|Issue No 12||07 May 1999|
From Steam Trains to Information Superhighways
By Dr Lucy Taksa
A new project is dedicated to promoting the heritage of the Eveleigh railway workshops.
The need to preserve railway heritage and make it accessible to the broader community has increasingly been recognized by commercial and government enterprises, community groups and scholars throughout the industrialized world.
In the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, railway heritage projects involving partnerships between public and private organisations have been developed to highlight the way railways have contributed to national destinies and the daily life of ordinary people. Extensive public and private investments have been committed to such efforts because they provide opportunities for enhancing educational and recreational activities. Sydney's Eveleigh Railway Workshops present these same sorts of opportunities.
Eveleigh's heritage value has been well documented in numerous heritage studies and conservation plans because it provides a notable example of continuous use for the same industrial purpose for over one hundred years between the 1880s and the 1980s.
It is well recognised as having been one of the largest and most advanced railway workshops in Australia. By 1900, ten per cent of railway staff were employed there. And immediately before the outbreak of World War One in 1914, when the NSW Department of Railways and Tramways had become one of the largest employers in Australia, Eveleigh represented the heart of the NSW transport system.
Yet, Eveleigh was not simply a geographic location in which specific industrial activities occurred and technologies were developed and used. It was also the center of an occupational community that revolved around extended family networks and continuous employment. It was the hub of union activity and labor politics; at least 16 Labor politicians began their working lives there.
The best known of these were J.S.T. McGowan, the first Labor Premier of NSW from 1910, William McKell and J.J. Cahill, Premiers during the 1940s and 1950s and Eddie Ward, the Federal member for the seat of East Sydney from the 1930s. Eveleigh was also arguably Australia's first multi-cultural employer because migrants from the United Kingdom, Europe and the Middle East were employed there from the 1880s, alongside Indigenous Australians.
Despite the numerous heritage studies that have investigated Eveleigh, to date only a few tentative steps have been taken to make the site's heritage available to the people of NSW. An important step in this direction was made by the Hon. Craig Knowles when he provided funds for the conservation of the machinery left in Bays 1 and 2 of the Locomotive workshops building.
Another step that has recently been taken goes further by seeking to make the history of those who actually worked there more accessible to the broader community. This project, undertaken under the auspices of the Australian Research Council's Strategic Partnerships with Industry Research and Training program and funded by the ARC, together with eleven industry partners will build a bridge between the past, the present and the future at the Eveleigh railway workshops using the latest information technologies.
Why should information technology be used for heritage purposes and how can it provide greater access to and understanding of Eveleigh's history and heritage?
First, it must be stressed that information technology cannot be used as a substitute for the preservation of factories and workshops and the machinery still contained in such industrial buildings. But on their own, these material remnants tell us little about the scale of our industrial enterprises, and even less about the skills and sweat that went into the industrial work that made Australia what it is today. We need a range of techniques to ensure that we remember such work because it was central to the development of our labour movement. And information technologies provide a useful tool for making this history interesting to our children who are becoming very skilled with computer technology.
The conservation of Eveleigh's industrial heritage has been profoundly affected by politics, money and location. Despite the value of the prime real estate occupied by the workshops, their built fabric has been protected by government ownership and subsidy. In 1995 ownership of the Locomotive Workshops was transferred from the SRA to the City West Development Corporation. This was part of a plan announced by the NSW Government in May 1991 to help the University of NSW, the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney to establish an advanced technology park at the Locomotive workshops. The Australian Technology Park, Sydney Ltd. (ATP) was subsequently formed as a registered company with a board including the Vice Chancellors of the above universities and industry representatives. Its goal is to nurture ideas that can be transformed into the latest technologies and as importantly, to ensure conservation of Eveleigh's heritage.
