Labour Day: the workaday life of a Queensland Rail numbertaker

Regular readers of this blog know of my families’ long association with the railways in Queensland. Today is the Labour Day public holiday in my home state, Queensland, and I’ve been reflecting on this topic since Labour Day itself on 1 May.

Roma St Railway Station -the old shunting yards extended up to and beyond the right corner of this image. Photo taken P Cass about 2006.

My father Norman Kunkel worked for the railway from when he was a young lad. Strange to say, although I can access the railway personnel files back through the generations, the current ones have apparently been largely destroyed, and only the staff history card survives with its minimal detail. Consequently what I can tell you will be largely anecdotal or from my own personal experience living in a railway family.

Norman left school at 16 and joined the railway as a lad porter. Initially he worked at Landsborough but it wasn’t long before he was back in Brisbane where he remained for the rest of his life.  I’d love to give you the details but without the records I’m stuck….he was never one to share much of his personal history apart from an occasional funny story (he was a good yarn-teller albeit keen on tall tales). He was working in the Roma Street shunting yards by the time he met my mother, a typist in the Goods Office. At the time there were a number of his extended family members working in or around Roma St station.

Norman worked for the Queensland Railways, in its various incarnations, all of his working life: some 43 years. Throughout much of this time he was classified as a numbertaker. “A what” you say? An undertaker? Oh, and what pray tell is a numbertaker? Well let me give you my simplistic explanation of the job: the numbertaker (aka tally clerk) adds up the freight on each goods train, tallying the loads, the destination of each carriage, and how to ensure that the relevant carriage is linked in the right sequence so it can be shunted off easily when it reaches its destination. It’s easy to see that there are safety consequences too in ensuring the freight is distributed appropriately. I have seen him in my girlhood, add long four digit columns of numbers faster than you or I could use a calculator. When I was a very small girl, then struggling with arithmetic, my father helped me until I understood how maths worked. I have no recollection of how he explained it to me, but from then on it made sense.

There is also a post on Rootsweb which responded to someone questioning the role of numbertakers having found an ancestor so documented on an English census report. While the book extract quoted provides insights, it is more UK-specific, as they had multiple rail companies unlike Australia where the railways were state government owned and so there was less need to monitor whose carriages were in another state. Certainly I had never understood this aspect of their duties until I read this extract but the application I mention below makes it clear that there were aspects of this in the job done by Queensland Rail numbertakers. What was extremely familiar was the description of the men’s abilities:

The number takers must be capable of bearing exposure to all kinds of hard weather and possess the requisite amount of smartness and intelligence to enable them to perform their different duties with the utmost accuracy and dispatch.

A view of Roma Street shunting yards 1931, John Oxley Library Image 63242. Copyright expired. The numbertakers’ shed was near the bottom right of this picture.

How very true this is. The sheer physical demands on the men were significant: walking miles every day, from Roma St station itself through the Normanyby to the Exhibition grounds and back, in rail, hail or shine, night and day. Add to that their work environment was hazardous in the extreme with potentially lethal trains criss-crossing the yard throughout their eight hour shift. Add to that, in the days of steam trains, they were breathing coal-dust laden air throughout their shift. Add to that the noise of the yard causing industrial deafness. Add to that again, that they were provided with the merest levels of safety, no high-visibility vests, no reflectors anywhere on their dark blue serge uniforms[i], only a couple of overhead lights over the yard (I kid you not!), and all work done to the light of a kerosene lamp or later a torch. Add to that, in the early 1970s Dad was regularly asked to work 12 or 16 hour shifts. Unfortunately numbertakers belonged to a small union which lacked much muscle consequently their working conditions didn’t get nearly enough attention and their pay was worse than the garbos’. All that shoe leather, his hard work and my mother’s financial management meant that I was able to go to a good secondary school and on to university -the first in our family to do so. For this alone I owe them an untold debt of gratitude.

No wonder that every day as Dad rode his push bike (no gears) to the end of the street and turned and waved as he headed up the steep hill, we really never knew whether he would return home safely. Too often he came home silent and shocked and later we’d learn that some young shunter had lost his leg, or his life, or been incapacitated by being caught between the train’s buffers. I learnt early that the worst sign was when a bloke reached down to feel for his leg, meaning at a minimum he had been severely injured. If a numbertaker’s job was hazardous, the shunter’s was the worst in the industry. Would you be surprised to learn that shunting is second in danger only to mining[ii]? I remember in the early 1970s there was a shocking accident in the yards, under the Normanby bridge to Brisbane Grammar when one of the railwaymen was beheaded. The risks were shocking in their consequences. A quick search of Trove using “accident railway shunter” generates 3545 hits.

