The Hornibrook histories: Hornibrook Highway

By Julie Hornibrook

1930s Queensland

Depression of the 1930s bit hard in Queensland. In 1932.  One in five Queensland workers was unemployed, and weekly earnings had dropped from what it was ten years earlier. Premier Moore’s strategy for economic recovery was to drastically reduce government spending, but the people suffered and, in 1932, Labor leader William Forgan Smith was voted into government. Queensland was largely a primary producing state and didn’t easily diversify but by mid-1930s, the government did invest in infrastructure projects, such as the Story Bridge, and, by 1939, unemployment in the state was down to 6.3% (Fitzgerald, Megarrity and Symons, 103)1.

Vision for a Bridge - Manuel Hornibrook

Enter Manuel Richard (known as ‘MR’) Hornibrook, my grandfather, described as “one of the county’s leading building and civil engineering contractors” who was “admired for his inexhaustible drive and exacting work standards” (Cominos, 43)2. He was local to Brisbane, grew up in Enoggera and married his wife, Daphne Brunckhorst, in Sandgate in 1915. In 1932, the company had building projects all around Queensland and had just completed building the William Jolly Bridge in Brisbane. However, as described in Hornibrook Highway Bridge, 201422, “contracts for construction diminished with the deepening depression, and the decline in public spending,” and a new major project was needed.

MR had long envisaged a road link from Brighton at Sandgate to Clontarf Point at Redcliffe with a bridge spanning Hays Inlet and Bramble Bay, imagining how that would reduce isolation of the Peninsula, open up the beaches and create direct links to Brisbane, instead of making the long trip around the Bay by road or across the Bay by ferry. The Depression and the need to maintain his workforce became the catalyst MR needed to develop the new project “the most ambitious project in his career to date” (Cominos, 43)2. MR was known as “being fiercely loyal to those who worked well” (Jones, 128)3. The story of this initiative and its impact on the expansion of Redcliffe , employment and building capacity and confidence, has been told and retold as it is one of the iconic stories of Queensland’s building history and determination through the Depression years.

This essay will feature elements of the story from a family perspective, honouring the memory of my grandfather, MR Hornibrook, and the family business that he built up with his brothers Gus, Reg, Ray, Eric and Frank to take on new challenges and forge a stronger future for Queensland. The brothers were tight knit, with their father, John, dying of typhoid before Eric, the youngest of 7, was six months old (Mementos of Sir Manuel Hornibrook,- John Oxley Library Blog, State Library of Queensland)4. Reg had trained in WWl as a field engineer or ‘sapper’ and returned with training and knowledge on bridge and road construction and demolition which would have been invaluable knowledge back in the fold of the business. (National Archives of Australia, Researching War Service)5. He had also completed a carpenter’s apprenticeship with his older brother Manuel. Reg was the Works Manager for the Bridge construction of the Highway and Frank was Works Manager for the road construction leading to and from the Bridge (The New Gateway to Redcliffe and the Great North Coast, 1935)6.Eric also served a carpenter’s apprenticeship with Manuel who himself had served 5 years of a carpenter’s apprenticeship from the age of 13 (Browne, 3)7. Manuel got his first job at 17 and started his own business at 19 and from then on was always ‘the boss,’ even within the family (Interview with Cath Lyndon, Eric’s daughter, 2015)8. Jones, in his book Redcliffe (128)3, describes him as “an imposing-looking  man with a strong face.”

Government authorises first private toll road in Queensland

Manuel’s vision for the Bridge resulted in him approaching the State Government in 1931 with a proposal to construct a toll bridge linking Sandgate area with the southern part of Redcliffe.

At that time, Australia had lost capacity to borrow funds for public works overseas and there was recognition that times were changing to seeking employment opportunities through industry rather than depending on government, (cited in address by Mr Davidson, General Manager of Bank NSW, in Prospectus of The Issue of First Security Debentures, Hornibrook Highway Ltd,)9 and neither the Liberal government nor the Labor opposition had the courage to commit funds for a major construction project.  However, they did support the concept by a new act of Parliament to allow private enterprise to construct toll facilities on a road construction.  It was granted to him by Order-in-Council, 19 November 1931, for the franchise to operate as Toll Bridge, under the Privately Constructed Roads Traffic Facilities Act of 1931(Official Souvenir of the Opening of the Hornibrook Highway). This enabled the project to raise funds for construction and to offer local employment, overall employing about 500 men (Hornibrook Highway Limited, Value of Private Enterprise, 9).10

The Telegraph (9)30 reported that the construction project met what economists and experts advised was “the only way out of the financial morass the country was in” and it could bring high returns for investors and reduce unemployment. In effect this was a real ‘game changer’ for business and government in Australia, and closely watched to see if it could stand on it’s own merits to achieve success. The legislation also enabled other toll bridges such as the William Taylor Bridge at Indooroopilly to be built.. MR was the first person to pay the toll when that Bridge was opened and shared the delight in the model of private business expanding infrastructure in Brisbane in the 1930s.

