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military historian’s perspective on the Eveleigh Workshops

NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes 1999

Loyalty to Britain was a central part of Australia's culture at least until the 1970s, so not surprisingly patriotism and loyalty to the Empire were a recurring feature of the Eveleigh workshops, particularly during times of war. In fact, during both the First and Second World Wars, the workshops were used to produce armaments.

During Britain’s involvement in the Boer War, which occurred in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century, workers demonstrated their loyalty to the Empire by decorating the locomotive shops with flags, banners and Union Jacks which they had purchased. At 4.30 on 22 May 1900, they gathered to hear patriotic speeches and to sing patriotic songs, including the National Anthem. When Australia entered World War I in support of the Empire in 1914, similar scenes occurred. At first, the war united all Australians. Many railway employees enlisted in the armed services. Others were subsequently involved in fitting out trains for the transport of injured soldiers or in armaments (often referred to as munitions) manufacture. All in all, the Eveleigh and Randwick tramway workshops produced 14 330 18-pounder shell bodies, 8 000 copper bands and 15 sets of gauges for 18-pounder shells.

During World War II the Eveleigh workshops were used even more extensively. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, an inspection of the workshops’ facilities by Defence Department officials resulted in a request to the Commissioner for Railways for space to be made available for an annexe to manufacture 18-pounder shells. Preliminary plans developed in August 1939 located the Munitions Annexe in the tender shop of the locomotive workshops. In May 1940 production of 18-pounder shells began, although in January 1941 the plant was converted for the production of 25-pounder shells. In November 1942 female workers were introduced into the annexe to overcome the shortage of male labour and additional facilities were installed specifically for them. Virtually all the tools used in the annexe were made in the locomotive works tool room, while all the machine maintenance was done by the millwrights. The annexe ceased production on 12 June 1943.

Other parts of Eveleigh were also involved in the war effort. For a short time the machine section and the carriage and wagon shops were used for the machining of tank components. The erecting shop was used for fitting, assembling and testing numerous large machines. During early 1942 the assembly of tanks was also conducted at Eveleigh before moving to the completed tank assembly shop at Chullora. All the designing and building of the jigs, fixtures and tools needed for the machining of 250-pounder aerial bombs also conducted at Eveleigh.

The military work and the employment of women in the workshops during this time had a big effect on the male workers. Jack Bruce recalled:

It was fenced and taboo to the general staff. In the whole period it was there I never got inside the gate. You could look through the wire to the girls working in there…. That was quite an innovation yes… It was a mystery to see girls and women in the Eveleigh foundry in those days. And at the same time, of course, they developed the Army aircraft industry at Chullora.... Also we had the tank factory. The 35-ton tanks were built at Chullora. And the first two were built at Eveleigh. … I was quite intrigued, as a boy, to see these tanks growing with a great 44-gallon drum sitting up on the back of them. It was the funniest thing to take into a war–a piece of equipment with a 44-gallon drum of petrol sitting up on the back of them. That was purely until they'd worked out how much fuel they were going to use and a simple way of getting it to the engine... Eveleigh built tanks, they went into the services but I don't think they ever fired a shot in anger. By the time they got on there it was all over. Then they were battling to have one of those for preservation.

However, the manufacture of munitions was not the only way that the war affected Eveleigh employees. General staff shortages resulted in longer work hours, as Keith Johnson recalls:

"Well ... sometimes we used to work twelve hours’ overtime a week. We used to work Saturday and one night. Sometimes we used to work three nights a week."

This placed great strain on the workers. According to Bob Matthews:

Eveleigh workshop then started to work 24 hours a day. During my time there, during that bitter part of the war when we were very unhappy about what was going on, I worked for twelve hours a day, twelve days straight and I had two days off. That was a lot of work for people and then you had to get to work and get home again, but we did it for quite a number of years until the war was finished.

The war not only affected hours of work. Bob Mathews remembered that the workers had to have fire fighting drills around the air raid shelters that were built outside the workshop. All of the windows in the workshops were covered so that if enemy aircraft passed by they wouldn’t be able to see that the workshops were operating 24 hours a day.

The memories of these aspects of Eveleigh’s social history provide an insight into the way that Eveleigh helped to tie Australia to Britain and world events. They also show that Eveleigh played a critically important part in promoting the nation’s and the empire’s war effort.

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