As the 75th anniversary of John Bradfield’s death on 23 September 1943 approaches, I’m writing a series of posts exploring some of the ideas outlined in his 1924 engineering doctorate thesis and their relevance for Sydney a century later. Please see part 1 for the background to this series.
In his preface to his thesis for the degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering which documented his work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, construction of the underground railway and electrification of the rail network John Bradfield acknowledges the contribution of only two people.
He gives one a brief mention – Professor Warren, who taught him “the sound principles of Engineering practice” – but he is much more generous in thanking the other. After describing the establishment of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and City Transit Branch and his own appointment as Chief Engineer in 1912, Bradfield lavishes praise on the Branch’s next appointee:
The first officer appointed to the branch was Miss K.M. Butler now my Confidential Secretary: she has at all times carried out her duties with foresight, tact and marked ability. In preparing the Specification for the Sydney Harbour Bridge she was my only assistant; the technique of the Specification is hers, and I think it would be impossible to find a better arranged or better printed specification. During my absence abroad in 1922 she carried out all correspondence with tenderers throughout the world, herself; she is present at all interviews with the tenderers in Sydney and myself excepted she alone knows of the many issues involved in tendering for the bridge. Her conscientious and efficient help has materially lightened the responsibility which the design and construction of these two great engineering works have entailed, and in this Thesis I wish to place on record my sincere thanks to the lady for her invaluable assistance. (in this and all Bradfield’s quotes used in these posts his original spelling, punctuation, grammar and word capitalisation are retained)
Despite Bradfield’s generous recognition, “Miss K.M. Butler” seems to have largely slipped from public view. She doesn’t deserve this fate, not only because of her substantial contribution to the building of the bridge, but also because her story provides a fascinating perspective on the lives of working women in the early 20th Century, with some lessons for us today.
Kathleen Butler starts no. 1 compressor to commence construction of the Bridge in September 1923 (source: NSW State Archives)
Kathleen Muriel Butler was born in February 1891 in Lithgow NSW, one of seven children to an English father and Irish mother. She grew up in the Blue Mountains and attended school in Mt Victoria, where her father was stationmaster, and later Mount St. Mary’s Convent in Katoomba.* Continue reading