Australian Railway Songs: Chapter 10

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And Nothing was Cheaper than Men - The 1930’s Depression

In the early 1930s the development of Australian country music was taking place alongside the worst economic depression in Australian history. ‘Riding the rattler’ became a common way for the unemployed to travel. Many young Australians were travelling the countryside in freight wagons. The over one third of the Australian workforce on the dole were pushed in this direction, as one of the conditions to collect the dole required single people to leave home and seek work from town to town. The experience of train jumping in various parts of Australia provided Tex Morton and others with the background for several railway songs including ‘Sergeant Small’ and ‘Railway Bum’.

At the same time one of the founders of the Australian Bush Music Club ‘Duke’ Tritton was working on depression relief works, building a new railway line at the back of Newcastle NSW. Here he wrote his famous railway poem/song ‘The Sandy Hollow Line’. Those railway workers still employed also suffered, with worsening working conditions and cuts in the hours of work that were not enough to feed their families. They also put pen to paper about their experiences and events occurring around them during these gloomy days.

Sergeant Small

Riding down from Queensland on a dirty timber train,
We stopped to take on water in the early morning rain,

I saw a hobo coming by he didn't show much fear,
He walked along the line of trucks, saying any room in here.

Then I pulled the cover back saying throw your blankets in,
He dropped his billy and his roll and he socked me on the chin.

I wish that I was fourteen stone and I was six feet tall,
I'd take a special trip up north, to beat up Seargent Small.

He took me to the gaolhouse, he got me in the cells,
I realised then who he was, it was not hard to tell.

I've worked for Jimmy Sharman, and at fighting I'm no dunce,
But let me see the fellow, who can take on five at once.

(Written and recorded recorded by Tex Morton and banned shortly after its release in 1938 as it was deemed derogatory to the police.)

Sergeant Small or Down and Outback

I went broke in western Queensland in Nineteen Thirty One
Nobody would employ me so my swag carrying begun
I came down into Charleville through all the western towns
I was on my way to Roma destination Darling Downs

My pants were getting ragged my boots were getting thin
But when I stopped at Mitchell a goods train shunted in
I heard the whistle blowing and looking out could see
She was on her way to Roma it was quite plain to me

I wish I was about twenty stone only seven feet tall
I'd go back to western Queensland and beat up Sergeant Small

Now as I sat and watched her inspiration's seed was sown
I remembered the Government slogan: Here's the railway that you own
By this time the sun was setting and the night was getting nigh
So I gathered my belongings and took her on the fly

When we got into Roma I kept my head down low
I heard a voice say "Any room Mate?" I answered "Plenty Bo"
"Come out of there my noble man" came the voice of Sergeant Small
"I have trapped you very nicely - you've ridden for a fall"

The judge was very kind to me he gave me thirty days
Saying "Maybe this will help to cure your rattler jumping ways"
So if you're down and outback boys I'll tell you what I think
Stay off those Queensland goods trains they're a short cut to the clink

(Collected by Brad Tate and sung by Ian White)


You are just a lonely battler,
And you’re waiting for a rattler,
And you wish to heaven you were never born;
For you ran to dodge a copper
And you came a dreadful cropper,
And the skin on both your hands, is cut and torn.
You are tired and you are weary
With your eyes bloodshot and bleary,
And the soles of both your shoes are worn right through;
Your heart is sore and aching
And your back is nearly breaking,
And your coat and shirt and pants have had it too.

So hey-ho hobo, you are just a rolling stone,
Even though you’re stony broke,
If you can still laugh and joke,
You’re as good as any king upon his throne.

With fury you are boiling
But your muscles need no oiling,
As you duck to dodge the headlight’s brilliant glare;
For you’ve seen the copper’s wood-heap
And you know he’s got a good heap
And you know the tucker’s not the best in there,
Then the engine gives a whistle
And you step upon a thistle,
And get tangled up in signal wires and points;
Next you blunder in a gutter
And angrily you mutter,
Strike me lucky, well of all the joints!

So he-ho hobo, you are just a rolling stone,
Though your pants are wearing thin,
If you still can raise a grin,
You’re as good as any king upon his throne.

