William Jolly Bridge and Sir Manuel Hornibrook

By Julie Hornibrook

Manuel Hornibrook, an upcoming Brisbane builder, at the age of thirty five, won the contract to build the Grey Street Bridge, the biggest contract yet for him and his company MR Hornibook Ltd. His five brothers were all Directors and they offered the strength, know-how and confidence to build a visionary Brisbane of the future. Manuel, my grandfather, was generally known as ‘MR’, ‘the Boss, or ‘Jack.’ In this essay I’ll mostly refer to him as MR and this story is about the building of the Bridge, in the context of Brisbane in late 1920s/early 1930s and the excitement in Brisbane when the Bridge opened and what it meant for the city.

William Jolly/Grey Street Bridge name

The Grey Street Bridge opening over the Brisbane River was a grand event on 30 March 1932, eleven days after the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and nearly eight years before the Story Bridge (Moy 2015)1. The rivalry between the two cities was well under way and Brisbane was immensely proud of its new Bridge. The Brisbane Courier (Symmetrical Grandeur,13)2 , described the Harbour Bridge opening as having “acclamation of the whole of Australia, but if that were in Brisbane it would be a monstrosity. The Grey Street Bridge was a bridge of classical design over the most beautiful river in the Commonwealth.”

The Bridge was called the Grey Street Bridge from its opening till 5 July 1955 when it was renamed after William Jolly, the first Lord Mayor of the Greater Brisbane City Council, 1925 – 1931. He was Mayor during the time the Bridge was built and died in 1955.

Brisbane pride in the Bridge

The Grey Street/William Jolly Bridge is iconic in the life of Brisbane and its construction and part in history have been well documented in many sources. A conservation study for Brisbane City Council details history of the Bridge construction and contributed to the decision by Council to nominate the Bridge for inclusion on the heritage register (O’Connor, 2)3. The Heritage register site also provides detailed history and significance of the Bridge (Queensland Heritage Register, 2016)4.

The Brisbane Courier5 waxes eloquently in its description of the Bridge: “A Glorious Archway Spans a Noble River,” “Venetian Splendour,” “a vivid piece of history,” and “symphony of rock and steel and concrete gracefully inter-twined.”

The Bridge was one of the first major capital works of the new Greater Brisbane Council, which was formed in 1925 in a merger of more than twenty Local Government Areas (LGA) (O’Connor, 1)6. The bigger LGA included South Brisbane and there was a need to bridge the barrier that the river had become between the separate cities across the river. At that time the Victoria bridge was the only bridge crossing the river but it was not in good condition and inadequate for the increasing traffic. Something had to be done about it!

Vision for a future

The proposed Grey Street Bridge was part of a plan by the Cross River Commission. The plan recognised another bridge was needed, and envisioned a future with thirteen bridges crossing the river. It seemed the traffic had doubled in the previous eight years and it was anticipated that it would continue to rapidly increase. The impact of the opening of the Sydney-Brisbane line and the inter-state railway terminal at South Brisbane in 1932 would also make an impact on traffic increases and South Brisbane already had a population of 40,000 (The Brisbane Courier, Historical Record, 8).

The Council appointed Harding Frew as senior engineer to design and supervise the Bridge. There was much debate about where the Bridge should be located but advice from Harding Frew won the day and although proposed costs were more than first thought, Council approved expenditure of £700,000. Initially Grey Street was seen as a temporary bridge, at a traditional place of river crossing, until the bigger Bridge could be built at Kangaroo Point (which became the Story Bridge, opened in 1940). Land was resumed around the area on both sides of the proposed bridge area in anticipation of the new construction project.

The location was not without controversy and when the decision was made to build from North Quay to Grey Street and not initially at Kangaroo Point, some said it favoured the Protestant Queen Street merchants and not the Catholics at Fortitude Valley. Conversely when the Story Bridge was built some said the Labour government was giving in to Valley Catholics! (Moy 2005)7.

