September 25, 2022

The Cats of Sydney Harbour Bridge

The cats of Sydney Harbour Bridge made their home in one of the world's most famous landmarks, delighting tourists for decades.

Hell's Gate Bridge, New York.
Hell's Gate Bridge, New York.

Sydney Harbour Bridge was designed by Scottish architectural firm John Burnet & Partners, who modelled it on the Hell's Gate Railway Bridge in New York. Built between 1923 - 1932, at the then staggering cost of 6.25 million pounds, the bridge's construction required an army of engineers and workers.

It is one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Australia.

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction.
Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction.

The bridge's design provided for two pairs of stone pylons; one pair on each bank of Sydney Harbour. These were mainly to support the bridge's arch, but were sturdy enough that they were left largely hollow.

In 1934, a small time entrepreneur named 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 an array of attractions:

'I fitted up an aboriginal museum, a photographic gallery, a café, a camera obscura, and other sideshows. A reading room and writing room were equipped. I converted one room into a Buddhist Temple, and in another we produced a daily newspaper.'

 

- Archer Whitford

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.

Civilian access to the pylons was restricted until the war was over.

Yvonne Rentoul
Yvonne Rentoul

After the war, an ex-servicewoman named Yvonne Rentoul would restore the south east pylon.

Renaming it 'The All Australian Exhibition', Rentoul didn't stray too far from Whitford's successful formula. Her exhibition included dioramas, sideshows, a lookout platform, and a souvenir shop.

Viewing platform at Rentoul's museum, 1948.
Viewing platform at Rentoul's museum, 1948.

Rentoul was also an animal lover, with a particular fondness for cats.

Once the exhibition was up and running, Rentoul installed a cattery on the roof, which became home  to three intrepid felines.  She secured them in the evening, during the day they were free to roam about the bridge.

It became a common sight to see them perched precariously on a girder, or standing on the edge of some vertiginous drop. The cats of Sydney Harbour Bridge became a local tourist attraction.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge cats

Sydney Harbour Bridge cats

Sydney Harbour Bridge cats

Sydney Harbour Bridge cats

Renotul's exhibition proved durable: she ran the venue until her lease expired in 1971.

She then retired, and the exhibition space was closed. Rentoul's cats, now a second generation from the bridge's original inhabitants, went with her into retirement.

The state government now uses the exhibition space for storage.

 More MUSEUM OF LOST

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