Interview transcript from Illawarra Stories Oral History Project – Alf O’Brien
Interviewer: Richard Raxworthy
Interview date: 24 September 1998
Richard Talking to Mr. Alf O’Brien. This is the Mt Keira Mine Tramway workers oral history project. Tape 2A, 24th of the 9th, ’98 talking to Mr. Alf O’Brien. This is side one. I’ll ask you first Mr O’Brien, what’s your full name and could you spell it for the tape?
Alf Alfred Charles O’Brien. A-l-f-r-e-d C-h-a-r-l-e-s O’-B-r-i-e-n
Richard In what year were you born?
Alf Born 1927 January.
Richard And whereabouts, ah, were your parents living at that time?
Richard You grew up there?
Alf Did I what?
Richard You grew in Bega?
Alf I was 9 by the time we come to Wollongong.
Richard So you went to school at Bega first?
Alf Yeah South Wolumla.
Richard And then after that at, um, at Wollongong where did you go to..?
Alf We went to, ah, we moved to Dapto, ah, on the farm. And, um, I didn’t, I didn’t like the farm at all. So I again put on my parents to seek employment. And, ah, I finished up, put me age up and I went to work at Wongawilli mine. And my first job was picking stone out of coal at the gantry down the bottom. I stayed there for nearly twelve months. And then I was transferred to Mt Keira. And this was about the time they introduced the 30 pound clip which conveyed the skips out of the mine on a cable and then again they would, the clips were taken off and put on the empty skips, sorry they were put on the skips for the incline.
Richard So they transferred the coal from one set of skips to another?
Richard No the one skip went right down.
Alf One skip went all the way through down to the gantry at the bottom.
Richard What were the skips like?
Alf Ah, they were square steel sort of skip which would hold, I would think in the vicinity of about two ton of coal.
Richard And what years are we talking about?
Alf This was 1942. And, um, the coal then was conveyed down to the gantry at the bottom. And it emptied into big hoppers and simply by running the skip into a shute and the skip was then, was completely turned upside down, the coal dumped and then the skip when it reversed back up the skip was empty and it was pushed out and run around a downgrade to where it was clipped back onto the cable.
Richard And how many skips were clipped on at the time?
Alf From the top to the bottom?
Richard I don’t mean that. I mean were there three or four skips?
Alf Four skips, yeah, going up.
Richard On one clip?
Alf One clip and only, and two coming down generally. But, ah..
Richard What was your job?
Alf I was a Clipper down the bottom and up the top.
Richard And was there a winding engine?
Alf Was there a..?
Richard Was there a winding engine?
Alf Yeah, there was a big engine room where it had these massive flywheel or well a big wheel with a cable went around and was driven that way, you know.
Richard And did that drive the, the, ah, skips out of the mine too, or did they come up?
Alf Same, same powerhouse conveyed the skips from the mine loaded and down the incline.
Richard Was a cable running into the mine?
Alf Yes, it was running into the mine and it run across little rollers to keep it, ah, running straight.
Richard And, um, that was continuous.
Alf A continuous line going in and coming out and the same going down the mountain. Richard About what gauge was the, was the railway line? The gauge of the railway line, oh gosh, I wouldn’t know.
Richard It’d be about two foot would it or what? You, you’re talking about the, the width,
Alf Ah, yes, roughly two foot.
Richard And when it got down to the bottom, um, the screens, you say it went into a hopper.
Alf It went into a hopper and then the coal was, ah, downloaded into railway trucks.
Richard No screens?
Alf No screen. And, um, at Wongawilli they used to screen it and grade it, but at, ah, up at, ah, Mt Keira that went straight into the, the big coal trucks at the bottom, you know, when they had the trucks underneath and then it was conveyed down to the coke ovens at the bottom at the end of Denison Street.
Richard Did you ever see the line that went down to the old Wollongong harbour?
Richard Was it gone by the time you got there?
Alf I didn’t even know it existed.
Richard What about Wollongong harbour, do you ever go down there?
Alf I had but I, I didn’t see anything of the, ah, activity with the coal at that time either.
