The other day, the above photo was posted on Facebook and it brought back a flood of memories. My post today is going to be a bit long and “rambly” I certainly would appreciate it if you stuck with me for the duration.
At the start of 1969 the Presbyterian Church posted my dad from the church at Warilla, just south of Wollongong, to the country parish of Coolah, Dunedoo and Cassilis, in the mid-west of NSW. Dad was 58 years old at the time and it seemed a pretty odd thing to do to send a man who was nearing retirement age to look after a parish of three churches “out in the sticks” so to speak. Of course the churches needed a minister but it seemed to me at the time (and still does), that the rigours of a widespread country parish would be something much more suited to a younger man.
I stayed in Wollongong and began boarding with my granddad and grandma in Port Kembla as I was just about to enroll in Wollongong University. The tale of how this situation changed is already familiar to you so I won’t retell it.
Not long after mum and dad arrived in Coolah, where they moved into the manse owned by the church, dad had a heart attack and was hospitalised at the nearest hospital which was in Mudgee. He had hardly had the opportunity to get to know the parish and the people than he was flat on his back, his second coronary after the first in Adelaide some 10 years (almost exactly) before. Back then a lot less was known about the treatment of coronary heart disease and even the medications used were rudimentary at best compared to what treatment options are available today. There were no surgical treatments available at all and the usual treatment was that the patient received extended bed rest and then gentle exercise as the body recovered until they could be discharged.
As you can imagine, visiting dad and helping mum became a priority but I was now a full-time student so weekend visits were going to be the rule and, so, I became a regular client of NSW Government Railways.
On one occasion my granddad drove me to Mudgee for the weekend which certainly helped but he was a shift worker at the steelworks so his shifts rarely coincided with my requirements to get there and back. Granddad was an inveterate buyer of cars, changing them like others changed their socks (figuratively) and I recall that, at this point, his car was a Morris Major Elite.
So my every weekend consisted of going to Mudgee to visit dad and trying and support mum who was, understandably, feeling rather alone and bereft. And it was here that the trains came in. At the end of lectures on a Friday I would go back home to nanny’s place at “24”, pack my bag and head down to the station. The train from Port Kembla terminated at Wollongong and I would wait for and join the train to Sydney. It was no express in the late afternoon and stopped at every station on the line so it made for a very long journey, at least two hours.
I would cross Central Station from the suburban platforms and join the Mudgee Mail on one of the country platforms. The wait between trains was pretty long as I recall and, even in the Autumn, it was well and truly dark by the time the locomotive raised steam and pulled out of Sydney heading west.
The carriages on the Mail were what was referred to as Corridor Carriages. The carriage was divided into a series of compartments each of which seated 6 or 8 people and a thin corridor along one side of the carriage joined the compartments together and provided access to them. Each compartment was entered by a set of sliding doors that could be opened and closed by the passengers. The compartments were arranged with two rows of seats facing each other so they could be very sociable if passengers so desired.
I usually found that the compartment I chose was nearly empty as we pulled out of Sydney but it soon filled up as we headed west until it was pretty much full by the time we were up on the tops of the Blue Mountains. Then, for reasons that escaped me at the time, the train would suddenly empty of nearly all passengers at the station of a little town called Wallerawang. Of course I now know that most of these passengers were heading to shift work in the local coal mines and also the local power station.
So “my” compartment (I had occupied it first) was then empty or close to it and it was now that I was able to exercise my brilliant plan. Train carriages weren’t air-conditioned back then and it gets really cold in the mountains. After suffering through an overnight run in the freezing cold, I had figured that there had to be a better way.
Oh, the NSWGR did provide “heaters” in the overnight trains. They consisted of large, oval-shaped steel cylinders filled with some sort of granules. These cylinders would be heated in a tank of boiling water on the stations and “swapped out” for other heated cylinders at regular intervals at stations along the line as they cooled down. They were placed on the floor under the seats of the compartments and were supposed to heat the compartment. I felt that they were about as effective as trying to put out a house fire with thimbles full of water but the illusion was steadfastly maintained by the railways and I must admit that the sight of the large water tanks on the stations with a fire under them, issuing steam, was sort of comforting.
But, back to my plan. My luggage usually consisted of a clothes bag and a sleeping bag in its bag. Once the compartment was nearly empty, I would roll out the sleeping bag along the seat on one side of the compartment, fill the sleeping bag bag with my jacket or jumper and, using it as a pillow, I would sleep the rest of the way to Mudgee, which we arrived at at around 0400 as I recall.
Now, the photo at the head of the article is recent, courtesy of a photographer called Bruce Williams who is photo-documenting what remains of the once-proud NSW Government railway network. There is something very sad about the image as it reflects the callous disregard that successive governments have had for rural and regional Australia exhibited by their allowing the country rail network to disintegrate.
In 1969, however, Mudgee station, even at 4 in the morning, was a bustling hive of activity. Passengers were embarking and disembarking, heaters were being swapped out and the kiosk yes, open at that ungodly hour, was dispensing tea, coffee and snacks to weary passengers.
Mum was boarding with a lovely retired couple from Mudgee Presbyterian Church and Les would usually be at the station to pick me up and take me “home”. The weekend would consist of backwards and forwards to the hospital for visiting hours before it was, all too soon, back on the train and heading back to Wollongong. It was tough but tougher on mum who had to daily steel herself for the dreadful state of dad’s health. Later that year, once dad had “recovered” the church re-assigned dad to the Presbyterian Church at Port Kembla so that he could be close to family and he came “home”
Sadly, his recovery was not really one and, on the 20th of December of 1969, he suffered another massive heart attack at home and was gone before the ambulance could even get there. He was just 58 and it was just months before my 21st birthday so it and Christmas were very subdued occasions.
During the term holidays I was able to stay with the Mumfords and mum for most of the break which was great for all of us. Far from being the hipster, tourist venue that Mudgee is now, it was a typical quiet country town. No city departments store chains, just normal people living a regional lifestyle that somehow seems, on reflection, to be much more charming and desirable than what country towns have become today.
I did get to do some exploring, however. Les took me to Wellington Caves, a much more interesting venue than their more famous counterparts near Oberon. He took me out to Gulgong, once a thriving gold rush town where, it is said there were 93 pubs at the height of the boom. But Gulgong is also where kaolin is mined, I’d never even heard of it. Kaolin, also called china clay, is a soft white clay that is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of china and porcelain and is widely used in the making of paper, rubber, paint, and many other products.
And he took me to Home Rule. The very name reeks of history and it was a fascinating little town. But Les and his wife thought that I’d be interested in as I was a trainee teacher. Why? Because the tiny, little one-teacher school there was the first school attended by one of Australia’s greatest writers, Henry Lawson. Sure enough there in the foyer, were the school records, open at the page showing the enrolment details of the great writer himself.
The school is long since close, or course (don’t get me started on THAT) but the school house is still doing a roaring trade as a tourist venue, why am I not surprised?
Isn’t it amazing what memories that one photo can trigger? Thanks for reading.