Cement History, Local History, Mudgee History, Occupations, Social Life

The Wallerawang to Mudgee Railway Line

Who Built it and How

After the surveyors had determined the rail route, and engineers had drawn up plans and specifications, tenders were called. The first section from Wallerawang to Capertee Camp – 23 miles – was to be completed in eighteen months. Monie and Mattison, one of nine tenderers, got the job in August 1880 with their price of £181,000. Hardly had the ink dried on the contract, when they sent their first 300 navvies to clear the route. By the turning of the first sod ceremony they’d cleared 15 miles of timber.

Lightly timbered country it was called. The first five miles were fairly level followed by rugged mountainous gravelly terrain. It would demand numerous cuttings and embankments of 12 to 15 metres, excavation of more than a half-million cubic metres of earth and a tunnel of 80 metres. There were to be seven ironbark bridges over creeks and a number of brick culverts. 

This was the age of the pick and shovel: no graders, rollers, diggers and cranes. Well, a bit of equipment, using horse and bullock power, but mostly man power. The classified ads placed in newspapers by the railway contractors give an idea of the skill-range of their navvy workforce: axemen, broad axemen, pickmen, shovellers, stonebreakers, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, hewers, quarrymen, pitcher dressers, squarers, splitters, fencers, ballast fillers, sleeper getters, engine drivers. Labour was scarce in the early 1880s and workers were induced by ‘highest wages’ and ‘good wages to good men’. These ranged from ninepence to one and sixpence an hour, paid monthly and dependent on skills.

Navvies had a reputation as hard drinkers, hard fighters and hard spenders. Some were Irish and English immigrants who had constructed railways in their homeland. It seems though, that the majority on the Mudgee line were Australian born. They were a nomadic workforce arriving at the Wallerawang camp with their tents and wagga rugs*, in their flannel shirts, dungaree trousers, felt hats and bowyangs**, looking as rough as their surroundings. They worked in all weathers in dust and mud. Their greatest fears were injury and death. Their greatest solace grog. In December of that first year a public meeting was held at Wallerawang to ‘secure additional police protection for the town and district’. In the same month Sergeant Ferris raided the railway camps and served warrants on nine sly-grog shanty keepers, most of whom disappeared (and no doubt reappeared down the line). Again in the same month a navvy called Evitt was killed by a tree falling on him. The contractors donated regularly to the local hospitals as a kind of insurance for their workforce. 

In May 1881 the government called tenders for the second section of the railway line, 62 miles, from Capertee Camp to Mudgee, to be completed by 30 June 1884. In June ’81 the successful tenderers were announced as Fishburn and Morton, one of eight tenderers, with a price of £464,000. It was said at the time, that the section between Capertee Camp and Rylstone was one of the heaviest pieces of rail construction in the colony. For the first ten miles the route flanked steep hillsides above the Capertee Valley, curving and winding till it reached a hill which needed a 382 metre tunnel (Carlos Gap). The next five miles were built beneath towering cliffs with breathtaking views, but on unstable shale, which, over decades, would cause landslips and rockfalls. Then followed a series of curves and cuttings (the biggest at Flatlands) through rough country to Clandulla.

The hardest section (Carlos Gap) took the longest time, resulting in the largest camps. Vincents Hole had 1500 people. McDonalds Hole, which had most of the business places, had 2000 people. Over the three years of construction, smaller camps like Reedy Creek, Dungaree and Hunts Cutting sprang up. 

A film-maker wanting to capture McDonald’s Hole, might take an aerial shot panning over rugged bush, scattered with hundreds of assorted tents and huts; some with vegetable gardens; bullocks and horses feeding in enclosed paddocks. Ambient light suggests late afternoon. Children play hopscotch on a track near a bark school. Women light fires, boil billies, set up camp ovens. Navvies drift back from the works. A butcher’s cart makes a timely arrival. A covered bullock wagon sells provisions. The camera zooms in on larger shanties: Mr Hugh Hughes’ Railway Extension Hotel (one of three licensed premises offering ‘beer that’s brewed to cheer the navvy’s heart’ though spirits are more popular). A tent gives notice of mail and postal; a shack advises Sunday services; a doctor is on call, paid by the contractor. A group outside a tent discuss the blasting accident that caused mayhem at Tong Bong Gap (where Joseph Clark, Patrick Sheridan, and John Burns received horrific injuries in June 1882).

But back to the track. The last section of the railway, Rylstone to Mudgee, was less troublesome for the contractors, wending through pastoral country, valleys and river flats, but still with some heavy rock cuttings and creek crossings. Hunt’s Cutting a few miles from Mudgee was a shocker. In June they pulled up the line twice because of landslip. A few months later Fishburn and Morton were called back to form a loop line around the cutting. 

As I explored the topic of this railway, I kept searching for James Angus, first chairman of the Kandos cement company. We in Kandos have always believed James Angus built the Wallerawang to Mudgee railway. And that in 1913 he chose the site for the cement works based on his knowledge of resources in the area. I didn’t find him. I found another James Angus, an engineer working for the railway department. He came from England in 1890 and went home in 1891, so he definitely had nothing to do with our railway.

I searched further afield. From 1878 James Angus was a partner in the firm Topham, Angus and Smith, Angus having recently come from New Zealand where he also built railways. Between 1878 and 1884 Angus’s firm was busy constructing the Geelong to Queenscliffe Railway, the Carlesruhe to Daylesford Railway, the Eastern Suburbs Tramway, the Campbelltown to Camden Tramway, the Prince Alfred Hospital Sewerage Contract, the first and seventh section of the Sydney Water Supply including the tunnel from Nepean to Broughton’s Pass, the Homebush Cattle Yards, the Goulburn to Cooma Railway and the Bondi Sewer and Outlet.

I expect Topham, Angus and Smith were tenderers for the Wallerawang to Mudgee railway and would have researched the route. Angus also knew the contractors of the Wallerawang to Mudgee line – he worked with them to improve the tendering and arbitration of government contracts. He was well placed to choose his cement company’s site. But he didn’t build the railway.

*sleep coverings made from four or five flour sacks or chaff bags sewn with a packing needle and twine. 
** straps or strings around the trousers just below the kneecap.

The featured image is taken from Australian Town and Country Journal Saturday 21 November 1885, p27

Bullock Team at Work on a NSW Railway

8 thoughts on “The Wallerawang to Mudgee Railway Line”

  1. A wonderful story and what amazing people they were, cant imagine that the workers of today would be able to achieve what they did with very little machinery.


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