Richard Well, I don’t think there was. I think they pulled the track up in the 1940s. So at any rate, what was the harbour like, um, in 1943?
Alf 1943, it was very much like it is now, except that the breakwater’s been extended to some degree.
Richard And was there a fish market?
Richard Was there a fish market then?
Alf I don’t remember that.
Richard And what else was there, I mean what, had the park been established, the Osborne Park?
Richard It was still the railway tracks around?
Alf It was still a few railway tracks around the, right in the harbour area itself.
Richard And did the railway line run in from anywhere, or were they just left from?
Alf It was just running from nowhere. That was, um, evidently pulled up later.
Richard Do you know where the coal used to be loaded before you, before you remember in actual fact, were there over on the southern side where they had four stakes, wooden stakes, so that, were they there then or not?
Richard They were gone already.
Alf They were gone.
Richard But you could still see where they were because you could see the, the abutments, yeah.
Alf Yeah, you could still see there where, where they had been.
Richard And there was no fish market down below where there is now?
Alf Not to my knowledge.
Richard Do you remember any fisherman coming in there and, ah, selling fish?
Alf Oh, I remember fishermen coming in there and the, er, boats the fishing boats coming in and of course naturally the, the smaller boats that was, ah, owned by individuals, they’d come in with loads of fish in their boats. And where did they sell it? Oh, most of them they took it home and, ah, I will believe that, ah, in some instances some of the fish was sold straight off the boats as they came into the harbour. People used to wait around for them coming in.
Richard But there were no fishermen carrying a fish up into the town and selling it?
Alf No, not to my knowledge.
Richard So the reason I’m asking is because the previous fellow I was talking to he remembered from before that he’s, he’s a lot older than you, and, ah, he remembered from the fishermen coming up with baskets and selling it in the street.
Alf Yeah. No, this is, was my time, I may not have been there.
Richard A lot later.
Alf Yeah, I may not have been there either, ah, when they came in with their boats loaded with, you know, the, the major, ah, fishermen.
Richard Where did you live at that time when you were working up at the..?
Alf Gwynneville, Gip-, Gipps Street, oh sorry, Vickery Street, Gwynneville.
Richard And the, where did the, ah, the tramway end, what, did it join into the main line or, um..?
Alf Well, I never, I never even knew it existed.
Richard But you say you worked on the tramway.
Alf No, I worked on the, ah, on the…
Richard But you saw the coal, the coal trucks coming down?
Alf Yeah, I used to come home on the coal trucks at the end of the day. I’d, I’d climb up on the engine with the drivers and I’d come down the track that way, otherwise I walked. Richard How many engines were there?
Alf Only the one.
Richard At that time, only one, right. And do you remember the engine driver?
Alf Do I remember?
Richard Who the engine driver was? [Somebody knocking]
Alf Me grandson.
Richard Um, now, apart from the, um, the way they clipped the, did they change the clips or they had the same sort of clips that on the, on the wire at that time? What were they shaped like?
Alf Ah, the, the clips that they had when I arrived there were the clips that they’d, ah, introduced from Wongawilli mine.
Richard What do they look like?
Alf They were 30 pound clips and they had, ah, a couple of links on the end that used to go on to the, ah, trolley itself to hook on trolley, on the coal, coal trolley. And that came down to a block that the cable was sort of inserted into that. We just used to flick it and it, onto the cable then we’d put a tongue underneath the big screw and we’d screw that down with a, with a steel cable, with a steel rod. And that then made sure that the trucks stayed on the, on the cable. But every now and again we’d have a big accident. Coal trucks would get away and then they’d race down the incline and hit the next lot. And then it’d be four going down the hill together and they’d hit the next lot, and they’d, we’d have to run like mad from the gantry to get out of the road because they used to build up something like 30 or 40 foot high with all these trucks on top of one another. And, ah, quite often there was a, many a, an escape. And one, half way down the incline, there was a sort of a half way where they used to just give the clips a bit of a tighten. Well one fellow lost his finger trying to get out between a little narrow opening and the cable cut, cut his finger when it, it used to break as well.
