'About as Popular as a Dose of Clap': Steam, Diesel and Masculinity at the New South Wales Eveleigh Railway Workshops

Article excerpt

For over a century the power and majesty of steam locomotives 'caught and held the public imagination everywhere'.1 Between the 183Os and the late 1940s they dominated railway systems around the world, and in many countries steam traction remained in operation until the 1970s.2 Their reliance on the extraction and burning of coal and their ability to transport coal and other goods quickly and cheaply had a profound impact on the environment as well as creating an energy revolution, economic growth and employment. Railway lines, bridges, stations and workshops transformed natural terrains, helped to open up new areas of settlement and encouraged urbanisation.3 Moreover railway facilities created social landscapes in which a complex variety of occupational sub-cultures flourished. Unique among them was the railway workshop.

Railway workshops constituted 'an important cultural context in their own right' in which 'two of the central elements of the industrial revolution', the factory and the railway system, converged.4 Akin to a 'bailiwick' in the 'railway nation', these workshops provided a distinct 'space within which workers formed identities, customs and habits' that were shaped by what Strangleman refers to as 'a Byzantine caste system' based on 'department, station, shed, region, grade and craft/non-skilled status and trade union'.5 Although craft-based trades were dominant, workshops were occupationally heterogeneous.6 The steam fitters, blacksmiths, lathe-operators and boilermakers, among others, who manufactured, assembled, repaired and maintained steam locomotives, shared the culture of the traditional metal shop. Together with the carpenters and coach painters in the carriage and wagon shops, these skilled workers 'shared traditions, practices, peculiarities, and even a language' which divided them from others.7 The same was true of the engineers, firemen and engine-drivers who made up the running trades and whose isolation on long train journeys encouraged what Stein refers to as 'a sense of apartness'.* During the steam era these skilled workers had far greater status than their unskilled counterparts mainly as a result of their specialised mechanical knowledge and higher pay.9 After World War II, however, their prestige and corporate solidarity were undermined when the spread of diesel locomotives powered by internal combustion engines irrevocably altered railway occupations and the prevailing workplace culture of railway workers.10 Not only did the accompanying focus on 'light industry and clean power' help to transform 'the steam stud' into 'a smoky relic of a bygone time', but it also undermined the work practices and occupational identities of those who had been associated with it.11

Despite, or perhaps because of, the virtual eradication of the steam locomotive from the railway industry, it continues to attract far more interest than the diesel.12 Comparatively little has been written on the process and impact of dieselisation.13 Even so, histories of both technologies have shared a similar focus on invention, development and implementation, as well as on management and corporate decision-making in different national contexts. Although some scholars have investigated the way dieselisation affected workers' skills, industrial relations and community life, little attention has been given to its impact on gender relations and identities.14

To correct this neglect, this article departs from the traditional 'sex-blind' transport history, which was written 'primarily by men for a male audience' and focused on machinery, technological processes, entrepreneurial activity, and public policies. Drawing inspiration from feminist scholarship on technology15 and new work on the cultural aspects of the railways,16 it adopts a gendered perspective to investigate how the transition from steam to diesel technologies affected the work practices, relations and identities of those who were employed at the New South Wales (NSW) Eveleigh Railway Workshops in Sydney, Australia. …