90 years ago this week, Captain Francis de Groot upstaged NSW Premier Jack Lang and cut the ribbon to open the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
While the bridge and its chief engineer John Bradfield are now famous, the part the town of Moruya and its granite played in the structure’s 89-metre-high pylons remains in the shadows of the iconic bridge.
Moruya resident Christine Greig-Adams, great-granddaughter of the Moruya quarry manager John Gilmore, says, “My granny went to the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but she always said that the team at the Moruya quarry never got enough recognition of the extraordinary work that they did.”
Christine says Bradfield visited the quarry from time to time but the project was largely left to those on-site to complete.
The project extracted, cut and dressed 173,000 blocks of granite for the four pylons.
“The entire project was planned and managed in Moruya,” Christine says.
“Each individual block was labelled, numbered, laid out in order and shipped to Sydney, ready to be assembled.
“Not one stone was rejected.”
The quality and quantity of Moruya’s granite were recognised early in European settlement, first noticed by Captain John Ross who operated the Pilot Station at South Head, Moruya. He thought it was the finest granite outside Aberdeen, Scotland.
The granite was well used in Sydney from the 1860s, including the pillars of the Sydney GPO, the pedestal of the Captain Cook statue and the pedestal of the Queen Victoria statue.
So when the design and contract for the long-planned Sydney Harbour Bridge project were finally announced in 1924, NSW government engineer John Bradfield decided the bridge supports and pylons, that were not structural, would be faced with Moruya granite.
Moruya granite had all the right attributes for the project: it was good quality, there was plenty of it and, importantly, the quarry was located close to the river making the granite’s transportation to Sydney easier.
English business Dorman Long & Company, contracted to build the bridge, leased the granite quarry located on the north bank of the Moruya River, along what is now North Head Drive. Around 250 Australian, Scottish and Italian stonemasons were recruited to cut and dress the granite on-site.
Christine says she grew up listening to the stories of that time from her grandmother Nell, who lived with her family and the other workers’ families in the specially-constructed settlement, including a school and community hall, located near the quarry known as Granitetown.
“My great grandfather had always worked in quarries but he wasn’t actually looking for a job in Australia, it was my great grandmother who saw the ad in the newspaper that was used to wrap their meat and she applied for the job on his behalf,” she says.
John Gilmore got the job and six weeks later he and his wife Mary Gilmore and their nine children said goodbye to family and friends and set off on a six-week voyage on the SS Ascanius to Australia. They left London on 13 September 1924 and arrived in Moruya on 11 November 1924. One week later the first sod was turned at the quarry.
“My family was from the wild, wet west coast of Scotland, granny told me her mother loved Moruya as soon as they arrived. She was happy to be out of muddy boots.”
The whole Granitetown and quarry area became a very busy, noisy place until 1931 when the last blocks were shipped to Sydney. The project helped to buffer the little town of Moruya from the worst of the effects of the depression. “The quarry brought hundreds of workers on a stable government wage to the town, helping support the local businesses,” Christine says.
To obtain the granite, each stone had to be split away from the quarry face by drilling holes into the rock with hammer drills driven by compressed air, Christine explains. Gunpowder was then pressed into the holes and the stone was blasted away in large chunks then cut up into smaller, more-workable pieces on the floor of the quarry.
Christine says after the bridge was completed, John worked on what he described as the most stressful project he was to work on; the stone for the Cenotaph in Martin Place. Again designed and managed by Bradfield with Dorman and Long, “The stone was significantly larger than those for the bridge project and he really wanted to do a good job.”
The Cenotaph’s base comprises 23 pieces of Moruya granite with an altar stone 3.05 m long, 1.6 m wide, and 1.22 m high, weighing almost 17 t.
Work at the quarry finished around 1931. The machinery was sold and the buildings were gradually dismantled and removed. Only one of the cottages remains on site.
A majority of families returned to their homeland but John and Mary Gilmore lived out their lives in Moruya.
The quarry was handed back to the crown but closed down due to the site becoming unstable. These days it is silent, overgrown and fenced off with a padlocked gate.
To preserve the heritage and the story of Moruya Granite, Christine has written a book, Not forgotten: memorials in granite and has been working with the Moruya & District Historical Society and Eurobodalla Shire Council for many years to install and update the interpretive display at Quarry Park, located opposite the quarry. “I keep hoping that the project will be finished one day. It is such an important part of the history of our town.”
For more information or to order a copy of Christine’s book visit Moruya and District Historical Society.