The Howard Smith Wharves & the Story Bridge (Wilson Outlook Reserve, South East Queensland)

The Howard Smith Wharves & the Story Bridge (Wilson Outlook Reserve, South East Queensland)

The Howard Smith Wharves & the Story Bridge (Wilson Outlook Reserve, South East Queensland)

The Howard Smith Wharves:

The Howard Smith Wharves were constructed 1934-early 1940s by the Queensland government to provide relief work during the depression years of the 1930s. Initially known as the Brisbane Central Wharves, the project was undertaken in conjunction with the construction of the Story Bridge, one of the Forgan-Smith government’s principal employment-generating projects. Like other such schemes, the Brisbane Central Wharves not only provided employment, but established important infrastructure for Queensland’s future development. Brisbane Central Wharves were leased by the Australian coastal shipping company Howard Smith Co. Ltd from the mid-1930s until the early 1960s, and are more usually referred to as the Howard Smith Wharves.

The site had an even earlier connection with Howard Smith, as the Brisbane Central Wharves replaced smaller wharves constructed in the early years of the 20th century by Brisbane Wharves Ltd, for lease by William Howard Smith & Sons Ltd [later Howard Smith Co. Ltd].

The construction of wharves beyond Circular Quay was part of the gradual move downstream of port facilities at Brisbane, in a process which began in the 1840s. Following the opening of Moreton Bay to free settlement in 1842, commercial wharf facilities were erected at South Brisbane, which offered more direct access for Darling Downs and Ipswich commodities than the north bank of the river where the government wharf [Queen’s Wharf] was located. By 1850 there were 5 commercial wharves on the south side of the Brisbane River.

However, following the declaration of Brisbane as a port of entry in 1846, a customs house was built in Queen Street near the Town Reach of the Brisbane River, on the north side of the river at Petrie Bight. From this time, the Town Reach rivalled South Brisbane in terms of shipping activity. In the late 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, a number of shipping companies and private investors constructed wharves and warehouses between Petrie Bight and Alice Street, near the botanic gardens. To encourage private business activity the colonial government and Brisbane Municipal Council also built wharves along Petrie Bight in the 1870s and leased them to shipping companies. By 1900 the Brisbane Municipal Council owned a string of wharves from the custom’s house to Boundary Street.

Private companies constructed wharves further downstream at New Farm, Teneriffe and Newstead from the early 1900s. In the 1920s-30s the government built railway wharves at Pinkenba, branch rail lines to Teneriffe and Hamilton, and the state cold stores and reinforced concrete wharves at Hamilton. After the Story Bridge was opened in 1940 most large overseas and interstate vessels did not use the wharves at the Town Reach. Hamilton became the heart of Brisbane’s port, and the part of the river from the South Brisbane Reach, round the Town Reach to Petrie Bight lost the ascendancy it had around the turn of the century. Since the 1960s, most of Brisbane’s port activity has relocated to the mouth of the river.

In the 1880s William Howard Smith & Sons Ltd [later Howard Smith Co. Ltd] leased the Commercial Wharf on the Town Reach from the Brisbane Municipal Council. Howard Smith was one of several important shipping companies which traded on the Australian coast from the mid-19th century, and was one of the earliest. The business was established in Melbourne in 1854 by Captain William Howard Smith, and in the second half of the 19th century developed as one of the dominant companies in the Australian coastal shipping trade. Initially the firm traded between Melbourne and England, but in 1860 entered the inter-colonial trade, and from 1864 concentrated solely on this. Howard Smith was trading in central Queensland by the early 1870s, and in the 1880s extended its operations to northern Queensland. In the 1890s, the firm entered into a strong rivalry with other coastal shipping companies for the lucrative intra- and inter-colonial passenger trade.

In the late 1890s, Howard Smith moved downstream from the Commercial Wharves to the Brisbane City Council’s Boundary Street Wharf at Petrie Bight, and in the early years of the 20th century leased adjacent new wharves constructed by Brisbane Wharves Limited at the base of the New Farm cliffs. These wharves were extended c1912 and in the 1920s, and in the 1930s were resumed by the Queensland government and rebuilt as the Brisbane Central Wharves.

