Prouts Bridge over Cooks River | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

Culture and heritage


Prouts Bridge over Cooks River

Item details

Name of item: Prouts Bridge over Cooks River
Other name/s: RTA Bridge No. 79
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Transport - Land
Category: Road Bridge
Location: Lat: -33.913333333333334 Long: 151.11722222222224
Primary address: Canterbury Road, Canterbury, NSW 2193
Local govt. area: Canterbury
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Canterbury RoadCanterburyCanterbury  Primary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Roads and Maritime ServicesState Government 

Statement of significance:

Prouts Bridge is of local historical, associative, social, research and representative significance. Located on a site of historic importance in the development of the Canterbury area, its name recalls Cornelius Prout, who owned part of the land through which the Cooks River flows at the site and who provided the first crossings - a punt in 1831, then a bridge, built by convict labour in 1841. The history of the bridge is instructive about the development of transport infrastructure and its evolution from private to public ownership and control. Considered a 'gateway' to Canterbury, the community has valued the crossing since the first bridge was constructed and continued community esteem is evidenced by requests to maintain the name "Prout's Bridge". With remnants of the earlier bridge, the site has the potential to contribute to an understanding of the history of the Canterbury area, the use of convict labour in bridge building and the development of infrastructure administration and technology. As a reinforced concrete beam or girder structure, the bridge is representative of other such structures developed in the 1930s and 1940s in particular, though its construction was affected by the labour and materials shortages of the immediate post-war period, leading to a later construction date.
Date significance updated: 18 Aug 05
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Public Works Department
Builder/Maker: Public Works Department
Construction years: 1947-1951
Physical description: Crossing Cooks River on a 183m (600 foot) radius curve, this bridge is a reinforced concrete beam structure. Each of the five spans of approximately 12m has eleven reinforced concrete beams, the central one being split on centreline, presumably to facilitate staged reconstruction. The edge beams have a low floor with precast panels to provide two utility ducts on each side of the bridge under the footway. Being simply supported, each span has embedded steel angles at each end where expansion occurs. The railing is of steel pipe with plastic coated wire mesh infill, and two lamp standards have been retrofitted to the bridge.

The substructure of the bridge has typical reinforced concrete abutment walls, topped with double endposts, whilst the piers have five octagonal columns each with headstocks following the road crossfall. The soffit of the headstock has fillets at each column, and a strong taper to the face of the bridge. From the drawings it appears that the piers are founded on simple spread footings.

The Cooks River flows along a concrete lined channel, fringed by mangroves. On the south eastern corner of the bridge is a pleasant park recently renamed the Dame Mary McKillop Park. The Cooks River Cycleway passes under the bridge on the northern bank, and various pathways cross the park, providing ample opportunities for the public interpretation of the bridge. Adjacent to the northern abutment on the eastern side is a small section of coursed stone wall, which is associated with the former bridge existing on the site between 1841 and 1947.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Original condition assessment: 'Good' (Last updated: 5/08/2004.)

2007-08 condition update: 'Poor.' (Last updated: 17/4/09.)
Date condition updated:17 Apr 09
Modifications and dates: Wire mesh was fitted to the pipe handrailings of the bridge soon after construction, to prevent children from swinging on the railings.

Street lamps (x2) have been added to the eastern side of the bridge by means of metal brackets attached to the edge of the deck, probably c 1970.
Current use: Road bridge
Former use: Road bridge


Historical notes: Prouts Bridge crosses the Cooks River on Canterbury Road, a long established and important transport conduit to the Canterbury community, on the site of an early punt and then bridge crossing constructed by local landowner Cornelius Prout. The Cooks River was traversed and described by settlers in 1789 and given its present name by 1796. The districts surrounding the lower reaches of the river on both banks were initially known as Bulanaming. The Reverend Richard Johnson, army chaplain, who arrived with the first fleet, was the first grantee in the Canterbury area, receiving his grant, named Canterbury Vale, in 1793. The grant was successfully farmed, and more land was added in 1796 and 1793, however, Johnson returned to England. (Kennedy, 1982, p. 42) Although much of the land to the south of the Cooks River was alienated by grants between 1804 and 1830 and although the stands of timber and the shells along Botany Bay, which had potential for lime-making, were attractive to the colony, the swamps of the lower reaches of the Cooks River made the area difficult to access. Hunting parties and those intending to flee the colony were regular visitors to the area, followed by timber getters, but until the 1830s the problem of access across the river prevented a significant number of settlers from making the Canterbury-Arncliffe area their home, and created difficulties for those who did. (Kennedy, 1982, pp. 112-3) Crossings were made initially by fording the River, often necessitating circuitous routes. (Larcombe, 1979, p. 58-9) Hannah Laycock, owner of the Kings Grove Estate, probably had a bridge built before 1809. Surveyor James Meehan described it as "a very slender bad bridge - rather dangerous for a carriage". In 1831 Cornelius Prout, owner of land on the southern riverbank fronting Beamish Street and today’s Bexley Road, after whom the current bridge is named, established a punt service across the river, which was accessed via a track through his land. (Larcombe, 1979, p. 77; Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, 2000, pp. 4-8) His may have been preceded by and co-existed with other punts further downriver about which less is known. Another important access point was formed in 1840, when a dam was constructed on the river, in the vicinity of Undercliffe, with the intention of providing a more reliable and abundant fresh water supply to Sydney than that provided by the Tank Stream and the Botany swamps. While not entirely successful as a dam, it provided a very important crossing point between its construction and its ruin by floods in 1864, possibly forming the crossing for the Sydney-Wollongong Road surveyed by Mitchell and constructed with convict labour between 1842 and 1845 (Larcombe, 1979, p. 58-9, 77; Kennedy, 1982, p. 113-4)

