The Roaring Giant

“Row upon row of drab smoke-grimed buildings, housing a throbbing energy which pulses forth to the accompaniment of the thump, thump, thump of giant presses torturing white-hot steel into servitude. That is Eveleigh Workshops, the heart of the State's transport system. 

There is a steady drone of high-powered machinery, drilling, boring and turning in every possible fashion; the clatter of overhead cranes, hurrying and scurrying, fetching and carrying, and the staccato noise of the boilermakers' rattler. All is somehow resolved into a unity of sound, disturbed only by an occasional burst of excessive violence from any one part. 

Seemingly submerged in this medley is the human element - 2,600 individuals, the strongest of them but puny weaklings besides the machines they control. Yet they make it all possible. Without them the roaring giant would be but a whispering ghost.”

Stan Jones, Eveleigh employee 1

Trial run of new locomotive, 29 November 1945

Eveleigh’s workers specialised in highly advanced technologies and power systems. The site had its own power supplies - hydraulic, steam and compressed air - as well as a dedicated water and electricity to feed these systems. The existing hydraulic system at Eveleigh was installed in 1886, a year before the workshops opened, making it the oldest system of its kind in Australia.

The steam engines themselves were:

 “like a living thing: they breathed and they worked and they expanded and contracted with the heat just like human beings do, you know and when they got angry, they blew their top just like human beings…it reacted to whatever you did to it.” 

Vaughan Givillian, Eveleigh employee 2

Seventy-five 36 class steam locomotives were built by Eveleigh Railway Workshops and Clyde Engineering. Introduced to New South Wales in 1925, the 36 class was more powerful and capable of higher speeds than the 35 class locomotives introduced in 1914. For over 20 years, until the advent of the 38 class, the 36 class was the mainstay locomotive of passenger services. 

“I thought I'd love to be a steam engine driver because they went out to different places, up the coast and down the coast. Many a time I went for a ride with them. 

That's an experience in itself too, riding on a steam train when it's flat out. And I'd see how they used to shovel the coal and…what they had to put up with – their conditions.”

John Willis, Eveleigh employee 3  

In 1888, the workshops’ steam power was supplied by locomotive boilers adapted as stationary boilers. These boilers supplied steam power to machinery still in Bays 1 and 2 - the Davy Press, steam hammers and the giant double arch drop hammer. 

“It was a workshop built and designed for steam locomotives and the relics of the steam days are still to be seen.”

Jack Bruce, Eveleigh employee 4

The four identical 36 class boilers that stand outside the Locomotive Workshops today were installed in 1964. They were first converted from coal to fuel oil, and then in 1976, they were converted to gas.

Class 5801 being prepared for a trial run at the Eveleigh Workshops, January 1950

The eastern boiler supplied steam solely to the Davy Press. The other three fed steam lines that ran the length of Bays 1-5 and across the Laneway (now Locomotive Street) to the foundry and other shops. The noise of the machinery and the continual beating and gurgling of the steam created a unique, sometimes dangerous, work environment.

“You were more or less like a brotherhood.  You were all in the same boat, involved with steam engines and of course they breathed and they worked and expanded and contracted with the heat just like human beings do. And when they got angry they blew their top just like human beings and so I suppose … you can understand why people love steam engines.”

Jack Bruce, Eveleigh employee 5

The steam was fed through six-inch steel pipes which were lagged with asbestos. Despite this insulation, steam, as a vapour, is difficult to pipe over large distances. Therefore most steam was turned into mechanical power and distributed using wall-mounted steam engines, line shafts, belts and pulleys. These were very dangerous as well as being relatively inefficient due to heat loss and condensation.

“The shop was activated in the morning, when the chap would open up the main control valves on the four big boilers on the outside there… the whole workshop would kinda become alive.”  

Richard Butcher, Eveleigh blacksmith 6 

Wheel Shop, Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops, undated

I saw a chap get tangled up in a belt one day. And there wasn't a jot of guard around them, they were fairly easily accessible….there wasn't a safety program as such. 

You were told not to use loose clothing but we didn't have enough money to buy special clothing and you just used old clothing that you had.  

There weren't special overalls to buy, like they get supplied with these days. We wore anything you could find.

Bill Leech, Eveleigh employee 7

In 1985 just prior to the closure of the workshops, there were still a small number of machines operating on steam power. These were primarily the steam hammers in the Blacksmiths Shops, including the Davy Press.

“Part of my job was delivering paper dockets with their work attached – what they had to do to these steam engines.  You can imagine with two to three hundred engines all pumping black smoke out, I got to know the shapes of the men – I had to go and find them.  

In those days there were no such things as torches, they had…kerosene lamps – and you got to know the shape of a man, or the hat that he wore – a paper hat, or his own hat – and you could pick them out very easily and give them their work dockets. Really, I really loved what I did.”

John Willis, Eveleigh employee 8