The resumption and rebuilding of the Brisbane Central Wharves was an adjunct to the construction of the Story Bridge between Kangaroo Point and Fortitude Valley. As part of the bridge project the state government had resolved to improve the Brisbane River at Petrie Bight, by widening it to a uniform width of 800 feet (240 m), deepening the draught to about 26 feet (8 m), and improving the river approaches. This necessitated demolishing the existing wharves and sheds at the Brisbane Central Wharves, excavating the cliff below Bowen Terrace, and widening the river at this point by up to 70 feet (21 metres). The path of the river was cut back and made smoother. Three chords were planned around the bend in the river, each providing a berth of about 500 feet (152 m). The total work, described in the 1935 Annual Report of the Bureau of Industry (the government body in charge of the project), was estimated to cost in excess of £400,000.

Work on the scheme commenced in 1934 and continued into the early 1940s. In January 1935 the existing wharf facilities occupied by Howard Smith Co. Ltd were resumed, along with a disused wharf upstream owned by the Brisbane City Council. The construction of the wharves was undertaken using day labour, and was staged over several years so that port activity could continue.

The first of the new structures erected was a two-storeyed reinforced concrete building completed by 1936 as offices for Howard Smith Co. Ltd. It was located on the waterfront, and commanded excellent views of the Town and Shafton Reaches of the Brisbane River.

Three berths with five new storage sheds were planned. Each of the gabled sheds was constructed primarily of hardwood timber, and sheeted and roofed with timber boards and corrugated iron. Sliding doors within these sheds opened towards the river for the handling of cargo. Sheds nos.1-3 were located at the upper berth under the Story Bridge, the middle berth accommodated the large no.4 shed [double-gabled , twice as wide as the others, and much longer], and no.5 shed was located at the lower berth downstream. No.5 shed was the first to be erected and a temporary wharf constructed. The middle berth with no.4 shed was almost completed by 1937, then work commenced on the upper berth, which was to contain sheds 1-3. This was completed in 1939.

For the wharves, a reinforced concrete base was laid on the rock at the river’s edge, with timber piles rammed into the riverbed. Large hardwood timbers were used for the walings and decking, which extended about 24 feet (8 metres) out over the river. Hundreds of thousands of feet of timber – mostly hardwoods such as ironbark, blue gum, yellow stringybark, spotted gum and messmate – were required to build the berths.

The road widening behind the sheds, which necessitated the cutting back of the New Farm cliffs, was completed by 1938.

As work continued on the lower berth into 1940, the Second World War intervened. By 1942 the men working on the Petrie Bight works were transferred to other projects more directly connected with the war effort, and work on the wharves was closed down. The third berth appears never to have been completed. A 1945 plan of the site shows the upper and middle berths complete but the lower berth still without any timber decking for wharfage.

In 1941-42 the Brisbane City Council constructed five air-raid shelters near the Howard Smith Wharves below the cliff face, for the Bureau of Industry. The threat of invasion by Japan appeared very real at the time, there was a substantial workforce employed at the wharves, and the site was located adjacent to the Story Bridge – a prime target in wartime. Three of the shelters were the usual ‘pillbox’ style built by the City Council at many places in the inner city and in the suburbs. This was a standard type, rectangular in plan and constructed of concrete. However, the other two shelters at the Howard Smith Wharves were constructed of large stormwater pipes with multiple entrances. The Brisbane City Council used concrete stormwater pipes to cover the slit trenches in the Botanic Gardens and Victoria Park, but no other air raid shelters of the ‘pipe’ type have been identified in Brisbane. It is not known why the two different types of shelters were constructed at the Howard Smith Wharves.

Howard Smith signed a 21 year lease over the Brisbane Central Wharves site in 1936. After this lease expired the company made the inevitable move in the early 1960s to better facilities downstream at the mouth of the Brisbane River. The Water Police then occupied part of the site [the office building and several sheds], and Queensland Works Department has used the site for storage for many years. Vehicles impounded by the police were stored here as well.

