Heritage and conservation register

Item

Name of Item Victoria Bridge over Nepean River
Item Number 4301653
Type of Item Built
Item Sub-Type Pre-1930 Metal Road Bridges
Roadloc  
Address **** Great Western Highway Penrith 2750
Local Government Area Penrith City 
Owner Roads and Maritime Services
Current Use Road bridge
Former Use Road and Rail Bridge

 

Statement of significance

Statement of significance The Victoria Bridge/Nepean River Bridge has historic, associative, aesthetic and technical, and social significance for the State of NSW. The bridge is a significant structure in the history of transport and communication in NSW, being a vital component in the rail link between Sydney and the west of the State for forty years, and in the road link to the west for over 130 years. It is an important part of the history of the State's transport technology, being the first successful bridge crossing of the Nepean River at Penrith and one of the earliest metal bridges constructed in NSW. In its role in extending the rail line beyond Penrith, and in revolutionising road transport across the Nepean, the bridge has had a major and lasting impact on the economic and social development of the Penrith-Emu Plains area and on the State more widely. The survival of the bridge through floods since its construction, and present good condition and serviceability testify to the technical and creative skill of its designer and construction supervisor, John Whitton. The bridge is a very impressive structure and forms a landmark by road, river and rail. It has drawn public interest and esteem throughout its lifetime both for its form and function. The bridge has rarity value as one of the few surviving metal bridges constructed in NSW in the 1860s, as well as having the capacity to represent British heavy wrought iron bridge technology both in the context of NSW and internationally.
Date Significance Updated 26 March 2001

 

Description

Designer John Whitton
Builder Peto Brassey and Betts (superstructure), William Watkins (piers)
Construction years 1864 - 1867
Physical description The main structure comprises three spans of continuous half-through wrought iron girder construction resting on two intermediate piers. This is abutted on the west by a simply supported approach span of similar design, and then on both sides by three approach spans of steel girders with reinforced concrete decks.

The main continuous beams are of box type, built up from flat wrought iron plates and detailed with angles and stiffened with Ts, all connected by rivets. The top chord is itself a box, having a curved upper surface and horizontal lower surface. The bottom chord is a simple box and there are two vertical stiffened web plates. Whilst continuous across the three spans, the outer face of the girder has curved arch lines, formed from externally connected angles, springing from each pier. Connecting the two side boxes are cross girders at close spacing which in turn support the reinforced concrete deck. The western approach span is of similar construction, but is not as deep, and does not have the curved arch outer detail, which is apparently decorative rather than functional.

Approaching these spans at each end are three simply supported spans consisting of 6 longitudinal steel girders (five main, plus an outer for the footway) supporting a reinforced concrete deck which incorporates a footway on the upstream (southern) side. The footway has a pipe railing system using cast nodes which is consistent with its 1930s era.

Supporting the river spans are massive sandstone piers with curved ends and with elegant corbel detailing which rises to the level of the top of the girders. Beneath the western end of the western box girder is a pier consisting of two large metal caissons (possibly of cast iron with mass concrete fill). The remaining approach spans are carried by reinforced concrete framed piers with four legs, and on the eastern side, where one is much higher, an intermediate transverse stabilising beam with large fillets. Abutments are relatively modest concrete walls with wingwalls.

Lighting on the bridge is provided by relatively recent lamp standards, although the columns of previous standards remain atop the piers.

Physical Condition
and/or
Archaeological Potential
Original condition assessment: 'The bridge overall is in sound condition and appears to comfortably handle the quite large and heavy traffic flows which use it (despite the main east-west flows being now diverted to the freeway bridge upstream). This is no doubt due to its original design loading for railway traffic which was heavier than road design loads for the era, but probably reasonably adequate for today's traffic loads. The painting system on the wrought iron is in reasonable condition generally, but well worn by sun and rain on upper surfaces. There is little evidence of rust attack. Beneath the deck of the main spans, the presence of a construction joint along the deck centreline has allowed water and road grime to penetrate to the cross girders, rendering the underdeck areas unsightly. The approach spans are of full width concrete and have a better appearance.' (Last updated: 17/01/2001.) 2007-08 condition update: 'Poor.' (Last updated: 17/4/09.)
Modifications and dates The original bridge was completed in 1867.Deck was reconstructed in 1907 following relocation of trainline to adjacent steel truss bridge. Western spans rebuilt in 1869 following loss of the timber approaches due to a flood two weeks after the bridge was opened. New span used similar design to the river spans, with cast iron caisson pier. Side spans were timber. Approach spans and abutments reconstructed in steel and concrete in 1934. It is likely at this time that the footway across the main spans was reconstructed to provide for utility pipes.
Date condition updated 17 April 2009