In 1841 Cornelius Prout replaced his punt with a three span bridge with stone piers on the same site, an ideal access point for the Canterbury community, using convict labour under a stonemason by the name of Walsh. The stone was quarried from the property of Robert Campbell, on the opposite bank of the river. Prout and Campbell facilitated public access to the bridge by designating a roadway through their properties. The bridge provided a crucial link 'between the most heavily populated part of the parish and the most likely destinations, Canterbury, the sugar works on the Cooks River, Parramatta Road and the Sydney markets.' The bridge was partly financed by subscription, and partly by Prout, who subsequently sought to recoup his share of the expense by establishing a toll on the bridge for the non-subscribers. Prout constructed a stone toll house for the purpose. By 1850 locals were expressing discontent about the continued collection of the toll, especially since the bridge was not being satisfactorily maintained. An anonymous group commissioned solicitors to make a submission to the Colonial Secretary on the subject. In 1853 the stubborn Prout staged a lock out on the bridge, and for the second time a frustrated local resident took to the tollgates with an axe. After energetic petitioning, and the death of Prout in February 1854, the Government gazetted a public road from Parramatta Road at Petersham to Prout’s bridge. The road was placed in the hands of a trust, who took a toll for the maintenance of the road. The bridge was widened in 1899 and again in 1924. (Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, 2000, pp. 4-8)

In the late 1930s a number of serious accidents and safety concerns within the community prompted the consideration of adjustments to the approaches and the pavement crossing the bridge. However, at the same time, the Public Works Department was engaged in channel works on the Cooks River, and planned to reconfigure the river at the site of the bridge to better cope with flood conditions, widening the top of the channel to approximately 200 feet, in comparison with the span of the current bridge at 95 feet. Flood waters had many times flowed over the bridge, and in the 1890s a horse-drawn bus had been washed off it, causing the deaths of the horses and the ticket collector. By March 1938, the channel works had reached the railway bridge approximately a kilometre upstream of Canterbury Road, and continued to race towards the bridge as deliberations about its future continued over the following year. The extension of the existing three span bridge to five spans was seriously considered, but concerns about cracking in the deck; doubts about whether suitable stone might be procured for the extending and building additional piers; aesthetic concerns about how the altered structure would look; and finally, the lower cost represented by the replacement of the bridge with a concrete structure, led to the decision to construct a new bridge rather than extend and widen the existing one. (RTA File 79.191;1, Austral Archaeology, 2000, pp. 6, 8)

The Department of Main Roads design for a reinforced concrete beam bridge on an alignment with a 600ft radius curve, the contemporary standard, was approved in November 1941. The construction of the bridge was to be funded in the main by the Public Works Department as part of the channel works, with contributions by the Department of Main Roads and Canterbury Council. Construction of the new bridge was considered urgent because of the possibilities of flooding due to the widened channel immediately upstream of the bridge. However, in 1942, the completed drawings were put aside as labour was diverted to urgent defence works. After the war, the construction of the bridge was further delayed, the project missing out on inclusion in the Department of Main Roads Post War Reconstruction Programme. The NRMA, the Canterbury Municipal Reform Association and the Simpson Reserve Park Committee wrote letters of protest about the continued lack of action. Improvement works to the existing bridge, to eliminate safety concerns, were again considered in late 1945. (RTA File 79.191;1) By June 1947, construction had commenced, the old bridge having been partly demolished and the foundations for the new bridge underway. (Austral Archaeology, 2000, p. 8) Where, in ideal circumstances, such a bridge could be completed within three to six months, the construction of Prouts Bridge limped along through post-war exigencies until early 1951. The cost of the construction exploded as wages increased and materials became more expensive since estimates were made pre-war. Proceedings were held up as the delivery of steel reinforcement was delayed and formwork carpenters were difficult to find and keep. Excessively wet weather also slowed construction work. The bridge was constructed in two halves, so that the road could be kept open to traffic, but while work continued, access across the river was slowed and several municipal projects were held up, including the plan to beautify the area around the bridge, the "gateway to Canterbury". (RTA File 79.191;1) The prevailing post-war scarcity rendered the stone and steel joists from the demolished bridge desirable to the Department of Public Works for extension of the Undercliffe Bridge over the Cooks River; to the Department of Main Roads for the new bridge on General Holmes Drive over the Cooks River; and to Canterbury Council for stone works in the Simpson Reserve adjacent to Prouts Bridge, and protracted negotiations over custody of the materials ensued. (RTA File 79.191;1 and RTA File 79.191;2) A small section of coursed stone wall from the earlier bridge is located on the eastern side of the northern abutment.

