Chapter 3

A new country

After taking a well deserved 6 months holiday it was time to go to work.  An apprenticeship seemed like the way to go and where better to work than the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The introduction to my apprenticeship with Dorman & Long as a boilermaker to be served at the workshops situated at Milsons Point for the next five years could hardly be called a financial achievement - eight shillings per week for the first year, rising by four shillings every year thereafter.  I realised that if I were to make my fortune in my adopted land it certainly would not be with the help of my employers.

Stages in building the Sydney Harbour BridgeHaving been left standing at the entrance of the main office for a considerable time, I found myself being inspected by a person I instinctively recognised as "The Foreman".  The same bowler hat, the grubby three piece suit and the autocratic visual examination which had the intended result of your feeling something less than human and after further instruction to a second person, dressed in a khaki boiler suit "to put this somewhere" and you had the distinct feeling that he would order "out of sight" and who answered "Yes Mr. Muttit Sir", I was taken and introduced to my allotted instructor.  I may have traveled fifteen thousand miles to Australia but here was something both England and Scotland had in common.  The belligerence of a person who has climbed one rung up the ladder above his fellow man and determined that all past social relationships with his former comrades comes to an end.  The complete management staff from Managing Director to foreman and leading hands, had been brought out from England for the construction of the bridge even to their Quarryman, Jock Gilmore and his family of eleven.

Shortly after starting my appenticeship I had witnessed, from the work shops,  the dreadful Artists impression of Greycliffe/Tahiti disasterGreycliffe disaster.  On 3 November 1927, the small ferry carrying children coming home after school, was run down and sunk by the outgoing steamer "Tahiti" with the sad loss of 40 lives many of them school children. 

The hardships of the Great Depression were beginning to be felt in heavy industry.  We did not at that time enjoy the luxury of a 40 hour week, with the hours 7.30 am to 5pm on weekdays and on Saturday from 7.30 am to 12 noon, but at the age of 16 and still enjoying the climate and excitement of the newly adopted country, money or hours were of little importance.   The work was not hard, but very repetitive.  I had been placed in the hands of a boilermaker whose sole job was the construction of the pedestrian footways of which there are hundreds.  Each one a twin of the previous one.  After two years it didn't take a lot of mental ability to realise that I would complete my apprenticeship as an expert at nothing other than footways, and with a depression looming there weren't going to be too many bridges built.

After a discussion with my boilermaker and on his advice, I decided to ask for a termination of my apprenticeship indentures and request something with a little more money.  Much to my surprise, I was given the job of assistant to the machinist on the longest plate edge plane in Australia at that time.  My machinist was a FrankTinker whose responsibility it was to ensure that all steel plates were planed to the correct size.  Frank was also a very fine pianist often engaged by radio station 2BL for comedy monologues, for which he received the sum of two guineas.  His professional name was Frank Leonard and I remained with him until the last plate had been planed which spanned a period covering two and a half years.

The quality of the steel produced by BHP at Newcastle NSW was not, at this period being fully appreciated.   Consequently all steel material for the construction was being transported from England by ship.  This fact eventually resulted in a statement by the Managing Director,  Mr. Innes, on behalf of Dorman Long at the opening, that had they known or been made aware of the quality of the material the local firm was capable of producing, the complete structure would have been an all Australian product.  This would have saved many thousands of pounds to the New South Wales Government of that time and it would have also resulted in an increase in profits to Dorman Long.

It was whilst searching for a certain steel plate required for machining that I was made aware of yelling voices from a passing ferry, which was either the "Koompartoo" or the "Kuttabull" which ran between Circular Quay and Milsons Point every hour.  (The latter ferry was later sunk by a midget submarine in Sydney Harbour).  Apparently a passenger in the custody of two policemen was being taken to the "Reception House" for some reason.  He had eluded his guardians and got himself a drink of Sydney Harbour water.   I have no memory of my hitting the water but clear memory of recalling the short training we were given with the Boys Brigade of life saving water wise and the instruction to get behind the subject and strike him on the back of the head with the cushion part of your closed fist if he was showing signs of struggling.  I must have accomplished this fairly well although I can't recall whether the poor fellow struggled enough to deserve it.  However with the help of those aboard, we were able to get him back on deck and I swam back to the wharf where the foreman awaited me with a good kick on my rear end.  I was told to get into the blacksmiths and dry off.

Looking back on the memory of this incident, I feel a sense of relief that it all happened before seeing my first shark, otherwise I feel certain that my abdominal fortitude would have been sadly lacking.   The ships bringing the steel from Middlesborough could be tied up at the wharf for days.  Consequently all meal slops went overboard so the sharks could have been very prevalent.  However all's well that ends well, but the awareness, even after such a long time remains, to think before you leap, otherwise you could be the cause of some poor shark's indigestion.

Had I been aware of how ugly and hungry a shark looked, my thoughts would probably have been similar to the negro's prayer on being chased up a tree by a huge grizzly bear:-

"Lord you did deliver Daniel from the Lion's Den,

And Lord you did deliver Jonah from the belly of the whale

And then three Hebrew children from the fiery furnace, the Good Book do declare.

So Lord, if you can't help me, for goodness sake don't help that bear."

(Author unknown)

The Grand Opening

19 March 1932 - the day most of Sydney's population awaited hand at last dawned and like thousands more, I made my way to see the opening of a construction which, in a small way and for four and a half years, I had played a part.

