Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Ed Vormister Part 1 of 3
Interviewer: Jo Oliver
Interview date: 11/03/2019
Jo: This is an interview for Wollongong Library’s Oral History Project, Illawarra Stories and today I’m talking with Mr Edward Vormister, and today is the 11th of March 2019, and my name is Jo Oliver. We also have a friend of Ed’s here Sandra Mitchell, who introduced us. So, Ed, I’d like to ask you first of all, were you, were you born in this area?
Ed: No, I was born in Albury, New South Wales.
Ed: 9th of the 1st, 1918.
Jo: And when did you come to the Illawarra?
Ed: Well then brings me back to my old dad again, see, because when he was in England, he became an apprentice with the British General Electric. When he came out of his time, taught the subject itself at Technical School. British General Electric had a contract to come to light and the war broke out.
Well, in 19-, after the war, in 1918, he got a, ah, the Cordeaux Dam started, and who better to put an engineer in there than he. He got the job as an engineer in there. They had it all electrified to build that, that wall. And they had to run a power supply from Port Kembla over the mountains and they had what they call a ‘flying fox’. They filled it with concrete, and they used this flying fox, was on a track which went above the wall they had been building. That’s how they were able to build the wall in that way.
That job he had there was the best job of his life he always said. Because he never, ever went to work. He had… all he had to do was… he worked in his garden all the time, because there was nothing for him to do. And the only time anything failed or went, they called him in. So, he stayed there till 1922 when that was finished… when that dam was finished, he had to find himself another job.
And because Wollongong was by this time, had been reticulated by Ramsey Shaft electrically. Ferris was the engineer who, er, was a man in charge, by this contractor was being done. And he was employed for 12 months after it was finished. And that’s when the, Dad got the, the job, in, as engineer.
He was actually, the first electrical engineer of the Wollongong Council. The interesting part about that probably is that Bulli Mine; they had their own power station and the manager he was also the Mayor of Bulli Shire. Their power station was operational during the daytime and at night-time they had to still run the power station for lights ‘n’ pumps an’ what have you. And he talked the council into lighting Bulli. They were done in 1912.
Then in 1918, Corrimal; they had a, their own power station there, which they put at the end of their, those coke ovens which was down near the railway station at Corrimal. And they were using the waste heat from the, the coke works to drive the water and they were making power, very, very cheaply, because it didn’t cost them anything to run the thing. So, they then supplied all of Corrimal as far as Balgownie Road.
You can imagine in Wollongong; they didn’t have any power and there’d be a big push by the public to get supply on here. So, the only power station they could get was from Port Kembla.
Now that Port Kembla Power Station was built in 1914 when the war broke out and they had… the British Navy wanted a place to load their ships, so they had built a wharf and a power station an’ it had a, a belt-driven supply towards these boats which er, was sort of continuous. They could load a battleship in half a day, whereas if they didn’t have that sort of thing it might have been there for a couple of days. So that’s how the power station come to be built in the first place.
So, when they… Wollongong wanted to start off, they got through to the public works… through the public works department. They put the whole reticulation through and got supply from the power station to Port Kembla.
The interesting part of that party was that when Corrimal realised or found out what they were doing, they decided to supply Wollongong and Corrimal, because they get supply much cheaper than what public works could. So, their supply finished, as I said at Balgownie turn-… Road and they bought second-hand poles and conductors ‘n’ everything from the tramways in Sydney and they raced the line down to Burke Street. They intended to get to Burke Street. So, when they applied to the council the supply that they could get, naturally the council was all for it because they could get it at a lot, much cheaper price. But the public works had already started to, run a line from the power station into Wollongong and they, through the government, I would imagine, wouldn’t give ’em a franchise. So, that meant that they couldn’t get into Wollongong. They had to rely then on the pub-, on the public works’ supply.
The sub-station that they built was in er, Church Street opposite er, the RSL there; a 4-pile sub-station and they had 2 transformers in there to feed the whole of Wollongong at low voltage–240 volts. Now the boundary was Swan Street, on Ellen Street, Burke Street and on the western side, you’d have the road. They started that in 19-, in January 1921, the reticulation. By October 1921, they had that completed an’ unceremoniously, they turned the power on, on the 29th of November 1921.
