Australian Railway Story - Chapter 2

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They Laid The Steel Ribbons

During the first industrial revolution, railway navvies were recognised as the kings of labour. They were skilled in digging foundations for railway track, bridge building and tunnelling, with little more than a pick and shovel. From 1849, when the first steam railway company was formed to build the Sydney Railway system, hundreds of these men and their families from the far ends of the Earth set out for ‘Botany Bay’ to become the builders of Australia’s steam railways. Reflecting some of the influence that the discovery of gold had on the newly established state of Victoria, Melbourne was to see the opening of Australia’s first steam passenger railway on September 12th 1854. Sydney’s first railway open a year later. Today, many of the jobs carried out by Navvies have disappeared, replaced by giant machines that move forward along their own freshly laid railway lines lay concrete sleepers and railway tracks as they move forward to create new railway routes.

The Shores Of Botany Bay (Traditional)

I’m on my way down to the quay
Where the big ship now doth lay,
To command a gang of navvies
I was ordered to engage
And I thought I would stop off for a while
Before I sailed away
To take a trip, on an immigrant ship
To the shores of Botany Bay.

Farewell to your bricks and mortar
Farewell to your dirty lime
Farewell to your gangway and gangplank
And to hell with your overtime-
For the good ship Ragamuffin
She’s lying in the quay
To take old Pat, with a shovel on his back
To the shores of Botany Bay.

Collected from ‘Duke’ Trittion by Bob Bolton, published by the Bush Music Club Sydney in Singabout -Selected Reprints Bush Music Club, Publication 1985 Marrickville, NSW, Australia.

Music Score to be added

The Navvies

We laid the steel ribbons from the jungle-clad north
To the snow-covered mountains down south;
We pitched our rough homes near the rock cutting’s side
And we camped by the tunnel’s dark mouth.

We blasted our way through the frowning dark range
And oft-times we choked for our breath;
In the dark underground we breathed the foul air
Where life was a gamble with death.

We are the navvies, unhonoured, unsung,
Men from all the far ends of the earth.
We spanned the wide rivers with girders of steel
But small in reward was our worth.

We blazed the long trail over mountains and plains,
We bridged the wild torrent in flood;
We of the shovel, the pick and the steel,
The horse power, the sweat and the mud.

(By Navvy Ralph Rogan,(18..) collected by Dennis Rowe, Newcastle, NSW, Australia.)

The Navvies

You'll meet the navvies on the track
From here to Emu Bay,
They're tramping down in blucher boots
Their thirty miles a day,
With blueys up and billies swung
From every distant clime
They're coming down to Circular Head
To work upon the line,
Where they'll swing the pick and shovel
And help to build the car,
And no doubt they'll test the local beer
That flows across the bar.

From a Collection of Railway Ballads by “Daybreak” The Poet Laureate of Circular Head ( 1911) Printed by the Emu Bay Times Office Burnie Tasmania

The Tweed To Lismore Line

I am a navvy that's worked everywhere
East, west, north and south I vow and declare
Such terrible misfortune I ne'er had before
As we had on that railway, the Tweed and Lismore.

Laddie Fol the Diddle eril Ol, eril Ol aye.

Ned McEllisot (1893) As Sung by Jacko Kevans, on “Trains of Treasure” recording (1984) Rail Tram and Bus Union, Redfern NSW

Music Scores or Chords Available

The Navvy Crew

Gold steel rings
In -the burning sun
Sweat rolling out
Since the day begun
Pick and shovel and
Stone and spikes
Dust and flies
As the hammer strikes

The meals are poor
And the images are worse
The railway building
Life's a curse
But feeding a family
All you can do
Is work like the devil
On the navvy crew

© Mark Tate 1987 See other work of Marl Tate and the poets and songwriters in “ Sidings” A Railway Week 1987 Project from Electric Car Workshops Chullora NSW

Where Angels Trod

Pause awhile and bare your head,
For angels came this way—
The sturdy wives and daughters
Of the men of yesterday.

Uncomplainingly they suffered,
And for them spare not your tears
For heroines that battled on—
Our women pioneers.

Many now are sleeping
Where their tired footsteps led,
And some beside the tracks they blazed,
Found there, their last long bed.
Claude Morris (Queensland Railways)

A Navvy On The Line

I’m nipper I’m a ripper
I’m a Navvy on the line
I get four and twenty bob a week besides my overtime
All the ladies love the navvies
And the ladies love the fun
There’ll be plenty little babies when the railways done.