This photograph of the shunting yards c1960 by Leonard John Mathews is reproduced from Flickr under Creative Commons. Thanks Len!

Like many other unsung workers in other industries, these men worked shift work, yet another complication in their lives, and to their safety. You knew with railway families not to knock loudly on the door during the day in case the men were sleeping. You also knew how important it was that they got their sleep so it was relatively quiet in the house when it was a night shift roster. Mealtimes and meals themselves were changed around to accommodate the men’s shifts. Birthdays, Christmas and other holidays were all subject to the demands of shiftwork…that’s just how life was. My father routinely worked three shifts in sequence: 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm and 10pm to 6am. On a periodic basis he worked three weeks of afternoon shifts: 2 to 10. I’ve never known why this change of roster occurred, perhaps to give them a break from the destabilising weekly changeovers.

An extract of an application by the numbertakers for a pay increase, late 1960s judging on references to decimal introduction. I have the carbon copy of this application so I suspect my mother typed it up.

Labour Day was one day when the men didn’t mind working the shifts or being on duty: they got paid triple time for their work, the only day of the year that this occurred. I’ve also talked a bit about my father’s war-time railway service here.

If you live in Brisbane and drive down Countess St heading for the freeway or the city, you will see no sign of the activity that used to be the Roma St Shunting Yards. These days high rise units sit not far from where the numbertakers’ shed was, on the city side of the Normanby bridge. (In the 70s they moved to the other side of the bridge where the interchange is now).  Now also the opposite side of the yards have become the wonderful Roma St Parklands. So much history lost behind the urban renewal.

The goods trains and all that go with them have moved to Rocklea on the southern outskirts of Brisbane.


[i] In 1931, during the Depression years, when my father was a small boy, the men weren’t even issued with uniforms, as an “economy” measure.

[ii] I would love to cite the academic article I found this in, but can’t put my hands on it right now.

Down the rabbit hole with McCorkindales and the tragedy of the steamer Pearl.

Monday’s task was to try to find my grandmother’s niece, Ida McCorkindale and siblings, in the newly released Commonwealth Electoral Rolls on Ancestry. I’ve looked at ERs before for her and her siblings with limited results and I was optimistic that with the wider range nation-wide she’d turn up. This time was both a win and a lose: I found Ellen Sim McCorkindale (initially Nellie) through to 1980 and the probate indexes date her death as 1981. Ida disappears around the end of the 1930s and so far I have not found her in marriage or death indexes. I also tried other subscription sites without any greater success. Brother Duncan is more confusing as there are a few possible ones including a marriage, so yet more work to do on all of them.

Next step was to have another look at Trove to see if anything new had turned up there on the family. This is when the rabbit started sprinting for the hole with me in pursuit. I came across an entry for a Mr McCorkindale drowning in Brisbane on 13 February 1896, and looked at Qld BDM online to see who he was….no entry in 1896.

One thing quickly led to another and I was soon immersed down the rabbit hole with the story of a dramatic river accident in which up to 25 people were missing or drowned, one of them Mr McCorkindale.

The essence of what happened was that the steamer Pearl was setting off with about 80 passengers, much less than its full complement to travel between Queen’s Wharf and Musgrave Wharf at South Brisbane. The river was in flood and there were eddies which the captain, an experienced seaman, said threw the boat off course so they barely avoided the Normanby, and the Pearl crossed the chains of the government steamer, the Lucinda, at which the Pearl crashed, split in two and sank.[i] Its passengers and crew quickly found themselves in the river, some being rescued quickly by the crew of the Lucinda. Others were not so fortunate and were swept away. For some time later bodies were being recovered along the length of the river. Mr McCorkindale was reported as saying to Mr Ballinger, the traffic inspector, “Goodbye, I cannot swim. Remember me to my wife”. He was not seen again and remained on the missing list throughout. When you look at the list of women among the missing, it seems likely that the heavy clothing of the time would have stacked the odds against them. While initial reports placed the missing and drowned at 25 but it has been difficult to find final numbers.

