My love for steam-trains started when I was very young. My parents, like most in the 1940s/50s, didn't own a motorcar and as a result we went everywhere by public transport. Trams, buses, red electric trains and country steam-trains in that order of use. I suppose the trams got me used to seeing multiple carriages coupled together running along a pair of rails. The same description could apply to trains. My mum can remember steam trams but they were gone by the time I started to ride.
Most of the trams on the Abbotsford line, where I lived in Sydney, were "O" class. Round ended with a glassed-in section in the middle and a fresh air section at each end between the driver's cabs and the glassed-in section. No corridor down the centre. The conductor had to stand on the running board down the side, out in all weathers. I got the impression the tram designers were told that riding would be free. Ticket sellers were an after thought. Poor blokes. I wonder how long they managed to stick it out before they resigned.
The buses were of course the double decker Leyland and A.E.C. painted green and cream. You know... the ones with the mechanical hand, painted yellow, that lived in a little house just below the drivers right side window. If he pushed a lever in the cab, the hand slid out from its house in the vertical plane to indicate the bus was stopping. If he pushed the lever a bit further, the hand pivoted 90 deg and pointed straight out to the right indicating the bus was turning right. There was even a little light to illuminate the hand at night. You know you haven't lived until you've ridden in the front seat upstairs when the driver is in a hurry. I understand there was a big weight under the floor to stop them tipping over when going fast around a corner but they sure did lean.
The red electrics consisted of, Walsh-Island Dockyard steel (these were the best, big wide doorways, easy to see out and open the doors to get fresh air, great in the summer), Tulloch (so so, doors too small and less seats than the Walsh-Island type), and even some of Dr Bradfield's wooden carriages with their compressed air arc suppressors. What a sound they made when shutting off power suddenly in the middle of accelerating. The last red rattlers to be built were the Commeng Sputniks (didn't like these, you couldn't open the doors to get fresh air and no air-conditioning either). The management of the NSWGR in 1957, when these were built, thought it would be better for passengers if they didn't sit down as much so the Sputniks had 30% fewer seats than the original Bradfield cars.
When going anywhere by electric, we usually caught it at Burwood. This is where I was first exposed to Steam Engines. There were and still are six railway lines at Burwood. A pair for the all station stopping local electrics, a pair for the express urban electrics and a pair for the country steam-trains. I was lucky that Burwood was the last stop on the express lines going into the city. This meant when going to town we could use the platform for the express urban electrics. On the other side of this platform were the country lines. Depending on the time of day we would sometimes wait 15mins (minutes) for the next train into town. There were so many country trains back in those days, I would always see at least one maybe two steam-locomotives. They would be either a C32 class, C36 class or if I was really lucky, one of only thirty C38 class express passenger locos. On those odd ocassions which turned out to be very special, a steamer, on its way to Central Station, would pass Burwood just as the express urban electric got under way and the race was on. The steam loco would be out in front but the electric would slowly catch up and pass, giving us a terrific view of the engine's machinery whizzing in and out, up and down and round about. Strangely though when the steamer had dropped back to about the last carriage the exhaust would sharpen and it would start gaining on us and slowly pass by. Now that I think about it, the two drivers were obviously not racing but just having a bit of fun; putting on a show for us mere mortals. It was much appreciated by us kids. MacDonaldtown was the cue to move over to the other side of the carriage to look at Eveleigh Workshops: the hallowed ground where the engines lived. There appeared to be acres and acres of steam locomotives, most looking normal, but some, with their tenders removed, looked very strange indeed. And so my young mind was slowly imbibed with the sights and sounds and smells of mankind's most anthropomorphic machine.
The pinnacle of this exposure occured just after Christmas, on or about about the 2nd week of January (mid-summer in Australia). We would spend a couple of weeks with my parents' relatives who lived on a farm at Currabubula (pronounced car-ra-bub-yew-la, isn't that a terrific sounding name), a little community just south of Tamworth on the New England Tablelands, 264 rail miles north of Sydney. Currabubula (I just like hearing it) is about 1420ft above sea-level. Sydney's Central Railway Station is about 70ft above sea-level. The highest point between the two is near Ardglen at a little over 2070ft above sea-level so you can see there is quite a bit of climbing to do.