A large part of the timber decking from both the upper and middle berths was washed away during the 1974 floods.

Most of the wharves which were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the central city have been demolished in the riverside re-developments of the last 20 years. The former Howard Smith Wharves remain one of the few surviving, and the most intact, with office, sheds and wharfage.

The Story Bridge:

This steel and concrete cantilevered bridge was constructed between 1935 and 1940 by contractors Evans Deakin-Hornibrook for the Queensland Government.

As early as January 1926 the Greater Brisbane Council’s Cross River Commission had recommended the construction of a bridge at Kangaroo Point. Due to sectarian interests and prohibitive costs, however, the council chose instead to erect the Grey Street Bridge in 1929-32.

In 1933 the new Queensland Labor Government amended the Bureau of Industry Act, permitting the establishment of a Bridge Board chaired by JR Kemp, Commissioner for Main Roads, to plan a government-constructed toll bridge at Kangaroo Point.

Premature in terms of traffic requirements, the bridge was promoted as an employment-generating scheme. It was one of three such projects undertaken by the Queensland Government in the mid-1930s, the others being the Stanley River Dam and the University of Queensland campus at St Lucia.

Dr JCC Bradfield, designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was appointed consulting engineer on 1 January 1934. He chose JA Holt as supervising engineer for the design of the bridge and supervision of the contract. Design and site surveys were undertaken in 1934.

Although modelled on the Montreal Harbour Bridge, completed in 1930, Bradfield emphasised that the grey steel elevation of the bridge was designed to harmonise with Brisbane’s natural skyline.

Tenders for the Kangaroo Point Bridge were called in January 1935. The contract was let to Evans Deakin-Hornibrook Constructions Pty Ltd, with a price of £1,154,000, and construction commenced in May.

The Story Bridge remains the largest steel bridge designed and built mostly by Australians from Australian materials. Approximately 95 per cent of the materials used were of Australian manufacture, and 89 per cent of the cost of works was expended in Queensland.

All the steelwork, approximately 12,000 tonnes, was fabricated at the Rocklea workshop of Evans, Deakin & Co. Ltd. One truss of each type of approach span, and all joints of the main bridge, were assembled at the workshop then dismantled before removal, ensuring there were no difficulties in erecting the steelwork on site.

The concrete work and erection of the superstructure was carried out on site by the MR Hornibrook organisation.

The bridge was constructed simultaneously from both ends, with the main piers erected first. Excavations for the southern pier necessitated men working in watertight airlock chambers within steel caissons up to 40 metres below ground level. This was the deepest airlock work done in Australia at the time.

The approach spans were erected by a hammer-head crane operating along a runway. Then the anchor-cantilever trusses were erected in five stages using a 40 tonne derrick crane running on a temporary track on the bridge deck. Finally the bridge was closed using a system of wedge devices inserted in the top and bottom chords of each truss at the ends of the suspended span.

During 1938, which was the busiest period of construction, close to 400 persons were employed in the workshops, offices and on site.

From mid-1935 to 1940 the bridge was known as the Jubilee Bridge, honouring George V, but when opened on 6 July 1940 it was named after JD Story, the Public Service Commissioner and a member of the Bridge Board. The designer and the chairman of the Bridge Board were honoured in the naming of the southern approach viaduct as the Bradfield Highway and the northern approach as Kemp Place.

Although an engineering success, the bridge was regarded initially as a white elephant, the toll being unpopular and the traffic demand negligible. Not until the arrival of American troops in 1942 was the Story Bridge fully utilised. Nevertheless, the final cost of £1.6 million was recuperated within seven years, and in 1947 the bridge was transferred to the Brisbane City Council and the toll was removed.

The Story Bridge has become one of Brisbane’s most widely recognised landmarks. Its illumination, carried out by SEQEB in time for the 1986 Warana festival, reflects its unique status as a symbol of the city.

Source: Queensland Heritage Register.

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