Railway Labour and Cultural History Project

A colourful, musical celebration of Australia’s history will present a bright tableau for thousands of travellers who pass through Sydney’s Central Station in early September. Timed to coincide with the ACTU Congress, which is being held in Sydney this year, an exhibition in verse, music, humour, art and photography will mark 130 years of progress by the railways industry.

The exhibition, sponsored by the Australian Council and the New South Wales State Rail Authority, with the support of the New South Wales Labor Council, railway unions/shop committees and the Sydney Branch of the A.S.S.L.H., will later tour the State and visit other State capitals throughout Australia.

It portrays the rich cultural heritage of the people who built and developed the nation’s rail networks the drama, irony, humour, tragedy and dogged spirit of their struggle and triumph unfolds in a series of 30 themes.

Each theme is presented with a vivid visual and sound impact. Each will have its own stand with a theme-setting song or poem, recorded sound effects and a range of photographs, cartoons, illustrations and archive material.

A video centre-piece will show films – some of them rarely seen clips from the Australian Railway Union’s film unit, an imaginative early foray into the trade union film media field in the 1930s.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see how the railways had their birth during the convict system in the pre-steam era, when the prisoners laid the first rudimentary track at Port Arthur.

As the railways developed, so did the realisation of “their vital role in our growing nation.

Huge stations were erected, proudly asserting their importance with monumental architectural swagger. Their openings – occasions of great public celebrations – are recorded in the exhibition, and they reveal some telling points about social attitudes.

Dignatories sat in specially erected sheltered stands to view the attendant ceremonies, while the workers who actually constructed these grand monuments to transport’s progress were left standing in the open, a respectful distance away.

But the workers were not content to be pushed aside for long, and one of the themes marks the milestone of l~bour history, 1855, when stonemasons in Victoria won the world’s first eight-hour working day after a dispute with the contractors.

Navvies, too, get their due recognition in a display which illustrates the gritty endeavours of these pickand-shovel heroes who hacked their way across vast distances and through enormous obstacles of nature.

The exhibition also spotlights the railway’s relationship with coal as the two industries grew into mutually-reliant maturity in the Hunter Valley and elsewhere.

Communications also developed with the railways. Morse code telegraphists played a vital role in keeping the spreading network in touch with itself over long distances before the growing sophistication of electronics made their skills redundant. Their contribution is featured in one of the themes which also shows that railway life was not all work even in the last century.

One Morse telegraphist, who began work in 1876, reminisces about those times:

We occasionally had church services in Mrs Ryan’s pub, but spiritual and the spirits got a bit mixed and a game of euchre at the end of the service for drinks did not dampen religious enthusiasm. Most of the collection went behind the bar, and the congregation were often lifted up, as they should be. The spirit worked powerfully in the old days – it was overproofed.

Another acute observer of the railways was Henry Lawson, and his poem “Second Class Wait Here” sets the theme for another display, which is illustrated with a photograph depicting first and second class ladies waiting rooms at Old Sydney Station.

Memories of the First World War, which created serious rifts in the Australian trade union movement, are recalled in photographs which show the volunteers who formed their own Railways Regiment. The insane waste of the war is driven home by a haunting poem written by one of the volunteers from the trenches. In it he yearns for the safe camraderie of “The Sleeper Cutters’ Camp” of his working days. Inevitably the turmoil of the 1917 strike and its effects on the railways earns its place, and those events of 68 years ago when the New South Wales Labor Council led the movement in its bitter battle, are painfully and proudly remembered in verse and cartoons.

It was not until 1925 that workers sacked during the strike won back their jobs, and the resulting victory banquet at Bathurst Railway Workshops was celebrated in photographs, as well as with food and drink. The pictorial record forms yet another moving chapter of the story. Throughout the exhibition there is an emphasis on the human contribution and reaction to the railways.

One remarkable aspect of this is the rich humour they have produced. The witty talents of the workshops were irrepressible and blossomed in the form of innumerable cartoons, encouraged by rank and file journals, such as the Eveleigh News, which readily found space for these artistic outpourings. The ARU even went into children’s comic strip production in its own journal in the 1930s recognising that trade unionism is a family commitment and a chuckle will be enjoyed by many who invest a little time at this section of the display.

Other railway workers found another rewarding form of expression – horticulture.

Plants bloomed allover railway property as employees gave full reign to their gardening impulses; even in that hostile environment between sections of track some hardier flowers were grown. A tradition emerged – a quaint, yet beautiful development – which nutured the delicate treasures of nature alongside the powerful mechanical creations of man, and those who enjoy gardens will find that the exhibition has something to offer them, too. It is difficult to conceive that any aspect of railways life is overlooked.

Displays are given over to the poetry tradition of locomotive drivers and firemen, troop trains in the Second World War, post-war reconstruction, the advent of the diesels and the much-mourned passing of the age of steam, disasters, the role of women, the contributions of black workers and of migrants, the social life of railway families at picnics and on fishing trips, inter-state railways and the trade union records and journals which have provided such a valuable source of material for the exhibition.

It is being assembled by Brian Dunnett, an ETU shop steward, who has been gathering poetry and music material for thr past two years as a member of the Bush Band, ‘Matilda’s Mob’.

Brian, whose father and grandfather were both railway employees, has thrown himself enthusiastically into his role as co-ordinator of the exhibition, but is quick to recognise the contribution that others have made.

“It has been a labour of love”, he says. “But it has been made possible only be help I’ve had from all quarters; theere has been a tremendous urge to make the project a success and we are sure it will be. We hope that it will not only prove an entertaining way of relating the proud history of the railways in our society, but that it will unlock the doors on many memories and prompt people to come forward with their own stories and historical items.”

As State Secretary of the A.R.U. Jim Walshe, who has backed the project from the outset, notes:

We see this exhibition as something that is really filling a gap in the social history of New South Wales. Naturally, we realise that rdilways have been at the base of Australian history – particularly in New South Wales- and we hope that the exhibition will bring home to people the link between the railways, the people who built them and the development of so many communities.

Any subscribers who can assist Brian in his endeavours, please contact him on (02) 319-1920.