The life of a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Angela Heathcote tells the story of her father Kelly, who spent most of his professional career as a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
By Angela Heathcote June 4, 2019 Reading Time: 5 Minutes Print this page

MOST AUSTRALIANS are familiar with Paul Hogan’s career pre-stardom. He was a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge which, in the 1970s, required nerves of steel.

In Paul’s words, a rigger’s job was to “put up all the working platforms and make it as safe as possible for the painters” and “to rescue anyone who got into difficulty.”

The idea that riggers possessed ‘nerves of steel’ is an old one.

In 1952, the National Film Board even created a short film titled ‘Bridge Riggers Have Nerves Of Steel’, which was recently made available by the National Film and Sound Archive Australia.

Stories of riggers and their fearlessness in the face of great heights and, in those days, little safety support, dot the history of the Sydney icon.

In one such story, riggers were apparently known to ‘ride the hook climbing out onto the hook of a crane in the air, with nothing to secure them.

In 2014, Paul Hogan reflected on his time working on the bridge in the ABC documentary Hanging With Hoges.

He says he used his experience as a rigger – where he had to try to stop people from leaping to their deaths – in the scene from Crocodile Dundee II where he talks down an office worker from jumping off a building.

In the documentary itself, when the interviewer Shane Jacobson asks Paul about people jumping from the bridge he says, “It’s like nothing you can imagine when you see someone go.”

“I’ve seen a guy go off the top of this pylon. We were walking around the edge trying to talk to him. And he jumped. And I’m standing on that ledge outside. And when he jumped, in my mind, the ledge we were standing on felt like it tilted.”

There are many facets to the role of a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

My own dad, Kelly Heathcote, worked on the bridge from 1989 to 2003, first as a painter, then as a rigger.

In fact, when my Italian grandfather – who came to Australia just before World War II broke out – first met my father in the late 1980s, he referred to him as Paul Hogan, because all my grandfather knew about this man was that he worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

“Suzanna, Paul Hogan is here for you!” he’d yell out to my mum in broken English.

My dad’s stories of working on the bridge fascinated me throughout my childhood.

kelly heathcote working on the sydney harbour bridge

My Dad (right) was a painter before he eventually became a rigger on the bridge.

In primary school, he insisted on helping me with my Australian History assignment on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and its role in modern Sydney life – and let me include some of his mementos, such as a certificate he had received for rigging up the Olympic rings in 2000.

“Wow,” the comments on my feedback sheet read. “How lucky you are to have a dad with such an awesome job!”

Each day, my dad woke up at 4am and carpooled to work with a fellow rigger who lived across the road from us in Umina, on the NSW Central Coast.

The travel was long and the work risky, but he never seemed to mind. As he always said, he had the job “with the best view in the world.”

According to his lifelong friend, Annie Montgomery, who worked on the bridge as a painter with my dad for four years in the 1990s, every day on the job was different.

“Everywhere you turned you’d be getting a different view,” she says. “One day you’re out looking at the Opera House, the next you’re staring down at the glistening water of the harbour.

“People honestly don’t realise how good it was working on the bridge as a painter or a rigger it was kind of a Sydney secret for a long time.”

The job of painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge, like that of the rigger, is immortalised through stories, such as the one about it being a 365-day-a-year task – by the time you’re finished painting it, it’s time to start again. And it’s true.

Of course, she says, the job wasn’t without its downsides.

“Kelly would often rig up my stuff, but, oh boy, one time, we saw a storm coming in from Balmain and we were right at the top of the Bridge. Now, it’s work you can’t really rush, but you bet we got the job done in under 20 minutes,” she says, laughing.

Painters and riggers on the bridge are, historically, very close. As Paul Hogan, said, his job as a rigger was to make it as safe as possible for the painters.

But the relationship went beyond work as well. Each afternoon, post-knockoff, a group of painters, riggers and iron-workers would make their way to the Glenmore or Harbour View Hotel for a beer, the latter of which was the place Dad announced my mum’s pregnancy in 1995.

Annie describes the riggers on the bridge during the time she worked there as a bunch of jokers. “They were hilarious, skilled and all of that stuff, but always laughing and enjoying their work.”

And sometimes, the jokes made it all the way to the New South Wales Premier’s office.

In 1999, Premier Bob Carr made what he thought was a loose bet with the Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to fly the Queensland flag on top of the Harbour Bridge if NSW lost that year’s rugby league State of Origin series.

The riggers, including my dad, who would have been responsible for putting up the flag, refused and got their union involved.

Ultimately they agreed to rig the flag, but only if they could get a jersey signed by the entire NSW team to be auctioned off, with the money going towards helping disadvantaged children visit and tour the bridge.

The story made it into the paper and included an image of dad alongside other defiant riggers. A cut-out hung on our refrigerator… and was sent out to all our closest relatives.

riggers sydney harbour bridge kelly heathcote

Dad (second from the left) refusing to fly the Queensland flag.

Dad passed away of parathyroid cancer in 2009 at the age of 49.

Much of what I have left to remember him by is memorabilia from his days as a rigger on the bridge: awards, rigging certificates, letters of recommendation, photos and accounts from his friends, and of course my own. And I remember his stories of rigging on the bridge most clearly because those were the stories he shared with the most passion and excitement.

Even after he died, he was still leaving his mark.

His death, along with some others, sparked fear that there was a cancer cluster among Sydney Harbour Bridge workers, linked to the lead paint.

The CFMMEU reviewed the matter, and when I enquired about their report in 2016, an employee was kind enough to share it with me. They also confirmed the name Kelly Heathcote was included in the review.

The report found that there was no evidence of a cancer cluster, but my contact at the CFMEU told me this:

“If I can offer anything to you positively regarding your dad’s passing, it’s that his death was not in vain because it led to the review, which in turn led to worlds’ best practice in dealing with the hazards of lead paint.”