Bridge design

Harding Frew considered five bridge types in his proposal to Council and O’Connor in his review (49) notes that the decision to adopt the through arch "...can only be regarded as a bold one." The design was influenced by a rainbow-arch design of a bridge in Mississippi USA, but is much bigger in having three spans. The Bridge design is through-arch, with the arches rising through the deck. It was considered the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere. O'Connor's view is that "the Brisbane bridge is probably unique"(49)8.

The Bridge crosses the Brisbane River in three main graceful reinforced concrete spans, each 238 feet from pier to pier with two piers built in the river and two pylons on the river banks, with a total length of 1643 feet or 543 metres (Browne, 9)9.

The design uses a composite structure of concrete and steel, with the steel and concrete acting together to support the loads. The ‘Gunite’ process was used to spray concrete mix onto the steel and reinforced mesh (O'Connor, 1)10. This was the first use of the patented process on a major construction project in Australia. Pink granite from a quarry at Enoggera, mixed with cement, was also used in the balustrades (O'Connor, 78)11. At the opening   of the Bridge, Harding Frew said that he thought that “posterity will agree that the Bridge has been carefully and conscientiously built” (Opening Souvenir Booklet)12 and that through his design he had "added something to the progress of civilisation." (The Brisbane Courier, "Scenes On River and On Land," 13)13.

Manuel Hornibrook wins contract to build the Bridge

Manuel Hornibrook (generally known as "MR") won the tender to build the Bridge, after submitting the lowest bid for £384,850 pounds, and work commenced in August 1928 (William Jolly Bridge, 2014)14. The company, MR Hornibrook Pty Ltd formed in 1926, had a track record of building a number of bridges in Queensland and NSW as well as other building projects such as stormwater systems, tunnels, pumping stations, filtration works etc. (O'Connor, 79)15. During the Grey Street Bridge construction they were contracted to build the Coomera Bridge, and bridges in northern NSW for the Department of Main Roads. In Queensland they also built a bridge in the Maroochy Shire and various road building projects. To expand this way MR involved his five brothers in the company and they all managed projects within Queensland and NSW.

As the Depression took hold contracts started to dry up but the Grey Street project  was the biggest yet. MR went on to bigger and bigger projects with the Hornibrook Highway progressing as soon as Grey Street was completed, and then commencement on the Story Bridge when the Highway opened.

The Hornibrook company office was established on the top floor of the QPI Building in Adelaide Street, purchased as part of a syndicate. When the Story Bridge was built the office moved to Kangaroo Point, and later to Newstead where they bought land and built permanent offices, now Headquarters of Riverside Marine.

MR was known for his attention to detail and problem solving on issues as they came up. In his tender bid  MR proposed an innovative sand-island design which he invented as a new method of sinking caissons for river pylons to enable the work to be done as if on land (O'Connor, 1)16 (Browne, 18)17. Previously caissons were pre-constructed and floated into place. Browne says that when MR won the tender, Harding Frew wanted it in the contract that each set of river foundations should be completed before any progress payments should be made as the whole invention was so far untried. MR, calling on his confidence, accepted the condition as he was sure of its success, but insisted Frew should have the same condition in his contract! Such was his confident style and capacity to understand how something could work, even with untried inventions. MR is quoted as stating "...as far as I am concerned the idea is an original one....The idea came to me one morning about 3 o'clock. I was so much taken up with it that I got out of bed and commenced to design a scheme to carry out the piers for the Grey Street Bridge." (O'Connor, Appendix C, C1)18.

The artificial islands were built over the pier sites by sinking interlocking steel sheet piling and then filling them with sand so that work could be done above. Open dredging could then be done through the sand island and river bed until rock was reached. Airlocks were used, with men working under pressure to embed the cutting edges into rock and to seal with concrete. The foundations went down to 34 metres and were built in dry conditions in the air locks. As a safety measure, a medico, Dr Emil O'Sullivan, was on site 'day and night' and a decompression chamber if needed was on site. The workmen who worked under pressure were on four hour shifts only and with the careful approach to worker safety very few men were affected by 'caisson disease' or 'the bends' (Browne, 19)19. This development in knowledge and expertise in bridge building was most successful and invaluable for bridge building and when the company built the Story Bridge in the mid '30s.

