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Chrimes Watch: Celebrating Australian civil engineering in Tasmania

In November I was invited by the conference organising committee to lecture at the 16th Engineering Heritage Conference in Hobart, Tasmania. The conference was ‘conserving our heritage - make a difference’, and covered all engineering disciplines, with representations from across Australia and New Zealand. One of the most moving presentations was by Andrew Marriott on the ‘performance of heritage buildings in the 2010/2011 Christchurch earthquake swarms’. Over 40% of the heritage buildings in the centre of Christchurch have been undermined - a devastating blow to the character of the city and the population’s sense of place. Bill Jordan also gave a fascinating lecture on the “engineering of Budj Bin”, giving an insight into the engineering of Aborigine culture.

Oldest bridge

For me the trip provided an opportunity to see first-hand some of the works of the British engineers who developed Australia. Close to Hobart, Richmond Bridge is the oldest surviving bridge in Australia. A six-span masonry arch bridge in a picturesque setting, it was designed by major Thomas Bell and built between 1823 and 1825 by convict labour. Thomas Bell (1782-1866) was a Scot who served in the Peninsular War before being posted to Hobart where he became engineer and inspector of public works, responsible for some early roads and public buildings. In 1824 he went to Madras.

In Hobart itself the work of John Lee Archer (1791-1852) is much in evidence. Archer worked with John Rennie, taking up the position of civil engineer to Van Dieman’s Land in 1826. He was responsible for designing the land reclamation for wharfage around Hobart harbour using convict labour and stone from Kennedy’s quarry. He was also the architect of a number of buildings, including the present Parliament House, St Luke’s Anglican church in Richmond with an interesting timber roof, and St George’s Church, Hobart. The latter’s tower was completed by James Blackburn (1803-1854) who went to Hobart as a convict, but re-built his career in Australia, culminating in the original planning of Melbourne’s water supply.

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