 

History

Historical notes The Nepean Bridge is known to the wider community as the Victoria Bridge. It carries the Great Western Highway over the Nepean River at Penrith. Until the 1850s, the Nepean River was crossed at Emu Ford or via the punt service to the south of the present bridge, which was often interrupted by flooding. A small village developed near Emu Ford, catering to the needs of people waiting to cross. With the discovery of gold to the west of the Great Dividing Range, the flow of people, produce and animals through Penrith and across the river increased dramatically. A confederacy of local businessmen gained government permission for the formation of a company to construct a bridge across the Nepean, and to take a toll for its use. The Penrith Nepean Bridge Company opened a timber bridge in January 1856. A celebratory ball was held on the bridge itself. The bridge foundations were not strong enough, however, and it was destroyed by flood in 1857, reconstructed, and again destroyed in 1860. By this time, planning was underway for the western rail line and a combined rail and road bridge was considered a good solution to the problem of crossing the Nepean. In the interval, road traffic was again carried by ferry. (Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d).

The Victoria Bridge was designed by Engineer in Chief of Railways, John Whitton, as part of the Penrith to Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls) railway line. Whitton looked to contemporary British bridge technology for the design of the bridge, which is similar to the Menangle rail bridge over the Nepean River, constructed in 1863, now the oldest surviving bridge on the State rail system. Whitton sent the design to England for checking, by engineer John Fowler. (C.C. Singleton, 1956, pp. 120-2; Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d). The design of the bridge, which uses half-through girders, which are actually tall boxes made of riveted wrought iron plates, was driven by the need to keep the underside of the bridge as shallow as possible to maximise headroom for flood clearance. The configuration of the boxes, with their tall web plates and upper box for lateral stability, reflected cutting edge design for the period. It utilised work done in the United Kingdom by Robert Stephenson and Thomas Telford and others who, by testing and theoretical work, developed techniques to prevent plate buckling (by providing frequent vertical stiffeners) and sideways buckling of the girders members (by adding torsionally stiff boxes at the top and bottom). The first deep box girder bridge was designed by Stephenson and built across the Menai Strait in 1850. It was provided with suspension towers in case the deck was insufficiently strong and stiff, but the suspension cables were never installed.

The contract for the construction of the bridge piers was let to William Tyler in November 1862. Tyler was forced to surrender his contract by a series of disastrous floods in 1863-4. The bridge designs were modified in response to the floods, the deck raised in level by 6 1/2 feet and supplied with ramped approaches as a result. William Watkins, who had also gained the contract for earthworks related to the rail line and the construction of the Knapsack Viaduct, took over the construction of the bridge piers. The superstructure was supplied by Peto, Brassey and Betts of Birkenhead, England, and erected by the same company utilising temporary timber staging across the river. The total cost of the bridge came to 110, 000 pounds. In June 1867, only a few weeks after the completion of the bridge, the greatest flood ever recorded in the district occurred, with the flood waters reaching within one metre of the main spans. The main spans of the bridge passed the test, but the western timber approaches were damaged and the bank was severely washed out. Temporary repair work made the bridge serviceable for rail traffic, but road traffic resorted to a ferry service once more until a permanent additional iron span replaced the timber section. (C.C. Singleton, 1956, pp. 120-2;Cardno MBK, 2001, pp. 33-6)

The construction of the bridge and the resulting progress of the rail line to the west from Penrith had a significant impact on the economy of Penrith. From 1863, when the rail line reached Penrith, the town became a busy rail depot and hotels and other businesses built around the platform prospered. The construction of the rail line across the river and up the difficult Lapstone Hill on the other side established Penrith as a centre for railway workers and tradesmen. However, once the work was completed, Penrith lost its status of the railhead at the end of the line. Once reliable road access across the river was in place Penrith also lost the business of travellers by road who, in flood times, had often been forced to stay in the town for several days or even weeks. (Stacker, n/d) On the other hand, the development of the Blue Mountains as a tourist destination and the growth of centres to the west of the range once the rail reached Bathurst in 1867, benefited from the construction of the bridge and railway.

