Bridges are not an uncommon sight, so what makes the Richmond Bridge in Tasmania such an interesting and popular tourist attraction?
The Richmond Bridge can lay claim to being the oldest existing stone arch bridge in Australia. It was originally named Bigge’s Bridge after the Royal Commissioner John Thomas Bigge who proposed the erection of the Bridge in 1820.
Why was Richmond Bridge Built?
Bigge recognised the need to improve transportation of convicts and early settlers from Hobart Town to other regions of Tasmania such as the east coast and as far down the Tasman Peninsula as the Port Arthur penal settlement. Traffic to all these areas passed through Richmond; there was no Midway Point or Sorell causeway at the time.
Settlement in the Richmond area was skyrocketing, with many free settlers growing wheat on as much land as they could lay their hands on. The Coal River Valley and Pitt Water areas had become known as the ‘granary of Australia’. These wheat farmers would frequently cross the river with carts to sell wheat. While the river isn’t very deep, in the cooler months it would often flood, making this a risky proposition. It became apparent that a bridge was in need.
Construction of Richmond Bridge
The two years of construction commenced in 1823. It was built by convict labour (prisoners from the nearby Richmond Gaol), a common trend at the time for developing major building and roads. These convicts were forced to perform the gruelling task of mining the sandstone from the nearby Butchers Hill and then transport it to the site using carts.
The commencement of bridge construction solidified Richmond as not only a farming area, but a major town in the settlement of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Private residences and two inns were constructed; the village was abuzz.
The Richmond Bridge was completed and opened in January 1825. The total length measured 41 metres (135 feet), with a width of 7.5 metres (25 feet). At the time it had the longest span of any bridge in Australia, and held this title until 1836. It was constructed from brown Triassic sandstone. There are six semi-circle arches in total, measuring 4.3, 8.1, 8.3, 8.5 and 4.1 metres in height. Four of these have water flowing underneath.
The craftsmanship was brilliant – with only minimal maintenance, the bridge has stood for close to 200 years. Constructed with wheat carts in mind, it’s still in use today, supporting automobiles and buses of far greater weight.
The Ghost of Richmond Bridge
One of the mysteries surrounding the bridge is the ghost of George Grover. Originally transported to Tasmania as a convict, George was eventually made a flagellator and left in charge of managing a group of convicts who were rebuilding the piers of the bridge. Even for a flagellator, George was not a well-liked character. He was said to ride on the carts, which convicts would drag from Butchers Hill full of sandstone, whipping them as if they were horses.
The story is that George was travelling across the bridge one day in 1932, after visiting the servants of a nearby farm. He was said to have been rather intoxicated when leaving the property. On his way home George fell asleep while taking a rest on the bridge. He was then thrown over the edge, landing on rocks beneath. George eventually died, but survived long enough to report to the policeman who found him lying under the bridge, that he was thrown over by four men.
If your lucky (or unlucky, I’ll let you decide) you may spot the ghost of George Grover looking out over the Richmond Bridge from the trees on the western side. The ghost of George Grover’s dog is also said to haunt the bridge, walking alongside those who cross at night.
Management of Richmond Bridge
The significance of the Richmond Bridge has been recognised; it’s now listed on the Australian Heritage Database due to the rarity and aesthetic characteristics it possesses. This recognition ensures the bridge receives the care and attention it deserves, to ensure that the oldest stone bridge in Australia will be around for future generations to enjoy.
The Tasmanian Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources has developed 103 policies for the management and conversation of Richmond Bridge. These include heavy vehicle management, and management of vegetation and riverbanks, and of the river itself.
Regular monitoring of the bridge is conducted to ensure that vibrations and the load of heavy vehicles doesn’t damage this rare treasure. It has been proposed that the current 25 tonne load limit be reduced to 15 tonnes. The speed limit is set at a low 30 kilometres an hour over the bridge. Vibration monitoring is regularly used to check for damage, and if necessary, the load and speed limits will be readdressed.
A Brilliant Destination to Visit
The Richmond Bridge is visited by thousands of tourists annually. Unlike many historic monuments, there’s no fence in place to prevent you from having full access. In fact, you can actually walk over it and underneath the outer arches. There’s no one there to charge an admission fee – the bridge is free to enter and open at all times.
There are grassy riverbanks on both sides, which make a great spot for having a picnic and feeding the ducks. There are two huts with gas BBQ’s on the south side, or you may wish to buy lunch from the nearby café’s and eat it on the riverbank while you admire the view. On the south side you’ll also find a viewing platform, a popular place for tourists and wedding couples from the nearby St John’s Church to have photos taken. There’s also a path where you can walk along the riverbank and admire the peaceful area.
Don’t forget to visit the bridge and surrounding riverbanks on your travels to Richmond!
Source of fourth image: By Travellers & Tinkers [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons