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historian’s perspective on the Eveleigh Workshops

NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes 1999

The steam locomotive is one of the most powerful symbols of the modern industrial era. It revolutionized transport and manufacturing technologies, international relations, commerce, living conditions and travel. All around the world the building of railways inaugurated the industrial era. In a country like Australia, where great distances between settlements made communication and trade difficult, the railways created new possibilities for national development. For these possibilities to be realized special facilities were needed to assemble, maintain and repair train engines and carriages. In turn, railway workshops introduced iron technology and heavy engineering processes.

During the first half of the nineteenth century European inhabitants of NSW experienced dangerous and uncomfortable conditions when they embarked on journeys from Sydney to inland settlements. The extremely poor condition of the few roads that existed caused numerous deaths and serious injuries from carriage accidents, while recurring floods increased the isolation of rural communities by making roads impassable. As a result, increasing demands arose during the 1840s for railways to be introduced to the Colony. Initially, private enterprises were formed to build the railways but these collapsed in 1854 because of high costs and technical problems, before the railway line between Sydney’s city centre and the outlying district of Parramatta could be completed. As a result, the Government took over the development of the Colony’s much needed large-scale transportation system in 1855.

When the railway line to Parramatta Junction was opened that year [1855], the Government established repair shops at Redfern. But because the Redfern site was too small to handle the large increase in the number of engines used to meet the rapid growth of railway traffic, recommendations were made in 1875 to move the workshops. The Government bought sixty-two and one quarter acres of the land granted to Chisholm, which was nearby and which included Calder House, built in the 1820s and used as a school from the 1850s. This land bordered on Hutchinson’s grant, which was mainly used for gardens, although Eveleigh House was built in this vicinity around 1840. In 1880 clearance began for the building of the Eveleigh railway workshops on the land bought from Chisholm, and Calder House was incorporated as the Works Manager's Residence. A year later Hutchinson’s land was subdivided into the Golden Grove estate, where houses were built for workers. In the meantime, Eveleigh Station had been opened in 1878. In 1906 it was renamed Redfern Station. The former Redfern Station was renamed Sydney Terminal (Central).

During the early 1880s a plan was prepared which divided operations into four main sections: locomotive shops, running sheds, carriage and wagon shops, paint shop and stores. The plan proposed that the eastern side of the main lines would be occupied by the locomotive works (including a boiler, steam-hammer and smiths' shop, iron and brass foundry, tin and coppersmiths' shop, engine and tender repairing and paint shops, wheel machine, and fitting shops, joiners' shops and stores), running sheds, engine and boiler houses, engine drivers' quarters, sand house and furnace, stores for locomotive department, two 50-feet turntables and shunting yards. The second group of buildings included the running sheds which were capable of holding 126 engines. The western side of the site was to be occupied by the carriage and wagon repairing shops (including wood working machine shop, fitting and turning shop, smiths' shop, paint shop, trimming shop) and railway stores. The point of this arrangement was to enable each of the divisions to communicate with the main rail lines without interfering with each other or interrupting traffic.

It took nearly six years for the works to become fully operational. By 1884, the large running shed had been completed and occupied. Two years later, four of the locomotive workshops (each 300' x 60') were in full working order, eleven were almost completed, the iron roofing had begun to arrive for ten others and the foundations had all been laid. Although the plans were repeatedly altered over the next hundred years in response to increased demands and technological changes, the proposed operational divisions were kept.

Once completed the workshops maintained and repaired locomotives. But from the beginning this work was affected by the problem of obtaining sufficient rolling stock (train engines and carriages). Local manufacturers obtained contracts to manufacture locomotives during the late 1870s but these businesses were not able to supply the quantities needed and they also couldn’t compete with the lower costs of imported locomotives. So from 1880 additional stock was imported from Britain and America. Yet these imports did not solve the problem of stock shortage, while the delays experienced in obtaining new stock materially affected the repair and maintenance of the locomotives that were in use.

By the early 1890s, hundreds of engines were passing through the Eveleigh workshops for what the Chief Mechanical Engineer described as "exceptionally heavy repairs" and "thorough overhauls". Because these activities strained Eveleigh's erecting and boiler shops, extensions were made to the workshops during the late 1890s. These included a new foundry and a new erecting shop that was to be fully equipped with modern electric machinery. This reliance on imported technology highlights a significant aspect of Australia’s industrial history, one which continued to affect technological developments throughout the twentieth century.

Imports not only failed to overcome shortages of stock but also limited local business opportunities and the jobs available to local workers. For this reason workers and manufacturers campaigned for the government to stop imports and to provide financial help for local production. Their campaigns were successful. In 1904 a government inquiry concluded that the 1 150 workshop employees could easily undertake the manufacture of locomotives and not simply the assembly, repair and maintenance of imported hardware. Manufacturing began at Eveleigh in 1907 after a new "Loco Shop" was built on the eastern side of the site.

Yet even these efforts failed to solve the shortage of stock, particularly since a substantial boost in primary production during 1911-1912 increased traffic. The State’s first Labor Government responded by establishing another inquiry which found that the Eveleigh workshops, which now employed 3 270 people, could fulfil the locomotive requirements of the State railways. To meet these additional demands, a range of alterations and expansions were made throughout the first two decades of the century.

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