Idle Men Build Bridge Still in Use Today

The convicts assigned to build a coastal road on the East Coast of Tasmania may have been thought to be mismanaged and idle, yet the Three Arch Bridge at Swanport has proven remarkably durable.

Like the well-known Spiky Bridge, the Three Arch Bridge at Little Swanport was built by convict labour from the nearby Rocky Hills Probation Station.

In the years between 1843 and 1846, when the bridge was being constructed, the Rocky Hills Probation Station came to be seen as one of the worst of its kind. James Syme referred to it as a ‘hot bed or idleness and laxity of disposition’, while Louisa Anne Meredith, of Cambria near Swansea, recorded that ‘it was a common thing to see them not even pretending to be employed, unless in making arbours of bowers to sit under in the sun!’

 

The Rocky Hill Probation Station was part of a network of convict stations and road gangs set up across Tasmania from 1839 to 1853. The convicts laboured during the first year of their sentences on government projects where, supposedly, they received consistent discipline, reformatory training and moral and religious instruction. By good behaviour a convict could obtain a ticket-of-leave and then perhaps a conditional or absolute pardon.

The construction of Three Arch Bridge is a good example of convict work projects making use of easily available resources. While not a fashionable material in colonial Tasmania, large dolerite stones litter the bed of Old Man Creek for hundreds of metres upstream of the bridge. A benched track and ford which can still be found upstream of the bridge would have made it an easy matter to select and remove stones by horse and crat from the creek bed, and a flat area alongside the ford possibly represents a work area where stones were broken up with spall hammers. Likewise, in the absence of a conveniently located limestone deposit, the shell lime mortar used in the bridge was probably obtained from the beach nearby.

The Three Arch Bridge near Swanport on the Tasman Highway, is one of the few convict-built bridges and culverts which remain part of the Tasmanian highway system, demonstrating the skilful use of locally available materials, even at the hands of so-called idle men.

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