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William Webster

Iron Road

During some intensive Mitchell Library research I was fortunate to find three first-hand accounts of the inaugural Sydney to Parramatta train journey in the (Sydney) Evening News 25/9/1905


WILLIAM WEBSTER  the first railway engineer.

Mr William Webster of Metropolitan Road, Enmore, NSW, retired from the service in 1892. Following is an interview with the Evening News 1905, on the occasion of the railway’s 50th anniversary.

“For six months before the opening of the (Sydney Parramatta) Line, I was fireman of the contractor’s ballast engine – in fact, I was the first fireman appointed. On May 24th, Queen’s Birthday, 1855, four months previous to the opening, we (Sixthsmith and I) took the first passenger train out of Redfern Station. William Sixsmith was the driver.It was a trial run and we had on board Sir William Denison, the Governor, and a few other gentlemen. That journey only extended as far as the Lane Cove Viaduct, near Lewisham. It was actually the first train that was run.

I did not have charge of the train on opening day. The first train on the opening day was drawn by engine number two. Sam Twiss was the driver, and Peter Woods was the fireman. They’re both dead now, Peter died in Melbourne only a few years ago.

We did however take what was considered to be the train of the day – the official train that carried the Governor and party, and all the principal excursionists.

There were not more than half a dozen carriages. The Third Class carriage had a roof but they were entirely opened at the sides, above a height. With the exception of those at the ends, the seats hadn’t any backs. The Second Class were the ordinary closed carriages of the day. They had no cushions or padded backs or anything of that kind. Just bare boards. But the First Class carriages were well upholstered. I saw some of those on the Great Northern Line when I went to England a few years ago when they gave me six month’s leave at half pay.

In those days we did not run right into Parramatta town. The first Parramatta station was a little way beyond Granville – at Dog Trap Creek. The present station at Parramatta wasn’t built until 1860; five years later.

I hadn’t any experience when I took the job. My experience was entirely local. I am a native of Kent, England, and came out to Victoria in 1852, where I spent two years on the diggings at Bendigo. I didn’t make my fortune there, however.

When I came to Sydney I had one-pound weight of gold, the result of two years’ work.

I was the first colonially-made driver but Sixsmith may be considered the father of enginemen in New South Wales. He and Twiss had previous railway experience.

Twiss, in fact, had been firing for Sixsmith in France, on the railway works that were being carried out by Mr Thomas Brassey – father of Lord Brassey. They came out here in search of gold, like a good many more; and, like many more, they gravitated to the railways. Mr Joseph Twiss, brother of Sam, was the railway superintendent of the day.

The first Redfern Station was only a temporary building with a single line in it. I don’t think you would have seen more than five or six silk hats on it in those days.

The line to Parramatta was through the bush. There wasn’t much settlement. When you came through the Eveleigh Tunnel you found scrub on the left-hand side of the line.. Where the Eveleigh workshops are now was then all scrub too, it was known as the Chisholm Estate.

The first job I had on the railways, by the way, was to get out the foundation of a shed for the ballast-engine, just about at that point – nearly opposite where Calder House (the old Chisholm homestead) now stands.

I suppose the first engine was an object of some interest in Sydney, when it arrived, but not as much as you would think. There were fewer people about then, to make a crowd – no unemployment, for instance. The engine, which arrived in the ship ‘John Fulden’, was taken in pieces to a shed and erected under the supervision of Mr Twiss. We started ballasting with it in, I think, the middle of April. I was then appointed fireman, and Sixsmith driver.

But to continue as I was saying about the journey along the line. There were bridges at Erskineville Road, and at Newtown Road. At Petersham there wasn’t a house – excepting three small cottages, that had been put up by a railway bricklayer – nearer than the Bald Faced Stag (Hotel), on the Parramatta Road. The train did the journey to Parramatta in forty minutes – well, it was only thirteen and a half miles and we only stopped four times at Newtown, Ashfield, Burwood and Homebush.
A little while after the railway line opened, Randle put ten minutes on to our running time, and made it fifty. That was to save the wheels by not running fast around curves.

Patent rails were used, they were intended to do without the ballast, but they were proved to be an utter failure, and were replaced by the ordinary double-faced rail. Then, in ballasting, sand was first used, but it was found to be impractical, and road metal was substituted.

The first locomotives introduced were intended to run on rubber springs. They ran very smoothly for a little while, until the springs gave, and had to be replaced by steel ones.

Only a single line to Parramatta had been completed when the railway was opened; the second line was laid afterwards.

Down the Lane Cove Creek there were a few houses. The two bridges at Ashfield were there in those days. But after you left Ashfield there was nothing but bush until you reached the Horse and Jockey (Hotel) at Homebush, and a residence – the house of a lawyer named Dunsmuir. Beyond that again it was only bush until you reached Granville, where Randle’s railway workshops were.

Mr Randle was the contractor for the line, and he ran it, by arrangement with the Government, for a year after the opening. He paid them fifty five per cent of the receipts, and defraying all costs except the wages of some stationmasters and porters. As he was contractor for the extension to Liverpool, this paid him handsomely, as he was able to take all his ballast and material over the existing line free of cost.

They tried very hard to bring the town of Parramatta down to where the first railway engine was, but they could not get the people to come. A man named Moon erected a hotel and called it – let me see; what was it he called it again? I forget now, but it was the same name as some tea garden at Home.

They had a land sale there, too, and tried to persuade people to build a town. But they would not come. Buses used to take the passengers from the station into Parramatta.

Randle started two buses in Sydney, running to the station, and one ran a little while between Newtown Station and Cook’s River.

At the end of September 1855, when the Liverpool section was opened, the line came altogether under Government control, and I entered the Government service as an engine driver. From that time, I drove along the line as each section was completed.

In the bushranging days, drivers often contemplated the possibility of their trains being stuck up or wrecked. We used to frequently carry the railway takings and gold escort.

One dangerous and secluded spot on the line had always appeared to being just the right sort of place for train-wrecking robbers. That was the southern line, between Picton and Mittagong, and the foot of what is now known as Big Hill. At that time there was no habitation near the place, and knowing an ideal spot it would be to rob a train, I never felt comfortable, especially when we had treasure aboard, until we got past it.

Engine driving has been termed a nerve-killing occupation. I drove for twenty years, up the time I was promoted to locomotive inspector. If a man is driving an express train through a tunnel, or over a network of points at a junction, you have to wonder whether there is an obstruction ahead, or whether the points were all right.”
Evening News 25/9/1905