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Frederick Peter Bridges (1915–2001)

by Chris Johnson

Peter Bridges, Heritage expert, 1915–2001.

Peter Bridges, who died on September 10 in Adelaide, was one of the key instigators of the Burra Charter, the most important heritage document in Australia. At the inaugural meeting of the Australian International Charter on Monuments and Sites he was asked to report on the Venice Charter which was the European document that established heritage principles. His recommendation was that the European document should be reinterpreted to suit Australian conditions and this ultimately led to the Burra Charter.

Peter was a natural person to be involved in early debate on heritage. He had already submitted a list of historic government buildings in NSW for the first National Estate register and had been involved in setting up the Australian Heritage Commission. Peter had also established the Heritage Section in the NSW Government Architect's office, initially as a one-man band but developing into the much more substantial practice that exists today.

His interest in heritage began early when, in 1930, he won a school prize for best essay on Sydney Harbour Bridge, then under construction. Dr Bradfield, the bridge's designer, awarded the prize and took young Peter on a tour of the construction site, including the workshops where red-hot rivets were being pulled from ovens and thrown into buckets ready for placement.

I once visited Peter when he lived in North Sydney to talk about the history of the NSW Government Architect's Office. He told me he had the original thesis of Don McDonald on the Colonial Architect James Barnet. "Come on upstairs," he said. Peter had muscular dystrophy which meant he couldn't easily walk up stairs, but he moved with his exaggerated gait towards them and, suddenly, he was zooming up to his study on an automated carrying machine.

Here was Peter's great love a room filled with documents and books he used in his research about the evolution of our nation. From here he had written many of his books Historic Court Houses of NSW, Foundation of Identity: Building Early Sydney 1788-1822 and James Barnett, Colonial Architect. His most fascinating book was The Elephant's Bed? which was published only a week before his death. This was a collaborative work with long-time supporter and researcher Lenore Coltheart that explained the difference between the Scottish Enlightenment and the English Enlightenment in relation to early NSW. This essay got to the core of whether settlement began by re-forming the landscape to represent progress or by building separately from the landscape. The very basis of our attitude to land began, according to Bridges, when Governor and Mrs Macquarie, with their Scottish Enlightenment principles, set out to form a town with civic pride.

Bridges always had a twinkle in his eye as he tested researchers on their analysis of our history. He enjoyed a debate and liked to challenge intellectual positions, in a direct but gentle manner. He always enjoyed a fight on behalf of the nation's heritage. In recent years Peter has lived in Adelaide with his wife, Dee (Doreen), continuing his writing. The day before his death he dictated the conclusion to his manuscript on convicts and the architectural culture of NSW. Satisfied that his work was complete he said, "Lenore will be able to put it all together" and then quietly passed away. Peter's memories and his ideas will continue into the future through his published books and, one hopes, his recently completed manuscript.

Bridges is survived by his wife, daughter Bet and son Tom, grandsons Daniel and Patrick, and great-granddaughter Zofia.

Original publication

Citation details

Chris Johnson, 'Bridges, Frederick Peter (1915–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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