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Teaching Heritage

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perspective on the heritage value of the Eveleigh Workshops

Michael Clarke for NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes NSW Department of Education and Training 1999

We all have things we treasure that remind us of our parents and other family members, of things we did and places we have been. We have photos, knick-knacks, furniture, documents and other possessions–many of them heirlooms that we want to leave to our children. We want them to know their history–where they have come from, why things happened and why things are like they are. Whether it is grandma's old teapot, a stamp collection, a bundle of letters, a faded photograph album or a valuable painting, these things are part of our personal heritage. They are significant and important to us and are often a source of wonder and insight, particularly to our children–and their children.

Just as in our private lives, our public heritage is the evidence of our past that we leave to future generations. It visually and tangibly tells the story of forebears and the opportunities and limitations they experienced compared with ours today, the differences in materials, technology, communications and knowledge. Heritage tells us where we have come from, who we are and why our society is the way it is. Without an appreciation of our history and heritage, society would be spiritually poor.

Unfortunately "heritage" is mostly thought of as buildings. However, whilst there are many admirable buildings that should be conserved, there are many more engineering works that go unrecognised and unappreciated. Engineering has a proud record, but it is not well understood or publicised. More than any other professional, it is the engineer who has provided our national infrastructure by building roads, drainage, railways, bridges, maritime works, power and communications, and by providing the structural work for buildings. There would be no Sydney Opera House without the structural engineers. And the greatest improvement to public health has been through the engineer's provision of clean drinking water and effective treatment and disposal of sewage.

Engineers were crucial to the development of the railways. They designed railway lines and bridges, locomotives and the machines and techniques necessary for their manufacture, assembly, repair and maintenance. They also helped develop the materials these things were made of, such as cast iron, wrought iron and steel. Skilled tradesmen made the patterns and the moulds for casting the iron and others worked in the heat, dust and noise to operate the heavy forges and presses to make parts for machines and locomotives. Unfortunately, with the change to modern technology, the skills of the people who worked at places like Eveleigh are fast disappearing and many techniques have already been lost.

The Eveleigh Workshops contain the most complete set of late nineteenth and early twentieth century light and medium engineering technologies in Australia. The surviving equipment demonstrates state-of-the-art technology from long ago and is now very rare. Some of the most important engineeringequipment in this workplace includes:

  • the 1500-ton Davy press, the largest operating steam press in Australia
  • steam hammers, some dating from the nineteenth century and forming one of the most comprehensive collections of operating steam hammers in Australia
  • the high-pressure hydraulic system, which, with its steam pump and early electric pump, is the only known example of its kind in the country
  • the overhead cranes in the workshops which are one of the best collections in Australia. The oldest crane is in the carriage workshops and was made in 1885.

Besides the actual machines in the workshops, the buildings are also items of engineering heritage. For example, the foundations of the main locomotive workshop buildings were built in a unique way to deal with the sandy soil of the district.

In addition, the wrought-iron framework holding up the roof (the engineering term is "roof trusses") reflects a major engineering accomplishment because its span over extremely wide spaces, coupled with the length of the bays, made the main workshop building one of the largest covered industrial spaces in Australia at the time of its construction.

If we do not conserve our engineering works and promote them, they will be lost. Also the work of engineers and their contribution to the building of our nation will not be recognized. It is too easy for the community to take for granted the benefits arising from the work of engineers and skilled tradesmen, even though they have been major contributors to our quality of life and prosperity. We all need to stand up for our engineering and industrial heritage and play our part in convincing the community that it is important and worth saving.

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