Railway Life and Song

Brian Dunnett

Brian Dunnett had a strong connection to Eveleigh and the railways. He came from a railway family, where he, his father, and two uncles worked at Eveleigh Railway Workshops. Brian’s grandfather also worked for the railways in Sydney. Brian had actively campaigned for the interpretation and conservation of Eveleigh’s heritage, over many years.

Brian’s father, Charlie Dunnett, was an ironworker at Eveleigh, and worked as a belt repairer in the Machine Shop where he oiled and repaired the belts and pulleys used to drive the overhead line shafts for the steam powered machinery. 

Brian started his electrical apprenticeship with the railways in 1950 and trained at Eveleigh. He worked as an electrician at Eveleigh from 1954 to 1964. He also worked at Chullora Railway Workshops and the White Bay Power Station during his career with the railways. While at Eveleigh, Brian worked in the Train Equipment section, working with train lighting. Brian recalled that even as late the 1950s train carriages were still lit with gas lamps. However, with the introduction of diesel trains, low voltage generators were installed under each carriage to produce lighting for the train. 

Brian was actively involved with the union movement and was a Shop Steward and part of the Shop Committees at Eveleigh.

Music has played an important role in Brian’s life, particularly folk music and the songs and music of the railways. He extensively researched, collected, archived and presented songs and poetry written about the railways and railway working life in Australia, from its early beginnings to modern times. 

Brian also initiated, developed and toured cultural exhibitions such as Trains of Treasure and the accompanying cassette and CD. He performed widely as part of the group Matilda’s Mob, as well as collaborated with other folk musicians in Australia and overseas. Brian organised music festival events and song competitions, founded and produced the International Railway Film Festival at Eveleigh in 2012.

Brian continued to make a significant contribution to educating others on the value of preserving railway heritage and celebrating Australia’s labour history and industrial development until his passing in 2016.

Mark Gregory

Since the early 1960s Mark Gregory has been interested in lyrical commentary on working life exemplified in song and poem, tracing and collecting examples to study the origins and traditions of this material with a particular focus on Australia. 

In 1984 Mark began working with Brian Dunnett on his Railway Songs collection and was involved in the recording of poems and songs associated with the Trains of Treasure exhibition.

For the last twenty years his collections have made use of the internet and the possibility of storing searchable archives of lyrics and audio files. Taken together these research archives contain over 1000 Australian songs and poems:

In 2007 Mark completed his MA in Music at Macquarie University – ‘Sixty Years of Australian Union Songs’ subtitled ‘The Australian Folk Revival and the Australian Labour Movement Since the Second World War.’  In 2014 Mark completed his PhD in History at Wollongong University: ‘Australian Working Songs and Poems – A Rebel Heritage.’ 

A considerable proportion of the material cited in this thesis results from his recent discoveries of works published in Australian newspaper reports, searches facilitated by the National Library of Australia’s Trove Project. 

Mark’s Trove based research also played an important role in two recent ABC Radio National Hindsight programs, ‘Isle of Denial – William Cuffay in Tasmania’ focusing on Chartism and broadcast in 2012 (shortlisted for the 2012 NSW Premier’s Multimedia History Prize) and ‘Frank the Poet – A Convict’s Tour to Hell’ which was broadcast in Australia in 2013 and Ireland in 2014 (the poet was born in Tipperary in 1811).

One of Mark Gregory’s most acclaimed Trove discoveries has been the earliest publication of the iconic shearer’s song ‘Click Go the Shears’ (Bacchus Marsh Express, 5 December 1891) under its original title ‘Bare Belled Ewe.’ This research became the subject of a popular ABC Landline national television broadcast in 2014 which foregrounded the question of the historical connections between the song and the 1891 shearers’ strike in Queensland.


Further Information

Australian Railway Songs is an online research archive created by Brian Dunnett and Mark Gregory 

The Old Bush Songs, edited by Banjo Patterson, published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1905

Casey Jones the Union Scab” by Joe Hill (1912), performed by Haywire Mac, released 1950, available in CD or download from Smithsonian Folkways here

Original popular song Casey Jones about an engine driver, words by T. Lawrence Seibert (1912), performed by Bill Murray and chorus, markedly different from Joe Hill’s political reworking of the song 

Bump me into Parliament” by Bill Casey (1915), performed by Raymond Crooke 

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson (1936), performed by Paul Robson at the Sydney Opera House, circa1960

Music Acknowledgements

“The Afghan’s Song”, live performance by Brian Dunnett and Margaret Walters © Russ Herman, 2001. Used with permission of Russ Herman

“Solidarity Forever”, written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, performed by Bernard Carney © Bernard Carney, from the CD “Stand Together", 1996. Used with permission of Bernard Carney

“2nd Class Wait Here”, poem by Henry Lawson (1899), music by Brian Dunnett, performed by Matilda’s Mob (vocals by Margaret Walters), © Rail Tram and Bus Union, 83-89 Renwick St, Redfern, NSW 2016, available on CD “Trains of Treasure”, 2013. Used with permission of the RTBU.

“Comrade Fettler”, Anon (1938), performed by Matilda’s Mob (vocals by Carl Evensen), © Rail Tram and Bus Union, 83-89 Renwick St, Redfern, NSW 2016, available on CD “Trains of Treasure”, 2013. Used with permission of the RTBU.

“The Launceston and Deloraine Railway”, lyrics by unknown (1871), tune based on “Marching Through Georgia”, live performance by Brian Dunnett and Margaret Walters © Russ Herman, 2001. Used with permission of Russ Herman.

“Midland Railway Workshops” by Bernard Carney, © Bernard Carney, available on CD “West”, 2004. Used with permission of Bernard Carney