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Bradfield, John Job Crew (1867–1943)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Job Crew Bradfield (1867-1943), by H. C. Krutli

John Job Crew Bradfield (1867-1943), by H. C. Krutli

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23278893

John Job Crew Bradfield (1867-1943), civil engineer, was born on 26 December 1867 at Sandgate, Queensland, fourth son of John Edward Bradfield, labourer and Crimean War veteran, and his wife Maria, née Crew. His parents, brothers and four sisters had arrived in Brisbane from England in 1857. Educated at the North Ipswich State School and the Ipswich Grammar School on a scholarship, Bradfield passed the Sydney senior public examination in 1885, gaining the medal for chemistry. Dux of his school, he won a Queensland government university exhibition and in 1886 matriculated at the University of Sydney. From St Andrew's College, he continued his brilliant academic career, graduating B.E. with the University Gold Medal in 1889.

From May, Bradfield worked as a draftsman under the chief engineer, railways, in Brisbane. On 28 May 1891 at St John's Pro-Cathedral he married Edith Jenkins. That year he was retrenched and joined the New South Wales Department of Public Works as a temporary draftsman, becoming permanent in 1895. An associate from 1893 of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, he graduated M.E. with first-class honours and the University Medal in 1896. He had been a founder of the Sydney University Engineering Society in 1895 and was president in 1902-03 and 1919-20. In his 1903 presidential address he drew attention to the competition, initiated in 1900, for the design of a bridge across Sydney Harbour; there had been agitation for a bridge or tunnel since the 1880s.

Bradfield was associated with a great range of engineering work including the Cataract Dam near Sydney and the Burrinjuck Dam which formed part of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. In January 1909 he was promoted assistant engineer at a salary of £400. He had worked on some important projects, but he was not his own master. In August 1910 he applied for the foundation chair of engineering in the new University of Queensland, but was unsuccessful despite twenty-two testimonials from senior public servants, academics, engineers and architects such as Norman Selfe, (Sir) George Knibbs, (Sir) Edgeworth David, Robert Irvine and (Sir) John Sulman.

In February 1912 in evidence to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works Bradfield proposed a suspension bridge to connect Sydney and North Sydney, but in April also submitted a cantilever design. Next year the committee recommended acceptance of his scheme for construction of a cantilever bridge from Dawes Point to Milsons Point. In 1913 his title was changed to chief engineer for metropolitan railway construction.

Plans for a city railway were already well developed by his predecessors when, in 1914, Bradfield went overseas to investigate new approaches to metropolitan railway construction. Early next year he reported on the proposed electric lines for the city of Sydney. Aware that a bill was soon to come before parliament, he went to considerable effort to show the practicality of his scheme. He was at his most convincing in this report, as in all his later publications, when he managed to combine both the functional and the 'city beautiful' aspects of his plan. In the debates on the bill, his engineering talents were praised by both sides. However most sections of his scheme were postponed as a general war economy measure.

In October 1913, with J. D. Fitzgerald and Sulman, Bradfield had attended the inaugural meeting of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales; at the first Australian Town Planning Conference and Exhibition held in Adelaide in October 1917, he argued in his paper, 'The transit problems of greater Sydney', that his scheme of suburban electrification would benefit large property owners, new home purchasers and the general public by opening up new land, with quicker transport and cheaper fares. He predicted that Sydney's population would reach at least 2,226,000 by 1950. Bradfield maintained—apparently without reprimand from government—an extraordinary barrage of articles and public addresses advocating his plan.

In March 1922 he was sent overseas to inquire into tenders for a cantilever bridge. Later that year the Harbour Bridge Act was carried; Bradfield had advised R. T. Ball to amend the bill to provide for either a cantilever or an arch bridge, according to his specifications, as developments in light steel made the latter possible. In 1924 he recommended that the government should accept the tender of Dorman Long & Co. of Middlesbrough, England.

The easy passage of the Harbour Bridge Act undoubtedly increased Bradfield's determination to promote other sections of his scheme. By mid-1923 the public could see results of the Bradfield plan in the massive excavations and tunnel-building in Hyde Park for the underground railway. In 1924 he received the first doctorate of science in engineering awarded by the University of Sydney, for a thesis entitled 'The city and suburban electric railways and the Sydney Harbour Bridge'. One of his examiners, Sir John Monash, wrote: 'these works are undoubtedly of exceptional magnitude, being in some respects unique in Engineering practice'. The opening of the St James and Museum stations and the new section of the Central Station at Chalmers Street on 20 December 1926 marked his plan's first result. In February 1930 he was curtly retired by the railway commissioners; however cabinet preserved his status in the Department of Public Works and £3000 salary, and he continued to represent the government in dealings with the contractors and to supervise construction of the bridge.

