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Iron Road


Navvies on the Sydney-Parramatta Line:

‘An old-timer likens the hardened navvies to the bushman stereotype:

“… I think I could say there was not a handsome looking fellow on the job; they were all shapes and sizes — to see them in their Sunday clothes they often seemed pathetic, almost misshapen. It was survival of the fittest; they were important while the job was in progress, but when the job was done they were lost . . .”

The navvies’ clothing was as rough as their surroundings — they wore flannel shirts, dungaree trousers, felt hats and bowyangs. They slept in their shirts, and baths and showers were almost unheard of. ‘

‘At night some lay with the gins who sold their charms in the camp for two bob; others sought the company of prostitutes in town or near the camp.”

Navvy folklore reconstructs graphically the scene in the construction camps, and tells of the living conditions and food.

‘The songs of the navvies that have survived express resentment and dissatisfaction. The navvies toiled for forty-eight hours, and longer, for six days’ each week. Today, the navvies’ conditions would be considered industrially intolerable, but the old-times say that work was scarce; they had to accept bad conditions as they found, them — although at the time conditions may not have compared unfavourably with those of other bush workers, Many up-country navvies viewed industrial unrest with disdain.’


It came on to rain and it rained with a will
The flood nearly covered the whole of Bexhill,
Such a shifting of camps 1 ne’er saw before
As we had on that railway the Tweed and Lismore laddie
Fol de diddle lerp, la tero la lee.I then got a job with an axe in my hand,
From lopping and chopping I scarcely could stand,
My arms they were aching, my bones they were sore
From working like blazes upon the Lismore.
Fol de diddle 1ero, la lero, la lee.

(above from Russel Ward manuscripts)


The navvies get a bad rap in some railway folklore. Sure, they were generally rough and tumble men who ‘worked hard and played harder’ – but they did the job. It was also a job that most Europeans wouldn’t do, for the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish complexion was not used to the harsh cruel heat of the Australian sun. It was near-backbreaking work with the added disadvantage of flies, mosquitoes and snakes. Somehow the navvies sweated to axe the trees, shovel the dirt, lay the sleepers and then the tracking. They lived in tent camps with bore water and bare necessities, including regular fresh food. It was a lonely life and, for many, solace only came at the end of a bottle.

Knock off time for the navvy
Child looking out of train window sees some navvies
“Look mommy, what are they?”
“They’re navvies, dear.”
“Geez. Don’t they look just like men!”

The bulk of early songs are about the navvies and their lifestyle. I mention that the majority of early railway workers were Europeans because the American railways relied heavily on Chinese labourers. We did not and the general attitude to Asians, and in fact any person of ‘colour’, was not welcoming. This was the period of ‘Australia for the white man’. Later on in history mainland Europeans, especially Maltese, Greeks and Yugoslavs joined the navvies. Indigenous workers also held jobs, especially in the northern states.


Federation anti-Asian cartoon

The White Australia Policy fuelled by fear

Navvy on the Line was a parody of the old Cuckoo’s Nest.

And in 2005 I located a ‘clean’ version, obviously, a children’s ditty that ran:

It wasn’t just the Sydney to Parramatta Line that had trouble retaining navvies and in 2005 I located the following from an Adelaide newspaper, The Evening Star, dated 1879:

Cheer up, me lads, the navvies are on the spree
The Company’s gone insolvent
And the railway’s up a treeNOTE: ‘Up a tree’ is a colloquial expression for bankruptcy.