Tom Ugly’s Bridge – the handsome veteran
By ALEC SMART
Tom Uglys Bridge (1929 original, left, 1987 southbound bridge, right). Photo: Alec Smart
Tom Uglys Bridge is a NSW Heritage-listed dual crossing spanning the Georges River in Sydney’s south, and most probably named after an Aboriginal man (details below).
Historically it was the first road bridge constructed over the 96km Georges River estuary (after a rail bridge at Como), replacing a 65-year-old punt service.
When Tom Uglys Bridge (no apostrophe between the Y and the S) was opened to traffic on 26 April 1929 (although formally opened by the NSW Governor on 11 May 1929), it was the longest bridge in Australia at 499 metres in length.
Linking Tom Uglys Point, Blakehurst (north) and Horse Rock Point, Sylvania (south), and carrying the Princes Highway from St George to Sutherland, it is one of seven major road crossings along the tidal river flowing into Botany Bay.
It was designed by Percy Allan (July 1861 - May 1930) a civil engineer who planned many public works in New South Wales, including 583 bridges. Among these were the Pyrmont Bridge and its twin sister, Glebe Island Bridge (both built between 1899 and 1903), the last remaining swing bridges of their type in the world (although the latter has been left in a ruinous state by successive NSW Governments).
However, Allan died one year after Tom Uglys Bridge was opened.
Tom Uglys Bridge under construction 1929. Photo: Sutherland Shire Library
Balmy King and a crazy pilot
The Georges River, known as Tucoerah (aka Tuggerah) to the Indigenous Dharawal and Dharug clans that fished its waters, was renamed by Arthur Phillip, the First Fleet Captain and thereafter first Governor of Australia, in honour of King George III.
King George III was the loquacious and manic British king infamously known as ‘mad’ – as portrayed in a 1994 film – a condition politely attributed to the blood disorder porphyria, but more likely caused by bipolar disorder.
In the midst of World War II, Tom Uglys Bridge was used in an aerial antic. On Thursday 28 May 1942, Hurstville community newspaper The Propeller reported a “Daring Plane Stunt” when an unidentified fighter pilot flew beneath the bridge. Apparently it was not the first time, and air force pilots were already flying underneath Sydney Harbour Bridge on training exercises.
“Last Sunday afternoon, and on previous occasions, it has been stated, a ‘plane of the fighter type’ flew under
George's River Bridge, between the deck and the surface of the water,” The Propeller said.
“The pilot then continued his course for some distance, almost skimming the waves before rising to normal altitude. One official, on duty near the bridge, seemed to -believe, oddly enough, that the stunt was not so very daring. He remarked: ‘There's plenty of room under the bridge. It's about thirty-five feet from the deck to the water.’ Another said: ‘The next thing they'll have to do is to put grates over the street culverts to stop them flying under them.’ Nevertheless, this is a fair sample of the skill and cool daring of our pilots, whether they are Australians :or Americans.
“It is more-or-less common knowledge that pilots have chosen flying under Sydney Harbour Bridge as good practise, particularly for wartime conditions. But, even that was once regarded as a daring stunt. There is a considerable difference, however, between the harbour bridge and George's River Bridge. There's no knowing what these ‘captains of the clouds’ will be up to next.”
Tom Uglys Punt crossing Georges River from Tom Ugly's Point c1909. Photo: Charles Kerry
Take a punt
Prior to Tom Uglys Bridge construction, Sutherland and St George residents and tradespeople needing to cross Georges River had a choice of three punt services linking six suburbs.
These cable-drawn car transporters traversed between six points on either side of the river: Illawong and Lugarno (1843-1976), which was replaced by the Alfords Point Bridge (opened Sept 1973); Taren Point and Sans Souci (1916-1965), which was replaced by Captain Cook Bridge (opened May 1965); and Sylvania and Blakehurst (1869-1929), which was replaced by Tom Uglys Bridge.
The first vehicle-carrying punt between Tom Uglys Point and Horse Rock Point, a hand-winched vessel, was launched in 1864, financed by property tycoon and Newtown politician Thomas Holt.
At this time, most of the Sutherland region, around 4,856 hectares (12,000 acres), was under the ownership of Holt, who tried unsuccessfully to graze stock and operate commercial oyster farms. The only profit he turned on his 11 Sutherland estates was timber from the forests that were clear-felled of native blackbutt, cedar, ironbark and mahogany and sold to lumber merchants in Sydney for fencing and furniture.
