Inside the Collection

Portable Writing Desk of David Lennox – Colonial Bridge Builder

Photograph of portable writing desk, owned by David Lennox
Portable writing desk, thought to have been owned by David Lennox, donated by the Royal Australian Historical Society, Powerhouse Museum

This writing desk is linked to an important figure in Australia’s early colonial history. It is thought to have been owned by David Lennox who arrived in Australia, in 1832, seeking his fortune. An artisan by trade Lennox’s road to success was initially linked to  Major Thomas Mitchell.

In 1828 Mitchell had been appointed Surveyor-general of New South Wales and he set about improving internal communications along roads to the west and south from Sydney. Mitchell was faced with a lack of capable artisans and in particular he needed someone with knowledge and experience of design and construction of bridges. This was because the wooden bridges were often badly made and subject to destruction by fire and flood.

As luck would have it this problem was solved quite by chance while he was walking along a street in front of the Legislative Council Chamber, Sydney. After stopping to observe a mechanic cutting a coping stone he requested him to leave the stone wall and with his shirt-sleeves still tucked up, come to his office. The young man’s was of course David Lennox, and Mitchell was quickly impressed by his ability to design stone bridges, make centering arches, and direct and instruct the convict labourers.

This was no real surprise, for as it turned out, Lennox had worked as a skilled artisan for 20 years; 17 of them on public works in Great Britain (including the Menai suspension bridge designed by the great engineer Thomas Telford). Lennox was soon appointed sub-inspector, and then superintendent of bridges in New South Wales, at a salary of £120 a year.

This was the beginning of a long and illustrious career designing and constructing bridges in Australia. And it is presumably during this period that Lennox used this portable writing desk to write letters and make drawing while visiting bridge sites. Portable writing desks had been around for hundreds of years but became popular in Europe in the late 18th century as communications and literacy improved alongside increased commercial activity and travel opportunities.

Label from the base of portable writing desk
Label from the base of portable writing desk, thought to have been owned by David Lennox, Powerhouse Museum

This box appears to be from the early nineteenth century and may not have been brought new by Lennox. Our knowledge of its links to Lennox are derived from an old label pasted to its base (this is the label you can see above) while in the care of the Royal Australian Historical Society.

Detail of portable writing desk drawer
Detail of portable writing desk, thought to have been owned by David Lennox, Powerhouse Museum

Although it shows signs of its age you can still see the fine workmanship that went into the production of the metal reinforcing bands and internal compartments.

Most of Lennox’s bridges were distinctive in that they had an elliptical arch with a single span like Lennox Bridge, in the Blue Mountains (now the oldest still standing on the mainland). It was completed in 1833 and Mr. Selkirk, in his 1920 book ‘Lennox the bridge Builder’, believed it to be … the first scientifically constructed bridge of any magnitude in Australia.

Other impressive examples of Lennox’s single arch bridges are the Lansdowne Bridge over Prospect Creek, at George’s River south of Sydney and the Lennox Bridge at Parramatta.

In 1843 Lennox was appointed district surveyor at Parramatta but only stayed one year before being appointed superintendent of bridges at Port Phillip. While here he was in charge of all roads, bridges, wharves and ferries and built 53 bridges, including the first Prince’s Bridge over the Yarra River in Melbourne, completed in 1850.

Advertisement for bridge building tender, 1849
Advertisement for bridge building tender, 1849, TROVE

Lennox retired in 1853 and returned to New South Wales in 1855m where he settled down at 4 Campbell Street, Parramatta. He died on 12 November 1873, at the age of 85.

Geoff Barker, Curatorial, TAM Project, 2013

David Lennox, The Pioneer Bridge Builder, by Charles Daley, The Argus, Melbourne, 9 April, 1932
Lennox, David (1788–1873), by J M Anthil,
M. Herman, The Early Australian Architects and Their Work (Syd, 1954)
H. Selkirk, ‘David Lennox, the Bridge Builder, and His Work’, Journal and Proceedings(Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 5, 1920, pp 201-43
W. L. Havard, ‘Mitchell’s Pass, near Emu Plains’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 19, part 6, 1934, pp 352-63
Portable Writing Desks,
Harris, David. Portable Writing Desks. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications Ltd., 2001.

One response to “Portable Writing Desk of David Lennox – Colonial Bridge Builder

  • In listing bridges built by David Lennox you neglected to including the bridge on the Old Hume Highway at Black Bobs Creek, Sutton Foresy .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.