Bridging a gap in history, book tells the story of Ballarat construction pioneer

Ballarat’s Harold Irwin may have missed the gold rush, but he was in the right place at the right time for the bridge boom. 

REMAINS: Andrew Boake and Patrick Irwin at Old Melbourne Rd Gordon bridge. Picture: Julia Irwin

REMAINS: Andrew Boake and Patrick Irwin at Old Melbourne Rd Gordon bridge. Picture: Julia Irwin

In the 1920s the latest technology in reinforced concrete replaced early timber bridges to serve the rising number of motor vehicles. 

Mr Irwin, considered a construction pioneer, was responsible for employing the latest technology at many of country Victoria’s important crossings.

Between 1911 and 1938 Mr Irwin, foreman Tom Scott and a team of labourers built more than 20 bridges and water supply projects across the state.

TIME LAPSE: An old photo of Rubicon Water works from construction pioneer Harold Irwin's photo album. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

TIME LAPSE: An old photo of Rubicon Water works from construction pioneer Harold Irwin's photo album. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

Many of their structures are still standing after over 80 years and severe flooding, including bridges at Charlton, Carisbrook, and Gordon.

Now his work connecting Victoria has been documented and recognised in the book Apart from the Roads and Aqueducts, which was launched by grandson Patrick Irwin and former VicRoads engineer Andrew Boak in Ballarat last month.

The extensive research project was inspired by an old photo album of bridge projects that caught Patrick’s attention in 2016.

It depicted a world of draught horses, working men in jackets and waistcoats, of steam engines and improvisation. 

TRADITION: Men worked in jackets and waistcoats constructing the Malvern Bridge over Scotchman's Creek. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

TRADITION: Men worked in jackets and waistcoats constructing the Malvern Bridge over Scotchman's Creek. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

“It is almost unimaginable for us today, because today all you need is a mobile phone and a bank account to build a bridge… In those days you had to do everything yourself,” Patrick said. 

“There was no premix service, probably not even an on site batching service. So you actually had to find the materials and crush the rock, batch the concrete, mix and pour and handle it without a proper mixer and without a pump – and that is just one material supply.

Carisbrook pier formwork and donkey engine. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

Carisbrook pier formwork and donkey engine. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

“It was like that with everything. Form work had to be done with solid timber, probably cut out of the bush. There was no electricity to a building site. It was hard yakka.”

Patrick said it was a testament to his grandfather’s expertise in engineering and experiments with concrete mixing that structures such as the James Paterson Bridge in Charlton, built in 1925, were still in good shape.

Charlton bridge official opening. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

Charlton bridge official opening. Picture: Apart from the Roads and the Aqueducts

His bridge on the Old Melbourne Road in Gordon has also stood the test of time, carrying every vehicle travelling between Ballarat and Melbourne for more than 80 years until the Western Freeway bypassed Gordon. 

His bridge at Mordialloc served from 1919 until 2007.

Patrick Irwin and Andrew Boake spent two years creating the book.