Broadmeadow Locomotive Depot in the 1950s with steam engines at rest near the turntable. (Photo courtesy NSW Railway Historical Society.)
Our family lived in Armidale where dad started working for the New South Wales Government Railways as a steam engine cleaner.
My dad being my dad, he wasn’t going to stay on the bottom rung for long. Soon he passed his fireman exams and was out on the ‘road’ (railwaymen called being out on the line as being on ‘the road’).
Next, his driver’s exam and then a few years wait until a vacancy came around and it was at Broadmeadow, slightly west of the Newcastle CBD. The Broadmeadow Locomotive Depot was a large steam engine yard which had two roundhouse buildings and associated facilities (sheds) adjacent to the marshalling yard on the Main Northern line and had operated there since 1924
We moved to East Lambton, Newcastle, into what was then called a Housing Commission house.
Newcastle was the ‘home’ then of the BHP steel works and many large engineering workshops like A. Goninan and Sons who made train wheels, carriage axles and different railway rolling stock, were just down the road.
These huge factories were based there because of the steel works and the steel works were there because of the coal. The Newcastle area was then and is still now a major coal supply centre. When explorer John Hunter found the river which bears his name, he said he found lumps of coal on the beaches.
As a youngster in the mid-1950s, I found pieces of coal lying above-ground all around the area where I roamed. We even had a short rail line opposite our house which carried coal from a colliery about 3km from our home into the Port of Newcastle.
Coal was king in Newcastle.
And …… Soon after moving to Lambton, both mother and I started having asthma attacks.
BHP closed their Newcastle plant quite a number of years ago and a major clean-up now sees the whole area almost pristine but not so in the 1950s. We had no idea at the time the pollution was the cause, it wasn’t a subject I ever heard anyone discussing until we moved away in 1959 and the asthma stopped.
To give an example of how polluted the area was, shortly after moving there, mother put up some lace curtains on the lounge room window which was one large pane of glass with a lift-up window on either side. The curtains looked quite good as I remember and she was in the habit of opening up the two side windows about six inches (15cm) every summer day.
Within about a year, the curtains started to fray where the windows were open. Well before we left, the curtains on both sides had rotted off level with the opening while the remainder were good enough to move with us at the end of the decade.
A normal day near BHP’s steelworks in Newcastle, 1963. (Photo courtesy Lisa, Michael, Matthew and Joshua Moore, the David Moore Collection.)
I recall when I joined the Army in 1969 and later the Tasmanian Police Force in 1976, the doctors asked if I’d ever had asthma and my standard answer was always, “Not since leaving Newcastle in 1959.” This response caused a knowing nod and was never mentioned again.
It’s 58 years since I left Newcastle and I did go back in the mid-1970s to see where the old house was – it was gone along with the asbestos building material, the railway line had been pulled up and the Royal Newcastle Aero Club, which was only just down the road, had been replaced with a huge football ground, the home of the Newcastle Knights league team.
Since BHP closed its Newcastle plant in 1999, there’s no smoke over the city or suburbs and at the Loco Depot, it’s all diesel electric now and most notably, the skies are clear.
The Pacific Highway by-passes Newcastle to the west now and I’ve never had the desire to turn off the motorway when travelling past ever since.
I often wonder what The Lord feels about the way we’ve treated the earth. In the Book of Genesis, God looked at His Creation and said, “It is good,” and in verse 15, it reads, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
Have we really taken care of it?
Every day now I take special interest in removing weeds (in my case, prickly pear, Bathurst Burr, mother-of-millions, etc), cleaning up rubbish and my aim is to leave my part of the earth a little bit better than it was when I came here.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 6 grandchildren.
John Skinner's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/john-skinner.html
John Skinner is a retired journalist who has written ten biographies on famous campdrafting competitors. He was an Australian infantry soldier wounded in Vietnam, served six years as a Police Officer, was CEO of the then Australian Rough Riders Assn (Pro-Rodeo based in Warwick, Qld). He and his wife Marion retired to a small farm 25km south of Warwick 20 years ago. They have three children and now seven grandchildren.