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social historian’s perspective on the Eveleigh Workshops

NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes 1999

Eveleigh was not simply a geographic location in which transport facilities were built and repaired. It also performed social functions. Partly this was because sons followed their fathers or other male members of their families into the workshops and partly because employees lived in the surrounding suburbs. But employees weren’t simply tied by family networks but also by social interests. Many formed clubs around shared hobbies such as chess, books and reading, films, gardening, table tennis, soccer and bowling. They also went to concerts, annual picnics, farewells and flower shows that were organised for them by their representatives. All these recreational activities created an overall atmosphere of fellowship which is remembered by people who worked there. This fellowship among employees did not end with retirement but continued for many years.

The Golden Grove estate, within which the workshops were situated, was subdivided in about 1881. The small allotments were advertised as 'workmen's dwellings' and most home building occurred during the late 1880s; precisely the time the Eveleigh shops began operating. When the Chullora workshops were developed during the late 1920s, the population around Eveleigh began to decline. Gradually, many Eveleigh employees moved away from this area to the southern and western suburbs. Such living patterns are reflected by Stan Jones’ experience.

Stan’s father worked at Eveleigh and as a child he lived in rented houses in the streets surrounding the workshops, close to other members of his extended family who were also employed there. Both Stan and John Willis recalled their fathers coming home from Eveleigh for their lunch breaks. Others, particularly those who came to Eveleigh as apprentices from the country, lived in the locality's many boarding houses. Bob Matthews told the following story about his own experience after he arrived in Sydney from Parkes where his father worked for the railways:

I actually didn't get to know many people in the workshop but I just happened to be fortunate when I went to board. There were two other apprentices and one was a boilermaker, who came from Thirroul, I think it was, and another apprentice who came from Orange. Luckily I had those [apprentices] boarding at the same place as I was… it was only a private home – I can't remember how I got in there, how I got to know the people and got in. He was a railway man though.

Interview with Bob Matthews conducted by Joan Kent on 20 February 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project.

John Willis, who followed his father into the Eveleigh workshops just like Stan Jones, also remembered what it was like to live nearby:

We could always hear the train whistles being blown over there when they were moving around – all Alexandria could I suppose. And I thought to myself "Oh, I'd like to go over and have a look at the steam engines" and he used to tell me, "No it's too dirty, you don't want to go over there, stay away from there, don't let me catch you, none of you kids coming over there". But we used to sneak over but not go inside. They had a big wooden bridge there and they had a watchman and you couldn't go past him so we used to just look out through the paling fences at all the steam trains. It fascinated me and I would think, "Oh, look at that one, there's another one and there's another one". After that, when I first started there, I looked at the place, my first real look at it and I ran away. Yes, really. It frightened me.... It was frightening because there was so much going on. So much movement. Straight away you thought, "Oh, I'm going to get run over".

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

The noise from the workshops was also recalled by Allan Madden, an Aboriginal resident who grew up in Cornwallis Street, right in front of Eveleigh:

As a young boy ... what I really remember about Eveleigh Railway was always the noise, you could always here that clang clang with the hammers and the whistles. We used to live by the whistles. Your first whistle would be at 27 minutes past seven. That would be the two minutes to get ready to go and start work. Then the next one would blurt out at 7.30. That was usually the time for me and my sister to leave home and go to school. ... But many of the days spent down around in Cornwallis Street just listening to the music of those bloody things. You could walk up the street there and you could pick the sounds out of the hammers and you'd be making up little songs to them [humming] then you'd know that the next hammer would come on after that. They had different pitches, different sounds.

Interview with Allan Madden conducted by Joan Kent on 16 April, 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project

But local residents were not simply subjected to the noise of the workshops. John Willis also remembered how the women who lived nearby were affected by it:

The housewives in Henderson Lane, this is the lane that ran along the old steam shed, they went to walk all over the Bridge one day in protest against the black grime that used to come out of the steam engine over their washing and they demanded to see the head of the railway… They put out their white sheets and there'd be these black spots all over them and you could never get that grime out. Once it was there, it was there. Interview with John Willis

Eveleigh’s impact on the broader society was not all bad. In fact, some of the work done there helped to celebrate Australia’s relationship with Britain. The Eveleigh workshops were drawn into serving the Empire and the nation in 1901 when they were engaged in building a royal train for Australia's first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun. This carriage was first used in May of that year to carry the Duke and Duchess of York on their journey from Melbourne to Brisbane after the Royal couple opened the first Federal Parliament. It was used again in 1920 by the Prince of Wales when he laid the foundation stone of Parliament House in Canberra, in 1927 by the Duke and Duchess of York when they visited Australia to open the Federal Parliament in Canberra, in 1934 by the Duke of Gloucester and again in 1945 when the Duke was Governor-General. Finally, in 1954 when Queen Elizabeth II visited, the Royal Car was altered to ensure her comfort.

Descriptions of the royal carriage illustrate the great skills of Eveleigh’s employees. One writer noted in 1922 that the train "was an all-Australian triumph" because it was entirely locally-made. It exhibited "excellence of workmanship and artistic craftsmanship" because the "men on the work put their hearts into the job and turned out a blue and gold masterpiece." The observation and dining rooms had elaborately embossed ceilings and the walls were of solid clear oak, inset with niches for art treasures. The bedrooms had white ivory panels, which were embossed with gold scrolls and the floors were "carpeted with Wilton royal blue" with matching blinds, to mention but a few of the features. By the 1954 visit, such trimmings had been altered to a deep red. But not everyone appreciated this beautiful work. When Mary Lucy was taken by her father E.E. Lucy, the chief mechanical engineer, to see the Royal carriage at the Eveleigh carriage paint shop during the 1920 royal visit, she thought that it was ‘a trifle vulgar’:

the curtains were a startling Reckitt's blue and a great number of kangaroos, emus and kookaburras were carved into the pale and highly-varnished wood. Perhaps it was really nice but as a schoolgirl wanting everything to be "just so" it seemed a trifle bushwacker to me.

Mary’s cultural cringe was not shared by Hal Alexander who was employed during the early 1950s as an electrician in the carriage workshop and he recalled air-conditioning the Queen’s carriage in 1953 for her 1954 visit:

the Queen’s carriage [was] …a beautiful thing. It's still around, built about the 1900s. It’s all the scroll work, hand-tooled scroll work. A lot of it’s gold leafed. And antique furniture ..... That was my great claim to fame, I air-conditioned the Queen’s carriage. And at the end of it, all the larrikins got on the back and we had to go for a test run to see if it worked and down the track and everywhere we’d stop at a railway station, we’d all stand and give them the royal salute to all the mob [laughs].

Interview with Hal Alexander, conducted by Joan Kent on 15 April, 1996 for the Eveleigh Social History Project

These social aspects of Eveleigh’s history illustrate that its heritage significance has an important human side. Eveleigh’s operations influenced where people lived and its operations shaped how people experienced living in the localities that surrounded it. The building of the royal carriages also shows that the workshops had an impact on broader international relationships.

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