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Engineman William Sexsmith

Iron Road

A first hand account of the inaugural journey by ENGINEMAN SIXSMITH


(Mr William Sexsmith – interviewed in 1895 and filed by the Railway Commission of that time.)

When did I first become connected with railway working? Why, before I was twelve years old. My first job was carrying picks for the stonecutters on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first railway in England, which was then only being cut. There was a large cutting called Olive Mount Cutting, from which all the stone was taken for the railway. The rails were laid on large blocks of stone; about two foot four inches, to two foot six inches square, by about eighteen inches deep, in lieu of sleepers.

I was engine-driving for nearly twenty years in the old country on the Liverpool and Manchester Line and the London and North Western Line, then known as the London and Birmingham Line, before coming to Australia. I was also driving in Ireland, and for three years in France on the Paris and Rouen. I came to New South Wales with the contractor for the Parramatta Line, Mr Randle, and worked for him in connection with the ballasting of the line.

I was the only driver in the colony. There was another man after the line was opened. His name was Sam Twiss.

I took the first train out of Redfern, Governor Denison was on board, and we drove to Parramatta and back. I have a watch here given to me at the time – having the inscription ‘Sydney railway, September 1855. Engineman William Sixsmith.’ You don’t get such watches nowadays. I have never had a new glass on it. There were four of these handed out, one to each of the enginemen and one each of the guards. We started the train, I suppose, about nine or ten o’clock in the morning. It was a holiday for the rest of the people. I suppose nearly all the people of New South Wales were there, but it wasn’t very much of a holiday for me. I had been working pretty well all day and night for a week previously, without sleep almost, to get the ballasting finished, and after I had driven the people to and fro all the day I had to take the navvies over. It was after 11 o’clock at night before I was finished. Why, I was working over 20 years here and never had a holiday. Things are now much altered for the better.

We had four engines at first. The first engine, known as ‘number one’ was built by Stephenson, and is to be seen in the technological Museum. Then, two others were brought out. Another engine was brought out by the contractor for use as a ballast engine, and the Government took that over also. It was known as ‘The Governor General’.

At that time the country between here and Parramatta was nearly all bush. There was a stray public house here and there on the roadside. Parramatta was a nice little town at that time.”


(Sydney University Magazine January 1855.)

‘Of all the known modes of overland transport, the cheapest, the safest, the quickest, in every respect the best, is by railway, where the traffic is sufficiently great to justify such an undertaking. We cannot sufficiently emphasis this condition; where it does not hold, a railway is an absolute loss. No railroad will be of any real advantage to this colony, unless the traffic be such as to yield a fair interest upon the outlay, at the same time that the cost of transport be diminished. After much consideration we feel no hesitation in recording our opinion that the time has not arrived when it will be advisable to establish railways in this colony. We cannot point out any two towns between which the traffic is so great as to pay the working expenses of such an establishment. The traffic between Sydney and Goulburn is not, nor likely to be such, for many years to come; and it is allowed that upon the Southern road, the traffic is greater than upon any other. We shall, therefore, have made out our case against railways satisfactorily, if we show that it is not advisable to extend the present line in the direction of Goulburn. It is scarcely worth while to allude to that palpable and notorious folly, the Parramatta Railway. If it were not too late to do any good, we could prove to the conviction of every reasonable person, the entire, the wild impossibility of its paying its working expenses – its utter usefulness to the community at large. The largest increase in the population of this colony ever received in one year by immigration was in 1853, when the gold fever produced its greatest effect. In that year the total increase by immigration was 18,350, of which 10, 472 were introduced at the public expense, leaving 7938 as the maximum effect produced upon our population by the greatest conceivable exciting cause acting upon the people of Europe. It does not seem a very promising speculation to make a railway, and then import people at the public expense to travel upon it’.