The next important point, the trip occurs at night. As sound carries very well in the cool night air, the loco exhaust sound will be clear and sharp all night long. (Just to elaborate a bit:- In the late 1940s and early 1950s there were not a lot of cars around and most people travelled to and from the country by train. Then, unlike now, the trains were run for the benefit of the locals not the tourists. In order to let the travelling public make efficient use of their time (isn't that what the railways are there for?) the people who ran the NSWGR had the brilliant idea to run a series of trains around the state at night. This means if a country person had to come to Sydney on business he could travel to Sydney one night, do his business next day and travel back the next night. It only took one day to get his business done. Nowdays you have to travel to Sydney one day, do your business the next day and travel back the next day. It now takes three days where it only used to take one. Progress? Hmm! There used to be toilets on all the trains from Sydney to Newcastle (about 100 miles) now only some have them. Bad luck for the elderly. Progress? Hmmm! You could now take a country bus but as I understand it, and I could be wrong, already more people have been killed or injured in country bus crashes in the short time they have been running than in the 100 odd years of train travel. Progress. Hmm!) (Well, that's all very interesting but it belongs to another story, so let's get on with this one.)
I was normally in bed by about half past seven, eight o'clock at the latest. Now this night trip would allow me to stay up and go out in the dark when every thing looks different and mysterious. As we would be carrying big suitcases we would not travel by bus or tram to Central. We would travel by taxi. One little interesting aside to this country trip, was the necessity to appear prosperous. When somebody grows up in the country and decides to go to the 'big smoke' to make his fortune, it is important to at least appear to have succeeded, if at any time he returns to the country for a visit. At the beginning of a school year I would get a new pair of shoes. Of course it would be opportune if I got them before we went on our country visit. For some reason people judge your prosperity by the state of your shoes. If they are old and worn, you're poor, if new, you're rich. It sounds crazy but it seems to be true. Thus, just before our trip to the country-cousins, we would go to our local shoe shop and buy me a new pair. There was an interesting contraption in this particular shop. I think it was called a Pedoscope. Raised on a platform, up which you had to climb three steps, was a box about three feet high, with a small rectangular hole at the bottom front and on the top, three viewing hoods contoured to the shape of your face to keep the light out. The idea was, you put on the new shoes, pushed one foot up against the small rectangular hole and put the front part of your foot in the hole. You, your mother and the salesman, each looked in a viewing hood while a button was pressed to turn the unit on. A green picture would appear and you could see your toes wriggling in the outline of the shoe. Thus all concerned could see how much room there was in the shoe for further growth. Ah, the magic of Xrays. These units were subsequently removed. For safety reasons I suppose.
As Christmas neared the excitement grew. As my uncle was a mechanic, I had a billy cart which had large truck ball-bearings for wheels and went like the wind. You should have seen the sparks fly as it came skidding round the corner on a concrete foot path. In order to get some holiday spending money I had flattened out lots of old newspapers and then rolled them up into one big roll. With it securely tied to the seat of my billy cart, I went with Mum on her next trip to the butchers. I was lucky that at that time the butchers used old newspapers as the outer wrapping for meat parcels they had first wrapped in pristine white butchers' paper. They would pay enterprising kids a 'penny a pound' for clean newspapers neatly rolled. I boyhandled my roll on to the counter with a bit of help from Mum. The butcher picked it up like it was feathers and placed it on the big white tubular scales. The numbers started to roll round in the little window and stopped at 12. You beauty, I've now got a shilling to spend and the excitement continued to grow.