Richard Now did, did the, ah, clips stay on all the way down, because I, I, had from right the way through, even when the incline changed in in, ah, in, inclination angle?
Alf No, when you, yeah, you know, but the only time we took it off again was when it got to the gantry and then that was thrown, the gantry on the incoming side was much higher than the outgoing and we used to throw the clips over onto the ground so that the fellows down below would clip the empties on and they’d go back up the mountain again.
Richard What was the gantry, what did what was its shape, the purpose?
Alf The gantry was built out of mostly, out of wooden beams and supported by, ah, timber poles. And it was built quite a way off the ground for the incoming side. And then the line was still going around with a clip, with the trucks in it, would, ah, once they were emptied would just continue to run their own way around to where they were clipped back on to the cable, which was going up, back up the hill again.
Richard Yes, it’s, it’s a lot of work.
Alf Oh, a lot of work.
Richard And how many men worked on clipping?
Alf Oh, well, on the incline there would be a round about, ah, we had four down at the gantry and up the top would be somewhere about six because they had to take it off the out-, outcoming cable and then clip them back onto the incline.
Richard And up the top when, did they clip on any of them in the mine?
Alf Oh yes, there was clippers inside the mine, but you would be looking at around about 30 clippers.
Richard And you had to unclip it as it came out of the mine, did you?
Alf Yes, because the cable then, the fittings went to, over to the powerhouse or the where the big rope pulley was. And, ah, then that, they would, they would, the full trucks would run around the bend and then they’d go over a weigh-station and the, ah, clippers then would clip them onto the cable going down the mountain.
Richard Right. I think you’ve just about covered it there, but I’m amazed that there’s no screens down the bottom. They did away with the screens completely.
Alf No, there was no screens. Ah, but at Wongawilli, it was, ah, you picked the stone out of the coal, it went into, a, big shakers which, ah, graded the, the coal and then the large chunks went through crushers. And then the stone that was extracted on the table that was shaking it went onto a, we used to shovel that onto a conveyor belt that took it up on the dump about, ah, oh, half a mile away.
Richard How long did you stay wer-, working at Mt Keira?
Alf About two or three years.
Richard So that was from 1943 to..?
Alf 1942 to about 1945.
Richard And then you did, were you, did you go back working with another mine then?
Alf No, I when, I went to Lysaghts. Um, the clippers that were up there at my time was the, the Dixons, the Leggetts, the Ryans, the Rhodes, the, you know, they were mostly all buddy, buddy friendly with one another. We used to go out of a weekend together, you know.
Richard What about the win-, engine driver?
Alf The engine driver, no, he was a, an older fellow than what we were. Clippers were generally young blokes, you know. And, ah, unfortunately they had a tendency to pull on strikes. So do you want me to tell you about the activities in the bathrooms and that that went on with the..?
Richard If you like.
Alf Okay, well, what happened was if they wanted a day off, and the, one of the reasons why I left the mine was that we never had a full pay, always lost one day a, ah, fortnight. And, ah, they’d fill their boots with water, you know, one or two of them and then they’d call a meeting and say that the drying facilities weren’t adequate and, ah, then they’d all walk off the job and go home. The miners used to get very disgruntled with them, and quite often they used to go into the mine and continue working even though the clippers went home. But, ah, there was also situations where tobacco used to be taken, where the miners weren’t allowed to take that down the mine. They used to hide it in the tunnel on the and when they, where they walked through to be conveyed into the mine, and they’d hide it in their own selective spots. And quite often that disappeared and that caused trouble too. That’s why they had chewing tobacco. Well it was mainly, ah, Woodbine in tins those days.
Richard Cigarettes. You weren’t allowed to smoke down there were you?
Alf Oh no, no, you weren’t allowed to take the tobacco down the mine.
Richard You weren’t allowed chewing tobacco?
Alf Oh, I suppose some of them did chew.
Richard Yes. Well, I think you’ve just about covered the subject that I want. So thank you very much, Mr Alf O’Brien.