Going Forth Down Under…

Ever since the Forth Bridge was completed and then opened in 1890, its iconic power has been such that it has cropped up in all sorts of unexpected places. A host of people and organisations, ranging from politicians to soft-drinks companies, continue to use the Forth Bridge as a potent backdrop or an iconic shape to promote their various causes.

The Forth Bridges United Kingdom 5/9/2022 9:16:31 AM

In engineering terms, there are not many contenders that can seriously challenge the cultural penetration of the Forth Bridge, the one exception perhaps being the Quebec Bridge in Canada. However, earlier this year I was contacted by colleagues in TICCIH Australia who were agitated by the imminent loss of part of an unusual engineering structure in Geelong, a few miles to the south west of Melbourne, Victoria.

The piece of engineering heritage in question is the extraordinary ‘Barwon River Ovoid Sewer Aqueduct’. You might wonder how on earth a sewer has any relevance to our World Heritage Site on the Forth, but when you see it you immediately understand the connection. The aqueduct was described in a 1994 issue of Engineering Heritage Australia as ‘Geelong’s Parthenon’. Dating from 1915, it comprises 14 double-cantilever reinforced concrete towers carrying a sewer pipe over the Barwon River for over 800 metres. It was designed by Edward Giles Stone, an architect who very demonstrably had been inspired by The Forth Bridge, which had been completed only 25 years earlier. It was constructed using the Considère reinforced concrete system. The Geelong Heritage Centre has some outstanding photographs of the aqueduct under construction (see Figure 1) which are very reminiscent of the construction scenes on the banks of the Firth of Forth 30 years earlier (see Figure 2). 

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the people of Geelong are proud of their aqueduct. Indeed, back in 1994, the article in Engineering Heritage Australia went as far as describing it as ‘Geelong’s Parthenon’. The interest then was heightened by a threat to another iconic structure designed by Edward Stone, the Dennys Lascelles Wool Stores (also known as ‘The Bow Truss Building’). Melbourne-based architectural and engineering historian, Miles Lewis, has written extensively about historic concrete buildings, including the work of Stone, and the energetic but unsuccessful campaign to save the building in the 1980s is well documented. At one stage, the campaigners actively lobbied for these buildings to be put forward for UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Ultimately, the ‘Bow Truss Building’ was demolished in 1990, but the Barwon River Ovoid Sewer Aqueduct lived on, albeit disused and unmaintained. The interest generated created a significant body of records, to which can be added the outstanding construction photographs. These are all held by the Geelong Heritage Centre, who very kindly provided me access to the amazing archive of documents and images. In the process, they informed me that Geelong is in fact a UNESCO Creative City of Design. We have already therefore raised the possibility of using our shared UNESCO status to collaborate in the future.

Such a collaboration might be useful in the future as the people of Geelong contemplate the future of their aqueduct. Unlike the Siemens Martin mild steel that makes up the Forth Bridge, the reinforced concrete with which it was built has not fared well, and four of the 14 towers have been declared unsafe and condemned. It looks as if it will be impossible to save them, and in the longer term, doubt hangs over the fate of the remaining ten towers.

Much depends on whether or not an affordable conservation solution can be found for the surviving parts of the structure. Deteriorating reinforced concrete can be difficult to treat, but the world of technical conservation is coming up with solutions. It would be nice if a Forth/Barwon initiative might encourage the authorities in Victoria to think positively about the future of the aqueduct. Certainly, the extraordinary conservation work on the Forth Bridge by Network Rail should be an inspiration.

So, I am very grateful to our Australian colleagues in the Geelong Heritage for sharing so much information, and look forward to working with them in the future. It would be tremendous if we can help keep alive awareness and appreciation of the work of Edward Giles Stone, and perhaps assist efforts to ensure the survival at least of parts of the aqueduct itself.

Dr Miles Oglethorpe
Chair, Forth Bridge World Heritage Management Group
Historic Environment Scotland

 

I am indebted to Mark Beasley and his team at the Geelong Heritage Centre and to the National Records of Scotland (NRS) for giving permission to use their images. More information can be obtained for Geelong at https://www.grlc.vic.gov.au/glhc/heritage-centre, and the image of the Forth Bridge and others are available to view and purchase from the image library on www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Figure 1: GRS 2009/419, Building the Sewer Aqueduct, c.1915: Construction of the Ovoid Sewer Aqueduct over the Barwon River, Breakwater, c.1915. Photographed by J. M. B.,

Geelong Heritage Centre Archives, Victoria, Australia

Figure 2: Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, BR/FOR/4/34/299, Photograph of the south approach viaduct girder-span and end pier in construction, the central towers of the three piers are at full height and the double cantilevers under construction, 10 May 1888 (AAA01461);