The next event on the program was an unforseen one. About four days before Christmas I came out in red spots. The doctor was summoned and pronounced "You've got the Measles". Oh No! He said I had to stay in bed for five days and chew rasberry flavoured cubes of powder (sulpha drugs I think) then keep away from people for two weeks. But it's Christmas! "Sorry but you'll spend Christmas day in bed." Thank God I'll be better again before we go away on our train trip to Currabubula. I woke up Christmas morning and smelt a wonderful smell. It was coming from a brand new Cyclops scooter, painted fire-engine red, trimmed with thin white lining. The smell came from the baked enamel finish and was peculiar to Cyclops toys. It had 8 inch disc wheels with solid rubber tyres and a drum brake on the back wheel operated by a bracket which also doubled as a stand to stop it falling over when you weren't riding it. The foot-board was made of wood and was sprung to reduce the shock to your ankles from the solid tyres rolling over rough ground. And here I was in bed and could only look at it and smell it. But time passes and eventually I got to ride it. "Keep off the road" admonished my mother. Some streets had concrete footpaths however our footpath was made of tar, black ashphalt, which bubbled in the hot Australian summer, leaving the surface rather bumpy. The same thing happened to the roads but the passing cars acted like steam rollers and flattened them out again. This meant the smoothe road surface was a constant temptation and, as there wasn't much traffic, every now and then I sneaked a forbidden ride. And the excitment grew a bit more. What with getting the measles, Christmas presents including the new scooter, new shoes, travelling by taxi, going away, by steam-train, in the night; it was almost too much for a little person to cope with but the day finally arrived.
With Christmas toys dutifully played with and packed away; my grandfather given his instructions on how to feed our pets while we were away; myself suitably washed and dressed, watching my father struggling to close a large brown suitcase. Finally the locks clicked and a large leather belt strapped around it to give added support to its bulging sides; a tartan rug folded and put between the case and the belt. Of course the belt had to be undone to accomplish this and I was waiting for the case to burst open but the locks held and the belt was quickly done up again. Sandwiches made in case we (read 'me') got peckish and put in a cardboard box to stop them getting squashed; the last minute things thrown into a small port which also had a small leather belt to keep it together; a short walk with my father to the public phone box (a full-length sound-proof Superman type made of wood and glass, painted red on the outside and speckled green or fawn on the inside; much better than those poor excuses they call phone boxes today) to book a taxi for a quarter-to-nine tonight. The train left around half past ten. Mum and Dad liked to get there early. Sometimes so early the train wasn't even in the platform. My grandfather had given me some money to swell my coffers. Now I had two bob (shillings) and could buy some comics. Good old "Pop" as I called him.
Now there was nothing to do but wait. Every minute seemed like an hour. I drove my parents nuts. "Isn't it time to go yet? Where's the taxi? It's not coming. We're going to miss the train!" But, surely as night follows day, the clock eventually dragged its hands round to quarter-to-nine and, with a beep of its horn, the taxi arrived. Now it was time for action. "Put your coat on. Dont forget your cap (a cold weather one, not a baseball one) and scarf. Have you got your money tied up in your hanky? Have you been to the toilet? No! Take your coat off and hurry up." By the time you get back the suitcases are in the boot and Mum is double checking that Pop has all his instructions off pat. You say good-bye to the cat and dog; hug Pop and then off to the taxi. What strange smells taxis have. Different to buses. A wave to Pop and we're off.
All the familiar streets have disappeared. I don't recognise anything. It's a different country. Hang on; isn't that the Iron Cove bridge? I know where I am now and the different country has gone but everything still looks mysterious. Goodness knows what lurks in the shadows just beyond the bright lights of the main road. (Remember in those days even the main road lights weren't that bright.) Coming up over the hill at Rozelle I could see the coloured neon signs on top of the city buildings; not far to go now. I see my first steam engine for the night as we cross the rail lines near the White Bay power station with its windows flickering pinkish purple from the giant mercury arc rectifiers supplying the 500 volts DC for the Sydney tram system. Further along we cross the old steel Glebe Island bridge and a large area of blackness opens up on the right hand side. Various big boats are moored round the perimeter of this blackness and are lit up like christmas trees. In what seems like no time the taxi swings around in front of the illuminated clock tower high above the Central Railway Station building. There are taxis everywhere disgorging people and suitcases. Our taxi finds a recently vacated spot in front of the main entry. In a very short time we are standing on the footpath while Dad and the driver get our cases from the boot. An amount of money changes hands and with a quick cheerio, the driver is back in his taxi and pulls away into the dark.