Well, you can imagine that the whole of Wollongong was being supplied with 240 volts, at that point. Now, we lived in Hercules Street at the time and the best we got there, according to the Dad when he was there, was 220 volts. Now when the people turned their lights on, at night-time, it would drop down to 118 or even lower. In fact, the lights in the room were sort of just a glow. [Chuckle] So that’s how it was handed over from the contractor.
Well that’s how it was when the Dad arrived. So naturally, things had to change. When the contract was finished, these 2 people came over from the contractor. Ernie Taylor was the linesman; Fred Johnson was the labourer. They were the 2 that came over and worked. That would be the first 2 employees from the council and electricity department I’d say. When the 12 months was up for Ferris to leave, that’s when they had to apply for an engineer to take over. That’s how Dad come to come from ?Portcliff?… from the dam into Wollongong.
The depot was a ?harness? shed down at the council, because that was their depot, because it never had a building. They had a ?harness? shed. They had half a dozen pikes that they used for pushing the poles up. A wallaby jack to help them push the poles up and so forth, a coil of cable and 6 metres and that was the, their stock when he arrived. So, you can imagine the job he had in front of him when he arrived. The first thing he had to do there was; you know, ya push-bike for the meter reader to go around and read the meters. You know, he bought a handcart for 30 shillings to carry the spikes and wire and whatever they had to do when they had to connect someone.
It was something that was never written about it or known about it, but when the reticulation was being on, going on, they must of connected houses at the same time, when they were going through that street. The council must of negotiated with it, or they negotiated with the council to get supply there. I’d say, I’d say they’d have to pay something to get on. That’s what I reckon they did, because there is never any mention about connecting houses up, or anything. It was just connected. So that when they turned it on at November, the, the load was much greater than they expected and instead of one transformer feeding Wollongong, they had to put this spare on as a second one and they had to then order a third one for the spare.
Er, when they wanted to put an extra pole in, they used to hire an extension in. They used to hire McGuffy’s horses. He had a carrying system there and they used to drag the pole along the road because there was no bitumen or anything, they used to drag it along. Ernie Taylor and old Fred Johnson used to dig the hole and by bars and everything, they used to move-, manipulate the pole to the, to the hole they want to. The back of the hole they dug, they used to put what they call a back board, which was put at the back of the hole, so when the pole, the foot of the pole used to hit… to hit the… they jacked it up. It used to slide down into the hole. Well, it’s only the, the two of them and, and McGuffy, you can imagine… they was pushing up the pot… the poles up on their own. So, they used to sit on the pole when they got it in position an’ anybody that was coming past, they come for a second to lift with this jack (laughter). An’ they’d get anybody at all, to help them put this pole up. So, they er, that’s with, the pikes and everything, they, they got it up in position. So, they needed 4 men to put that pole up. But that was probably, the way that they had to do it, because they had no other means.
Because they had no ladders, or anything, they used to use spike boots and they used to climb the pole up by jabbing their spikes, climbed up the pole with them. And they used to make a terrible mess of the poles because they leave splinters. And this one chap there, so, they, went he… I heard, didn’t get himself settled in there and he had to slide down the pole, straddling the pole, sliding down and he reckoned it took him (laughs) about a week to get the splinters out of his arms and his legs and arms, but there. But that’s how they used to do it.
So, they, they dispensed with those, those spike boots then and they had they had stirrups, like they had on horses’ backs and they had a 3-foot piece of er, rope on it and they wrapped it round the pole and they used to put that… and put another one above, and that’s how they used to climb it then. I mean, when I started the Council in 1938, they still had that stuff and I had a go at just climbing the pole, with these stirrups and that and… you had, you had to be a real athlete to be able to do it… it was… oh, it was almost impossible… it… I don’t know how they did it. But that, they’d gotten used to it. That’s how they used to extend it.
But er, in 1925, they was able to get themselves a Ford… yeah, a truck. And they only paid… had to pay 30 pound for that. It was able then, to get some ladders on it. They could cart them around and things like that and that was the beginning of how it was… pretty… things were pretty crook.
