Spiky Bridge: Tasmania’s Quirky Wall with Convict Heritage
The Spiky Bridge is a well-known feature and attraction on Tasmania’s east coast in Australia, but you could easily miss the turnoff because the view is spectacular! It’s well worth stopping along the way to check out this very distinctive colonial construction.
The unusual bridge, which is located 7.5 km (4.6 miles) south of Swansea and opposite the beaches of Great Oyster Bay, is part of the old coach road built by convicts that connected Swansea with Little Swanport and the east coast road to Hobart - a much needed route at the time.
Great Oyster Bay from Freycinet National Park, Tasmania (CC BY-SA 4.0)
By the 1820s, a settlement had pushed further up Tasmania’s east coast. Early settlers such as the Meredith and Dry family were drawn to the area by the prospects of farming. Despite constant complaints from the settlers to the government regarding the lack of decent road access, by 1840 there was still no road between Little Swanport and the Swansea district.
Rocky Hills Probation Station supplied a steady stream of convict labor
In 1841, a ready supply of labor for the exhausting tasks of laying road became available with the creation of the Rocky Hills Probation Station. The station lasted only eight years - an economic depression in the late 1840s meant there was an abrupt lack of demand for convict labor.
Rocky Hills Probation Station (Peter Hut / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Under the convict probation system that operated in the 1840’s, all convicts initially had to serve time in a government work gang. Previously, convicts had been assigned to work for private settlers when they first arrived in the colony by clearing land and planting crops. James Radcliffe’s Lisdillon Estate and salt works were just two of a number of properties in the district that relied on convict labor. Still standing, Lisdillon Estate is now a merino sheep farm and vineyard, it includes several of the original buildings, four of which have been renovated and converted into comfortable accommodation.
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At Probation Station, the convicts were primarily employed to build roads in the area, as well as clearing land and constructing station buildings as well as their own prison. Not an easy task in the grueling heat of Australia, which is also known for its fierce critters. The Spiky Bridge and parts of the old coach road which are still visible today, remain an enduring legacy to the convict workers from Rocky Hills station.
Convict laborers, Australia (Public Domain)
The popular legend is that the Spiky Bridge was built after Edward Shaw offered the Superintendent of Rocky Hills Probation Station, Major de Gillern, a ride home one night after a game of cards. Shaw intended to highlight the hazards for Tazmanian travelers and wanted improvements made to the road between Swansea and Little Swanport. Rather than wait patiently for his repeated requests to be granted, he raced the Major home at breakneck speed through the gully to prove his case. Needless to say, the bridge was erected shortly after.
Initially the bridge was called ‘Laferelle’s Bridge’, named after Thomas Laferelle who was a surveyor and civil engineer. He served as assistant supervisor at Rocky Hills Probation Station and most likely supervised the construction of the bridge.
The reason for the spikes remains a mystery
The reason the spikes were included in the design of the remains an enigma. One of the often quoted explanations for the spikes was to stop cows from falling over the edge, down into the gully. Some say it was to stop people jumping to their death, although the shallow ditch makes that seem unlikely. Another reason given is that when the bridge was built, the convicts responsible for the construction wanted to exact revenge of their supervisor and therefore stuck the rocks in the wrong way, starting a decorative trend that became responsible for the bridge’s name.
The jagged rocks have managed to bring ongoing attention to the Spiky Bridge as a part of Tasmanian history and people will no doubt continue to appreciate the humorous construction techniques for generations to come. Hopefully the lives of numerous wandering cows have been saved in the 177 years since it was built too.
Top Image: Spiky Bridge Source: (Colman, C / Pinterest)
Horne, T. 2011. Spiky Bridge: Sneaky Swansea Convicts! Think Tasmania.
Available at: http://think-tasmania.com/
Ritchie, G. 2013. The Spiky Bridge. On The convict Trail.
Available at: http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com/
Rosemaryhr. 2016. A Tourist in Tasmania – Spiky Bridge. The Smail Trail
Available at: https://roserob.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/a-tourist-in-tasmania-spiky-bridge/