Railways


Iron Road

WARREN FAHEY © 2005

The folklore associated with Australia’s rail history is fascinating, colourful and the ideal template when studying history, unionism and present-day work ethics. It was our first ‘big business’ and, maybe not surprisingly, in a continent as large as Australia, it had a confused early development, which, many suspect, may be the reason for some of the current day inefficiencies. Australia’s 21st railway network is one of the most intricate and oldest surviving railways in the world.


Our railways were born in the chaos of the 1850s and 1860s gold rushes and are the classic example of labour versus ownership. It was the very same independence expressed by miners that irked the authorities, eventually resulting in the bloody clash at the Eureka Stockade. Here were men, on the goldfields, actually working for ‘themselves’; even if most were scratching the riverbeds to little avail, but answering ‘to no man’. It was this ‘master and servant’ revolution that prompted the colonial governments to drive the troopers to inspect and collect gold licenses. Workers were still seen as little more than servants and, in a country born of convicts, it was very evident in our particular history. The shearers and other bush workers later experienced the same struggle, and their conditions, sometimes completely unfair, resulted in bitter battles, sometimes violent, coming to a head in the 1890s with the so-called ‘Great Shearer’s Strike’. The railways were built on struggle and, eventually, arbitration. For some the struggle continues.

2005 celebrated the 150th anniversary of railways in Australia and this collection attempts to celebrate the men and women who carried our railway folklore down those tracks.

It is a rambling journey, typical of our rail lines that sneaked around mountains, down gullies, over plains and across bridges. It is, of course, a mere sampling of the creativity of the average Australian and their relationship with the heritage of our railways. Some of the material appears elsewhere in my site and some has been garnered from oral histories and library collections. It is a sampling of history, stories, poems, yarns and photographs.

As a folklore collector and performer I have had an ongoing interest in rail folklore. I am of an age – 60 of them – where I can remember the sound, smell and sight of steam trains and double-decker electric rail buses. I remember the awe I felt when I first visited Central Railway Station with its enormous arched domes, endless tracking systems and the gigantic indicator board that seemed to have a life of its own as the staff used long poles to change the destination departure and arrival plates.

I remember eating a meal in the railway refreshment room, at Central, and staring in wonder at the shining cutlery and stamped crockery. I now know I was at the tail end of an era that viewed these mighty inventions as a revolutionary means of transport. We have certainly become blasé about train travel but folklore can remind us of this heritage. One of my first ABC radio series, in the late 1960s was ‘Navvy on the Line’ – a program on our railway folk songs and poetry. I suspect it was the first ABC program to look at our industrial folklore. Some of the songs in the program, sung by the first incarnation of my group, The Larrikins, were later released as a Larrikin LP of the same name (Larrikin LRF009). It has been good to revisit these songs and to put some of the recently collected folklore into perspective.

The ‘folk’ create rail folklore for several reasons including:

  • to record fear of the unknown (supposed danger of train travel)
  • to record their own history (especially in times of disaster)
  • to celebrate an event (the opening of a new railway)
  • to express frustration (about slow trains)
  • to use as a propaganda tool (strike songs)
  • to show solidarity (in union struggles)
  • to ridicule as an expression of frustration
  • for general entertainment.

Railway folklore is expressed in many ways: including:

  • songs and poetry
  • bawdry
  • yarns
  • first day apprentice pranks and initiation
  • nicknames
  • word usage and slang
  • traditional costume
  • superstitions and ghost stories
  • traditional working methods and tools
  • distinctive food – the railway pie.
  • Traditional signage and architecture
  • Urban myths.

The first railway in Australia, undertaken by the Sydney Railway Company, was commenced on July, 30, 1850, to run between Sydney and Parramatta. Many said it was doomed to failure because of the cost and relatively small population of the colony.

The 14 miles of rail track took a staggering five years to complete and created mayhem in both private and government circles. Established by a private railway developer the company simply could not retain its workforce despite ‘importing’ thousands of navvies from Britain. As soon as these men of the axe, pick and shovel, heard a whisper about ‘free labourers’ and the possibility of gold – they downed tools and literally walked off the job and headed West. In one year over 500 imported labourers hot-footed it to the goldfields.

New South Wales really didn’t have the first steam engine. The truth is that those bastards on the Yarra Yarra River had the first steam train one year earlier………

Let me take you back to colonial Australia pre-1850. A vast expanse of country with displaced indigenous tribes, convict settlements, bolters and bushrangers, bulging colonial towns and a raggedly network of rural outposts servicing the remote pioneering farming stations.

Australia was determined to have railways, and the experience of the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company, is a typical example of the optimism of the time. This company ordered locomotives, carriages and wagons from England. The carriages and wagons arrived, but the four locomotives did not. This was an obvious setback but the directors wanted to go ahead without delay so they ordered a locomotive from Robertson, Martin, Smith and Company, of Melbourne, and entrusted the making of parts of the boiler to the Langland’s Foundry. A 30-h.p. locomotive was completed in ten weeks, and was the first built in Australia.

Thus on September 12, 1854, the first railway in Victoria and the first locomotive operated railway in Australia, was declared opened. The gauge was 5 ft. 3 in. and the distance was over two-miles between Flinders Street, Melbourne, and Port Melbourne.

New South Wales certainly started their railway earlier but didn’t steam it up until September 1855.

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