For forty years the bridge carried both road and rail across the river, aptly described by Nell Aston as 'the western life line'. (Nell Aston, Rails, Roads and Ridges. History of Lapstone Hill-Glenbrook, Glenbrook Public School Centenary Committee, 1988, p. 11) The Railway Guide of New South Wales, 1879 describes the journey across the Victoria Bridge thus, 'the train sweeps noisily over the Tubular Bridge'. (The Railway Guide of New South Wales, 1879, p. 34) Crossing the bridge by road was a distinctive experience. The road section of the bridge had a timber surface with inlaid wheel guides to keep the animal drawn traffic from diverging from a straight course. With only a single lane, vehicles had to make way and wait their turn. Horses were liable to be upset by the noisy passing of the train in the enclosed space and drivers tried to time their crossing to avoid trains. In 1883, in response to lobbying by the local Member, a galvanised iron fence was placed down the centre of the bridge to separate road and rail traffic and subsequently, a warning bell system was introduced to warn road traffic of the train's approach. Accidents still occurred, nevertheless. In the enclosed space between the girders the stench from horse manure and urine was often intensely unpleasant. (Stacker n/d; Nepean Times, 28th June 1884, p. 2 col. 1; 12th January 1884, p. 2, col. 2)

In the early 1900s the demand for rail freight transport increased across the State and more powerful and therefore heavier engines were employed. The increase in weight of engines and the proposed duplication of the rail line between Penrith and Glenbrook threatened to overstretch the capacity of the Victoria Bridge. The removal of road traffic from the bridge and the retention of the bridge for rail transport alone was considered, and may have necessitated strengthening of the bridge (the sister bridge at Menangle was strengthened by the construction of additional piers). Instead, the Victoria Bridge was retained for road traffic alone, with a new rail bridge constructed approximately sixty feet to the north, opened in June 1907. The new bridge consists of five iron trusses supported on concrete piers covered with bricks. The piers of the new bridge were aligned with the piers of the Victoria Bridge to minimise water turbulence. Subsequently, the Victoria Bridge was adapted to carry two lanes of road traffic and a footway. (Palmer, n/d; Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d, Stacker, unpublished, n/d)

In the mid-1930s the timber approach spans of the bridge had deteriorated through termite attack and the timber components were replaced with reinforced concrete trestle bents and a concrete pavement supported on rolled steel joists. (Department of Main Roads, Main Roads Magazine, Vol. V, No. 3, May 1934, p. 54) Extensive negotiations between Penrith Council and the Department of Main Roads on the topic of where the work crews might camp ensued. The Council did not want workers to get in the way of the all-important tourist activities which were centred around the bridge. (Roads and Maritime Services File 5/358.123;1)

Since its construction, the bridge has attracted much attention in the local media, and within the community. The Nepean Times issues of the 1880s contain many letters regarding management of traffic on the bridge. For example, a small fire on the bridge, as a result of a spark igniting horse manure was reported, with the potential catastrophic inflagration of the entire bridge deck predicted. In another letter the installation of lamps on the bridge is critiqued due to their non-operation, leaving this important bridge in a state of darkness. In another, the augmentation of the duties of caretaker on this bridge 'reckoned to be one of the grandest in the colony' was recommended (Nepean Times, 14th April 1883, p. 2, col. 3; 20th December 1884, p. 2, col. 3; 26th January 1884, p. 2, col. 2; 19th April 1884, p. 2, col. 1) The Department of Main Roads received a steady stream of correspondence through the 1920s-40s from individuals and institutions such as the Penrith and District Chamber of Commerce regarding the modification of the enclosing girders of the bridge to facilitate views of the river when crossing the bridge. Many suggestions of how this could be achieved were furnished, but none considered to be satisfactory from an engineering perspective. (Roads and Maritime Services file5/358.123;1) Many submissions have also been made since 1950 regarding the construction of a footway outside the girders and widening of the carriageway. (Roads and Maritime Services file5/358.123;1)

