Oldest bridge still in use in Australia turns 200

Trucks up to a 25-tonne load limit still use the historical Richmond Bridge in Tasmania, which is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the laying of its foundations.  

The festivities kicked off with a street parade and will continue until March, with more than 70 events marking the bicentennial of the bridge as well as Richmond Town.  

Work started on the bridge in 1823, and was officially opened for horse and dray and pedestrian traffic two years later. 

Convicts built the bridge over the Coal River at Richmond, which is 26km from the state capital Hobart, and is a world-renowned tourist attraction. 

The bridge was constructed using sandstone blocks transported from a nearby quarry to the site by wooden carts and was used for many years, well before the commencement of motorised road transport. 

It is the oldest bridge still being used for normal traffic in Australia. 

The celebrations

Between January 18 and 22 a history festival will take place with talks, exhibitions, collectors’ roadshow, guided tours and events focused on Richmond and the Coal River Valley and its role in Tasmanian development. 

On February 10 and 11, a Heritage Farming Expo will be held where people can experience traditional farming demonstrations and displays and the contribution of convict farm labourers. 

It is being presented with members of the Hobart Vintage Machinery Society. From February 10 to 12 a Convict Muster will hold pride of place, where convict ancestry will be explored with keynote speakers, convict history-themed talks and music. 

Over four days from February 24 to 27, the Bicentenary of the Town Proclamation will be celebrated with an Open House Richmond, presented with the Australian Institute of Architects, which will offer unprecedented access to more than 30 properties. 

Richmond’s diverse architecture will be the focus with special events, walks and talks and exhibitions. 

“Back then it would have been horse and cart and pedestrians and the poor convicts who slaved to build it could not have imagined their work would today be still in use let alone have trucks going over it,” a local historical society member told Big Rigs. 

Michael Ferguson, Tasmanian Minister for Infrastructure and Transport said it was the only bridge now used which is registered on both the Tasmanian and National Heritage lists.  

“Despite its age, it continues to serve its original purpose as an important piece of transport infrastructure with over 4,000 vehicle crossings daily and it is also now a key tourism attraction for Tasmania,” he said. 

“So that it can continue to stand strong for years to come, we have a detailed conservation management plan for the bridge.

“The Department of State Growth inspects the bridge regularly to assess and manage any potential issues that may pose a risk to the bridge.

“Earlier this year, we started work on further  preservation works to ensure the structural integrity of the bridge. Works  involved the installation of sensors beneath the bridge footpath, providing  us with real time data to monitor vibrations from vehicles crossing the  bridge.

“Also included in these works was waterproofing of the bridge’s  pedestrian footpaths, and the removal of two poplar trees and their roots, which posed a risk to the bridge’s structure.

“Our ongoing work will help preserve this historic landmark so it can continue to be used and admired by Tasmanians and visitors for many years to come.”

Convicts built the bridge over the Coal River at Richmond. Photo: Alf Wilson.

Street parade

The street parade which launched the celebrations on December 10 was a big success.

Townsfolk, members of road transport companies, local school students and community groups were all represented in the parade. 

It was a spectacular display of music, costumes hand-made by local Richmond residents, and vintage vehicles which moved through the centre of the village. 

Starting at 10am on the western end of Bridge Street on Sunday, the parade included farming and passenger vehicles for each decade since 1820, locals dressed in their favourite clothing of the decades since 1820s, and trucks. 

The day I was there in late 2023, there wasn’t a parking space to be found because of all the tourists enjoying the fun. 

A sign at the town entrance to the bridge advises of the 25t load limit and I saw several trucks, buses and cars crossing it. 

Despite its age, the bridge continues to serve its original purpose as an important piece of transport infrastructure with over 4,000 vehicle crossings daily. 

During the street parade, vintage vehicles and some modern trucks moved through the centre of the village. 

As people approached the iconic bridge there was a moment of truth-telling where participants were asked to “think as they walk” in an act of recognition for the Mumirimina people who within 15 years of Richmond’s establishment no longer remained on their land.  

“Richmond is one of Tasmania’s most historic and most visited towns and the Coal River Valley more broadly also has significant heritage value and visitor appeal,” Clarence City Council mayor Brendan Blomeley said. 

“It is a heritage-listed arch bridge located on the ‘Convict Trail’ and is also the oldest stone span bridge in Australia.”

Some highlights of the program included a collector’s roadshow, convict family reunions, an open house event and a village fair. 

Eerie claims

Some of the history about the origins of the bridge include an eerie claim  that it is haunted. 

Stories abound that over the past 200 years the ghost of wicked flagellator (whip-bearer) George Grover has been allegedly sighted near the Richmond Bridge. 

Other people have claimed to have seen the ghost of his dog near the bridge. 

History records that Grover was a cruel person who was reportedly murdered by being thrown off the top of the bridge by some of the convicts he tortured during the construction stages. 

Grover was transported to Van Dieman’s Land for stealing and arrived on the ship Earl St Vincent in October 1823. 

That was two years after construction started on the bridge and he spent a lot of time on the chain gang for bad behaviour. 

However history reveals that Grover was promoted to be supervising flagellator at Richmond at the same time the Colonial Architect John Lee Archer authorised the rebuilding of the piers at the bridge. 

Grover supervised the convicts fetching the sandstone from nearby Butcher’s Hill and he was reported to stand on the heavy handcarts full of the material, which were being dragged by the convicts. 

He died at the beginning of 1832 after falling from the bridge, and it was suspected he was pushed by the convicts he whipped and tortured. 

The Hobart Town Courier of the day reported that there was a six-day inquest  into the death of Grover who fell eight metres to his death. 

It noted that he used to lay and fall asleep on the top of the bridge while drunk – “Grover appeared to be a very unpleasant person and it was written across his record that he was murdered and ‘thank goodness”. 

Grover was buried in St Luke’s Cemetery on March 3 of 1832 aged 27 and his ghost has been allegedly seen hundreds of times since. 

Other ghostly sightings have been made of a dog which was supposedly that of Grover’s pet and faithful mutt. 

One elderly lady now aged in her seventies claimed the ghost of the dog suddenly appeared beside her as she walked home across the bridge at night  when she was a young girl. 

She said it walked beside her until she reached the end of the bridge when  it disappeared as quickly as it arrived. 

History indicates that whilst Grover was cruel to the convicts, he was very kind to the dog, which wanted to be with him in the afterlife. 


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