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  Issue No 2 Official Organ of LaborNet 26 February 1999  





Remembering The Eveleigh Railway Workshops

By Dr Lucy Taksa

The Eveleigh railway yards have a rich history which your average commuter would never imagine.

The Eveleigh railway workshops were built between 1880 and 1886 and they continued to operate until 1989, an unusually long period of continued use for the same industrial purpose, by Australian standards.

Despite this, few of the thousands of Sydney commuters who pass by the remaining workshops buildings, on a daily basis, know anything about the site's history or the important role its employees played in our State's economic, political and social life.

As Terry Irving commented in his article on the Labor Press, the established popular media contributes to the collective amnesia of labour's traditions. To overcome this state of affairs we need to become more aware of the industrial and labour heritage that has been passed down to us and to fight for its preservation. Only in this way will we be able to explain to our children why the labour movement emerged and how it has improved our working conditions and rights.

In a somewhat perverse way Eveleigh can be likened to a bed of roses, for out of the humus there emerged a strong, yet thorny, tradition of activism that provided an important foundation for the State's labour history. What was work like there? Most people recall the noise, the dirt, the poor amenities and serious accidents.

But perhaps the best picture is drawn by 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, and who described this workplace in the following poignant terms in 1939:

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 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. 'Eveleigh - The Heart Of The Transport System', Daily News: Feature for Transport Workers, 19 January, 1939

Today, the heart pumps no more. The roaring giant has been silenced and the ghosts of the thousands who breathed life into the NSW transport system have been left to wander in a few corners of the various buildings that have escaped demolition as a result of adaptive re-use. Besides Eveleigh's built fabric and the machinery that remains in Bays 1 and 2 of the Loco workshops building, little evidence can be found of their social history. And yet the legacy of these railway workers lives on in many ways.

Railway workers generally and those who were employed at Eveleigh, more specifically, played a critical role in our State's development. Not only did they provide transport infrastructure and services for commuters and primary resources, they also produced masks during the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 and built baby clinic cars which were later converted for the use of the Far West Children's Scheme.

Besides their industrial activism, they came to terms with politics very early because, as Ray Markey put it in his book The Making of the Labor Party, the 'concentrations of railway labour, including navvies, in particular electorates' became 'an important consideration in the formation of governments and their maintenance of parliamentary support', during the 1880s.

Their industrial and political activism, particularly through their unions and the Labor Council, was critical in influencing the NSW government's decision to manufacture locomotives at Eveleigh between 1906 and the mid-1920s.

An important figure in this outcome was J.S.T. McGowan, a devoted trade unionist whilst employed as a boilermaker at the railway workshops between 1875 and 1891, during which time he helped to gain a closed shop for boilermakers. After being a member of the Labor Council's executive and the President of the Eight Hour Day Demonstration Committee between 1888 and 1891, he became the only official Labor Electoral League (ALP) candidate for a Redfern seat, which he won in 1891.

McGowan actively opposed the introduction of piecework and bonus systems and spoke on behalf of public sector engineering workers before a Royal Commission which inquired into the possibility of public sector manufacturing in 1904. Later as the first Labor Premier of NSW he supported railway workers in numerous other ways. William McKell and J.J. Cahill, who also worked at Eveleigh, subsequently followed in his footsteps to become Labor Premiers of NSW.

This tradition of activism was carried on by others. Mary Lions, who began working at Eveleigh as the senior industrial nurse in 1947 and stayed until 1968, was to play a prominent role in promoting the interests of the State's nurses. In January 1946 she became one of the founders of the Industrial Nurses Group of the NSW Nurses Association, becoming its Honorary Secretary and subsequently President until she resigned in the early 1950s. In her Curriculum Vitae she placed great weight on having been the employee representative on the Conciliation Committee which inaugurated the first award for Industrial Nurses.

As a result of her efforts the first course of studies for Industrial Nurses in NSW was inaugurated in January 1949, at which time she became one of the founding members of the NSW College of Nursing. A year later she was elected President of the College, a position she held for a number of years. In 1954 she became a member of the Committee on Nursing which was established to advise the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and she was also a member of a committee which assisted the Cahill Labor Government to re-draft the Nurses Registration Act. Finally, on 1 January 1960 she was conferred the award of a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for 'services to nursing' [information courtesy of the NSW College of Nursing Archives].

The part played by these prominent people in furthering the interests of workers was immense. It's worthwhile remembering, however, that it built on the activities of rank-and-file employees and other institutions of the labour movement.

Dr. Lucy Taksa, Secretary of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Associate Editor of Labour History and member of the History Council of NSW Committee of Management is currently working on a large research project investigating the history of the Eveleigh railway workshops. She is very interested in hearing from anyone who worked there or whose family members worked there.


*   Contact Dr Lucy Taksa

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 2 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Checking the Spellar
We talk to a former union official who is now a minister in the Blair Government about the difficult relationship between New Labour and the labour movement.
*  Unions: Working It Out
NSW trade unions have embraced a movement-wide campaign to deal with the vexed issue of ensuring workers have a life.
*  History: Remembering The Eveleigh Railway Workshops
The Eveleigh railway yards have a rich history which your average commuter would never imagine.
*  Review: Opening Tanner's Australia
Lindsay Tanner's new book offers a frank and forthright view of the future for Australia.
*  Campaign Diary: Carr And The Unions
No-one would accuse the Premier and the labour movement of being bossum buddies, but their fortunes are inextricably linked.

»  Revealed: Reith Defies Own Pollster To Bash Unions
»  What's Going Down at Gordonstone?
»  VSU To Stop The Music
»  Employment Advocate Dines Out, But Not A Sausage For Workers
»  Union Interpreter Translates The Word “Exploit”
»  How Much Can A Koala Bear?
»  Botsman Shifts North To Tame The Rednecks

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

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»  EMILY's List International Women's Day bash

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