The history and form of the bridge have also been popular subjects in local historical narratives and in writing on the railways. A 1907 article described the Nepean Bridge as 'an interesting object lesson of the advances made during the last half century bridge construction, and as a record of the rapid growth of railways in . . . New South Wales' (Nepean Times, 4th May 1907; 25th September 1926, p. 7 col. 2; 20th August 1932, p. 6, col. 1,2) The distinctive form of the bridge gave rise to a widespread myth that the main spans of the bridge were constructed in England to be exported to the Crimea, their sturdy design intended to withstand a Russian winter. The bridge is supposed to have ended up in NSW because Britain could not sell the bridge to her enemy during the Crimean War. (Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre, n/d)

Boating for pleasure, picnicking, and swimming have all been important activities in Penrith from the 1880s, and have centred recreational activities around the river and the Victoria Bridge. Swimming was regarded as somewhat indecent in the 1880s, and was only permitted on one side of the Nepean River Bridge, out of sight of the ladies. Several Sydney boys were arrested in April 1882 for swimming unknowingly on the wrong side of the bridge. Competitive rowing has also been a significant activity on the Nepean at Penrith, with national and international races taking place there from the 1850s (Stacker, 2002 p. 50-4; Nepean Times, 14th April 1882, p. 3, col, 30-4) In the late 1920s the space underneath the bridge (probably on the western side) was utilised as a semi-permanent camp by itinerants, much to the concern of Council. (Roads and Maritime Services file5/358.123;1, correspondence 8th May 1929)

 

Listings

Heritage Listing Reference Number Gazette Number Gazette Page
Register of the National Estate       
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage register       
Local Environmental Plan  NR4  180  10629 
National Trust of Australia register       

 

Assessment of Significance

Historical Significance The Nepean Bridge or Victoria Bridge is of historic significance as a key component in road and rail transport routes which are significant in the history and economy of NSW. As a road bridge, the structure has a significant place in the story of negotiating the crossing of the flood prone Nepean River, as the first successful bridge crossing at Penrith, and one which has achieved an age of over 130 years. The high level of the bridge and its robust stone piers, as well as the iron span on the western end of the bridge added after its initial completion are articulate about the devastating potential of the river and the high level of persistence, intelligence and investment required to bridge it. The structure was constructed as a vital component in the extension of the rail line from Penrith over the Blue Mountains in the 1860s-1870s, which was a significant event locally for workers and community, and had significant impacts on the economies of districts along the line and of the State as a whole. As a bridge which started life carrying road and rail for forty years, which has subsequently been adapted for road use alone it is a highly articulate structure in the wider story of rail and road transport over the mountains, which has shaped the history of the Sydney area and its relationship with the State's west.
Historical Association The Victoria Bridge has a strong association with John Whitton, Engineer-in-Chief for Railways, who designed and supervised the construction of the bridge itself and the Penrith. Wentworth Falls railway of which it formed a part. The quality and longevity of the bridge is evidence of Whitton's correct understanding of the power of the Nepean and his enormous commitment to build railways of a high standard, employing cutting edge British technology, in a colony barely out of its infancy.
Aesthetic/Technical Significance The bridge has a high level of technical and aesthetic significance. Whitton's design employed the latest in British Bridge technology, utilising the through girder form, reinforced with boxes at the top and bottom of the girders, and long continuous spans to achieve maximum waterway, a feature of major importance at this site. The construction of the bridge constituted a major project carried out under extremely difficult circumstances. The bridge has strong and bold lines, providing a reassuring presence in a landscape continually attacked by high floods which destroyed two previous bridges. It is a highly visually distinctive structure, and its enclosing form has always provided a distinctive travel experience, whether crossing by train, horse drawn vehicle, motor vehicle or on foot. The Victoria Bridge and the visually complimentary rail bridge adjacent form a landmark from both the Great Western Highway and from the Nepean River and its banks. Both bridges are visually articulate about their structural properties and together, through their contrasting forms, provide an essay on the developments in metal bridge design across the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
Social Significance The Victoria Bridge has a high level of social significance. Public esteem for the bridge and public interest in its management and use has proved enduring over its life-time. Its historic, technical and aesthetic qualities are widely recognised within the Penrith, Sydney and Blue Mountains community and more widely amongst railway and bridge enthusiasts and historians. It forms a landmark in the Penrith area and has been a centrepiece of the tourist and sporting activities of the Nepean, which have attracted boating parties, swimmers, rowers, spectators and picnickers from a wide catchment.
Research Significance As one of the oldest metal bridges in Australia it is an important benchmark, with the Menangle Railway bridge and Prince Alfred Bridge at Gundagai, giving insight into early bridge design and construction practices that would be difficult to gain from other sources.
Rarity The Victoria Bridge has rarity value as one of the oldest metal bridges in NSW and in Australia, and one of only two surviving of the continuous through girder type in NSW.
Representativenes This bridge is representative of early wrought iron heavy bridge design, another example of which is the Menangle rail bridge. Similar scale bridges were being built in England at the time.
Integrity/Intactness Intact
Assessed Significance State

