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The First Train

Iron Road

AN OLD COLONIST’S REMINISCENCES on watching the first train start.

(Mr John Bennett was the forerunner to Mr J C Williamson in the theatrical management line and was manager of Sydney Theatre)

“Do I remember this day fifty years ago? I should rather think so. I wasn’t much more than a boy in those days; but that first railway interested me immensely. I had shares in it, and those shares gave me a lot of bother. The line had only been laid as far as Petersham, when the discovery of gold inland ran the cost of labour here up so much that no man would work under one pound a day, and all able-bodied men simply cleared for the gold fields. Randall, the contractor, could not carry out his contract, and the then Government had to come along to the aid of the shareholders, and help them to carry on the work by loaning them two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.

It was a great day, September 26, 1855. The whole of Sydney flocked to Redfern to see this new-fangled notion put into actual work. In that year I was living at Flagstaff Hill, now better known as Observatory Hill, and with the other sightseers I ended my way down George Street to the station.

And what a sight George Street was! Mind you, it was laid out just as it is now, macadamised, and with many buildings in it; but not such palatial edifices as now adorns it.

The men and women in the throng, too – how strange would their costumes appear to our eyes! The ladies were got up in crinolines covered with innumerable flounces of every hue, wearing on their heads the poke bonnets, now only associated with the female part of the congregation in the Society of Friends’ meeting houses. Their hair was done in a knob at the back, with a little curl below the knob, and side curls, as some may still see on the obverse of some of the Victorian coinage.

And the men – what beaux they looked in their peg-top trousers of canary or lavender, with a row of six pearl buttons on the inside of each ankle. Their headgear consisted of cabbage tree or beaver hats, set jauntily on their heads, and they twirled their canes and ogled and talked to the ladies as they strutted or drove down past the Haymarket, where, by the way, I recollect there was a pound in which strayed or ownerless horses were kept until either bailed out or sold.

You may be sure all the boys in Sydney were in George Street that day, some time or other, and we who were at the Sydney College and the boys at the Norman Institute, got a holiday for the occasion, and wended our way with the other crowds to Redfern.

By the way, every boy in those two institutions was regularly drilled in the sue and handling of the carbine, and as often as possible we used to be marched down to Rushcutters Bay, and there instructed in the art of firing. We had a range in that Bay, and constant practice soon made every lad a by no means bad marksman. This part of our training or education was considered second to none, and it would be better for Australia’s manhood of the future if such a course of drilling with arms and continuous firing practice was given a primary place in every school curriculum, instead of being, as it too often nowadays, mere dummy drill, and that but spasmodic.

We’ll get to Redfern sometime (laughed Mr Bennett)…

BungareeI went to the station with a very noted character in those days, none other than the aborigine Bungaree. This full-blooded black had a curious history. He was instrumental in saving the life of a station-owner, who in return had him treated more as a white man than a black, and eventually sent him home to Oxford University, where Bungaree did not do too badly.

Returning out here he showed uncommon aptitude as a draughtsman, and spoke English with a fine English accent. This was the companion I had with me when I went down George Street fifty years ago today, and as we chatted I asked him if he also had some shares in the railroad. “No,” said Bungaree, “no, this life is no good to me. I think I shall go up on the Clarence River back to my tribe. You see, Mr Bennett, I’m altogether a mistake. This education, which was to have been a blessing for me, is really a curse, because I am banned. No refined white woman would look at me for a moment, and I, with what I have learnt, could never look at a black gin again. I’ve got a lonely road ahead of me, and the only thing I can do is to answer the call of nature again.”
According to Mr Bennett, Bungaree was true to his word and disappeared in the bush on one of the northern rivers.

I’ve heard people say that the crowds that passed down Sydney’s main thoroughfare on the day we celebrate today fifty years ago passed gangs of chained convicts. This was not so, for though up to till very near that time chain gangs had been seen at work on the roads, as far as I knowledge goes there were none then.

There was an old tollgate standing at the end of Pitt Street, where it joins George Street, and there was a row of old military barracks, which I believe were also at one time headquarters of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. Over where Toohey’s Brewery now stands was a fine big lake, having on its banks, curiously enough, another brewery and a soap-manufacturing factory.

When we arrived at the station, which was nothing like the big structure bearing that name today, we found all the world of Sydney and his wife there, including a party from Government House. There was also gathered just outside the station a great concourse of aborigines. They had been got together under the leadership of Rickety Dick, another noted Aborigine, from all around the country, and brought down to see the sight of the century, and we considered the starting of that first train. It was also used, no doubt, as an object lesson to those unsophisticated sons of the soil, that they might know and understand, if they could, the wonderful power of their white brothers. When the train started many of them were scared to death, and more than one took to his heels and bolted without waiting for the finish of the ceremonies.

Some of us white folks there weren’t much better, for many prospective travellers were so scared themselves that it became a question of general chaff who would go on, and it ended in our rulers, for the time being, setting the example, and entering the carriages, they were whirled off to Parramatta.

The first railway ticket ever sold in New South Wales was purchased by Mr Thomas Day, a well-known boat builder of Sydney. He went up to the station early and waited two hours in front of the ticket office before he got what he wanted – the ticket marked ‘number one’”

(Located by Warren Fahey in the (Sydney) Evening News 1905)