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Robin Murphy OAM, the bridge builder

Robin Murphy
Robin Murphy - the  Queensland construction entrepreneur began designing bridges in PNG in 1963

KEITH JACKSON with thanks to Rob Parer

Link here to a video of Robin’s early days in PNG from 1963-69.

This second video, titled ‘Overcoming the odds’, tells the story of the building of four Oro bridges in 2014-16.

BRISBANE – The founder of Brisbane-based Canstruct Pty Ltd, Robin Murphy OAM, started his career in Papua New Guinea in late 1963 a week before me.

He had recently graduated as an engineer and soon found himself designing and, not long after, building bridges.

At that time he worked for the colonial Administration but a strong entrepreneurial streak saw him start his own company which, over time, became the leading Queensland construction firm, Canstruct, still going strong today.

Robin lived in PNG for six years, and says the country still holds a special place in his heart.

After working in Port Moresby for 18 months, he gained rapid promotion to become district works engineer in Mt Hagen at age 25 before seizing an opportunity to tender for the Nebilyer River bridge, quitting his job with the Administration.

He won the tender with assets of one Holden car and £500 (today about K25,000) began his long and successful career in business. The Nebilyer bridge still stands more than 50 years later.

Even though at first he had no crane, the company won other contracts to build bridges on the Highlands Highway and the company grew rapidly to employ two expatriates (“they were drunk a lot of the time,” he now recalls) and 100 local people.

Robin and his wife Margaret stayed in PNG until 1969, living in grass huts with dirt floors in remote villages, but when their third child was born in 1968, Margaret put her foot down and said it was time to go back to Australia.

Robin got a job with John Holland in Tasmania, worked for them for two years building mine shafts and a woodchip mill and then tendered on his own to build a wharf in Launceston – and started another company, this time in Australia.

A few years back, in a remarkable echo of those early PNG days, Contrac won a $53 million dollar contract to build the four new bridges in Oro Province.

They included the bridge over the Kumusi River which brought together communities that have been isolated for nearly a decade after being destroyed by Cyclone Guba in 2007.

The bridges also assist trekkers to access the Kokoda Track as they can now arrive and depart from Popondetta Airport on the coastal plain and safer than the old Kokoda wartime airstrip.

Canstruct is now a significant Queensland manufacturing and construction business, with 75% of its products exported. Robin, now 79, has handed over the CEO’s job to his son Rory and the business remains in family hands.


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Robert Parer CMG MBE

I wrote an article some months ago about the construction of the Walter Taylor Bridge at Indooroopilly and included an interesting fact that The Eldorado Cinema is named after the gold found under the foundations of the this bridge.

Walter Taylor took out a miner's licence of four acres to stop anyone else doing that and and interfering with the bridge construction.Test holes for bridge showed It was one of the richest gold finds in Queensland 70 grams to the ton.

And after Robin Murphy saw what I had written he emailed me about the bridges he has worked on around Brisbane and Queensland.
He wrote: " Rob, My company was awarded the contract to remove the original 12 inch thick hard wood timber deck on the Walter Taylor Bridge and replace it with precast concrete slabs in 1993 – as well as major maintenance to the steel and concrete structure and suspension cables.

"This was the first significant maintenance in almost 60 years - and the bridge was in a very sorry state indeed.
After much debate and criticism, the Brisbane City Council (owner of the bridge) in their wisdom decided that the bridge had to be closed for three months for this work – with severe penalties on the contractor for being late.

"To minimise disruption to the public, they made it a condition of the contract that the work had to start one week before Christmas so that as much as possible of the work would be done in the Christmas holidays and the bridge was to open no later than mid March 1994.

"When we closed the bridge, there was a mini uproar by people who were inconvenienced and particularly by a lady who was due to have a baby in February and needed a direct line across the bridge from Graceville to her obstetric hospital on the Indooroopilly side. This was a much more compelling case for hastening the job.

"The upshot was that we worked around the clock and reopened the bridge in early February – well within the lady's deadline – whew!

"Even Lord Mayor Soorley was complimentary about the short time scale achieved and thought his penalties had the desired effect. (I didn’t tell him that there were much more important things at risk than the council’s puny penalties.)

"After the re-opening ceremony, we had a large bonfire in the middle of the bridge which ended very late at night with a few of our younger and agile workers slithering down a rope into the river for fun!

"A few facts:

"The main span of the Indooroopilly Bridge is 186 metres - or 610 feet.

"The cables were originally manufactured to suspend each side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as the two structures were cantilevered out over the harbour until they could be joined in the middle to form a (self-supporting) arch. This is the reason that the cables are much thicker and stronger than required.