I found myself on the footway with a view of the ribbon and part of the official stand.  Little did I know that sitting in the stand was my future mother-in-law with her daughter Miss Jean McColl, the girl I was to make my wife, ten years later.  Her father Brigadier J.T. McColl had been given the task of organising the many floats and the attending pageantry  which would follow the official arrival of the State Governor and the Premier of New South Wales, the Rt. Honorable Jack Lang who was to cut the ribbon and declare the bridge open to the public.

There followed a fiasco not planned for and certainly unexpected;  the De Groot slashing the ribbonappearance of a military gentleman on horse back slashing at the ribbon to be cut by the Premier.  The rider we now know to be Francis De Groot, being pulled from the saddle on to the ground by Mr. McKay, Commissioner of New South Wales Police and arrested.  On Mr. McKay's orders De Groot was arrested and removed under guard and taken, not to the Central Police Station but to the Reception House, a move that the people who had employed him for the stunt had not anticipated.  The bail money that they had waiting for him was useless, he could not be released from the Reception House without first having a mental examination by three doctors who we now know took seven days.  By that time the New Guard and it's leader Mr. Eric Campbell had watched their well laid plan blow up in their faces as it seemed certain now there would be a State Enquiry.  By that time the New Guard didn't seem to have any members, they had, like the proverbial rats, abandoned ship and no one knew anything about a politcal party called the New Guard or it's leader Eric Campbell.  Campbell disappeared into obscurity and De Groot, on his release from prison, returned to Ireland.

The obvious questions that would intrigue the enquiry were:-

How did this person get into and take his place with the cavalry which was proceeding the official cars, one of which was carrying the State Governor and another the State Premier, without being noticed;

Why didn't someone notice the peculiar uniform worn by De Groot - part Hussar and part Light Horse, also the sabre he carried would never be part of a cavalry uniform dress and the horse ridden by De Groot would never have been considered as a cavalry remount.

It seemed to suggest that help and assistance was available from some person or persons in a position of authority to supply the necessary aid.

However, it is all now history and the bridge still stands as a monument to the foresight and engineering skills of our century.

Life after Bridge Building 

We were now in the middle of the Great Depression.  No dole as we know it but each family was allotted food coupons for meat, vegetables and other groceries.  The New South Wales Premier, was Jack Lang, commonly known as "The Big Fellow".  He instituted work for the dole by allowing the local Councils to engage unemployed for council work three days a month or if you wished, you could be hired out to a Council in a country area.  This is what I elected to do and I ended up in a small hamlet called Drake, employed five days a week by the Forestry Department for three pounds ten shillings per week, a small tent, all cooking utensils and it was here I fell in love with bush life.

I was able to keep myself and still send one pound ten shillings home to Mum and Dad who had followed me to Australia.

Our camp was about 14 miles from Tenterfield and we worked under the supervision of two foremen who went back to their own homes in a town called Sunshine.  They would leave Friday night and come back Sunday night.

I look back on this time with special feeling;  I saw my first snake and found my first gold mine, only to discover the latter was "new chum's gold" but not before I had humped half a hundredweight of the stuff half a mile.

We had been engaged in constructing a road up a mountain to an old copper mine which had closed but could be reopened if the Council could make access available.  I was there eighteen months and I was quite sad when I left Drake because I had made a lot of friends in the camp and with the locals.  There were seventeen in our camp and each and every one of us felt the sadness of saying good bye to people who had been so good to us by taking a crowd of city greenhorns under their wing and teaching a way of life they had never enjoyed before.   I knew that Drake would remain with me, all of its fifty odd population, its green grocer Darby Doyle as my introduction to the great Aussie bush and its kindly and caring people.

The train journey from Tenterfield took eleven hours and landed us in Sydney, tired and sad and already disillusioned with the city, but knowing we would have to get used to it again. 

Things hadn't improved job wise, however my brother-in-law Alex McMorran had landed a job with BHP as Fourth Engineer on the "Iron Knob", a steamer carrying iron ore from Whyalla to Newcastle steelworks.  I eventually joined the Seaman's Union and signed on as a trimmer on the company's flag ship "Iron Master" a vocation long disappeared with replacement of steam by diesel propulsion.

The trimmer on a steam ship was akin to an apprentice boilermaker.  He spoke only when he was spoken to, (the bottom rung of the ladder) and only conversed with himself and answered to the Hey You and then at the double.  He was responsible for enough coal being available to the firemen ensuring a full head of steam.  The eighteen months in the bush stood me in good stead and enabled me to cope with the hot and tough nature of sea life. 

Our trips and cargoes were steel to Melbourne or Adelaide, then on to Whyalla to discharge the town's fresh water and take on our cargo of iron ore, then return to the steelwoks in Newcastle.  This was to be my routine for the next three years. 

My parents had moved up to Newcastle from Sydney.  Mum was very frail and suffered from dementia and Dad, who was always pretty useless around the house, didn't tend to make the home a happy place so I decided to take a shore job and became a rigger with BHP, enabling me to be at home instead of depending on my sister, Nan, who by now had a family of two daughters, Daphne and Anne, to care for.

With the death of Mum, the house was broken up and Dad went to live with Nan and I returned to Sydney where I took a job with "Emmco" the makers of electrical appliances and radio sets and where I was to meet and marry my wife of fifty years, Jean McColl.