Balclutha Bridge

State Highway 1, Balclutha

  • Balclutha Bridge. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shellie Evans . Taken By: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Date: 5/02/2014.
  • Balclutha Bridge. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shelley Morris . Taken By: Shelley Morris - Madam48. Date: 6/01/2014.
  • Balclutha Bridge. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 6/01/2014.
  • Balclutha Bridge. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 6/01/2014.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 5180 Date Entered 13th December 1990 Date of Effect 13th December 1990


City/District Council

Clutha District


Otago Region


The following text was prepared as part of an upgrade project and was completed 03 June 2003.

Described at the time of its opening as 'majestic', 'handsome' and 'a joy forever' the Balclutha Bridge remains an impressive and beautiful landmark. It crosses the Clutha River on State Highway 1 and provides the main entrance to the town of Balclutha. The Clutha is the largest of the South Island rivers (by volume) and therefore ways of crossing it have always been both vital and difficult.

As a Mayor of Balclutha, M.K. Ryan once said: 'The past and the future of our district and town are entwined with the vagaries and moods of our river, and that lifeline of our town has been its bridges'. After Pakeha settlement began in the 1850s, a ferry operated from the site of today's Balclutha Bridge, until the first bridge was opened in 1868. This was swept away by a major flood in 1878 and was eventually replaced in 1881. The second timber truss bridge lasted until 1935, but concerns were expressed over its safety from 1917 onwards. By 1928 the Main Highways Board was seriously considering replacing the bridge, driven by safety concerns and by the growth in motor traffic. Motor vehicles had begun to enter New Zealand from the late 1890s and by 1925 there were around 106,000 throughout the country. This change in transportation led to changes in both road building and bridges.

Once the Main Highways Board had decided to replace the bridge a debate over the costs of the bridge ensued between the Highways Board and the three local councils involved, which centred on the financial contribution expected of each group. This turned into a major controversy that eventually led to a Commission being established in 1931 to settle the matter. Headed by F.S. Read, Assistant Land Purchase Officer, the Commission found the cost was to be split between the Councils with Balclutha contributing £3,038, Bruce County £2,750 and Clutha County £2,500, while the Highway Board made up the remainder.

While the debate raged the 1881 bridge continued to weaken, with weight restrictions, equivalent to five heads of cattle or 150 sheep, being put in place in 1930 and reinforcements to the bridge in 1932. During this period, and influenced by the debate over the cost, the Public Works Department revised its design. William Langston Newnham (1888-1974), later the Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department, changed the proposed design from a steel truss bridge to one composed of six concrete bowstring arches. Newnham realised the merits of reinforced concrete arches in terms of cost and of ongoing maintenance and redesigned the Balclutha Bridge accordingly. According to historian Geoffrey Thornton 'some bridge engineers seem to have had a love affair with the concrete bowstring arch' throughout the 1930s. The first of this type was constructed over the Opawa River in Blenheim (1915-1917). Two hundred and forty-four metres in length, with each span being 36.6 metres long, the Balclutha Bridge is arguably one of the most impressive of this style.

Construction began on the revamped design of the Balclutha Bridge in 1933 and it was completed by 1935. The contractor for the bridge's construction was Christchurch builder W. Williamson, who was awarded the tender at the price of £39,000. He employed 70 to 80 men at the height of construction and the booklet issued at the time of the bridge's opening commented that there had only been one serious accident during the construction. The celebrations over its opening at the beginning of April 1935 extended from Friday night through to the evening of Monday and included processions, concerts, sports and a treasure hunt, an aerial pageant, bands, a banquet, a special church service and concluded with a citizens' ball. The bridge's opening shows that its construction was of major significance to the local community.

The Balclutha Bridge is one of New Zealand's outstanding examples of a concrete bowstring arch bridge. Graceful and elegant, it provides a dramatic entrance to Balclutha. For over sixty-five years the bridge has been an important part of State Highway 1 and its contribution to the economy of Balclutha cannot be underestimated. It is associated with one of New Zealand's prominent engineers, Newnham, who is particularly remembered for his contributions to the organisation of the engineering profession in New Zealand.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. The following text is from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

Uniting the north and south sectors of the township and carrying State Highway 1 over the Clutha River, the Balclutha bridge is thus a major feat of pre- World War Two civil engineering; all the more remarkable because it was erected during the Depression. The bridge continues to play a most important role in Balclutha and Central Otago's communication and services.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. The following text is from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


The bowstring-truss span was invented in the mid-nineteenth century to enable engineers to utilise the arch form in bridge construction without the need to erect massive piers and abutments to contain the lateral thrust usually associated with such construction. With internally self-supporting spans, the bowstring arch bridge was therefore less expensive than other arched bridges because of its relatively modest foundations. Furthermore this type of bridge could be even more cost effective if reinforced concrete was substituted for steel in its construction because the former material was much cheaper to maintain.

Balclutha Bridge is a substantial but elegant example of the bowstring arch bridge and a significant landmark in the Balclutha region. The bridge spans the largest river in New Zealand and once had the longest and heaviest spans of any bridge of its type completed or under construction in New Zealand.


The bridge is a major landmark within the townscape of Balclutha and a prominent feature of the Clutha River. The bowstring arch form gives the bridge a boldly dramatic appearance and the sculptural quality of the structure can best be appreciated from its northern end.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Newnham, William Langston

Born in 1888 in Christchurch, William Langston Newnham (1888-1974) studied engineering at Canterbury University College before entering the Public Service in 1906 as an engineering cadet in the Public Works Department head office. He was promoted to assistant engineer in 1911 and in 1914 took charge of the Rimutaka deviation investigations.

After a period as resident engineer in the Gisborne-Napier district, Newnham returned to head office in 1920 to become assistant design engineer. He occupied this position until 1929 when he was promoted to design engineer. He became engineer-in-chief and under-secretary within the Department in 1941. In 1943 he became permanent head of the Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1946.