"After this primary use, I have read that the cables were stored in the mud for a few years and suffered some internal damage – which is still a problem to this day. (Maybe this is not correct ?)

"Walter Taylor heard about this, purchased the cables as scrap and convinced the Council that he should build the bridge - to be paid for by a future toll. If only we could do that today!

"The BCC owned three cross river bridges at that time – Indooroopilly, Grey Street and the Story bridge. My company did most of the major maintenance and refurbishments on all these bridges for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We also rebuilt over 150-200 railway bridge spans between Brisbane and Cairns and completely refurbished all the bridges on the Cairns – Kuranda line.

"We refurbished the toll collector's flat at the same time. It was still occupied although the toll had been discontinued years before.

"I can remember the toll of sixpence when I was a student in the 1950s. The toll collector lived above the Indooroopilly side abutment and he or his wife stood in a small hut in the middle of the road taking sixpences from cars travelling both ways.

"Kindly, Robin"

William Dunlop

'The Bridge Builders' by Rudyard Kipling - India in the days of the Raj. The building of the 1.25 mile-long Kashi Bridge over the Ganges by the Department of Works under CE Findlayson, a three-year effort.

Another bridge builder Stan 'The Man' Rybaz of Raybaz Constructions, Popondetta, built bridges in the late 1960's early 1970s.

His last bridge was between the then new airstrip, formerly a WW2 strip, and Oro Bay completed in 1972. These bridges were designed by the Department of Public Works.

Stan, who I knew well, was cast from the same mold as Robin Murphy. I need say no more.

John - had I used my Ballymoney Diyalack on long may your lung reek. You and Paul Oates would may have been amongst the few to understand. Its broad Scots from three/four centuries ago. Slantie Wm.

John McRobert

Robin is a great achiever as I know from first hand and from reading just some of his accomplishments.

One unusual job he tackled and successfully completed with his usual hands-on flair was to extend the lift shafts of the beautiful sandstone building Macarthur Chambers (the old AMP headquarters in Brisbane) down several storeys into the bedrock to connect to a new basement carpark in an adjacent block.

It had to be done with no explosives or vibrations to cause cracks in the masonry. He would ride his bike in from his apartment beside the Indooroopilly Walter Taylor Bridge (the decking of which he also replaced within time and below budget) and I often met him in the early hours in Queen Street studying the problem.

Then Peter Jorss arranged that we meet Robin to inspect the works and see his large diameter custom-designed diamond drill in operation. It would drill a certain depth and the core snapped off and lifted out of the hole. No muss, no fuss.

May I also join with William Dunlop in his Scottish hogmanay greeting which should read 'lang may yer lum reek' or 'long may your chimney smoke'.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I arrived in Mount Hagen in late 1967 and the first job I had was building the abutments for a Bailey Bridge over the Nebilyer River.

The old Bailey Bridge had been taken by the river and wrapped around a big boulder a short distance downstream.

We used the bent and battered remains of the old bridge to build the abutment on the lower side of the river.

It was essentially a banis into which we piled tons of river stones. When we had to roll the new Bailey Bridge out an engineer came out to direct the operation.

Building Bailey Bridges is a fascinating exercise. You generally need twice the length of the span you want to cover because you literally push the bridge over to the other side and need a weight on your end to balance it so that it doesn't tip into the river.

The whole thing is held together by steel pins that you hammer into adjoining holes and which only stay there because of friction. I've got some faded photographs of the whole affair.

Robin's new bridge must have been built to replace this second Bailey Bridge. This would put the date of construction sometime in 1968. I've since driven over his bridge a few times and can attest to its durability.

William Dunlop

Robin Murphy, apart from his great successes as a construction magnate, is one of nature's gentlemen.
I had some modest dealings with Robin & his company, Canstruct, in Timor in 1999 and 2000.

I accompanying Robin to Dili on a UN flight from Darwin in December 1999 to assist on a number of quotations for the UN on war damage rehabilitation.

In my capacity with Dunlop Enterprises, I was successful in being awarded the contract by Goal Ireland to supply and install the fixtures and fittings for the UN interim pharmaceutical distribution warehouse in 2000.

I just happened to have my warehouse in Darwin chockablock with second hand supermarket shelving.

In 2001, at the suggestion of the Timor government's department of health, I was approached by the Kagoshima Corporation, the Japanese construction giant, to provide them a quotation for the supply and installation of materials for a new Timor warehouse being constructed as part of the Japanese government's aid Program.

Dunlop Enterprises was successful. Thirty days from the receipt of the order we had the product on Dili wharf shipped from Barcelona in Spain.

Long may your lung reek Robin. Slantie Wm.

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