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place, work, memory and identity: the heart of the NSW transport system

Taksa, L. in Locality, Newsletter of the Centre for Community History, University of New South Wales, Vol. 10 No. 1, 1999 (Industrial Heritage edition)

Scholarly studies of the NSW railways have considered the political and institutional framework in which they operated, their industrial relations, labour and management history, the technological practices involved in the running, repair and manufacture of locomotives and, last but not least, the lives of some of their servants. Yet few of these studies have focused specifically on the workshops which made it possible for the railways to function efficiently. Why has this neglect occurred? In Sharon Zukin's view, most modern cultures have trivialised or ignored the idea of place, submerging the experience of locality into a larger whole. It is a tendency she attributes to the nineteenth century railways, which 'decreased the immediacy of place, even while they helped to make distant places more accessible.' Yet, recent trends in heritage conservation illustrate that people do attach value to specific places, particularly when their original uses have become obsolete. The Eveleigh railway workshops provide a good case in point. For although this site has received only passing mention from scholars, it has attracted extensive attention in a number of heritage studies, in newspaper articles, and also from large numbers of retired workers and their families who have flocked there on open days to attend tours arranged specifically for them.

The Eveleigh Precinct is located approximately four kilometres south of the Sydney GPO and is bounded by the inner city suburbs of Darlington, Redfern, Alexandria, Erskineville and Newtown. The total area of the precinct, which runs from Redfern Station in the northeast to Erskineville and Macdonaldtown Stations in the southwest, is approximately 51 hectares. It is located across the main railway corridor to Sydney Central Station. The locomotive workshops, large erection shop and running sheds (demolished during the 1960s) occupied the southern side of the railway line the carriage and wagon and paint shops, the northern side. Most of the southern portion of the overall site has been declared surplus to railway needs and much of this area has been cleared. Other portions of the southern precinct have been redeveloped for public housing. Several former railway buildings stand vacant.

Eveleigh's architectural and technological importance, and to a lesser extent its social significance, have all been well documented in heritage studies and conservation plans because it provides a fairly rare case of continuous use for the same industrial purpose for over one hundred years. It is well recognised as one of the largest and most advanced railway workshops in Australia, having been built by the NSW Government between 1880 and 1886 to maintain, repair and assemble mainly imported railway rolling stock initially from Britain and later from the USA. By 1900 ten percent of the State's railway staff were employed there. A few years later, after a Royal Commission appointed by the NSW Government recommended manufacturing of steam locomotives at Eveleigh, the Government placed an order for fifteen from these workshops. In 1907 a new locomotive workshop building was added to the site and the number of employees was increased. From this time until the mid-1920s, when manufacturing was shifted to the newly constructed Chullora workshops, Eveleigh was associated with technological innovation in the form of numerous prototypes and the latest management strategies. During the ensuing decades Eveleigh concentrated on repairing and maintaining steam locomotives, although the spread of dieselisation from the early 1950s foreshadowed the closure of the workshops which occurred in the late 1980s.

Yet Eveleigh was not simply a geographic location in which specific industrial activities were undertaken by male workers. Women were also employed there as upholsteresses and cleaners during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as clerks from the 1920s, as munitions workers between 1942 and 1943 and industrial nurses after the Second World War. Also as a result of extended kinship ties among employees and inter-generational occupational continuity, as well as a strong tradition of activism, Eveleigh's social and political capital was immense. At least sixteen members of the NSW State and Federal Parliaments began their early working lives there. Included among them were three NSW Labor Premiers, notably J.S.T. McGowan, Sir William McKell, and J.J. Cahill, as well as the Federal Member for the seat of East Sydney, Eddie Ward.

Another dimension of Eveleigh's cultural significance can be found in its social profile; its workforce included Indigenous Australians, as well as migrants from all over the world. In fact, many employees showed a keen appreciation of the problems experienced by both these groups. During the 1950s and 1960s the Eveleigh rank-and-file shop committees supported numerous campaigns to improve conditions for Indigenous Australians. At the same time, the Australian Railways Union responded to the needs of recent migrants by publishing a pamphlet in three different languages and by supporting the efforts of one of its delegates to establish English language classes.

Eveleigh was also drawn into serving the Empire and the nation in 1901 when its employees built what became known as the 'royal coach'. On its maiden journey in May of that year, it carried the Duke and Duchess of York from Melbourne to Brisbane after they opened the first Federal Parliament. In 1920 it was 'spruced up' for the Prince of Wales' journey to Canberra, where he laid the foundation stone of Parliament House. In 1927 it returned to this city when it carried the Duke and Duchess of York for the opening of the Federal Parliament. In 1954 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia, the Royal Carriage was refitted to ensure her comfort. For the first time it was led by a diesel electric engine rather than a steam locomotive. As on other occasions, Eveleigh's workers provided the labour for the refurbishments. In 1919 during the pneumonic influenza epidemic, 22 000 mask frames were manufactured in the workshops. And sometime during the 1930s, baby clinic carriages were built there. These were later converted for use by the Far West Children's Scheme.

All these developments conceal the most important social dimensions of Eveleigh's heritage, notably, experiences associated with employment at this site and the skills involved in operating its machinery. In 1939 Stan Jones, the Secretary of the Eveleigh Sub-Branch of the Australian Railways Union, who had followed his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins into Eveleigh during the 1920s, described this workplace in these poignant terms:

Row upon row of drab smoke-grimed buildings, housing a throbbing energy which pulses forth to the accompaniment of the thump, thump, thump of giant presses torturing white-hot steel into servitude. That is Eveleigh workshops, the heart of the State's transport system. There is a steady drone of high-powered machinery, drilling, boring and turning in every possible fashion, the clatter of overhead cranes, hurrying and scurrying, fetching and carrying, and the staccato noise of the boilermakers' rattler. All this is somehow resolved into a unity of sound, disturbed only by an occasional burst of excessive violence from any one part. Seemingly submerged in this medley is the human element– 2,600 individuals, the strongest of them but puny weaklings besides the machines they control. Yet they make it all possible. Without them the roaring giant would be but a whispering ghost.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Lucy Taksa.

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