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curator’s perspective on the Eveleigh Workshops

NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes 1999

A major part of a curator’s work is to find objects that should be preserved, for people in the future to learn from and enjoy. When deciding what objects are significant enough to be preserved we look at such factors as: Is the object rare? Is it beautiful? Does it display fine workmanship? We are also interested if it represents a major technical or scientific achievement or if it is a survivor from a class of objects that were once common but are now becoming rare. At one time significant objects were automatically transferred to museum collections, but now most curators believe objects are more interesting if they are left in their original locations.

The Eveleigh railway yards are some of the finest historic railway engineering workshops in the world. They contain many things of significance to curators but I am particularly interested in the collection of historic engineering machinery that dates from the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Unfortunately many of the machines were scrapped or sold a few years ago and many others have been moved from their original sites. However, those which remain, together with the steam and hydraulic systems which powered them, still form possibly the best collection of their kind in the world.

The most impressive of the machines is the massive, steam-driven, 1500-ton Davy press which forged giant steel components for the locomotives which were built and repaired at Eveleigh. As is the case with most of the large machines at Eveleigh, the boiler, crane and tools which were needed to operate the Davy press are still in the workshops. These are important as they allow us to fully understand how the press was set up and operated.

Most of the machines were imported from Britain, but in the early days, some were actually built in the workshops. Of particular interest is the giant arch steam hammer which was constructed at Eveleigh over 120 years ago. As well as the great presses, boilers and hammers which so impress us when we visit Eveleigh, the myriad of small tools which lie about the workshops have charm and importance for the curator and historian. Some of these tools are used in the blacksmith’s shop which still operates on the site, but others are links to the many skilled trades, most now almost forgotten, which helped to build the giant locomotives for which Eveleigh was famous.

An important question which curators and conservators are struggling with at Eveleigh is whether some of the machines should be restored to working condition. Restorations like this are very expensive and time-consuming, and, unless they are done very carefully, they may actually damage some of the original material they are supposed to preserve. Operating the machines too much will also wear them out in the long run. However, at least some of them will one day work again and we will hear once more the crash of the steam hammers, smell the steam and smoke and watch the sparks fly.

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