MR was active on the building site and entered the locks many times to inspect the work, donning diver dress to check that the under river work was done to satisfaction; he also did some of the manual work. Browne says being able to take part in all phases of the work was a factor in his success and MR was known as being very thorough, engendering respect by workers. During the building process the Australian Institute of Marine and Building Engineers conferred honorary membership on him for his support of their work and after a Grey Street site visit by their members they commented "he has a genius for evolving ideas which, though unconventional, prove completely successful" (The Brisbane Courier, "Original Ideas, Grey Street Bridge, Inspection of the Work," 14)20.

There were few accidents on the Bridge site. Browne (21)21 notes that one fellow fell in to the river when it flooded in 1931, injuring his spine. MR was the one to dive in to rescue him and carried him up the river bank. The workman received worker's compensation, but MR also personally helped his family after that time.

Made in Queensland

The material used to build the Bridge was mostly made in Queensland, with building materials from Brisbane and most of the steel from Australia. 1,800 tonnes of steel was used, fabricated by Evans Deakin at their Rocklea plant; 45,000 tonnes of sand gravel and metal were used in construction and 130,000 bags of cement from the Queensland Cement and Lime Company (Souvenir, Official Opening)22. The Hume Company made the pre-cast balustrades at their West End factory. The project provided much needed work for 200 – 300 workers as the State headed into the Depression. The engineers and builder were also Queenslanders.

Traffic planning

Traffic planning around the growing city was an ongoing concern as expansion became more rapid. Records describe that provision was made for tram tracks in the design of the Bridge, with central thickening under the bridge to support two tram lines, and the short arch under the bridge on the south bank   was to cross an avenue to mirror Coronation Drive (Engineers Australia Queensland Division)23. In 1938 a proposal was put to the Brisbane City Council to consider putting in tram tracks to cross the Grey Street Bridge but other solutions were found and the concept of the parallel avenue was lost to other development (Tram Tracks in Four City Streets, New Proposal to Transport Conference, 5)24.

Team work

Reports on the project note that there was great teamwork and attention to detail by Council engineers and the Hornibrook team. There were many structural challenges and unique needs that called for problem solving and invention. Complex problems were worked through by high level co-operation between MR, his chief Engineer George Boulton, Ray Clark and Harding Frew and his team (Browne, 17)25.

In the Souvenir Official Opening Booklet26, George Boulton described that "the company had no lack of confidence in their ability to carry out the work despite the known and unknown difficulties." He praised the value of the personal control of MR and Ray Clark and their policy of getting the most efficient plant for construction for the best results.

Art work on the Bridge

A snippet in the "Social Sphere" of The Brisbane Courier (20)27 shows a photo of a beautiful, seventeen year old, Miss Karma Eklund, with mention that she designed the panels for the Grey St Bridge and was soon off to Paris to study sculpture.

Karma's father, Hugo Eklund, was a Swedish founder/manager of the Hume Pipe Company, which would have enabled her the opportunity to design the panels. Karma created a grotesque style of image, cast it in a mould and repeated it at regular intervals on the outside of the railings (William Jolly Bridge)28. The Telegraph news article "Young Artist Designed Panel for Bridge" (3)29 described the image as "a strange magnificent head that adorns the panels... reminiscent of the fierce noble aspect of the Valkyries." The newspaper article saw the link with mythology but the grotesque style is more influenced by Roman gods and not dissimilar to gargoyles, rather than feminine images of Norse mythology. It's interesting that a young woman was given a free hand to create a powerful design to adorn the bridge and by being on the outside, the image continues to convey a protective presence on the Bridge.

