The Australian Women's Weekly Wednesday 16 April 1969 p. 14.

Overshadowed until now as Australian folk heroes by bushrangers, shearers, wharfies, and bullockies, the old breed of steam-age railway men could at last be coming into their own.

Review by Ainslie Baker of a book about the splendors and hardships of loco days.

HELPING to ensure the railwaymen's recognition as pioneers as well as tall-story-tellers, boozers, and jokers is Patsy Adam-Smith. A fettler's child, she grew up along the railway lines.

Her Smith uncles are said to have cut more railway sleepers than any other family in Australia.

Railwaymen of all ranks and from every State have supplied yarns and recollections which make up "Folklore of the Australian Railwaymen" (Macmillan), published on April 11.

A man who worked on the construction of the old 900-mile "Desert Railway" across the Nullarbor and rose to be a driver over the line he helped build is Bill Twilly of the Commonwealth Railways.

He doubts that men will ever again work under the conditions endured by those who built the trans- continental line early this century.

They lived under canvas, plagued by above-century temperatures, willy - willies, sand, and uncertainty of food supplies.

Apart from an occasional wild turkey, it was stale bread, melted butter, salted beef, rice, and 10/6 a day.

Water was precious, and on Sundays the navvies took a half-and-half bath. They first put one leg in a kero sine tin of water and washed that side of the body, then stepped out and repeated the performance on the other side.

With the remaining water they washed their clothes.

Those who prepared the way for the shining rails that were to open up the country were the navvies, the builders with pick and shovel.

The story goes that many of them recruited from England had been canal workers, or "navigators," and brought the abbreviated form of the name with them.

The navvies were sent in gangs from State to State, wherever the work was. They were billeted in rough, all male camps.

Not for them the comparatively settled domestic life of the fettlers, who kept the laid lines in repair and often had the company of wife and children.

Lonely, prone to drinking, fighting, and unpredictable behaviour, the navvies were considered by the fettlers' wives unsettling companions for husbands, and mixing was discouraged. Sly grog and gambling schools bedevilled the big camps that came into being along the lines as construc- tion progressed.

After pay day some men played dice all night, returning to work the next day if they lost, getting on the first train for an unofficial holiday if they won. Some of the drinks concocted by the thirsty navvies would have killed lesser mortals.

One construction works at Kyogle, in New South Wales, had its own Lantana Rum, a mixture of methylated spirit, fly spray, and boot polish. It did, in fact, send one drinker mad.

The more settled populace were wary of the gangs. When the Oodnadatta-Alice Springs line was started in 1927, one publican enclosed his bar with cyclone wire, leaving only space under neath for a drink to be pushed through.

Traditional navvy rig was "blucher boots, no socks, torn singlet, hair sticking out of a hole in the hat, and whiskers sprouting from his teeth."

Tough and cranky 

Next up in seniority to the fettlers were the gangers, each responsible for a number of fettlers and a length of line. In "The Chosen Band," Banjo Paterson pays tribute to the very apex of the main tenance men hierarchy, the Flying Gang, highly experienced fettlers in charge of a gang ready to be rushed to trouble spots.

A Queensland railwayman described a Flying Squad as "the equivalent of a modern second-year university engineering student."

Tough, self-reliant, loyal, and crairliy, the rumbustious railwaymen of the past were a breed developed by a certain set of circumstances at a certain time. In the isolated outback, the engine driver was all things to all men ? friend and counsellor, godfather to children, buyer of medicines and Christmas presents, letter-writter, and arbiter of fashion.

From the practice of writing weekly reports to their superiors, the guards, gang ers, porters, and drivers enjoyed something of a reputation as men of letters, and their services were in great demand.

Author Xavier Herbert worked for a time as a fettler in the Northern Territory. (Not surprisingly his workmates called him Fred.) One driver was remarkable for reading Goethe.

The output of guard W. C. Robinson, of South Australia, includes some 100 poems on such topics as basic-wage adjustments, retrenchment, the union's view on dismissals, and one 400-verse epic on World War II.

But officialese often reads strangely, like this report of the death of a navvy, met while watching a bullock being slaughtered: "The shot took effect on Mr. Wilson accidentally."

Like many of the old breed, Ernest Renner, a Western Australian driver, entered service as a boy. With four other small boys, his job was to wake up the engine drivers rostered for work in the early hours of the morning, riding by bike from one side of town to the other in the darkness.

The drivers were supposed to sign a book, but they were so big and burly, and the call boy so small, that he was always afraid to ask them. Pay was 3/- a day, a night shift (sometimes 18 hours straight) lasted three weeks; and no penalty rates.

Something of the sense of pioneering that held the old railwaymen together is ex pressed by a South Australian driver who said, "I had no doubt that I was part of a great movement that was for the good of my country. "Today people laugh about that sort of thing." The devotion of some of the old-time drivers to their engines was a byword.

A fireman would begin work an hour early just to polish the brasswork. Some drivers treated their locos more lovingly than they did their womenfolk.

In white braces

When the first train drew out of Sydney in 1856, its driver appeared in all the splendor of officially pro- vided top hat, frock coat, and bow tie. This was a "oncer," but old-time drivers and senior conductors always wore white braces, and the conductors wore bow ties.

The Western Australian drivers elected to wear (lacking any official issue) a black shirt and white tie. But top dogs sartorially were the Stationmasters, whose eminence of office was traditionally reflected in an intimidating display of spit and polish.

During the Depression years, "jumping the rattler" became a way of life for thousands of men, who, to obtain unemployment bene fits, were forced by law to keep on the move.

In 1935, Alan Mclnnes, a traffic inspector with the Queensland Railways, saw 114 of these men taken off one train alone. Almost to a man, the railwaymen were on the side of the unemployed, but it was hard on the Stationmasters, who were warned that to fail to report a non-paying passenger was to lose his job.

Many of the best railway stories concern the notori- ous slowness of certain trains. Ganger "Gibbie" Gibson, of Western Australia, contributes one about the passenger who, inquiring why the train stopped, was told there was a cow on the line. Later in the day there was another stoppage, and the passenger, on inquiring "Another cow?" was told by the driver, "No. Same one."

But perhaps the best known of all concerns the man who rushed to the Stationmaster asking for an ambulance for his wife, who was about to have a baby. Told she had no right to be travelling when in such a condition, the man replied, "She wasn't in this condition when she joined the train."

Names, ironic or ribald, for engines and lines flour- ished in the pre-diesel days. Along with the Dirty Gerties and Leaping Lenas was the Stringy Bark Express (mixed goods and all stations out of Benalla, Victoria) and the Spinifex Flyer (snail's pace from Port Hedland to Marble Bar).

In the early days of steam a railway station was the heart of the surrounding country, the source of sup- plies, news of the outside world, and companionship.

Still standing at Darwin is the very station from which Mrs. Aeneas Gunn set off in the 1890s for "Elsey" cattle station, where she was to write "We of the Never Never."

With the coming of the diesels an era ended. But the old steam men knew how to do things in style. In 1965 the Victorian Railways North Loco depot was demolished with "Wagnerian splendor."

In a series of resounding crashes the front wall of the 77-year-old depot, from which 160 engines a day had set out, and on which the lives of 1000 men had centred, was pulled down by steam locomotive K188, with all the old drivers and firemen watching.

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