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  Issue No 8 Official Organ of LaborNet 09 April 1999  

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History

Walsh Bay Wharves : Space and Place

By Dr Grace Karskens

For historians looking at a historic structure or site like the Walsh Bay wharves, there is a big difference between 'space' and 'place'.

Thinking of the wharves as space, we might admire its marvellous proportions, experience the sense of raw power it emanates, the tough, unembellished and uncompromising materials and design; oh and of course its potency as a symbol of Sydney's significance as a great port city. (You can tell I used to work for the National Trust, can't you?)

But historians don't see structures like this just as empty spaces, or only in aesthetic terms, but as places, particular places which were used, experienced and understood by people. They were part of the wider neighbourhood, connected by webs of cultural meanings running every which way, from past to present, from here to the Lord Nelson or the Hero, to the boarding houses where the seamen lodged, and the homes in Windmill Street or in long-lost Princes Street, where the waterfront families lived, or from here to New Zealand, and then the world.

Just up the road here, under the roar of the Harbour Bridge was the old Pickup, where all the merchant seamen came to line up for their next ship, a shack of a place where spikes would fall through the roof, and 'if a train roared over you couldn't hear a thing, [and] some of them'd walk out for the wrong ship'. The 'first trippers' meanwhile stood keen and hopeful out on the footpath to be looked up and down by a ship's mate. An unlovely place, the Pickup, now gone, but the site where it stood is still of enormous significance to seamen like Alan Oliver and Don Caporn. And straight across Cumberland Street was the Shipping Office, with its imposing mass of three tiered wooden counters, where the seamen signed on and were paid off at the end of the voyage. Before the system was regulated, says Alan Oliver, 'You'd go down to the Pickup of a morning, and there'd be hundreds there, waiting for the seven o'clock call, and then they might say come back at five o'clock, or come back at midnight. You didn't know what you were doing. But one good thing, while they were collecting here, people were getting up.. giving little talks on what's happening around the place, in those days you could fill up Martin Place with wharfies in two hours'.

The ships that docked here at Walsh Bay might not have had modern air-conditioned cabins with automatic closing doors, but, says Alan, 'with two men in a cabin, or four, you're always walkin' up and down, and you're always walkin' in and out of cabins talkin' and things. And even, say smoko, you'd walk out and sit on the tarp. We always had a tarp we used to go out there and have a cup of coffee and a smoko, a cup of tea, and listen to the old blokes tell stories'. The old blokes: the old blokes appear in the stories of seamen and wharfies, the greasers and trimmers and firemen on the ships, the winch drivers and hatchmen and men on the trucks at the wharves who were still working in their seventies, eighties and nineties. There was a Russian seaman Frank Cashen who was in his nineties and had to be stopped from going aloft (to prove that he could still do it), and every time he went to the shipping office, the Shipping Master would say 'What age are you Frank, are you still eighty-seven?' 'Yeah still eighty-seven'. The old seamen, some of whom went to sea in the 1890s, says Alan, had 'ricocheted round the world, they hadn't established families and when you get bloody depressions and wars...they were (past) the days when a man could get a house and get a family, and it was either the foc'sle or the street.'

The amazing old blokes and their stories live on, much admired, in the memories of the next generation of men, in much the same way that Rocks and Point women invariably frame their stories around their grandmothers, mothers and aunts in the homes and lodging houses. Some of those lodging houses were most genteel, run as clean and tight as the ships, their formidable female owners insisting on proper decorum and behaviour from their lodgers at all times. There were, of course, other places, where a man might wake in the middle of the night to find rats fighting over his leftover fish and chips. Alan recounts 'He said to the real old woman who had the joint, "What kind of a place is this? I woke up in the night and there was about eight rats fighting over my fish and chips!". And she said "Well whaddaya want for thirty bob a week, a bullfight?" '

Seamen stayed in private houses too, with the families of their shipmates. Kitty MacMillan explains how domestic, work and leisure places became entwined:

'See my husband being a seamen, he was a union official in the Seamen's Union when I married him, and if they had any disputes on the ship they'd come up to the house to see him, to tell him. Well, me mother and I got to know them and then if we were in the pub and they come in the pub, well they used to always send us over a drink, and of course the locals used to get jealous because we were so popular'. Kitty liked the New Zealand seamen better than Australians. They brought her mother fish, New Zealand butter and scallops, and oysters in huge tins. And she says they were 'a different class of fellers to our crowd' . Why was that? 'Well our crowd when they got paid they used to get up town, spend their money and the only time you see them when they come back to the Point was when they were broke!'