In 1878, acknowledging that the forests he denuded to sandy pastures were unsuitable for raising stock, Holt sub-divided his failed farmlands and offered 21-year leases to tenants.
As the district opened up to new settlers, larger and faster punts replaced previous vessels to fulfil public demand for their service.
Tom Uglys Punt crossing Georges River from Horse Rock Point c1904.
In 1882, a steam-powered punt began operating. At 16m long with a 3.4m wide parking platform, it was capable of carrying six horse-drawn carriages and was guided by steel cables attached to both banks.
In 1898, it was replaced by a larger steam-driven ferry that could transport 100 passengers and 15 vehicles. This, in turn, was superseded in 1922 by a punt capable of carrying 28 vehicles and crossing the river in three minutes.
By 1929, when the bridge was completed, there were two cable-winched ferries operating side by side.
According to the Georges River Story website: “There were occasional mishaps. In July 1919, the punt driver fell into the water, and the punt continued on its way unattended. He swam after it, and caught up with it just in time to bring it to a halt. In March 1921, a car accidentally reversed at speed onto the punt and straight through the safety gate at the back, into ten metres of water, with a mother and child still in the car. The punt’s engineer immediately dived in to rescue them.”
Further upstream, a rail line to Sutherland was opened in 1885, crossing the Georges River at Como, with steam trains giving way to electric in 1939. However, it was a single track rail bridge, which led to bottlenecks in train movements on either side within five years of its opening.
In Nov 1972, a dual-track rail bridge opened alongside Como Bridge and in Dec 1985 the original was repurposed as a cycling/walking bridge.
It supports two pipelines, one carrying mains water from Woronora Dam, the other sewage.
Tom Uglys Punt crossing Georges River some time between 1910-20. Photo: Sutherland Shire Library
However, the punts created major traffic bottlenecks. At the time the bridge was built, public pressure was mounting for a solution to the long waits for punts (25,000 vehicles reportedly crossed the bridge in its first fortnight of operation, giving an idea of the heavy traffic building up either side of the riverbank each day).
In an archived edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, dated 22 Aug 1910, it described the unavoidable delays during holidays and peak periods as “scandalous” and “a horror” and emphasised the necessity of a bridge.
“The reason for the punt being a hindrance to public convenience instead of a blessing at week-ends and on holidays is its utter inadequacy for the conveyance of the traffic… The distance from point to point is only about 300 yards, and under favourable conditions - if one is so fortunate as to drive up just in time to catch it - the crossing takes three and a half minutes.
“When there is a heavy load on the time is extended to about five minutes, and when a cross-wind blows strongly it lengthens out amazingly. A southerly helps the ungainly craft one way and retards it the other, but it is the cross-winds that cause the longest delays, and there are times when the punt cannot work at all on account of the wind pressure…
“Some idea of the traffic across the river is afforded by figures taken during four weeks in September, 1908. Then 3200 passengers, 758 cycles, 980 horses, 881 vehicles, and 99 motor-cars were conveyed on the punt.”
Tom Uglys Bridge 2023. Photo: Alec Smart
Tolls and a second bridge
The punt fare in 1906 was 6 pence per vehicle, 3 pence a horse, 2 pence for a horse and rider, and a penny for foot travellers. According to the Georges River Story website, “at an enquiry into the ferry service in 1908, it emerged that it could take up to two or three hours for some vehicles to cross at busy times. Weekly earnings from the ferry were £14, but it cost £1000 a year to run.”
Sutherland Shire Council borrowed a significant sum of money - £305,000 - from the NSW Govt to finance the construction of the first bridge, so a toll of sixpence was imposed to repay the loan.
For a period after Tom Uglys Bridge was opened, the punt continued a free car ferry service alongside, for commuters who wished to avoid the new bridge toll.
The toll was collected on the Sylvania side by staff on foot who intercepted vehicles on the road. After 23 years the bridge loan was eventually repaid and on 31 May 1952 the toll was abolished.
Originally known as the George’s River Bridge, Tom Uglys Bridge wasn’t formally named until May 1965, when Captain Cook Bridge, 2300 metres downstream and linking Sans Souci to Taren Point, was opened, to avoid confusion.
Initially, Tom Uglys Bridge consisted of two lanes, one in each direction; then, from the 1950s, was converted to three lanes, with the central lane direction altered in morning and afternoon rush hours to accommodate peak flow.
