||Prouts Bridge crosses the Cooks River on Canterbury Road, a long established and important transport conduit to the Canterbury community, on the site of an early punt and then bridge crossing constructed by local landowner Cornelius Prout. The Cooks River was traversed and described by settlers in 1789 and given its present name by 1796. The districts surrounding the lower reaches of the river on both banks were initially known as Bulanaming. The Reverend Richard Johnson, army chaplain, who arrived with the first fleet, was the first grantee in the Canterbury area, receiving his grant, named Canterbury Vale, in 1793. The grant was successfully farmed, and more land was added in 1796 and 1793, however, Johnson returned to England. (Kennedy, 1982, p. 42) Although much of the land to the south of the Cooks River was alienated by grants between 1804 and 1830 and although the stands of timber and the shells along Botany Bay, which had potential for lime-making, were attractive to the colony, the swamps of the lower reaches of the Cooks River made the area difficult to access. Hunting parties and those intending to flee the colony were regular visitors to the area, followed by timber getters, but until the 1830s the problem of access across the river prevented a significant number of settlers from making the Canterbury-Arncliffe area their home, and created difficulties for those who did. (Kennedy, 1982, pp. 112-3) Crossings were made initially by fording the River, often necessitating circuitous routes. (Larcombe, 1979, p. 58-9) Hannah Laycock, owner of the Kings Grove Estate, probably had a bridge built before 1809. Surveyor James Meehan described it as "a very slender bad bridge - rather dangerous for a carriage". In 1831 Cornelius Prout, owner of land on the southern riverbank fronting Beamish Street and today's Bexley Road, after whom the current bridge is named, established a punt service across the river, which was accessed via a track through his land. (Larcombe, 1979, p. 77; Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, 2000, pp. 4-8) His may have been preceded by and co-existed with other punts further downriver about which less is known. Another important access point was formed in 1840, when a dam was constructed on the river, in the vicinity of Undercliffe, with the intention of providing a more reliable and abundant fresh water supply to Sydney than that provided by the Tank Stream and the Botany swamps. While not entirely successful as a dam, it provided a very important crossing point between its construction and its ruin by floods in 1864, possibly forming the crossing for the Sydney-Wollongong Road surveyed by Mitchell and constructed with convict labour between 1842 and 1845 (Larcombe, 1979, p. 58-9, 77; Kennedy, 1982, p. 113-4)
In 1841 Cornelius Prout replaced his punt with a three span bridge with stone piers on the same site, an ideal access point for the Canterbury community, using convict labour under a stonemason by the name of Walsh. The stone was quarried from the property of Robert Campbell, on the opposite bank of the river. Prout and Campbell facilitated public access to the bridge by designating a roadway through their properties. The bridge provided a crucial link 'between the most heavily populated part of the parish and the most likely destinations, Canterbury, the sugar works on the Cooks River, Parramatta Road and the Sydney markets.' The bridge was partly financed by subscription, and partly by Prout, who subsequently sought to recoup his share of the expense by establishing a toll on the bridge for the non-subscribers. Prout constructed a stone toll house for the purpose. By 1850 locals were expressing discontent about the continued collection of the toll, especially since the bridge was not being satisfactorily maintained. An anonymous group commissioned solicitors to make a submission to the Colonial Secretary on the subject. In 1853 the stubborn Prout staged a lock out on the bridge, and for the second time a frustrated local resident took to the tollgates with an axe. After energetic petitioning, and the death of Prout in February 1854, the Government gazetted a public road from Parramatta Road at Petersham to Prout's bridge. The road was placed in the hands of a trust, who took a toll for the maintenance of the road. The bridge was widened in 1899 and again in 1924. (Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, 2000, pp. 4-8)
In the late 1930s a number of serious accidents and safety concerns within the community prompted the consideration of adjustments to the approaches and the pavement crossing the bridge. However, at the same time, the Public Works Department was engaged in channel works on the Cooks River, and planned to reconfigure the river at the site of the bridge to better cope with flood conditions, widening the top of the channel to approximately 200 feet, in comparison with the span of the current bridge at 95 feet. Flood waters had many times flowed over the bridge, and in the 1890s a horse-drawn bus had been washed off it, causing the deaths of the horses and the ticket collector. By March 1938, the channel works had reached the railway bridge approximately a kilometre upstream of Canterbury Road, and continued to race towards the bridge as deliberations about its future continued over the following year. The extension of the existing three span bridge to five spans was seriously considered, but concerns about cracking in the deck; doubts about whether suitable stone might be procured for the extending and building additional piers; aesthetic concerns about how the altered structure would look; and finally, the lower cost represented by the replacement of the bridge with a concrete structure, led to the decision to construct a new bridge rather than extend and widen the existing one. (Roads and Maritime Services File 79.191;1, Austral Archaeology, 2000, pp. 6, 8)
The Department of Main Roads design for a reinforced concrete beam bridge on an alignment with a 600ft radius curve, the contemporary standard, was approved in November 1941. The construction of the bridge was to be funded in the main by the Public Works Department as part of the channel works, with contributions by the Department of Main Roads and Canterbury Council. Construction of the new bridge was considered urgent because of the possibilities of flooding due to the widened channel immediately upstream of the bridge. However, in 1942, the completed drawings were put aside as labour was diverted to urgent defence works. After the war, the construction of the bridge was further delayed, the project missing out on inclusion in the Department of Main Roads Post War Reconstruction Programme. The NRMA, the Canterbury Municipal Reform Association and the Simpson Reserve Park Committee wrote letters of protest about the continued lack of action. Improvement works to the existing bridge, to eliminate safety concerns, were again considered in late 1945. (Roads and Maritime Services File 79.191;1) By June 1947, construction had commenced, the old bridge having been partly demolished and the foundations for the new bridge underway. (Austral Archaeology, 2000, p. 8) Where, in ideal circumstances, such a bridge could be completed within three to six months, the construction of Prouts Bridge limped along through post-war exigencies until early 1951. The cost of the construction exploded as wages increased and materials became more expensive since estimates were made pre-war. Proceedings were held up as the delivery of steel reinforcement was delayed and formwork carpenters were difficult to find and keep. Excessively wet weather also slowed construction work. The bridge was constructed in two halves, so that the road could be kept open to traffic, but while work continued, access across the river was slowed and several municipal projects were held up, including the plan to beautify the area around the bridge, the "gateway to Canterbury". (Roads and Maritime Services File 79.191;1) The prevailing post-war scarcity rendered the stone and steel joists from the demolished bridge desirable to the Department of Public Works for extension of the Undercliffe Bridge over the Cooks River; to the Department of Main Roads for the new bridge on General Holmes Drive over the Cooks River; and to Canterbury Council for stone works in the Simpson Reserve adjacent to Prouts Bridge, and protracted negotiations over custody of the materials ensued. (Roads and Maritime Services File 79.191;1 and Roads and Maritime Services File 79.191;2) A small section of coursed stone wall from the earlier bridge is located on the eastern side of the northern abutment.
Reinforced concrete beam or girder bridges were the most common type of bridge constructed in the period from 1925 to 1948, providing an efficient, economical and aesthetically pleasing solution to a wide range of crossing types. After the 1950s these designs began to be superseded by composite steel and concrete bridges, which became more popular as steel became more readily available. (Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, 2000, p. 11)
The bridge was generally known as Prouts Bridge or the Canterbury Road Bridge until 1981 when the Canterbury and District Historical Society put a request to the Canterbury Municipal Council that the bridge be formally named 'Prouts Bridge'. (Austral Archaeology, 2000, p. 10) It is unfortunate that there is no extant signage at the bridge or adjacent park recording this historical link.