Reinforced concrete beam or girder bridges were the most common type of bridge constructed in the period from 1925 to 1948, providing an efficient, economical and aesthetically pleasing solution to a wide range of crossing types. After the 1950s these designs began to be superseded by composite steel and concrete bridges, which became more popular as steel became more readily available. (Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, 2000, p. 11)

The bridge was generally known as Prouts Bridge or the Canterbury Road Bridge until 1981 when the Canterbury and District Historical Society put a request to the Canterbury Municipal Council that the bridge be formally named 'Prouts Bridge'. (Austral Archaeology, 2000, p. 10) It is unfortunate that there is no extant signage at the bridge or adjacent park recording this historical link.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements (none)-
5. Working-Working Labour-Activities associated with work practises and organised and unorganised labour (none)-
7. Governing-Governing Government and Administration-Activities associated with the governance of local areas, regions, the State and the nation, and the administration of public programs - includes both principled and corrupt activities. (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The bridge site represents a number of phases in the history of the development of transport infrastructure at this historically important crossing, consisting firstly of a punt in 1831, then a bridge built using convict labour in 1841, both instigated by local landowner, Cornelius Prout; and finally the present bridge, completed in 1951. Remnant stonework from the 1841 bridge remains on the site. The crossing was of pivotal importance in the history of the locality from earliest times, providing access to the village of Canterbury, the sugar works on the Cooks River, Parramatta Road and the Sydney markets, thereby contributing to Canterbury's economic and social development and prosperity.

The history of the bridge and crossing is articulate about the evolution of, and inherent conflict over, responsibility for the provision, ownership, control and administration of key components of transport infrastructure between the private and public sector, and the eventual assumption of this role by government authorities.

Construction of the present bridge was associated with the Public Works Department's reconfiguration of the Cooks River to better cope with flood conditions. It is thus associated with the historical theme of the natural environment.

The construction history of the bridge demonstrates the impact of World War II on bridge construction in the State, the bridge's completion being delayed due to the diversion of manpower to defence works as well as the short supply and high cost of materials.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The bridge is associated with Cornelius Prout, a local landholder who established a punt service on this site in 1831, and then replaced it with a timber and stone bridge in 1841. The name "Prouts Bridge" recalls and perpetuates the association with the builder of the original crossings at the site. Prout achieved notoriety both for his achievement in providing a much-needed crossing and for his stubborn determination to control access to the crossing by charging a toll, as local users saw it, long after his investment in the bridge had been repaid.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The site has provided a crucially important crossing from the earliest days of settlement in the area, contributing to the social and economic growth of the locality. Community interest and esteem is indicated by the desire to formally keep the name "Prout's Bridge" in 1981. The bridge and park are seen as the 'gateway' to Canterbury, indicating some community esteem for the site, and the surrounding area, including a cycleway and paths affords opportunities for public viewing and interpretation.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The bridge site, including remnants of the former bridge, together with documentary sources has the potential to contribute to an understanding of the history of Canterbury and the development of transport infrastructure, including a convict-built bridge and the evolution of administration of such infrastructure.
SHR Criteria g)
The bridge is representative of reinforced concrete beam bridges of curved design, developed in the 1930s and 1940s.
Integrity/Intactness: Good
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage register  18 Aug 05   

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
Heritage Study of Pre-1948 Concrete Beam Bridges (Sthn, Sth West, Sydney)2005 Burns and Roe Worley and Heritage Assessment And History (HAAH)  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Written  RTA File: 79.191;1. Survey Design and Construction. 1937-1951
Written  RTA File: 178.191; 2. Survey, Design and Construction. 1951-1965
WrittenAustral Archaeology Pty Ltd2000A Heritage Assessment and Statement of Heritage Impact, Cooks River Bridge, Canterbury
WrittenKennedy, Brian and Barbara1982Sydney and Suburbs - A History and Description
WrittenLarcombe, F A1979Change & challenge : a history of the Municipality of Canterbury, NSW

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: State Government
Database number: 4309574

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