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John Bradfield

John Bradfield

‘The father of modern Sydney’


Bridges, Rail


My highlights

Designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Chief engineer of the underground railway in Sydney

Founder of the Sydney University Engineering Society

Why you might have heard of me

John Bradfield was an Australian civil engineer who has come to be known as ‘the father of modern Sydney’ due to his work on one of Sydney’s most iconic landmarks: the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

He is also famous for his role as chief engineer in the construction of the electric underground railway system in Sydney, now known as the City Circle.


Bradfield began his education in Ipswich, Queensland. He was academically gifted and excelled at school, winning him a scholarship to attend Ipswich Grammar School, where he was named ‘dux’, or star pupil, and awarded the chemistry medal.

His hard work won him another scholarship, this time taking him to the University of Sydney, where he earned a maths degree in 1886. Then, in 1889 he obtained a first-class bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at St. Andrew’s College and was awarded the University Gold Medal. During his time there he also won the Levey Scholarship for Chemistry, the Smith Prize for Physics, and the Sulman Prize for Architecture.

He continued his academic pursuits into his career and in 1896, Bradfield graduated from the Master of Engineering with first-class honours and another University Medal. Finally, in 1924, he earned the first doctorate of science in engineering from the University of Sydney for his thesis entitled, ‘The city and suburban electric railways and the Sydney Harbour Bridge’.


After university, Bradfield briefly moved to Brisbane to work as a railway draftsman for Queensland Railways Department, but returned to Sydney by 1893, when he began working at the New South Wales Department of Public Works.

Bradfield served as an assistant engineer on a great range of projects including the Cataract Dam near Sydney and the Burrinjuck Dam, which was part of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

The Museum of Sydney noted that throughout his career, “Bradfield excelled at planning and realising major public works schemes – projects that would benefit people’s lives by improving infrastructure like water storage and public transport”.

However, Bradfield did face some disappointment in his career. In 1910, he contested for the coveted foundation chair of engineering in the University of Queensland and submitted 22 testimonials from reputed individuals, but he wasn’t successful.

Yet in 1912, he submitted a couple proposals to Australia’s parliament for plans for a bridge that would cross Sydney Harbour, which would go on to become his most famous piece of work. The cantilever bridge proposal was accepted in 1913. In the same year, he was named chief engineer for Sydney’s railways.

The Museum of Sydney also highlighted that “Railways proved to be Bradfield’s great love. He believed that a well-designed and well-constructed electric railway system would be essential to an expanding modern metropolis like 1920s Sydney.”

Further, he believed that public transportation should be “beautiful, efficient, and affordable for all people”.

Thus, in 1915, he proposed a grand plan for an underground electric railway system, which is now known as the City Circle. His design was based on major international subway systems, which he got inspiration for by going abroad in 1914.

He envisioned the underground railway after those in New York City and London, and aimed to link the city with the suburbs, previously only reachable by slower trams and buses. Unfortunately, his plans were put on hold due to World War I.

A few years later, in 1922, the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act was passed. By then, Bradfield had changed his mind and opted to pursue an arch design over a cantilever design for the bridge. Construction on the bridge began in 1924. A year earlier, construction on the building of tunnels for the underground railway network also started.

In 1926, the first stations in Bradfield’s railway scheme opened. Then, in 1930, Bradfield was abruptly retired by the railway commissioners, but he continued to supervise work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932.

The bridge connected both sides of the harbour, allowing passage for private vehicles and his new electric train line.

The bridge was built during the Great Depression and helped employ thousands of men who would have otherwise been unemployed.

At the time of its completion, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the world.

The Museum of Sydney said that it "became a beacon of hope, a very visible and powerful symbol for the people of Sydney in difficult times, revolutionising the city and bringing it into the modern age”.

In honour of Bradfield, the highway that runs across the bridge was named after him.

However, credit for the bridge design has been a matter of debate. While Bradfield submitted proposals for the design, the detailed design work on the bridge was carried out by civil engineer Sir Ralph Freeman. The credit dispute has not been resolved.

In 1933, Bradfield retired, but he continued to take on consulting and advisory work.

Some of the major projects in his consulting years include the Story Bridge over Brisbane River, the Hornibrook Highway project (including building Hornibrook Bridge) near Brisbane, and the St Lucia site of the University of Queensland.

Fascinating facts

  • Bradfield was awarded the Telford Gold Medal by ICE in 1934.
  • In 1933, he was awarded the Peter Nicole Russell Memorial Medal by the Institution of Engineers, Australia.
  • Also in 1933, he was appointed a companion to the Order of St. Michael and St. George.
  • Bradfield was honoured by the naming of a city near the new Western Sydney International Airport after him.
  • In 2007, he was awarded the Queensland Institute of Engineers Lifetime Achievement award.
  • During World War I, he worked to establish a civil aviation school for training pilots for overseas services.

Notable projects

  • Sydney’s underground railway system, or City Circle.
  • Sydney Harbour Bridge
  • Bradfield Highway, the main roadway section of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
  • Cataract Dam.
  • Burrinjuck Dam, part of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

Membership of societies

Bradfield was an associate member of ICE from 1893. Then, in 1895, he founded the Sydney University Engineering Society, for which he served as president from 1902 to 1903 and then again from 1919 to 1920.