Today, Tom Uglys consists of two bridges side by side, one northbound, the other southbound. A second bridge (opened 17 Oct 1987) was deemed necessary after traffic increased to around 60,000 vehicles a day in the 1980s.
Dual bridges like these are typically parallel, however, the Tom Uglys’ pair diverge significantly, like a feuding couple. At their northern end there is approximately 5 metres separating them, but the newer bridge was set on a tangent to end up 62 metres apart at the southern end, thus making it 71 metres longer.
The newer bridge, nearest Botany Bay to the east, is of concrete box girder design; the older original to the west is a truss design made of steel.
Distinction between Pratt and Howe trusses - Tom Uglys Bridge utilises the Pratt design.
The northbound iron bridge utilises an engineering design known as the Pratt truss with alternating vertical and diagonal support beams. This distinct style of latticework, invented in 1844 by Thomas and Caleb Pratt, supports and reinforces bridges in all weather conditions and is in use all over the world.
Truss bridges, either a series of independent sections or one long span, are supported by pillars at both ends of the truss. Both of the Tom Ugly bridges consist of nine spans .
Pratt became a common configuration during the Industrial Revolution as truss bridges worldwide moved from wood to metal. Notable examples of Pratt truss designs are the Iron Cove Bridge linking Drummoyne to Rozelle in Sydney (opened 1955, to replace the 1882 original), and the Hawkesbury River Rail Bridge (aka Brooklyn Bridge) linking Brooklyn to Mooney Mooney (opened 1946, replacing the earlier 1889 construction).
There are variations on this basic design, including the Baltimore, Bowstring, Parker, Pennsylvania, Whipple, but the Pratt truss is reportedly better suited for bridges with longer spans.
This might explain why Tom Uglys Bridge designer Percy Allan chose it, instead of the Allan truss, his own invention, which was a variant of the similar-looking Howe truss and was adopted for many NSW and ACT bridges between 1894 and 1929.
Tow Wa, aka Tom Ugly, 1810. Painting: John William Lewin
What’s in a name?
Who was Tom Ugly? Several theories have been offered since Tom Uglys Point was first named in the mid-19th century.
Wikipedia website suggests four alternatives:
“One is that it was named after a local resident Tom Huxley and the name was a mispronunciation by local Aboriginal people. Descendants of Thomas Huxley have concluded that he lived and owned land in the area but official records do not exist to verify this.
“Another theory is that it was derived from the name of a local Aboriginal man, Tow-weiry, who lived in the area and died about 1846. Another theory is that there was a local fisherman resident in the area by the name of Tom Illigley.
“Yet another is that there was a one-legged man, possibly an army deserter or a boat operator, called either ‘Tom Woggleg’ or ‘Wogul Leg Tom’, either because of a mispronunciation of wooden leg, or from the local Aboriginal dialect word for ‘one’.”
However, the Eora People website dismisses three of these versions as “spurious” and opines their own explanation:
“The real Tom Ugly was an Aboriginal man from the south coast of New South Wales who later lived, died and was buried under a gibber gunyah (rock shelter) on the point of the Georges River that bears his name.”
They detail the shocking pursuit of Tom’s skeleton by Karl von Scherzer, an explorer, natural scientist, author and diplomat, who wished to dig up his body for the purpose of study.
“Hoping to acquire the skeletal remains of an Australian Aborigine for his collection, Dr. Karl Scherzer (1821-1903), an Austrian scientist who visited Sydney on the ship Novara, went to ‘Coggera Cove’ (now Kogarah Bay) on the 1 December 1858, where he met an Aboriginal man named Johnny, described as ‘the last of the Sydney tribe’…
“A translation of Scherzer’s German language journal, now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, states that ‘Tom Weiry, or Tom Ugly, as the English named him, was a very athletic man, whose skeleton was a real prize for the purposes of comparative anatomy.’
“Johnny guided Scherzer to a burial ground in a shell midden, but after much digging unearthed only a few decayed bones from Tom Ugly’s skeleton, which were reburied.
“An Aboriginal man called Tom Ugly received government issue blankets at Broulee near Batemans Bay in 1837-43. In August 1844, George Augustus Robinson, at that time the Port Phillip (Melbourne) Protector of Aborigines, recorded Tow.wy.er as the name of the Twofold Bay Aboriginal people.”
So, in conclusion, the dual bridges that that carry the Princes Highway over Tucoerah/Georges River, were named after an Indigenous man whose remains are buried on the north bank at the point from where the two bridges, and before them the punts, originate.