Opening ceremony

The Opening Day on 30 March 1932 by all accounts was a day of great fanfare and carnival atmosphere once the formalities were done. The Brisbane Courier gave several pages of its newspaper over to the story of the opening the next day, and the front cover of The Queenslander (Brisbane Courier, "Brisbane's New Bridge Opened in Presence of Vast Concourse," 1330; "A Glorious Arch Spans a Noble River," 8)31. The Governor of Queensland, Sir John Goodwin, opened the Grey Street Bridge at 3 pm on this beautiful autumn day. It was one of his last public engagements before he completed his role as Governor, returning to England a week later on the ship "Orama" ("Stirring Tribute. Farewell to the Governor. Scenes of enthusiasm," 13)32.

The Lord Mayor at the time was W.J. Greene who was on the dais with His Excellency, the Governor and Lady Greene, the Premier Mr Moore, Chief Justice Sir James Blair, Minister for Railways Mr Morgan, the State Treasurer Mr Barnes and also Harding Frew and Manuel Hornibrook and their wives. Six hundred official guests were invited and the Telegraph published the guest list ("Woman's Sphere, Opening of Bridge Guest List," 12)33.

Photographers scaled the arches to get the best views for their photos and the speeches were broadcast over microphones for radio stations 4QG and 4BC with amplifiers in place for the crowd so all could hear. 4QG was the first radio station in Brisbane, opened in 1925, and 4BC started in 1930 so it was exciting to broadcast the event on radio (4BC, 2015)34.

The speeches gave recognition to the engineers, builders and workmen and the co-operation between all to achieve the completion of the Bridge which was testimony to the pride of all Brisbane. Harding Frew recognised MR contractors who "efficiently and faithfully" carried out the work to the satisfaction of all. There was also great civic pride that the Grey Street Bridge opened two years after the big construction of the City Hall in a growing capital city. With so much of the materials and skills being local there was added pride and confidence that when the "state emerged from economic difficulties" Queensland would have its own skilled designers and workmen to build the state ("Scenes On River And On Land," 13)35.

There were reportedly no industrial problems in the building of the Bridge and MR in his speech said, "Queensland workmen ranked second to none in other parts of the world" ("Tributes to Workmen," 13)36.

In his speech, Sir John Goodwin applauded "such beauty, such splendid construction and such nobility of design." He then cut the blue ribbon with a pair of golden scissors handed to him by Manuel Hornibrook and unveiled the commemorative tablet ("Scenes On River And On Land," 13)37. This plaque has recently been refurbished and is mounted at the entry to the Bridge on the north side (for more information please see my Blog story about the Bridge). An additional plaque was added in 1955 when the Bridge was renamed to William Jolly Bridge.

As part of the celebrations, three planes flew in arrowhead formation above and "roared down a thousand feet of sky" (Scenes On River And On Land, 13)38. As soon as the ceremony concluded the crowds that had lined up for half a mile either side of the Bridge stormed the timber barricades with excitement. In the mayhem the Social Services "lost 3000 sixpences" they had ready as change for their stalls. Then with "triumphant bagpipes" up ahead His Excellency's (the Governor, Sir John Goodwin) car led the procession of cars over the bridge. People crossed and recrossed the 1634 feet of the Bridge and as the Brisbane Courier described, "the public took possession". Stalls were bedecked with flowers and streamers and proceeds went to the Social Services League, which supported families in poverty during the Depression years of high unemployment. The Brisbane Courier described the day as one of "Venetian splendour"!

Aviatrix Elly Beinhorn

A curious story mentioned in the papers was of the introduction of the German aviatrix Fraulein Beinhorn to his Excellency Sir John Goodwin, before the procession over the Bridge. Further research reveals that Elly Beinhorn at 24 years old became only the second woman to fly solo from Europe to Australia, after Amy Johnson (John Oxley Library blog post, "Elly Beinhorn")39. She piloted her Klemm monoplane from Berlin through Persia, Nepal, Bali, Darwin and Charleville to Brisbane where she arrived in time for the Grey Street Bridge opening and then flew on to Sydney, New Zealand, Panama, South America, Germany and back to Berlin by June 1932. She was described as glamorous and charming and welcomed as a celebrity on her stops in Australia. (John Oxley Library blog post, "Elly Beinhorn")40. The Brisbane Courier reported that the   night before the Bridge Opening, Fraulein Beinhorn was welcomed by five hundred people at the German Club, including the German Consul, and was presented with a gold scarf pin as a memento (Brisbane Courier, "Fraulein Beinhorn Welcomed", 13)41.