So, because the power source was pretty poor, round the town and the Dad was apparently, was pretty well up in the business by now. By 1925, he decided to talk Council into putting a high-tension ring main around the town. At that time, in 1925, the Steelworks had decided to move from Lithgow into Wollongong to Port Kembla. So, he apparently, had great foresight, I’d say, that he thought, Well, if a Steelworks is coming in there, judging from what was going on in England at the time, Wollongong would take off and… So, the ring main he put in there was gonna last for at least 50 to a 100 years. And you’re gonna imagine, to put a ring main around the town at that particular time, would cost an enormous amount of money. Because it was not put up in er, fine wire, it was the heavier conductors and the poles was north-coast poles, which cost more than anywhere else and it cost an enormous amount of money to put it round.
And when it was finished, that high stanchion went from that four-pole substation. They had to have a building of some sort to house the switch gear and that was put in where… er, in ah, Burelli Street where the er, showroom is there now.
Well, to give you some idea of that… what I’m talking about, that was 6,600 volts when they went onto high voltage area around. It went down Church Street, into Ellen Street, across the railway line and… Rawlinson Avenue, I’m sorry. Eventually, to New Dapto Road and then down near Dapto Road, they went across the er, there was ‘Cokeworks Paddock’ they called it there, which is now Beaton Park. It went through there. Eventually down to Burke Street and back up in Corrimal Street. And that was a ring… what they called in those days a ring main, so you could feed it from one… either way and there.
Now the 3 transformers they had on the pole sub-stations shifted. One was put in Corrimal Street down near er, Smith Street; the second one was put down in the southern area; Ellen Street that used to do all the southern area and the third one was sent out there to Dudley Street in West Wollongong.
Well, when that was… when they put those in there, the difference in supply was… must have been out… outstanding. So, when it came to the stage (laughs) of paying for it, the Aldermen… of course, they didn’t know anything about electricity and that’s one of… the whole of the problems been all along, because the people that are sort of controlling it… the finances of it… they have no idea what they’re talking about. Coming with a… the cost of running that ring main around it was such a heavy conductor put them into such a state. That they thought that Dad must be crazy; he must be right off his rocker. So, they wanted to sack him and er, naturally, they thought he was just… didn’t know what he was doing.
So, they got… had to… to get rid of him, they had to er, get back to the Public Works again. And Corrin; he was in charge of the thing, he had, he was the one that had to er, supervise it. And the funny thing that I… must’ve been pretty bad, because I remember when the Dad died, there was letters there… he had some old letters left from 1923 where he was applying for another job somewhere, because he reckoned he was gunna go. But the report that came from Corrin, apparently was, was absolutely magnificent. They sort of rapped the council that way, that they should think… treat him specially because he was really a genius with what he’s done. Because he… and because that changed things quite a bit then.
Of course, that’s how it come to continue on. As you can imagine, those… that line; and I’m talking about… and he said it wanted to go for at least 50 years or more, it’s still going. It’s still the same line; same everything that line… it’s there, still working… the same thing. It was put there in 1925.
So, to give you some idea of what sort of a job they made of it. It really made Wollongong, because it er, you know, we had light then. You know not glow, good lights and everything.
Jo: You could read at night.
Ed: But er, no… you think about these things, you know: ‘How did they get these houses connected?’ you know. ‘Where did they get the electricians from? To light them?’ You should think. But when you look back in that area, anybody that was a bit handy, they could do it themselves. They didn’t have to be qualified or anything. So, you can imagine the stuff that went in there, probably was pretty rough some of it. (laughter) But they got it on, as things improved, of course, they got qualified men in there to straighten it all out. But that’s all how it all started and it er…
Jo: You said you lived in Hercules Street…
Ed: That’s right.
Jo: So, did you go to, where did you go to school?
Ed: I went to school in primary and er, in Church Street and then, I went from there to the Tech School in Gladstone Avenue.
Jo: Do you remember anything about school?
Ed: No, I don’t think I… I didn’t… I just schooled, I suppose, I think… Being the son of an engineer, an electrical engineer, I suppose that’s where I just, my life was, and so anything that was er, looking that way, I was interested in, right from the word go. We used to make our own crystal sets and all that sort of thing; anything to do with wiring and everything like that. But I served my time in um, Sydney to the er, metre manufacturers in Sydney. So, from then, when I came out of that, I came to Council in 1938.