Then you see the green light flashing’
An’ you hear the bumpers crashin’
And you see the great big engine rushing by;
With your swag held at the ready
Your nerves are not so steady,
For you know you’ve got to take her on the fly.
Then your swag you try to throw in
But the flamin’ thing won’t go in,
Bounces off the truck and hits you as you fall;
Pick the remnants of your swag up
Pick your billycan and bag up,
And you say, I missed the bastard after all!

So he-ho hobo, you are just a rolling stone,
Though the skies are mighty grey,
There will surely come a day,
When you’ll own a bloody railway of your own.

(by Jack Weight, Coogee, NSW)


The sun was blazing in the sky and waves of shimmering heat
Glared down on the railway cutting, we were half dead on our feet,
And the ganger stood on the bank of the cut and he snarled at the men below,
"You'd better keep them shovels full or all you cows 'll go.
I never saw such a useless mob, you'd make a feller sick,
As shovel men you're hopeless, and you're no good with the pick."
There were men in the gang who could belt him with a hand tied at the back
But he had power behind him and we dare not risk the sack.
So we took it all in silence, for this was the period when
We lived in the great depression and nothing was cheaper than men.

And we drove the shovels and swung the picks and cursed the choking dust;
We'd wives and hungry kids to feed so toil in the heat we must.
But still the ganger drove us on, we couldn't take much more;
We prayed for the day we'd get the chance to even up the score.
A man collapsed in the heat and dust, he was carried away to the side.
It didn't seem to matter if the poor chap lived or died.
But one of the government horses fell and died there in the dray,
They hitched two horses to him and they dragged the corpse away.

The ganger was a worried man and he said with a heavy sigh:
"It is a bloody terrible thing to see a good horse die.
There much too valuable to lose, they cost us quite a lot
And I think it is a wicked shame to work them while it's hot.
So we will take them to the creek and spell them in the shade,
You men must all knock off at once. Of course you won't be paid."

And so we plodded to our camps and it seemed to our weary brains,
We were no better than convicts, though we didn't wear the chains,
And in those drear depression days, we were unwanted men,
But we knew that when a war broke out, we'd all be heroes then.
And we'd be handed a rifle and forced to fight for the swine,
Who tortured us and starved us, on the Sandy Hollow Line.

(Duke Tritton, 1937. Sydney Bush Music Club. Set to Music and performed by John Dengate)


(Wilfred E. Knight, of Junee, says this. We don't. It's about retrenchment, regressions, and other matters up his way, and we hand it out as written).

The retrenchment scheme is booming
And our grades must all come down.
And our one-time smiling faces
Now wear a damn big frown
For drivers will go firing,
And fireman will go back
And there's talk of final failures
Out fettlin' on the track.

But while most chaps are moaning,
And your worries weigh a ton,
I can't refrain from laughing,
Ahead appears such fun!
Now imagine Major Fulton,
With a ‘banjo’ in his mitts
And poor ole dingbat Danswan
A-shining up the kits.
Then imagine Horace Chicken
A-bursting his suspenders,
Whilst bending down to shovel coal
From flamin' low-back tenders.

Those poor ole final failures,
Their backs will fairly crack;
Just picture Handy Andy
Jugglin' sleepers on his back.

And ‘Kiddie’ Bruce will drop his pick
And think of Pa and Ma,
'Mid dreams of scented bath-tubs
he'll light his last cigar.
With hands encased in leather gloves
He'll wipe away the sweat,
And horny-handed hairy-legs
Will split their sides I'll bet.
And when he calls them "Kiddie"
Out on the sleepered track,
They'll think he came from College Street
And offer him the sack.

M'Cormack won't get overtime,
He'll just get eighty-eight,
M'Dougall won't be there to Square
The times when he is late.
Poor Billy King in canvas home
Will dream of those afar
And play ‘Sweet Home’ and ‘Memories’
Upon his steel guitar.