Bridge lights switched on!

As evening drew near the new lights on the Bridge were ceremoniously flicked on by the Mayoress, Lady Greene. She was then given a gift of the 'turning on switch' mounted on rosewood by Harding Frew and Manuel Hornibrook, as well as a gold mounted clock with an inscription on it. MR also   gave a photo album of the Bridge construction, on behalf of his company, to Lady Goodwin. This album was subsequently donated to the State Library of Queensland and can be readily accessed.

The gaiety increased and the atmosphere became like a carnival with stalls decorated and people dressed up. For example, the Lady Mayoress changed her frock for a "white and silver toilette," and all revelled in the music and the new lights ("Social Sphere," 20)42. There was a sideshow display of wrestling and a show by the "Midnight Frolics," a comedy revue group, who gave a late night performance after their show at the Theatre Royal.

Ladies fashion

The Brisbane Courier gave a whole page column to describe the fashions worn by the ladies and their activities during the afternoon of the opening ("Social Sphere, The Feminine Viewpoint," 20)43. For example, as part of the ceremony pink radiance roses were given to Lady Goodwin by Mesdames Hornibrook and Frew as part of their farewell to Lady Goodwin prior to her return to England. After the procession of cars over the bridge it was reported that the ladies retired to tea in a 'refreshment pavilion' decorated with red roses and included a centrepiece   of fancy ice cream.

In the fashion stakes crepe de chine and hats were popular and outfits worn by many of the official guests were written up in the paper. For example, my grandmother, Daphne Hornibrook, is quoted as wearing a navy blue crepe de chine ensemble with a vestee of petal pink Mariette, worn with a navy cellophane straw hat. Lady Goodwin wore an ash rose ensemble with a Mariette frock, Morocain coat and a Baku straw hat. Mrs Moore, wife of the Premier, wore a "cool white frock... and a green fancy straw hat." Mrs Harding Frew wore a "green and fawn crepe de chine with a deep peplum flounce and a rose-beige straw hat."

Current lighting

In 2009 two lighthouses were constructed to enable images to be projected on to the bridge's iconic arches as part of celebrations of Queensland's 150 year celebrations. The images made the bridge a work of art in its own right and also projected images of Brisbane's past, present and future (ABC, 2009)44.

Brisbane City Council continues to celebrate the Bridge through the William Jolly Bridge creative lighting project which "uses the iconic bridge to deliver a visual centrepiece for Brisbane city. The light projection is a permanent gift to Brisbane and is lit for important cultural events and celebrations" (Brisbane City Council, 2016)45.

The fittings of spherical glass light fittings on cast metal mountings on both sides of the arches and decorative arches were replaced by the present lighting in 1964 ("William Jolly Bridge," Queensland Heritage Register)46.

MR loved the Bridge project

When MR was retiring in the mid 60s, he was asked about his project. He reflected that of all the projects he liked Grey Street Bridge the best, with its new method of building and its success, and that it was such a beautiful bridge in its day. He said the Story Bridge was the biggest bridge project and the Opera House was the biggest project financially ("Sir Manuel - Retiring Bridge Builder with a Challenge," The Courier Mail, 20 January, 1966, )47.

The Grey Street Bridge was a landmark in the development of Manuel Hornibrook as a builder and MR Hornibrook Ltd as a company. It was his biggest project yet and then three months later work began on the Hornibrook Highway. The Highway was opened in October 1935 and in May that same year the company started work on the Story Bridge, completed in 1940. What an amazing decade for MR and his contribution to major infrastructure projects in Brisbane and building capacity of Queensland through the Depression and beyond.

Library membership

Become an SLQ member now to access our services, collections and facilities.

Library Shop online

Discover an eclectic range of books, gifts, reproduction prints and more at the Library Shop.