And the pubs: the Ship Inn at Circular Quay, where seamen met, and the 'hard nuts' from Millers Point drank when they weren't fighting the Rocks mob in the Argyle Cut. Kitty says she and her mother were planning to move to Maroubra, but their husbands, both seamen, wouldn't leave the Lord Nelson hotel. 'They said if yez go out there yez are going on your own'. So they stayed put, and Kitty still lives at the Point.

Which pub you drank at depended on which wharf you were on: 'all along Walsh Bay that was all foreign ships except for Burns Philp...and everything was finger wharves along Darling Harbour, all the way along, right angle wharves'. The nearest pub to the Burns Philp ships was the Hero, but the trouble was it had dud beer, so people used to go to the Lord Nelson, and in summer time there were more people outside those pubs than inside, standing together on the pavements, drinking and talking, putting on bets. Alan adds: 'I reckon every seaman should start a drinking session with a curse, a curse to the people who invented the container ship! Before that everyone got a quid out of the waterfront, there was work for everyone.' Including those like Duck-eye Deeble and Mary Miller and others who, Herbie Potter, remembers, ran sly grog shops all down Windmill Street for after-hours drinkers. But women like Kitty also have other experiences of pubs besides the magical babble and the revelry. After her husband left her with three small children, he only gave her two pound eight a week to keep them. Meanwhile he liked to shout for the bar, and on one occasion at the Lord Nelson, a mate of Kitty's brother, knowing her situation, picked up the money he left on the bar and brought it to her home, saying ' 'Ere. buy [your boy] a pair of trousers and a pair of shoes'. Kitty thought he was giving her the money, but he said 'No. Yer bloody husband was up there shoutin' for the bar and I picked it up, knocked it off and brought it'. Much laughter.

Herbie Potter laughs heartily too when he tells the old tales of the parties and the pubs and the larks; but when he talks about his last experience of Walsh Bay wharves and the Nelson his voice becomes low and sombre, because it marked the end of his working life on the wharves. Like most wharfies would tell you, I suppose, he says that wharfside work was very hard, it was all 'muscle work', but nevertheless it was 'a good life, you knew everybody and it was out in the open'. But there came a day, a Monday when there were hundred and twenty gangs off. On Tuesday his gang got a job, went over to 9 Walsh Bay, but a mate there told him 'yer unlucky Herb, all yer gonna do is clear the stuff off the end of the steel and that'll be it.' He went in on the Wednesday, still two hundred off, on the Thursday, a hundred and fifty , 'So I said to them, if I don't get a job today, this is it. So I had a mate who was in the stevedore business, I let him know. So he said, well if yer gonna thomas off, he said, come down to the Nelson on Satday and I'll have all your money. So anyhow...that's what happened.'

These are a just a few of the strands - rich, complex, contradictory, ambiguous- which make the wharf space accessible as 'place'. They run from this place through the lives of men and women, out to the terraces and units, both around the Rocks and Millers Point, and scattered through the suburbs, where the wives and retired wharfies and seamen live. These are the people who can tell you about this place.

Dr. Grace Karskens is a Research Fellow with the School of History at the University of NSW. She has published a book about the Rocks and is currently researching the history of Sydney.Email:[email protected]


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In this issue
Features
*  Interview: John Coombs - The Mouse Who Roared
We talk to the man who stood firm in the face of the federal government’s all out assault on the waterfront 12 months ago.
*
*  Unions: The Waterfront One Year On
One year after what was arguably the biggest Australian industrial dispute in living memory and the Maritime Union of Australia is STILL Here to Stay.
*
*  History: Walsh Bay Wharves : Space and Place
For historians looking at a historic structure or site like the Walsh Bay wharves, there is a big difference between 'space' and 'place'.
*
*  International: Compo Search for UK Coal Miners
An international search is on for former coal miners who worked mines in England and Wales from 1954 and have since suffered from chest disease.
*
*  Review: War on the Wharves
Some of the most honest reporting of the waterfront dispute came from the pens of the nation's cartoonists.
*

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Columns
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Piers Watch
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