Traditional- hear Navvy on the Line (1977) Larrikin Records

Music Score or chords available

With My Navvy Boots On

I was weary and tired, I'd been working all day.
To the cottage by the hillside I wandered my way.
To the cottage by the hillside I wandered along
And I knocked at the door with my navvy boots on.

Words and Music Brad Tate (1988) “ Down and Outback”

The Navvies carried out timber sleeper cutting in the early years of Australian Railways, as they laid lines through the virgin Australian Bush. Newly felled tree were shaped into sleepers and added to the railway track. As more and more railways were built the navvies that specialised in sleeper cutting moved in to bush areas and were supported by timber mills to meet the demand for sleepers.

Hard Timber

But now power saws
With their hungry chain maws
Are clearing the iron bark run;
Down Mandoorin way
Hear the old cutters say
The forest will never return.

The sleepers we cut
To railways lines strut
Are graded as squares and as rounds;
Twenty year at a time
Iron Bark serves the line
And by then we hope more can he found.

Written for by Harry Robertson for ABC TV *BIG COUNTRY' film 'THE SLEEPER CUTTERS' 1971. This film dealt mainly with the Mandooran area in western N.S.W. The Iron Bark trees from there are considered the hardest and best for use as sleepers. It requires over two thousand sleepers for one mile of track. It takes thirty years to grow a tree big enough for two sleepers. What then?

The Dying Sleeper Cutter (Traditional)

An old sleeper cutter lay dying,
His broad-axe supporting his head.
All around him the others were standing,
When he raised on his pillow and said....

Wrap me up with my cant hook and wedges,
And bury me deep down below,
Down where the tall clogs can’t haunt me,
Where the five cut wavy grains grow.

(Parody on the Dying Stockman- Meredith John (collection) (1968) Folk Songs of Australia Ure Smith Publishers. Hear Navvy on the Line Recording-(1977) that describes the tools of the Sleeper-Cutters.)

Music Scores or Chords Available

The Afghan’s Song

Afghan camel drivers became the railway navvies of another railway era and were responsible for supplying the material needed to build desert sections of the Trans-Continental Railway and the Ghan Railway. Hundreds of camels were used in camel trains during the constructions of these railways.

Music Score Available
(Collected and score written by Ron Edwards Recorded by Matilda’s Mob in Trains of Treasure Project 1985).

Other Musical items that tell of the Afghans’ role in the building of Australian Railways in Central Australia can be found on the CAAMA Production “ The Last Camel Train “ 101 Todd St Alice Springs NT

Items listed
  1. The Last Camel Train
  2. Ship Came In
  3. Ride Train Ride
  4. Alice Springs Remembers
  5. Been Along ”ere”
  6. Handy Camel
  7. Khala-Khala
  8. The Ghan
  9. Saidal
  10. Camels and Cameleers
  11. Marlee Line
  12. Vera Won't You Tell Me
  13. Gool Mahomed
  14. We Will Always Remember them
  15. Prayer

Further comments on the lives of Australian Navvies and the songs they sang follow in this short description by Basil Fuller that may assist those interested in researching to add to this study of railway songs and poems.

A Navvies Life
Taverns dotted the northern road. An old letter describes one of these:.
‘For some years, this pub had done a reasonable trade with drovers, teamsters, camel and mail-cart drivers, miners and travelling graziers. But when the railway gangs drew near enough for the men to knock down their pay— !’ It appears that the publican coped with the sudden rush of business by placing a row of buckets outside the back door. Parties of fresh arrivals for whom there was no room inside collected a bucket apiece, passed it through a front window to be filled, and then squatted in circles in the dust, each man dipping the mug he carried hooked to his braces.

According to this account, at any one time between twenty and thirty buckets might be in use along the track outside the drinking house. At that time the cost of two gallons of liquor was 6s. Since the navvy's wage was then 6s a day, and he was paid fortnightly, he seldom lacked the cash to lubricate a thirst built up by loss of body liquids during pick-and-shovel work performed in dust, scorching sunshine, and, often, parching dry wind.

But if some navvies drank to excess and fought occasionally, most seem to have been relatively sober, hardworking, and cheerful. Several accounts speak of the men of the gangs joking and singing at their work—besides cursing.

Many, perhaps most, of their songs were bawdy. The unexpurgated versions of "The Road to Gundagai" probably strike the note that the majority adopted. Here the railroad itself offered plenty of opportunity. It appears that by this time the line was variously described—affectionately or ironically according to mood—as the-Port Augusta and Government Gums Railway; the P.A. and Gee-Gee Railway, the Great Northern; and, for short, the Great Gee-Gee, or sometimes the Gee-Gee Run. As will be understood, the men found little difficulty in knocking out indecorous jingles round certain of these titles.