Now Spadger Rosewarne, off his beer,
Will surely fade and die;
And fettlers lives will be locked in
When Willy's Knight is nigh.
Now, if matters don't improve a lot
Jim Duffy we will see
A'workin' on the foot-plate
With Lucy, C.M.E.
Mr. Cleary in the brake van

Will keep the journals right,
And he'll make his foreman Duffy
Keep a sharp look-out at night.
When guard Cleary puts a bung in
For lost time up the track
Dr. Lucy will blame traffic,
And send the bung straight back.
Then guard Cleary will review it
And say, ‘Well, I'm the guilty bloke,
But as I'm boss of this here show,
Well up she goes in smoke.’

But putting all these jokes aside,
It comes into my head;
‘’Tis better to be poor alive
Than a millionaire and dead.
Here lies a union man’.

When the Coal Blew Away

Do you know how heavy the winds blow here?
His smile was rising from ear to ear
The old miner sat back, he'd a story that day
About the time on the coast when the coal blew away.

All the mines around Bulli and further away
Were being worked each week for only two to three days
Just enough to stop them from getting the dole
While the mine-owners secretly stockpiled the coal.

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

So the miners formed a strong picket line
To try and stop the coal from leaving the mine
From Sydney they trucked in the scabs each day
With police on guard to keep the miners at bay.

With scabs loading coal by the railway track
The miners stepped forward, the mood blacker than black
The sergeant stood between them with a gun and a sneer
I'll shoot the first Commie who tries to interfere!

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

A fifty ton load was sent on its way
Scheduled for Sydney the very next day
The miners withdrew, full of anger, despair
No victory this time, no hope in the air.

The train slowed down just near Waterfall
The guard heard laughter and this is what he saw
From a wagon some miners jumped onto the track
With shovels, grins and faces smeared black

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

With his lantern he searched up and down the train
No coal could be seen, he searched in vain
And the headlines in the paper read the very next day
The winds were so heavy, the coal blew away!

Now as you listen to my story today
You might think it strange that coal could blow away
But the miners with their shovels in the wagon that night
Swear it is true and I reckon they're right

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!
(A song by Maurie (Moz) Mulheron © 1996)


Maurie Mulheron writes:
Great true story about a union victory down here in the Illawarra that occurred in September 1938 at the Old Corn Beef Mine. The story is told in the song. After the scabs had loaded the coal, eight miners stowed away on the train and spent the next couple of hours shovelling out the scab coal onto the track as the train headed north to Sydney. The next day, when the police investigated, the Miners Federation explained to them that they knew nothing about the missing coal. By way of explanation, the union suggested that it could have been the heavy winds that had blown the night before! The ‘Bulli Times’ ran a headline: ‘THE COAL THAT BLEW AWAY’. By the way, after the coal had been shovelled off the train by the 'stowaway' miners, the Detective-Sergeant raced down to Thirroul the next day to interview the miners. An astute fellow, he visited Arthur McDonald, one of the miners. ‘Don't insult my intelligence,’ said the policeman, ‘by trying to make me believe that the bloody wind on the South Coast blew all that coal away. We think you bastards did it.’


I travelled from the Cane fields aboard a South - bound Train
A despised young escapee out on the run
I eluded the authorities before the Monsoon rain
And headed for anew life in the sun

© Ken Marnane 15/03/00 RBTU Competition

Currently the Railway Story is in the process of seeking permission to display the full content of this song or poem or to have a copy linked via the web to this research document


Remember the year – 1932,
That year of trouble and pain,
The seven bob ration of dole that we drew -
Scaling trucks on a Northbound train.

But we know up above the old grey gods
Look down on the black soil plain,
Ever watching over we poor old sods
Scaling trucks on a north-bound train.

Hard we battled and often we lost
Battling over the black soil plain
By Sergeant Small how we were tossed
From the trucks of a Queensland train.

Hard were the trucks, harder the cell
Where he vagged us for seven long days,
They say that's he's dead and gone straight to hell
And that's where we hope that he stays.

Until they take us to Valhalla's hall
To drink wine with maidens nine,
Our toast is, "Damnation to Sergeant Small!"
Scaling trucks on the old Hades line.

© 1997 Restless Music APRA/AMCOS
from the album “Railway Tracks” – ROGER ILOTT (Restless RM049, 1997)

Restless Music

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