When the war broke out in 1940, the Second World War broke out, the Dad, apparently had experience of what happened in the First World War and he stocked up wire. We had 40 drums of cable and they were stacked down in any place we could get a roof over it to the ceiling. We had a few ground sub-stations, brick sub-stations they were. And you could not operate in them things, because the ca-, the cable was in there. Wire in everywhere, about 40 drums of it, all this wire, and even to the stoves. He bought 50 stove plates and we was fitting those things in any stove at all to keep it going during the war. Because you couldn’t buy all that and I remember there, one day, that after the war, using his own words… buying all that wire and stuff we got, he said: ‘Do you know, that if I had been still working for Council. I’m a 100 years of age.’ He said: ‘My wages are made right up,’ he said, because they made that much money and (clears throat) he knew that, after the last war, the First World War, the shortage, the shortage… and that’s why he built up that way.
And I can recall the letters that used to come from different councils all over the place, because word got around how much wire Wollongong had and they wanted to buy wire often and of course, it wasn’t, wasn’t available. So, he really made a mark in this town. There’s no doubt about that, in his time.
Jo: And what was his name, Ed?… what was your father’s name?
Ed: It… Ed… Edward Charles.
Jo: He was Edward Charles, too, yeah.
Ed: They called him Charlie. He was known as Charlie…
Ed: It was a…
Jo: OK. And what was your job in the council?
Ed: Well, when I came out of my time, ah, they was starting up domestic repairs of… er, client, clients’ repairs, so that’s what I started. And then, I suppose I’d be in there for a couple of years and when Jones’s took over Town Hall for the theatre I was the electrician that rewired, so I was in there for about 3 months or 6 months, or something. Quite a, quite a… a lot of modifications required there to, for them to move in.
So, from then the meter tester we had there, he got a job as an engineer at Orange, he went to. He became an electrical engineer there, because I stepped up then into the meter testing section and took care of that.
And then we had a man there called Don Toterly. Now Don Toterly was a design, a design engineer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that Wollongong, has a lot to thank him for. He designed all the major sub-stations. You’ve probably seen them around. There’s one down there in Gilmore Street. That was the first one that was built and from then, I was elevated into looking after that… building those.
Went from then up into the engineer. It was covered… all these places… now they built and… there’s 13 of them built. So that’s where I sort of graduated to is building those sub-stations. But Don Toterly was the man that if he hadn’t have designed those, those things as he did, I don’t know what would have happened.
Berry was the man that took over from the Dad. Now, he was really brilliant. He was a great engineer. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get on with the Council. You can understand why… again, I’ve mentioned to you, because they didn’t know anything about electricity and he’d go in there, and wanted this and that and he’d go: ‘Oh, how much is that going to cost?’ you know and ‘No way!’ and he got to the stage where he couldn’t take it anymore.
But when the war broke out, everybody was sort of… had to go and get checked up for, for the army and a whole lot there and a lot of them automatically–voluntarily did. Workforce was leading-hand, linesman, two, two linesmen, one labourer and the rest wasn’t around.
I was called up. At the time, things looked very crook and reconnaissance planes had been over Wollongong several times. And they thought Wollongong was gonna get hit, because they’re gonna go for the Steelworks. The way things were–you… hard to believe now. The Army came and got all the old cable drums; the big cable drums. And they man them along the Port Kembla Road; small poles in there. Which looked like cannons. You had 2 wheels on the side, you see all pointing up to… up in the air, but that was just camouflage. It was along the Port road; there was about 6 of them along there.
I was all ready to go. I packed and everything, ready to go and er, right at the last minute, he said it had been cancelled–went ?backs?. Which meant then that, well I was it in the finish I was doing the store; doing everything there was because you hadn’t got any staff. In fact, I used to go out with the men, doing line work ‘n’ anything that was there (laughs). I’d close the, close the place down and go out, so I was pretty well qualified in the finished.
So, when we’d come to these sub-stations, I knew, knew these things backwards, sort of thing. That’s how I come to be in that position. So, when Berry came there, he saw… Oh, I dunno. I, I musta really impressed him, because he, he jumped me from nobody to leading hand the first year. The 2nd year ah, I become foreman and the third year I was there, I was a, a superintendent. I was doing everything there. I was running the place, when Barry came and he said to me, one day, he relied on me and everything. I was doing everything. He said to me, one day: ‘I want you to answer these 2 letters.’