But songs of other kinds were popular also. About six years before the earthworks pushed out from Port Augusta, Gilbert and Sullivan had opened the long period of co-operation which resulted in their many light operas. The first of these to make a hit outside Britain was H.M.S.Pinafore, which opened in London in 1878. Its more famous songs appear to have reached Australia very quickly, and one in particular seems to have caught the fancy of the railway navvy. So it is not out of place to picture sturdy labourers swinging picks Or ‘banjos’ while bawling raucously, ‘I'm called Little Buttercup, dear Little Buttercup,/Though I could never tell why ...’

The next international hit came in 1879, soon after the railhead had left Quorn. Shortly, the gangs were yelling with feeling ‘A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One’. Very like the sailor, the outback worker is often sentimental- Thus, each in its turn, ‘I Cannot Tell what this Love may be’ and "Twenty Love-sick Maidens We" had a period of popularity. And, eventually—though this not until the line was half-way between Hergott Springs and Oodnadatta—came ‘The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring’.

It was at about the time when construction moved out of the hills that an altered feeling among northern wheat-farmers became apparent. The run of good seasons had ended and the face of the country was changed. Reports of the time describe the weather at this period as ‘variable —one day a regular brickfielder, and the next cold enough for overcoats’. Then one Journal stated plainly what many people had begun to think: ‘These conditions are a repetition of the great drought.’ It described the country beyond Quorn: ‘Most desolate! Instead of the bright green patches of growing crops which should be stretched out in smiling promise of many bushels to the acre nothing was to be seen save dried-up looking bushes, and parched, red ploughland.’ The newspaper did not say so, but the fact was that the men who had settled the Willochra and country northwards with springing confidence had lost their faith. They knew now that the dream of golden harvests all the way to the Territory border was as insecurely seated as a northern mirage, that their belief that rain would follow the plough was just another old wives' tale.

Their first reaction to this bitter disappointment, still not openly admitted, appears to have been the very human one of further fault-finding with their chief support, the railway. Some complained that the whistling and snorting of locomotives scared their livestock. Others—and this surely was the extreme of unreason—asserted that the money being spent on the railway should have been used instead in direct farming subsidies. The situation must have been infuriating to those graziers who had been dispossessed of their lands to so little purpose.

In the south the wild land speculation of the past few years was still in flood; Adelaide street property was changing hands at double the prices of five years earlier.

Now work-trains, running a shuttle service out of Port Augusta, steamed through stricken lands on their way to and from the railhead, where the materials they brought were fed forward to advance camps by means of camel and bullock transport. These camps included several picturesque features characteristic of bush life of the day—for instance, the tinkle of bells, a pleasing background sound that probably went unnoticed until occasions when it happened to be absent.

Surveyors, boundary riders, prospectors, all outback travellers used the horse bell. A straying horse might cause the death of a lone rider,

From ‘The Ghan: the Story of the Alice Springs Railway’ by Basil Fuller, 1975, Rigby .

And now to New South Wales, with a letter of remembrances from Vivienne Sawyer on a more personal family note—but railways were always and remain intertwined with personal and family lives of many generations.

Dear Brian,
Your mail reminded me that I read your brochure (also passed some on) and intended to give you some memories of my Dad, Vic Oehm and his experiences of living in Clarence and Lithgow areas at the time the Zig-zag was running and shortly after. He wrote a fairly detailed story of his life and these are the facts relating to that period as he wrote it. It must have been a tough life, but although he remembered the hardships, he never dwelt on them. His Mother gave birth to 3 more children during the years at Clarence and Bottom Points - I suppose no medical attention was available to her either. I remember her as being a very capable and resourceful person - I guess she had to be. If this is not of any use, I will understand. Good luck with your book
Vivienne Sawyer NSW.

In 1909 we arrived in NSW from Tasmania (Mum, Stepfather James Pedler, and 3 brothers Herb, Les and Bert (until we reached adulthood we were known by our stepfathers name, then reverted to our own legal name)

We resided at Hermitage Flat, Lithgow for a short time, then Dad obtained employment as a powder monkey on construction of the 10 railway tunnels on the Western line, which were to supersede the famous zig-zag, which had been in operation from 1869
Dad built a temporary shack of bush timber, galvanised iron, hessian, etc. with an earth floor at Clarence. (Travelling West by train, one would pass through Mt. Victoria, Newnes Junction, Clarence, next station Lithgow)

There were three very respectable cottages there. Quickly, a sprinkling of additional rough dwellings sprang up, along with a number of small presentable places - totalling 15 with 5 being Railway property.