Construction begins

Hornibrook Highway Ltd was formed and the building of the highway launched at a ‘sod turning ceremony’ by Premier Moore, on 8 June 1932 at Sandgate, where the southern portal of the Bridge would be built. More than 550 people attended the event with the company Directors providing lunch for all and the proceedings broadcast on radio (Hornibrook Highway, 12)28. The Premier was congratulatory, saying that government could not provide loan money so it was up to private enterprise to help itself and this was the first time such an enterprise had been authorised in Queensland.

Work went slowly for 18 months while MR looked for more investors to raise the capital needed, and building progress was hindered by lack of finance. Many were critical of the project, thought it would never work and resisted taking part in investment.

In an effort to move ahead and complete the work by deadline, it was decided that the company list on the stock exchange. It also negotiated a way out of the impasse with a £100,000 loan from the AMP Society, guaranteed by the State Government. A prospectus was issued (Prospectus of The issue of First Security Debentures Hornibrook Highway Ltd,)9 and the stock market float listed on 1 March 1934 was fully subscribed within two weeks, so this time gained ready support by investors. £300,000 of security debentures were released at £10 each, offering 5% return for the first two years then on to a profit share arrangement, paid half yearly. By 1939 dividends were also 5% on ordinary shares, valued at £1 each, (Hornibrook Highway Dividends, 4)11. This accelerated work from 1934 to finish on time in October 1935 at a total cost of £530,000 (Hornibrook Highway Bridge, 2014)22.

The prospectus estimated that by 1954 return on debentures would rise to 15% from an initial return of 5% (Hornibrook Highway Limited, Value of Private Enterprise, 9)9. It seems that returns were variable and during the war return was as low as 0.25% even though the company never missed a payment. Lunn (1975)12 notes that when the Hornibrook Highway Ltd delisted in 1975 debenture holders got 100% dividend, “When they were first created 40 years earlier they could have been ‘a white elephant’, but ended up being a golden goose.”

MR negotiated a forty year franchise on the projected road-bridge and toll collection, after which all rights and responsibilities reverted to the Queensland government. The toll was set at a shilling a car, and didn’t change over the next forty years of the agreement. The Bridge was negotiated 1.6 miles (2.68 km) length with road access on south and north sides, taking the full length to 12 miles (19kms), needing land resumptions on the Sandgate side for the approach to the Highway (Road Resumptions, Hornibrook Highway, 17)25. The new Highway would reduce the long trip around the Bay by some hours and ensure better quality roads.

Design

The Bridge design had two rises for small boats to move underneath, designed to give clearance at low water of 21ft and 15ft respectively. It was designed by George Boulton, Chief Engineer (Official Souvenir of the Opening of the Hornibrook Highway). The fond memories of all who have driven over the Bridge and the memorable ‘humpity bump’ feeling came from driving over these rises but also from the effects of the timber decking becoming uneven under the bitumen road.

The Bridge construction of timber and concrete and detail of all the materials in it are well documented. An endearing feature of the construction is the art deco portals on north and south ends of the Bridge, designed by architect John Beebe and both identical in design. The portals held the toll facilities of a small office and a night safe and a private phone line ran between the two portals. They were also expensively and beautifully designed adding additional dignity to the overall structure.. (Cominos, 43-51)2. Although each portal was designed to collect tolls, local memories and anecdotes reflect tolls being collected only on the Clontarf end and the toll was for one way only (Interviews by Margaret Harding, 2015)26. Beebe also designed a house provided for the toll master and built by John Liddle for £700.00 (contract held in personal collection of papers, Julie Hornibrook). Roy Atkins, the toll master for many years, lived in the house, but it later burnt down (Important to preserve Hornibrook Highway, 8)13. MR had a house next door and stayed there with the family for holidays for many years after the Bridge opened.