 

References

 

Type Author Year Title
Written  'Penrith Valley Heritage Drive'    Penrith Valley Visitor Information Centre 
Written      Roads and Maritime Services Bridge File 5/358.123 Pt. 1 
Written    1883  The Nepean Times 14th April 1882; 14th April, 1883; 26th January 1884; 19th April 1884; 28th June 1884; 20th December 1884; 
Written  Department of Main Roads  1934  Main Roads Magazine, Vol. V, No. 3, May 1934 
Written  Lorraine Stacker    'Victoria Bridge - A Story of Four Bridges' 
Written  Thomas Richards, Government Printer  1879  The Railway Guide of New South Wales 
Written  Singleton C.C.  1956  'Ascents of Lapstone Hill' The Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin No. 227, September 1956 
Written  Lorraine Stacker  2002  A Pictorial History of Penrith and St Marys 
Written  Cardno MBK  2001  Study of Heritage Significance of Pre-1930 Roads and Maritime Services Controlled Metal Road Bridges in NSW 
Written  Palmer, H    Some Bridges Around Penrith, Nepean District Historical Society 

 

Study details

Title Year Author Inspected by Guidelines used
Study of Heritage Significance of a Group of Roads and Maritime Services Controlled Bridges & Ferries  2004  HAAH - Sue Rosen and Associates    Yes 
Study of Heritage Sig. of pre 1930 Roads and Maritime Services Controlled Metal Road Bridges in NSW  2001  Cardno MBK    Yes 
Register of Australian Historic Bridges  1983  O'Connor    No 

 

Custom fields

Roads and Maritime Services Region Sydney
Bridge Number 333
CARMS File Number ****
Property Number Bridge
Conservation Management Plan ****

 

Images

Bridge viewed from upstream
Bridge viewed from upstream

Western approach spans, piers and abutment
Western approach spans, piers and abutment

Northeastern pier of eastern river span showing sandstone outer decoration. Vents to top box of box girder, and grille access to lower girder are visible.on centreline
Northeastern pier of eastern river span showing sandstone outer decoration. Vents to top box of box girder, and grille access to lower girder are visible.on centreline

View west across bridge
View west across bridge

Damaged stiffeners on inner face of northern box girder
Damaged stiffeners on inner face of northern box girder

Eastern bridge approach with original road approach on left
Eastern bridge approach with original road approach on left

Underside of river span showing cross girders and reinforced concrete deck with longitudinal construction joint on centreline
Underside of river span showing cross girders and reinforced concrete deck with longitudinal construction joint on centreline

Pipe bridge supported between old road/rail bridge on left and 1907 rail bridge on right
Pipe bridge supported between old road/rail bridge on left and 1907 rail bridge on right

Eastern approach spans
Eastern approach spans

Top box detail showing riveted multiplate constructionon centreline
Top box detail showing riveted multiplate constructionon centreline

View east across bridge
View east across bridge

Longitudinal steel beams of eastern approach span, with reinforced concrete cross beam on pier headstock
Longitudinal steel beams of eastern approach span, with reinforced concrete cross beam on pier headstock

Approach span endpost DMR 1934
Approach span endpost DMR 1934

Makers plaque on adjacent rail bridge
Makers plaque on adjacent rail bridge

Western river span in background with cast iron caisson pier. Steel beam and reinforced concrete approach span deck is in foreground.
Western river span in background with cast iron caisson pier. Steel beam and reinforced concrete approach span deck is in foreground.

Victoria Bridge - General View - Oblique
Victoria Bridge - General View - Oblique

Western approach with original sharp curve away from rail alignment still in use.
Western approach with original sharp curve away from rail alignment still in use.

Eastern abutment
Eastern abutment