Each boy had to learn the streets and house numbers, the series of personalised knocks or whistles used to wake each driver in time to start.

by Raquel Ormella

We are having a project tour of the Carriageworks site (formerly Eveleigh Railway Workshops). Laila Ellmoos, the City of Sydney historian, tells us that the drivers and firemen working out of this depot lived within walking distance. How the day began at 4am with the apprentice boys cycling the route of the men on the first shift.

It is evening, and I walk home through Redfern, Newtown and Enmore. Decades ago I began to inhabit this part of the city. It was cheap because the houses were small and you could always find an unrenovated place: two rooms, kitchen at the back, bathroom and toilet, a series of wooden add-ons. Row houses where you could feel your neighbours walking up their hallway because the floorboards continued under the thin common wall. Most of those places are renovated now. In the evening’s half-light, with shadows obscuring the details, I wonder if I can see the streets as they were in 1917? Can I reach back and imagine all those workers back into life? Is it possible to feel their struggle, to know them, to name them? Is it possible to walk these streets as they did, knowing their neighbours as co-workers, as fellow strikers, as a community?

In the newspapers of the day, the workers are unnamed masses on the picket line and at the rallies in the Domain. Their names appear in the historical record when they were in court: Louis Eisenberg charged with affray for booing and yelling at scabs. When Mervyn Flanagan was shot and killed by a loyalist, his brother James and friend Henry Williams were charged with having used violence to stop the assailant. The threat of being discriminated against, of not being able to find work because you had your union card marked as an agitator, meant the community hid the names of strikers. Still, I want to imagine a way that at least some of the strikers can be acknowledged. That their actions and convictions can be honoured in present, and in this way, prompt descendants to share more names.

I imagine cycling a morning route, stopping at each house to call out a worker’s name, and placing a small, personalised banner with union symbol – the handshake and white lily – on its facade. Each banner made with recycled contemporary work clothes, business shirts as well as overalls. Clothes that speak of our labour; easier, cleaner and better paid because of many strike actions. I envisage placing these banners through the suburbs surrounding the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, collectively revealing this past community. Many of the small wooden houses may have disintegrated, replaced with 1980s and ‘90s town houses. Other names may reveal the turn-of-the-century boarding houses still remaining in Newtown. Each banner will pull the past through to the present, gathering with it many stories that again will be lost to time.

1917: The Great Strike

Published: 19 Jul 2017