Sourcing timber for the Bridge

The Bridge design was based on reinforced concrete piers with three concrete piles of varying depths and a timber superstructure made of ironbark girders laid on corbels, supporting large ironbark and tallowwood sawn decking. When it was completed it was the longest road viaduct built over water in the southern hemisphere.

With funds assured construction accelerated and 2.5 million super feet of timber was needed for girders, corbels and decking on the Bridge, to source, mill and prepare, with 15 months to completion date.  The race was on and MR took on sourcing the timber as his personal challenge. He knew forests in the Obi Obi area from childhood so turned to that area for timber and support by local people. The company bought a sawmill at Mapleton and built a new one at Conondale to process timber, employed 250 timber-getters to cut ironwood and tallowwood timber around Conondale, Kilcoy and Mapleton. From there timber was loaded onto the Mapleton railway, then transferred to Queensland rail and finally loaded onto barges for the down-river journey to the bridge construction site at Bramble Bay (Hornibrook Bridge, 2015)27.  Hamilton Sawmills, a subsidiary of the Hornibrook company, was solely devoted to the cutting of decking for the Bridge. With the combined effort of the timber-getters, saw-millers, road, rail, barge and overall co-ordination for the timber supply was met. Overall the vast forests provided 12 million super feet of log timber to gain the final result. Before the end of August 1935, the last piece of timber was supplied, two months before the opening day.

Opening Day

The very first drive over the Bridge from Sandgate to Redcliffe was a car driven by staff who worked hard to complete the laying of the last planks, followed by MR and his staff as passengers for a test drive (Vehicles Cross the Causeway, Hornibrook Highway Near Completion, 12)15. This was an exciting time and the group were met by the local Mayor.

The Highway Opening on 4th October 1935 was a grand event for the longest bridge in Australia, opened by the Governor, Sir Leslie Orme Wilson. Several of the dignitaries also made speeches and some memorable quotes are recorded.  In his speech MR declared – “The hour is come!”  After many challenges it was a profound moment to reach Opening Day. He summarised the challenges with the full effects of the Depression being felt but said that “every man on this job stuck by me in the most difficult times,” and that many thought they would never finish the job but that “only strengthened our backs.” He said that at times the weather made his heart ache but felt “proud of every man who worked on this job,” and that it was the policy of his firm to reward the loyalty of its workforce by engaging them on further contracts (Hornibrook Highway Opened, Longest Viaduct in Australia, High Tributes to Contractor, 14). How heartening this would have been for local people and their families during times of such low employment and it helps to understand the loyalty people felt to MR and the company over many years. His big challenges had been design, finance, organisation and timber supplies and all had been overcome (The New Gateway to Redcliffe and the Great North Coast, 1935)6.

A procession of cars crossed the highway to Clontarf Headland, where the visitors were entertained by the Redcliffe Town Council. At 6 p.m. the collection of tolls began and 3000 cars crossed the first day (Hornibrook Highway, 29). The celebrations were held only on the Redcliffe side as the first sod had been turned on the Sandgate side (Hornibrook Highway, 30). Redcliffe also had an officially declared public holiday for Redcliffe (Hornibrook Highway, 30) so all could join in the celebrations from school children, workers, families and community.

Newspapers reported it was a beautiful day and the chairman of Hornibrook Highway Pty Ltd, Sir Edward Macartney, said the work of constructing the Highway, because of its nature and extent, was unique in Australia. Speaking of MR he said, "My company has found him to be a great man, whose first principle is a first class job. His attitude towards the company and the undertaking has been very generous and very reasonable. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with him” (Hornibrook Highway Opened, Longest Viaduct in Australia, High Tributes to Contractor, 15)14. Sir Edward added, “…the Hornibrook Highway is a tribute to those men whose ability and unshakeable convictions successfully overcame the forces of public criticism, and even ridicule, and shaped a public opinion sufficiently powerful to bring about the successful registration of their objective” (The New Gateway to Redcliffe and the Great North Coast, 1935)6.

