited Monash & Anderson to discuss the possibility of using Monier arches.

Gore's father had seen Monier arches during a visit to Italy and heard favourable reports from Italian engineers. He had previously been Shire Engineer for Creswick, but seems to have been working for the Public Works Dept about the time of his visit to M&A. He told M&A that he and his son had been sent by Catani.

Between 21 and 24 June, Monash & Anderson prepared a drawing showing four alternative Monier schemes. Agreement was reached to develop a design with two spans, each 75 feet clear (22.9m). The resulting drawing and specifications were presented to Council on 6 July, about the time that Monash left Melbourne to take part in a legal case in Western Australia. This proved to be much more prolonged than expected, and apart from attending a militia training camp the following Easter, he did not return to Victoria until about 4 July 1899. Thus Anderson must have been wholly responsible for subsequent consultations with the Shire Council and its Engineer and the technical design of the bridge. Carter Gummow & Co. in Sydney carried out independent designs as a check, but not all their advice was accepted by Anderson. (This led to some friction as Gummow and his chief designer, W. J. Baltzer, tended to adopt a more cautious approach.)

Monash & Anderson estimated the cost of the bridge and approach works at £2450. Initially they hoped to undertake the entire project themselves, but Anderson's attempts to raise financial backing were unsuccessful. Furthermore Gummow, who controlled the licence for this form of construction, preferred that Monash & Anderson tender for the Monier arches alone, and they themselves had begun to fear that their quotation was pitched too low. Anderson therefore negotiated an agreement by which he adopted the initial role of consultant to the Shire, responsible for preparing the specification and drawings. The overall contract was won by Jenkins Bros of Ballarat at a price of £3300 and work commenced on site about December 1898.

Construction.

Disputes erupted immediately between the Contractors on the one hand and the Shire Engineer and his inspector, Mr S. Jory, on the other. These concerned the quality of Victorian versus imported cement, of sand obtained from nearby mines, and of the stones removed for re-use from the pier of the old bridge. The Contractors proposed modifications to the structure which they argued would save money without reducing its strength, and could not understand why the Shire Engineer would not accept them. They became concerned that extra work was being ordered without adequate documentation. They accused Gore and Jory of "pure malice" and of demanding impossibly high standards in materials and workmanship. Gore in his turn accused the contractors of trying to "work points" and skimp on standards. There were suggestions that Jenkins Brothers had realised they had bid too low, and were trying to slide out of the contract. Matters were complicated by Gore's continuing ill-health. Anderson was asked by both sides for advice and support as an impartial authority and his efforts to remain aloof were not entirely successful.

Despite these vicissitudes, Jenkins Bros did complete the substructure of the bridge: the foundations, abutments and the mass concrete 'skewbacks' on which the ends of the arches would rest. They also built the centering: the timber structure that would support the wet concrete of the arch [Dossier, p.7], although not to the satisfaction of Monash & Anderson. In September 1899 a special gang of Monash & Anderson's workers, directed by Anderson himself, cast the first arch strips, comprising half the width of the bridge over both spans. However, disputes and difficulties continued and in October 1899 the Council terminated the contract and Jenkins Bros withdrew.

By this time Monash had returned from Western Australia, and he conducted the negotiations which led to Monash & Anderson taking over to complete construction on favourable terms. He made his first recorded visit to the actual works on 29 December 1899 and gradually took the greatest share of responsibility as Anderson concentrated his attention on other projects. To complete the bridge it was necessary to build spandrel walls along the edges of the arches and fill the space between with rammed earth to form the roadway. [Sketch.] Because of heavy commitments elsewhere, the firm had difficulty in arranging for competent on-site supervision of this portion of the work. Their trusted foremen Chris Christensen was discontented for various reasons, including the presence of assistant engineer Arthur Timmins on site. To placate Christensen, Timmins was replaced by Herman Roth, Monash's cousin and clerk to the partnership. Some records suggest that Council staff took more responsibility for operations than was defined by their official role. Disputes and problems concerning the sourcing and quality of cement and concrete continued even under the partnership's direction.

Monash made regular visits to the site until the bridge was completed early in March 1900. The load test and opening ceremony took place on 30 March 1900 in the presence of the Minister, the Hon George Graham, Messrs Peacock and Grose, MLAs, the ex-President of the Shire Mr A L Nase, Councillors of the Shire and Borough of Creswick, a Mrs Springfield, and Monash and his wife. [Photo, Dossier, p.8.] [Detail.]

Outcomes.

Within a month of the opening ceremony, concern arose over the safety of the spandrel walls which were bulging outwards. Monash & Anderson denied responsibility, arguing that inadequacies in materials and construction were due to interference by Council staff. However, they agreed to contribute slightly more than half the costs of repair, as long as they were left entirely to their own devices. In August 1900 the walls were demolished and reconstructed, partly in masonry, and strengthened with iron cross-ties before back-filling. Unfortunately, disputes arose over the adequacy of the repairs and the quality of finish. Monash & Anderson provided a formal five-year guarantee, but local attitudes remained soured.

The bridge still stands and carries light traffic, though somewhat ravaged by time.

Footnotes

Note 1: The above history was extracted from our Dossier on Wheeler's Bridge and edited for presentation here. The Dossier includes details of archival sources, dimensions, a list of personalities, and a 'Timeline' in which all relevant correspondence known to our research team was recorded chronologically in precis or verbatim form. This was the first of the Dossiers produced as part of our project. The format of the early chapters was determined by the requirements of the National Trust for submission of works for recognition as historic monuments. The account of the bridge's history is brief compared to those in subsequent dossiers!

Note 2: An error in quoting William Julius Baltzer's first name has been carried over into several dossiers. It appears on page 13 of this one.