Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Cats of Sydney Harbour Bridge

This week finds Beside the Yarra headed to Sydney for a few days, so I thought it might be fun to post a couple of Sydney themed items.

To kick this off, let's start with the story behind the remarkable photo below...

One of the most iconic landmarks in Australia, if not the world, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was also an epic feat of depression era engineering. Built across the years 1923 - 1932, at the staggering cost of 6.25 million pounds, the Bridge's construction required an army of engineers, thousands of workers and no small amount of technical innovation.

The bridge under construction (Photo: State Library NSW)

The Bridge's design was supplied by the Scottish architectural firm John Burnet & Partners, and was modeled on the Hells Gate Bridge in New York City. Among other aesthetic touches, the design provided for two pairs of pylons; one pair on each bank of Sydney Harbour, one pylon from each pair on either side of the bridge. Shortly after the bridge's opening in March 1932, one of these pylons was converted into a tourist attraction.

In 1934, small time entrepreneur and jack of all trades Archer Whitford successfully leased the south east pylon from the state Government. Whitford turned the unused space into a combination museum and funhouse, installing a modern electric lift and a varied array of attractions:

A story about Archer's attraction in the local press.

Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II meant that Whitford lost his venue; the military took over the pylons for the duration of the conflict, installing guard towers and anti aircraft guns. All civilian access to the pylons was restricted until the war was over.

Section Officer in the WAAAF; Yvonne Rentoul.

After the war, an ex-servicewoman named Yvonne Rentoul would restore the south east pylon. Renaming the pylon 'The All Australian Exhibition', Rentoul didn't stray too far from Whitford's successful formula; dioramas, sideshows, a lookout platform and a souvenir shop were all reinstalled.

The viewing platform on the South East pylon, 1948.

But one area where Rentoul did differ from her predecessor was her love of cats.

And she turned this into a new attraction at the pylon, installing a cattery on the roof and keeping 2-3 felines there at all times. The cattery became a popular part of a visit to the pylon, as can be seen by the prominent place that cats occupy on this promotional flyer:

Not that Rentoul left her pets in their cage all the time. In fact, the cats were free to wander about during the day, and were often only secured at night. It became relatively common to see them perched on a precarious girder, or standing calmly on the edge of a sudden drop. The cats were so well known that they even became sort of local celebrities, good enough for the front page:

Cats Live on the Bridge!

The cats, and Rentoul, stayed until her long term lease expired in 1971, after which the pylon again stood vacant. It is now used for a more official, and less eccentric, museum, cataloging the history of the bridge's construction and use.