The Governor announced, “To-day is a day on which, we might say, another page in the history of Queensland has been written. It might even be said that another page has been written in the history of Australia, because this is the longest bridge in the Commonwealth" (Hornibrook Highway Opened, Longest Viaduct in Australia, High Tributes to Contractor, 14). The completion of the Highway also showed that Queensland proudly valued enterprise and vision, their own products and employment of their own people. They boasted that all products used in the bridge, except the steel, was produced in Queensland. A few years later when the Story Bridge was completed there was a similar boast, including that the steel was made in Australia so these projects contributed enormously to the image Queensland had forged for itself and its place in a competitive Australia.

The Governor commented that some criticised the size of the project and that it was built too soon for demand. He defended the stance saying better to be too soon than too late. He added that only 33 years previously were nearly 200,000 fewer people in Brisbane than in 1935. He went on to ask “Who would dare predict how many will be in Brisbane 30 years from to-day?” They would all have been amazed to witness how much these communication links really did influence growth in the area and that, by 1965, the Brisbane population growth rate almost doubled from the previous 30 years to approx. 700,000 by 1965 so the Bridge capacity was well needed (ABS, 2008)16.

An exciting moment of the Opening was when the Governor cut the ribbon, reportedly with a gold boomerang presented to him by MR. Amidst applause he and his wife, Lady Wilson, were then driven in the lead vehicle of a procession of vehicles over the Bridge. They were welcomed on the Clontarf side by the Mayor, a Scottish pipe band, a guard of honour of war veterans and 400 school children. A civic reception followed with much celebration and congratulations all round (Hornibrook Highway Opening, Big Programme of Celebrations, 17). The Redcliffe Library holds a DVD that includes footage of the opening of the Highway and the gold boomerang can be seen on film. The choice of boomerang was surely symbolic of belief in the future of holiday makers and others choosing to go over the Bridge to the peninsular and back again.

Toll Collection

The Courier Mail regularly reported monthly takings of the tolls as well as comparative annual takings. For example the paper reported £14,592 was collected from Opening Day 1935 to 30 June 1936 (“Hornibrook Highway Toll Collections” 4)18, indicating great public interest in the ongoing success or otherwise of the new style of venture to raise capital and make returns from a private road system. There were numerous other newspaper articles on toll takings over the following years.

Redcliffe grows

Golf course

The Hornibrook company made a commitment to support the development of Redcliffe to encourage local people to use the Bridge. The directors of Hornibrook Highway made 116 acres at Clontarf Point available for a Golf Course and purchase by the Club. The Golf Club bought them for £1450, with the directors taking  £900 of that amount in shares in the Club as part payment (The New Gateway to Redcliffe and the Great North Coast. 1935)6. The Club membership quickly grew to 250 members by 1935. The land was close to the Clontarf end of the Bridge and the company supported its development with heavy machinery to prepare the land for a golf course.

Shark-proof swimming

Hornibrook also built a shark and jelly fish proof swimming enclosure at Woody Point in 1938 , to attract new charm for the peninsula, and after tourist numbers had dropped after a fatal shark attack at Kirra (Jones, 131)3.  Its size was nine acres and included a pavilion, dressing rooms, a kiosk and night lighting. In an article in The Telegraph19, “New Shark and Blubber Proof Bathing Enclosure Opened at Clontarf,” Mr Hornibrook is again praised for his enterprise and community minded spirit. The company had engineers who could provide practical solutions to local problems and in a free enterprise model the Council did not have to commit funds from their small population base but the strategy supported local people and attracted tourists over the Bay on the Highway.

Sewerage and Town Water

By 1940, a town water supply was approved by Redcliffe Council through extension of the water main from Sandgate. The water pipe was attached to the Hornibrook Highway and access leased from the company. Redcliffe continued to expand growth through  connecting houses to a sewerage system by 1959, sooner than many Brisbane suburbs (Jones, 132)3. MR no doubt gave advice to the Council as they had extensive experience in building sewer systems throughout Queensland and Brisbane. Redcliffe was not part of the Brisbane City Council so support by MR and expertise in the company would have been invaluable.

Bus service

The Hornibrook Highway Bus Service was registered on 27th August 1935 (The New Gateway to Redcliffe and the Great North Coast, 1935)6 and gained a tender with the Commissioner of Railways to operate as an extension of the Brisbane-Sandgate rail service, The Depot was opposite the Sandgate railway station and the signature green buses provided twelve additional miles of transport for commuters to Redcliffe. This meant a combined bus/rail ticket could be issued by the Railway or the Bus Company, and integrated tickets were promoted in tourism posters and brochures.  Another bus company (the Red Bus) ran from Redcliffe to Roma St via Petrie.