A magisterial inquiry was held a week later on 20 February 1896. One report in particular caught my attention. There had been some South Sea Islander people on board including a woman and two children, one of whom remained missing. However a Tommy Matahbelle was refused the opportunity to give evidence because he was not baptised, hence not a Christian, and therefore could not give an oath and evidence. Application for him to be allowed to provide a statement was also refused[ii]. Legal and conventional but hardly moral justice: no multi-cultural acceptance in those days.

The findings of the subsequent Marine Board enquiry were that the master of the Pearl, James Chard, displayed want of skill in navigating the vessel, and that the steamer was lost through his default. His certificate as a home trade master, and his licenses to take charge of steamers within the limits of any port, were cancelled.[iii]

While this is a sad story, significant enough to generate a telegram from the Queen and the British Prime Minister, what intrigued me was the ambiguity over the registration of the deaths. I checked the list of the missing against the Qld BDM indexes and while the uncertainty over first names made it difficult, it seems apparent that at least some of the missing may not have made it to the death registers highlighting one of the ways in which our family can cause us “brick walls”. Mr McCorkindale turned out to be Archibald McCorkindale per the inquiry reports. His death was not registered until 1922 some 26 years later. I wondered how many others were never documented. Even some of those recovered do not appear in the indexes under the names stated in the papers (eg Margaret McGhie).

1922/F6428 Archibald James McCorkindale

Initial newspaper reports listed 25 missing and dead but progressively bodies of many of the drowned were recovered. The magisterial inquiry is invaluable in providing more detail in regard to those who drowned. Those missing, and a few of those later identified, are included here:

Mr Archibald McCorkindale, late President of the Coorparoo Shire Council.

Mrs Best

Mrs Gould (possibly Emma Eliza 1896/B28991)

Mrs (Janet?) Wilson, wife of James Wilson, Russell St, South Brisbane. Ironically he could not swim, yet apparently she could as she tried to hold onto him until he struck something hard in the water. “I will stick to you Jim, I know you cannot swim”.[iv]

Mrs Nellie Harper, residing with Mr & Mrs Wilson, with her four children, cnr Grey &Russell Sts, body later found[v]. Nellie Harper, born England about 30 years old 1896/B28527. I wonder what happened to her children)

Mrs A B Renton (possibly Mary Jane 1896/B28470), Cordelia St, South Brisbane.

Mrs Pogson, Russell St South Brisbane (not on some lists –could this be Mrs Wilson?)

Mrs Kitty Matahbelle does not appear on the lists though she is mentioned in the inquiry. No registration under this surname.

Miss Ida Newman of Coorparoo (her death, under this name, is not registered)

Henry Archibald Jarman, nephew of Louisa Ellen Jarman (1896/B28534) Aged about 21, he had a lifebuoy which he handed over to his aunt saying “Here you take this and save yourself, I’ll be all right”

Mr H E Williams, Pastoral Butchering Company (registration not found)

Mr A G Williams (possibly George Alfred Foster Williams 1896/B29325)

Miss Marshall, Merton Rd

Harry Guzamai (also listed as Gurosomai/Guzomai). 1896/B29529. The bodies of the mother and another child, about 10 years old, were recovered. The mother was said to be a good swimmer.

Timothy O’Sullivan (9 years) (1896/B2856)(body recovered)

Infant child Priest

Mrs Taylor (possibly missing), an old lady, licensee of the Clarence Hotel, South Brisbane.

Hugh Kerr Colquhoun Morren (body recovered, 1896/B28535. His children Martha and her brother had been returning with their father from their mother’s funeral that afternoon. Both children survived the accident. He left a large family of young children[vi]).

If any of these names are relevant to your family it would be worth checking out the stories on this tragedy to get the full picture. So many evocative stories reminiscent of 2011’s disasters.

Back to task: if anyone knows anything more about Ida McCorkindale, her sister Ellen Sim McCorkindale, or brother Duncan McCorkindale, I’d really like to hear from you. Their parents were Duncan and Ida McCorkindale.


[i] The Pearl was recovered from the bottom of the river on 5 March The Worker 14 March 1896. Image of it apparently in The Australasian. It was apparently set to be repaired.

[ii] The Brisbane Courier, 26 February 1896.

[iii] The Argus, 16 April 1896, page 5.

[iv] Magisterial enquiry evidence, The Brisbane Courier, 21 February 1896. Also initial news reports The Brisbane Courier 14 February 1896 including reference to the Harper children.

[v] The Brisbane Courier, 21 February 1896

[vi] Sydney Morning Herald 15 February 1896.