During this extended period of public and parliamentary exposure Bradfield's expertise was never questioned. But in 1929 controversy flared over who really designed the bridge, inspired by a series of articles in the Sydney Morning Herald by (Sir) Ralph Freeman (1880-1950), consulting engineer to Dorman Long, who was described by the Herald as 'the designer' of the bridge and who conveyed the same impression in his articles. Ball, now minister for lands, said it was difficult to determine what was really meant by the term 'designer'; he would describe the bridge as a Bradfield-Dorman Long design. E. A. Buttenshaw called for a report on the matter from Bradfield, who wrote, 'I originated the cantilever bridge design recommended by the public works committee in 1913 and subsequently the arch bridge design of 1650 feet span'; he went on to say Freeman was not the designer and that tenders were called on his own design. The controversy was never finally resolved, but when Bradfield retired in 1933, the director of public works stated that Bradfield was the designer of the bridge and that 'no other person by any stretch of imagination, can claim that distinction'. However, modifications had been made to the design after Freeman's visit in 1926, and in 1932 Dorman Long threatened to sue the government if it erected a plaque naming Bradfield as the designer. One informed view was that the 'detail design was entrusted to Lawrence Ennis who became first Honorary Member of the Institution [of Engineers, Australia] in 1932'. Professor Crawford Munro also considered that Bradfield 'did not design the Sydney Harbour Bridge which we now behold'.

The highlight of Bradfield's career undoubtedly was the opening of the bridge on 19 March 1932 (despite the antics of Captain de Groot of the New Guard). He was a member of the official party and the governor Sir Philip Game named the bridge highway after him. The Depression was to suspend the Bradfield plan for well over a decade, and the construction of the Eastern Suburbs railway was far in the future. In 1933 he was appointed C.M.G. and he retired from the public service in July.

In 1934 Bradfield was appointed consulting engineer for the design, fabrication and construction of a bridge and approaches across the Brisbane River from Kangaroo Point to Bowen Terrace. The Story Bridge was a symmetrical cantilever of 1463 ft (446 m) in length, with a clear span of 924 ft (282 m); construction began in 1935 and the bridge was opened in 1940. He was also technical adviser to the constructors of the Hornibrook Highway near Brisbane and helped to plan and design the University of Queensland's new site at St Lucia; the university admitted him to an ad eund. doctorate of engineering in 1935.

Although in most respects severely pragmatic, Bradfield had a penchant for the grandiose that was revealed in some of his wilder plans for high-rise office blocks astride the southern approaches of the Harbour Bridge and in his proposals for a massive water-diversion scheme in Queensland. In his early seventies he put considerable time and energy into publicizing a plan to irrigate the western districts of Queensland and part of Central Australia by damming certain coastal rivers and running water-pipes through the Great Dividing Range. Aspects of this scheme, and especially his lack of scientific evidence, were publicly attacked by G. W. Leeper of the school of agricultural science at the University of Melbourne.

Bradfield had wide interests within his chosen profession. Early in 1916 he was appointed by the New South Wales government to a committee to establish and manage a school of aviation at Richmond. In 1919 he was a founder of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and as a councillor in 1920-24 and 1927 represented it on the Australian Commonwealth Standards Association; he was also a member of the Australian National Research Council. He always maintained close links with the University of Sydney: he was a member of its senate in 1913-43, a trustee of Wesley College in 1917-43, a councillor of the Women's College from 1931, and from 1942 deputy chancellor. He was a member of the University Club and from 1922 of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Bradfield regularly attended St John's Church of England, Gordon, and was a keen gardener. He died at his home at Gordon on 23 September 1943 and was buried in St John's cemetery; a memorial service was held at St Andrew's Cathedral. He was survived by his wife, five sons and a daughter; his youngest son Keith inherited his father's interest in aviation and was assistant director general, Department of Civil Aviation, in 1957-68. Bradfield's estate was valued for probate at £13,843: his salary had been 'by no means commensurate' with his importance. A portrait by F. W. Leist is at the University of Sydney, and others by Gerard Nathan and Joseph Wolinski are held by descendants.

Bradfield was small in stature, with a quiet and humorous disposition. His life was one of total professional zeal and commitment, and he became an outstanding Australian engineer in his generation. Florence Taylor noted his 'tremendous faith in his ability which is not a conceit when there is an enormous knowledge behind that faith and ability'. He was honoured by the award of the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell Medal by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1932, the (W. C.) Kernot Memorial Medal by the University of Melbourne in 1933, and the Telford Gold Medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1934. His vision of Sydney captured the imagination of many, including J. T. Lang who later wrote: 'Bradfield wanted to be the Napoleon III of Sydney. He wanted to pull down everything in the way of his grandiose schemes. He was always thinking of the future. He was probably the first man to plan for Sydney as a city of two million people'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • A. H. Corbett, The Institution of Engineers, Australia (Syd, 1973)
  • P. Spearritt, Selected Writings of Sydney Planning Advocates, 1900-1947 (Canb, 1973)
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 30 Sept, 14 Oct 1943
  • G. W. Leeper, ‘Restoring Australia's parched lands…’, Australian Quarterly, June 1942
  • E. J. Brady, ‘Wizard of construction’, Life Digest, May 1949
  • Sydney Mail, 8 Mar 1922
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1924, 12 Oct, 17 Nov 1927, 11-14, 23, 25, 28 Mar, 23 Nov 1929, 11, 12, 28 Feb, 12 June 1930, 17 Mar, 29 July 1933, 16 June 1934, 24 Sept 1943
  • P. Spearritt, The Consensus Politics of Physical Planning in Sydney (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1972)
  • Bradfield technical papers (Mitchell Library, Sydney, National Library of Australia, State Records New South Wales), and Engineering School, University of Sydney)
  • Public Works Department, Special bundles 4/7582-7588 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Bradfield, John Job Crew (1867–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bradfield-john-job-crew-5331/text9011, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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