By the time of the Highway opening they had one bus on the road (The New Gateway to Redcliffe and the Great North Coast, 1935)6, but soon increased their numbers. An anecdote by Greg Enright (Gee, P & Smith, M, 140)20 recalls that after WWII many of the Hornibrook buses were ex-Army disposal buses used to transport troops and had shelf seats down the sides. Apparently a group of Leyland buses were ordered from England but the ship sank on the way so they had to ‘make do,’ with whatever they could get. The buses were heavily used as many families did not own cars and transport was limited.

During the war, military road convoys were able to use the Highway to move war material to locations in Queensland, so it played a significant strategic role during the defence of Australia in WWII, as did the Story Bridge in Brisbane.

While most of Australia stagnated in the Depression, Redcliffe’s population more than tripled during the 1930s. It had the Hornibrook Highway, power and water schemes, tourist facilities and an integrated train and bus service connecting to Brisbane.  Jones (127, 137)3 declares “The Hornibrook Highway had a dramatic effect on the growth of Redcliffe” and that ….”Manuel Hornibrook became a hero to the people of Redcliffe.”

1970s to 2015

By 1975, the population of Brisbane had increased to nearly one million so when the franchise of the Hornibrook Highway was surrendered to Department of Main Roads a replacement structure to cope with the traffic was needed. Russ Hinze, the Queensland Main Roads Minister paid the final toll at a ‘closing ceremony’ and donated the ticket to the Historical Society. He said MR’s ‘brainchild’ cost £530,000 to build but would cost $5.5 million to replace. He paid the toll to Mr Cavanagh, the toll master who had been collecting for nineteen years. MR’s sister Pearl McGhie represented her brother there, as he had passed away in 1970. (The Final Toll, 1975)21

A replacement Bridge called the Houghton Highway, named after the local Member of Parliament was opened in 1979. Initially it was to supplement the Hornibrook Highway by taking two lanes of southbound traffic and the Hornibrook Highway would be refurbished to take northbound traffic. However, in 1979 a subsequent decision was made to close the Hornibrook Highway to traffic as a review showed significant structural problems with corrosion of steel, white ants in girders and cracking of the road surface. Its use was changed to a bikeway and pedestrian crossing only until 14 July 2010 when it was permanently closed and then subsequently demolished, with the exception of a hundred metres on the Clontarf side for use as a fishing jetty. The portals at either end also remain as an art deco memorial to the days of the Highway and the achievement of the time (Hornibrook Highway Bridge, 2014)22. As concluded by Iona Cominos in the book, Brisbane Art Deco: Stories of our Built Heritage (51)2 “… the portals stand as a tribute to local history, the Hornibrook legend and the flourishing of modernity in Queensland in the early 20th century.” The Bridge was entered on the Queensland Heritage Register in 1994, recognition that it has cultural heritage significance for the people of Queensland.

The Houghton Bridge caused a lot of local frustration as, even with modifications, its capacity was a total of three lanes and didn’t have the charm and practicality of overhead lighting like the old Bridge. In 2004  a survey by RACQ found Houghton Highway to be the road that was the most ‘pain in the neck’ in Queensland, with motorists disliking its rough surface, congestion, low speed limit and citing lack of interest by authorities in another crossing (Houghton Highway, 2015)23.

After years of campaigning for another crossing, the Ted Smout Bridge, named after the longest living digger from WWI, who came from Sandgate, was opened in 2010. Its cost was $315 million and takes three lanes of traffic north to south. The Houghton Highway, with bitumen surface upgraded, has three lanes for south to north traffic. Local sentiment was reflected in the local paper, “Ted Smout Bridge or Houghton Highway duplication it may be but it will still get called the Hornibrook Highway,” (Bridge is still the Highway, 2009)24.

Redcliffe loves the Bridge!

The ‘old Hornibrook Bridge’ is fondly remembered in the hearts and minds by the people of Redcliffe and missed to this day by local residents who have memories of its construction, family stories and impact on community life. They remember the vision of MR and the way his enterprise and support within his family and to families of workers built loyalty and community in hard economic times. My pride is knowing that such a big construction company had heart and audacity to learn, discover and grow in a way that supported the ‘common good’ within an emerging private enterprise model, qualities we can continue to learn from even though capacity for construction and techniques are far different from that of 80 years ago.

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