And I said: ‘What letters?’
He said: ‘I want you to answer these’.
I said: ‘Listen, Syd, I’m doing everything here. I’m doing the whole.’ When I, I said: ‘That’s your job, that’s not my job, that’s your job!’
He said: ‘Don’t argue with me,’ he said. ‘I want you to answer them on the weekend’.
So, I said: ‘All right’. So, I took ’em home and I answered these 2 letters; people complaining about something or other and I answered them. And a week went by and he came to me and he said: ‘Now look. I want to make you assistant engineer.’
I said: ‘You can’t do that, Syd. It’s gotta go through Council. It’s gotta go through all that.’
He said: ‘I’ve done that. And,’ he said: ‘You’ve gotta get your engineer’s certificate. You go down to the Tech now and enrol and bring that receipt back to me,’ and he said: ‘You’ll become the assistant engineer straightaway. He said: ‘I’ll promise you that when you get it, I’ll stay with you till you get it.’ And he said: ‘I’ll… I was old enough now to resign you’ll be it–you’ll go in easy. You’ll have no trouble at all.’
And I said: ‘Ah, cut it out. I couldn’t do that.’
He said: ‘Oh, yes you could.’ He said, he said: ‘What’d you mean? You won’t take it?’
I said: ‘No.’ I said: ‘I don’t think so.’
‘You think about it for a week. Go home and talk it over with your wife and everything!’
So, a week later, I come back, I said: ‘Look, no, I’m turning it down.’ He said: ‘Why? Why’d you do that?’
And I said: ‘Well, look, the job’s easy. I can handle that all right. But,’ I said: ‘I wouldn’t be able to handle the men. I said: ‘That’d drive me… that’d, kill me, to handle the men,’ I said, ‘because they’re pretty union mad, yeah, and they’d go out on strike at the drop of a hat, you know’. I said: ‘I couldn’t do it.’
He said: ‘Well, I’m afraid I’ll ‘ave to…’
I said: ‘I’ll… I’m not going to do this all on me own. I’m going to have to put someone else in.’
And really speaking, I was his assistant because he used to… he was confiding everything… everything was ?went? on me. I did everything there. He’d ask me for my advice, and we’d talk it over… the things over. There’s no doubt about it, he treated me like his own son.
So anyhow, there was a… applied for a… there was about… there wasn’t a great lot there… about 10. Most of them, I’d say, were juniors or sort of gone through. Just coming out of tech and there wasn’t anybody that had any experience whatsoever in the Council, but there’s a fellow there and he was with the Commission
Don Hart was his name and he worked at the Commission with the… and he said: ‘Well, he’s the only one that’s got anything to do with, with the, this business and he said: ‘What do you think about him?’ I said: ‘He seems all right. I’ve met him when I was reading the metres at er, Port Kembla.’ So, I had him put on and it was a… he was (laughs) absolutely hopeless, he was! Well, they put him in there and, goodness gracious me!
You… we had a fellow there named… an engineer named… he decided… realised that he was hopeless and he, he wanted to shove him in there as a chief. He said: ‘I can handle him.’ He says: ‘I’m doing a lot of work up there in er, private work up there in Bulli. And he wouldn’t be surprised that… he lobbied all the men to sign for him to get in there. He lobbied the Coun-… the aldermen and got him in there as the chief. And he had no idea at all. The only way that he got away with it is that he had some good engineers under him. All the other engineers, they sort of got him out of trouble all the time.
Jo: Did you wish that you would have taken the position?
Ed: I wouldn’t have… I’m glad I didn’t.
Jo: Are you?
Ed: I’ve had time to go through it. And how I finished up by building a sub-station… in charge of that… it suited me down to the ground.
Jo: OK. Good.
Ed: I’m very pleased that it didn’t happen. I mean, it wasn’t as though I didn’t know much about it, because I know that when the Dad was there, he used to talk about it, you know… how hard it was to get anything through Council, because they were only interested in what you were going to spend. They didn’t care what you was going to do or anything only they were gonna spend.