Newnham had particular interests in the effect of earthquakes on buildings, soil conservation and river control legislation. In addition to his work in the public service, he was registrar and chief examiner of the Engineer's Registration Board. A member of the board from 1940, he was Chairman in 1945. He died in 1974.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. The following text is from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


Before 1868 ferries were used to transport people and their goods across the Clutha River at Balclutha. In that year, however, the first bridge across the river was erected by John Turnbull Thomson, Chief Surveyor of Otago. This structure was severely damaged by flooding ten years later and was subsequently replaced in 1881 by a second bridge which stood approximately forty-six metres upstream from the present bridge. The second Balclutha bridge was beginning to show signs of wear by the late 1920s and the proposal to build a new bridge was first considered in 1928, two years before a load restriction on the bridge was introduced.

Initially the Main Highways Board proposed the construction of a steel truss bridge with reinforced concrete decking which was to have cost approximately £58,000. However, before construction could begin the merits of reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridges had become apparent to William Newnham and the bridge was therefore redesigned. Tenders for its erection were called in October 1932 and W Williamson of Christchurch was the successful tenderer, with a contract price of £39,379.

In New Zealand the low erection and maintenance costs of reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridges were major factors in their popularity with the Public Works Department, who built a number of such bridges for the Main Highways Board in the early 1930s. The bridges at Tuakau and Mangatainoka, and the Fitzherbert Bridge over the Manawatu River at Palmerston North, were all contemporary with the Balclutha Bridge and of similar design. Built from reinforced concrete, in accordance to Main Highways Board policy which called for bridge renewal to be carried out in this medium wherever possible, these bridges were also cheaper to built than steel bridges of the same size and loading because New Zealand was reliant on imported steel in the 1930s whereas all the components of concrete were available locally.

Work began on the new bridge in January 1933 and up to eighty men worked on its erection at any one time. Two timber truss spans were built to support the formwork which created each arch rib and these were reused once the concrete had been poured and then allowed to harden for a month. The ribs subsequently carried the load of further construction and the quality of the concrete used for every component of the bridge was monitored by a laboratory which was specially installed at the bridge site. The curved approaches were built by another contractor at a cost of œ1,492 and the entire structure was jointly financed by the Main Highways Board, the Balclutha Borough Council, the Bruce County Council, and the Clutha County Council. The Balclutha Bridge was officially opened on 6 April 1935 by the Minister of Public Works, the Hon J Bitchener, and a special souvenir booklet was published at that time to mark the occasion.

Physical Description

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. The following text is from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


Spanning the Clutha River within the South Otago township of Balclutha, this six span bowstring arch bridge is 8.7 metres wide, 244 metres in length, excluding the curved approaches at both ends, and approximately 10,660 tons in weight. The bridge superstructure rests upon abutments and five cylinder type piers, of which the three northernmost are sunk to solid rock whilst the two southern piers rest upon broad floating foundations of compact sand. Each span is 36.6 metres long and is made up of two arched ribs, rising in a parabolic curve to nearly 9.2 metres above the deck and braced against wind pressure by four stiff struts. Hangers from each rib support the deck which tapers in thickness from twenty-eight centimetres at the centre to twenty-three centimetres at the curbs. One end of each span is fixed, whilst the other rests upon combined roller and rocker bearings to accommodate movement caused by the expansion and contraction of the bridge at different temperatures.

Steel plates bridge the gap between each span on the roadway and a piece of T-steel fulfills the same function on the footways. The latter are cantilevered out from the transoms which run beneath the deck and serve to transfer its load to the hangars and thence to the ribs of each bowstring arch. The footways are lit by cast-iron lamps which stand on alternate piers on either side of the bridge and they are flanked by precast concrete balustrades. The bridge is constructed from Australian steel and New Zealand-made cement mixed with aggregates from the Clutha River. In addition to serving as a motor vehicle and pedestrian bridge it also carries Balclutha's phone and power lines, and the water mains.

Notable Features

The bowstring arch. construction.

Construction Dates

1930 - 1933

Original Construction
1933 - 1935
Formally opened 6 April 1935

Construction Details

Reinforced concrete

Completion Date

3rd June 2003

Report Written By

Melanie Lovell-Smith

Information Sources

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives

Session 1933, Vol. II, Section D-1 (1934)

Session 1934-5, Vol. II, Section D-1


Session 1935, Vol. II, Section D-1, (1936)

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Lowe, Peter, 'Newnham, William Langston 1888 - 1974', Volume Five (1941-1960), Auckland, 2000, p.370

Noonan, 1975

Rosslyn J. Noonan, By Design: A Brief History of the Public Works Department Ministry of Works 1870-1970, Wellington, 1975

Russell, 1985

A E Russell, ed, A History of the Clutha Bridges and Public Affairs in South Otago: souvenir booklet, Reprint, Balclutha, 1985

Scholefield, 1951

G H Scholefield.(ed.), Who's who in New Zealand, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 5th ed. 1951

Thornton, 2001

Geoffrey Thornton, Bridging the Gap, Early Bridges in New Zealand 1830-1939, Auckland, 2001

Thornton, 1996

Geoffrey Thornton, Cast in Concrete: Concrete Construction in New Zealand 1850-1939, Auckland, 1996

Waite, 1948

F. Waite, Pioneering in South Otago, Otago Centennial Historical Publications, Dunedin, 1948

Watson, 1996

James Watson, Links: A History of Transport and New Zealand Society, Wellington, 1996

Newnham, 1971

W L Newnham. Learning Service Achievement: Fifty Years of Engineering in New Zealand, New Zealand Institute of Engineers, Wellington, 1971

Other Information

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.