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oral historian’s perspective on the Eveleigh Workshops

NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes 1999

Oral historians are those who use interviews to gather information about the past that has not been included in documents. They focus mainly on identifying how people have remembered the past and on their experiences. Of course it can be argued that this source of information is biased but the same can be said of information contained in documents. For this reason oral sources need to be used in consultation with documents, photographs, maps and plans. In relation to the Eveleigh workshops oral sources provide insight into employees’ everyday lives, their attitudes to their work and the technology they worked with, their relationships with their fellow workers, and how they reacted to the buildings they worked in.

Oral testimonies, together with original documentary sources, paint a poor picture of the working conditions at Eveleigh. All interviewees mention the dirt, smoke, noise and problems associated with sanitation. They emphasise how they had to wash the dirt accumulated during working hours in buckets. They also recall hideous accidents and unsafe materials and work practices. In describing his work with the steam engines in the running sheds, John Willis commented:

At the time I didn't know about asbestos, I don't think anybody worried about it at the time either. It was very hot work and very dry work because we were always touching the asbestos and it was very hard to get off your hands and you were always covered in it. It was like a cottony type of stuff. You only had to touch it and it would break away all over you. My dad used to come home and tell some funny stories. Different names came up, funny names – Petrol Pete, Smoke-box Jack. These smoke-boxes were part of a steam engine and the most dirtiest part you could work in. You would go in with, say, clean overalls on but they wouldn't know you were in there and when you came out they couldn't see you, that's how black they were. They might have gotten an extra threepence or sixpence an hour for working in them, but that was a terrible job, a terrible job, breathing in the fumes with no gas mask, not anything in those days, no air flows, nothing. That all came later, that all came a lot later. You could be working under any part of that engine and safety wasn't thought of. You can imagine... when they got to something like 240 pound of steam pressure they would sort of blow off and that noise was deafening, so if you had another engine up another engine you couldn't hear it. There was one death over there... A chap was working down in the drop pit and they dropped the wheels down from underneath the steam engine on a hydraulic jack and this day – that they were putting the wheels back – his head became involved between the wheels and the undercarriage of the steam train and squashed him, squashed him dead. That's the only accident I ever witnessed but there were a lot of other accidents … It was a very dangerous place to work but you had to know what you were doing at the time, you took a lot of chances, a lot of risk.

(Interview with John Willis conducted by Lucy Taksa on 5 February 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project)

Other sections were not as bad as the running sheds but they were still dusty, dirty and noisy. As Jack Bruce recalled:

Noise was a great problem…hammers striking anvils and that sort of thing created a great deal of noise. When you moved from that shop into areas that were occupied by boilermakers, well those were absolutely deafening. Our tube sections were both located immediately alongside the boilermakers. But the most that seemed to be used to help against noise was to put a bit of cotton wool in the ears [laughs].

Interview with John Robert Bruce conducted by Joan Kent on 25 March 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project.

Ventilation also created its own additional problems, as Jack continued:

The shop was reasonably well ventilated, plenty of windows and door space. And the roof over it was called a 'lantern roof', which had an elevated section in the middle of the roof with both sides open to the atmosphere. That applied right through all the shops, they had lantern roofs…But still smoke was inclined to hang at times….

Joan Kent: Were the workshops hot in the summer?

Jack Bruce: They were hot. Within the coppersmith’s shop there would have been possibly twelve coke-fired forges and six or eight gas-fired forges. Very often all going at the same time. It was quite hot.

Joan Kent: Very cosy in the winter?

Jack Bruce: Yes. Well you had your back up to the fire or close handy. One side of you was warm and the other side was freezing [laughs].

Joan Kent: There was no heating?

Jack Bruce: All that heat then dissipated quite well in winter time, it all went out through the lantern roof, but it didn't keep the area warm.

Another aspect of working life strongly remembered by Eveleigh’s employees related to work with steam locomotives and the change-over to diesel technology. Dieselisation was an extremely prolonged process and it represented a critically important step towards the closure of Eveleigh which had originally been designed for steam-powered locomotives. Oral evidence gives us an insight into how workers felt about both sorts of technologies. As John Willis recalls:

I remember the first diesel arriving in the shed. That was a big occasion that day, a very big occasion. Because..., you had steam fitters that grew up with steam and when dieselisation came in they were frightened to touch them, they didn't know what they were doing. They had to go through all their books again, what they were issued with, but it frightened a few. A few of them retired but a lot of them took it on and it did them good too. I think it was an experience for them because they didn't want to become involved in dieselisation; they started on the steam, grew up with steam and they wanted to retire with the steam.

(Interview with John Willis conducted by Lucy Taksa on 5 February 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project)

While Eveleigh employees looked forward to technological improvements, as long as employment was not threatened, they were extremely upset by the end of the steam age. Bob Matthews' description of this age as 'a pretty thrilling sort of thing' is explained by Vaughan Givillian:

So it's an era that ... we thoroughly enjoyed. Our work mates were great chaps and the trades all got together because we were all in the same sort of situation and so there was quite a lot of friendliness amongst all the different trades that worked in there... because you were more or less like a brotherhood... where you were all in the same boat involved with the steam engines and of course a steam engine to a tradesman and to the driver and fireman. It’s understandable why they would be enthralled in them because they were like a living thing; they breathed and they worked and they expanded and contracted with the heat just like human beings do, you know, and when they got angry, they blew their top just like human beings. And so I suppose it was an era where you can understand why people love steam engines because they are just that living sort of thing... you know, it reacted to whatever you did to it.

Interview with Bob Matthews conducted by Joan Kent on 20 February 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project; Interview with Vaughan Givillian conducted by Russ Herman in 1987 for the Combined Railway Unions Cultural Committee Oral History Project.

Vaughan spent 29 years in the running sheds, 20 of these in the steam shed. His account of this experience illustrates that working with steam affected social relationships between workers:

The change going over from the steam to the diesel found a big change in the way of life in the place because there was another sort of trade coming in... although there was still that friendliness amongst the trades there wasn't that camaraderie.... because the live steam engine made it that way... It blended us all together because of the feeling we had towards it... It was a challenge to stop something from leaking that had steam pressure in it, it was a challenge to see this big monstrous thing go by... and say with self-satisfaction: 'Well look I helped to put that thing out there'.. that sort of camaraderie today is gone because you don't see the driver very much. Now he comes into the shed to pick up his locomotive and goes, whereas before, he'd come in and he'd prepare his engine and oil it and you'd have a yarn with him and you'd know how his wife and kids were and today there's not that sort of thing needed anymore because he comes straight from his barracks or straight from signing on and he just gets on the thing.... sits down in the seat and just pulls the lever and choonk and away he goes.

Despite the hard and dirty conditions produced by the steam engines, Eveleigh employees were very proud of their ability to build and repair them. These interviews provide insight into the way people worked and how the workshops affected those who were employed at Eveleigh. It is crucially important information that provides us with a human dimension to the history.

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