Donated photographs give a unique view of Sydney in the 1930s and 40s

A collection of photographs by prolific amateur photographer Percy James Bryant has been added to our archives

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At the age of 17 Percy 'Sam' James Bryant traded a piece of furniture which he'd built for his very first camera. That simple swap in 1923 sent Bryant on a decades-long photographic journey. Now, almost 100 years later, a huge collection of Bryant's images have been donated to the City of Sydney Archives.

As an amateur photographer, Bryant took hundreds of photos in and around Sydney, from happy snaps on Bondi beach, to public events and fascinating cityscapes.

A handful of cars drive across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in this photo, taken sometime in 1937. Bryant's position as a shop steward and union leader gave him something of a privileged position when it came to access on the bridge, allowing him to capture so many unique photos. Photo: Percy James Bryant / City of Sydney Archives A-01141929

"He never thought they were any good, they were just photographs," says Bryant's grandson, Chris Lloyd. But as a historical record, these photos give us a unique insight into the life of a working family in Sydney at a time of huge societal change.

Bryant spent most of his working life employed by the railways, but he also spent a number of years wiring the lights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. These four workmen were probably Sydney Harbour Bridge maintenance workers. Photo: Percy James Bryant / City of Sydney Archives A-01142143

Bryant's life was tough in a way that was common in the early 1900s. "He never knew or met his father and his mother died when we has very young of TB, leaving him and three other children," said Lloyd. "He was the eldest and he endevoured to fund those children and kept them alive."

He was never educated past the age of 12, and made ends meet by growing vegetables, labouring and bartering pieces of furniture he made.

This photo, taken from the top chord of the Sydney Harbour Bridge during construction in 1932, is fascinating. Tram lines run along the left side of the bridge, with train lines on the right. Some of the present-day historic buildings of The Rocks and the Walsh Bay wharves are clearly visible. In the background, smoke pours from the stacks of factories in Pyrmont. Photo: Percy James Bryant / City of Sydney Archives A-01142115

Bryant got a job wiring the lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge which was being built at the time. He would smuggle his camera onto the worksite and from the top of the arch he captured incredible photos of a growing city. "He loved taking photos of the harbour and the bridge. The bridge was for him one of those iconic things about how Sydney and Australia grew."

Seaplanes still land on Sydney Harbour today but certainly not of the same size as this SARO A.17 London flying-boat, snapped in 1938. This Royal Air Force craft was beached at Double Bay after a hole was found in the hull. Photo: Percy James Bryant / City of Sydney Archives A-01142000

"I don't think his story is particularly remarkable or unremarkable," said Chris Lloyd. "He's just typical of the unrealised story of working dogs in this world, the people who made Sydney really."

Centennial Park is a haven for Sydney's bike riders. Back in 1938 it was also the site of a 100km cycling race held as part of the Empire Games, with racers from New Zealand, Wales, South Africa and Australia. Hennie Binneman of South Africa triumphed on the day. Photo: Percy James Bryant / City of Sydney Archives A-01142010

His photographs passed to his grandson, Chris Lloyd, who donated a collection of slides and negatives to the City of Sydney Archives. "He did see public service as far more important than private," said Lloyd. "So this would be an enormous piece of pride for him, that they went to an institution that was a public institution."

"He loved taking photos of the ships of Sydney harbour," said Bryant's grandson, Chris Lloyd. Taken from the wharves of Circular Quay, this photograph captures warships moored at The Rocks for the Sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) celebrations of first European settlement on 26 January 1938. Vessels visited from many nations. The ship at left is a United States Navy cruiser. Photo: Percy James Bryant / City of Sydney Archives A-01142002

The whole Percy James Bryant collection is available to view online, along with over 1 million other items, in the City of Sydney Archives.

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