We did not have a water tank stand for some time, water was carried from a fresh water swamp approximately 150 yards away. It was impossible to wade into the swamp to fill kerosene tins without disturbing the mud from the bottom, while endeavouring to reach clear water in the middle. This was a portion of Dargan's Creek.

Dad worked out a type of flying fox, with a stout wire attached to the base of a sapling on one side of the swamp, the other end being tied, about shoulder high on a tree on the opposite bank. A small pulley was placed on wire, with a tin hanging underneath. Fixed to the pulley was a long rope, which was hand-held. When released, pulley and tin would run down the wire until bottom of tin hit the water - this caused the tin to fall over, becoming self-filled. Rope would allow it to be pulled back to the higher level, being emptied into spare tins and carried to our ‘abode’.

After a lot of carrying, Dad decided he would improve on it. A shallow trench was to be dug from swamp to a deep well nearby. The trench was dug deeper to overcome the uphill section. A long length of small diameter pipe was obtained, bent to a long suitable radius, one end placed in the swamp, the other into the shallow trench, going over the higher ground. A siphoning action was then started and, as he had predicted, we had a continuous trickle of running water for the four years we lived there.

Dad built a brick oven for Mum, who used to bake bread and dampers for the residents of the settlement - the nearest shops were at Mt. Victoria to the east and Lithgow to the west.
No roads or walking tracks (other than along the railway lines) existed. The only transport being by train or, in an emergency, Railway workers, if in the vicinity in a time of need, would willingly provide service on their two-seater trykes or four-wheel trolleys - both manually operated.
Herb, Les and Bert walked to the Primary School at Newnes Junction. Later, when attending High school at Lithgow, they caught a train from Newnes.

The district had a three feet fall of snow, not long after we settled there. The roof of the shack could not take the enormous weight - roof and snow collapsed onto all our beds.

Names of some of the families were - MacArthur, Gilchrist, Pedler and the four Oehm boys, Murdoch, Wall, McKenzie, Payne, Larkin and three Railway Signalmen.

In 1910, after the opening of the tunnel system, the temporary dwellings and their inhabitants, gradually disappeared. (A visit to the area in 1969 revealed 2 of the 3 original substantial buildings still there and occupied.)

On many occasions, serious accidents occurred and the injured would have to wait for the next transport to appear.

No medical or even first-aid facilities were existent.

1913 - A year never to be forgotten. Brother Bert (8) and myself (5) were playing with Dad's axe (He now being a timber cutter, with axes as sharp as razors) cutting thick green bark from a tree Dad had felled. I pointed to a particular spot and asked Bert to cut it for me, which he immediately did, unfortunately my finger was still there and I lost half the first joint of an index finger. Mum bound it up, then waited for transport to Lithgow for medical attention.
Dad had cut his thumb on a saw, it became badly infected resulting in lock-jaw (tetanus). Mum made him soak his hand in a kerosene tin until - again - transport became available. He eventually received medical aid and made e full recovery.

Bert and I were playing at a neighbour's house with their son (9), his parents being away for the day. The boy climbed onto his father’s workbench, reached high and brought down a rifle, (it was always kept loaded to shoot hawks coming down to their poultry), pointed it at Bert, who turned around just as the trigger was pulled - the bullet passing right through his heart. Again, we had to wait for some form of transport to come through.

Still in 1913 - we moved to Bottom Points - a small railway settlement on the Western side of the 10 tunnels - about five dwellings only a few feet from the rail lines. Dad was now working as a Fettler.

The Vintage Railway Society have their rolling stock on a large area of Bottom Points, which includes the area where the rail workers lived.

1914 - this district was like Clarence - nothing. We walked along the lines to school at Oakey Park, Sunday School or into Lithgow for shopping. At times, the fettlers would pick us up on their trikes or four wheel trolleys and frequently steam engines going back and forth would do likewise.

Moved to Goulburn, where Dad worked as a Signalman.

Dad was ‘blackballed’ by the Railways for participating in ‘picket’ duties during the 1917 strike and obtained employment in the Lithgow Ironworks and Rolling Mills.

During the next few years, he was contacted by the Railways offering employment as a Signalman - first offer 4th class as far west as possible in NSW - next, 3rd class on the Western Plains - finally 2nd class at Flemington, which he promptly accepted. (1926) - He spent the remainder of his working days as a signalman, after leaving Flemington he worked at Islington and Parramatta

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