Alf O’Brien – Interview Transcript

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?

Alf  Bega.

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?

Alf  No.

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?

Alf  No.

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?

Alf  Sorry?

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?

Alf  No.

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?

Alf  No.

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  Incline.

Alf  Incline.

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.

Alf  Okay.