The Conservation Management Plan produced by the Heritage Group, State Projects Division of the NSW Department of Public Works and Services in 1995 and the Management Plan for Moveable Items and Social History produced by Godden Mackay Heritage Consultants in 1996 provided the basis for the deliberations of the Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops Heritage Working Group during 1997 and 1998. In the interim, in 1997 the NSW Government demonstrated additional commitment by making a grant of $300,000 (to be matched dollar for dollar by the ATP) to enable the conservation of Eveleigh's remaining moveable heritage collection. At the same time the SRA, which manages the largest number of the State's heritage assets, undertook an investigation to consider future redevelopment of the Eveleigh Carriage Workshops buildings and the viability of establishing a transport heritage park on this part of the site.
An important feature of the conservation strategy for the machinery in Bays 1 and 2 of the Locomotive workshops building is the proposal to create both static and operational displays. The attraction of this approach lies in its ability to provide visitors with an impression of some of the interrelated skills and processes that were once typical of the workshops. As David McBeath, the machine conservator engaged to facilitate this outcome put it:
This building has huge heritage values because of its social history, architecture ... and the machinery it houses. When you walk around this place you can feel the history. It's important we preserve not just the machinery, but also the human dimension of the place. 'A window on the past', City West News Update, Autumn 1998, p. 6.
Up till now, however, Eveleigh's social history has been submerged in the sandy floors of Bays 1 and 2. Because the Australian Research Council provided me with a grant in 1997 to investigate this history, I thought that it would be useful to seek further assistance through its industry collaboration program to provide the funds to develop a technique which could make the workers' history more accessible. In this I was assisted by a range of enterprises which have some involvement with the Eveleigh Precinct, notably the SRA, Rail Access Corporation and Rail Services Australia, the Australian Technology Park, the Power House Museum, the Heritage Branch of the Department of Public Works and Services, the City West Development Corporation ( now the Sydney Harbour Foreshores Authority), the State Library of NSW, Summer Hill Films, Otto Cserhalmi and Partners Conservation Architects, and Creative Interactive Systems Pty Ltd. Our grant application was successful mainly because of the extent of industry partner involvement. This outcome highlights the importance of collaboration between historians, heritage and museum professionals, private and public enterprises.
Travelling in History
How can information technologies enhance historical understanding and appreciation of Eveleigh's cultural significance? While the display of static and functional machinery in Bays 1 and 2 will provide visual mediums for explaining the way people worked at least in some parts of Eveleigh, it fails to give any real indication of the site's scale and scope, or of the wide range of people who worked there. By contrast, information technologies offer a way of overcoming these limitations by providing people with an opportunity of navigating around the site in virtual reality, as it was during different periods of history.
As a guide to the site and its heritage, the project will develop a data base of those who worked at Eveleigh until 1950. Not only will this provide a social profile of the workforce, but it will also be useful as a finding aid for the virtual reality architectural fly-through of the entire site. Photographs, archival and recent film footage and oral history extracts, attached to this virtual representation will then help to demonstrate a broader range of machines that were used and built there, as well as the working conditions that were experienced by employees. The final product will be located on one or a number of web sites, associated with the various industry partners.
The aim of this virtual representation is to add to our knowledge of this great monument These multi-media technologies will enable people to trace Eveleigh employees and to follow in their footsteps. In turn, the knowledge gained through this process will provide a context for the industrial artifacts and other displays in Bays 1 and 2 of the Locomotive Workshops. In short, by travelling around Eveleigh in virtual reality those who once worked there, whose family members worked there, who grew up in its vicinity, or who are interested in the industrial era, or railways, technological change or the history of Sydney will gain closer contact with the place that was at the centre of our State's transport infrastructure for over a century. In turn, this will help to introduce our children to the sorts of working conditions that gave rise to trade unions, Labor Councils and the Labor Party.
By enabling members of the community to learn about Eveleigh this project will provide an echo of the site's now stilled heartbeat.
Dr. Lucy Taksa
School of Industrial Relations & Organisational Behaviour, The University of NSW and Hon. Secretary of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History
Anyone with information on the Eveleigh workshops please call Lucy on 95606270 or email at mailto:[email protected]
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