A numbertaker? Say what?!

It’s funny how when writing about ancestors in the past, it seems easy to be objective and base stories on discovered facts. When writing about more recent people and events, the concern is a lack of objectivity. Having said that, I’ll continue with the story of Dad’s working life which will inevitably be from my perspective more than anything else.

Growing up in a railway home, you are aware of two things: the dominance of shift work and its impact on eating and sleeping habits, and the dangers facing the railway workers from day to day. Having read several railway staff files for family members, the department could be unforgiving with mistakes, fining men for any errors (however minor), and occasionally remunerating them for an innovation.

Numbertaker Railway Daily Mercury 8 May 1935 p8

Fair dinkum…this was honestly a response we heard. 1935 ‘Local and General.’, Daily Mercury (Mackay, Qld. : 1906 – 1954), 8 May, p. 8. , viewed 28 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article173191490

It’s likely that Dad started as a lad porter in the Queensland Railways, straight after Grade 10 and just before the beginning of World War II. He had brief stints in Landsborough and on the Gold Coast line, however he spent the bulk of his 50 years of railway service in Roma Street. Once he gained appointment as a numbertaker the rest of his working life was in the Roma Street (aka Normanby) shunting yards and he was working there by the mid-1940s. The usual response is “an undertaker??” No, though it could be argued there were times when the railways could have done with that occupation. In fact, a numbertaker is quite different and is also known as a tally clerk in some services.

 

To this day I’m uncertain about the exact responsibilities of a numbertaker but my understanding is that his duties included checking the weight distribution of wagons and the sequence in which they were loaded, so goods could be off-loaded in the correct order. He could add columns of figures up, quick as a wink, in his head and I saw him do this many times. In fact, when I was struggling with mental arithmetic in Grade 3 or 4 it was Dad who managed to make me understand it, rather than the nun who taught me. The next level up in the ranking was a shunter, and Dad never wanted that job given its high risk. Whether something deterred him when he was young I don’t know, but I do know is that even as a young girl I knew when he’d come up devastated because some young bloke had lost his life or his limb during a shunting accident – and the significance of the injured man trying to feel his leg(s). During his life with the railway he saw this type of accident, and worse, more frequently than anyone would like.

Roma St Good s yard 1935

1930. New Goods Yard at Roma Street Railway Station, c 1936, Queensland State Archives

Apart from the hazards of the shunting yard in and of itself (an occupation I’ve read in a journal is more dangerous even than mining underground), there was the lack of what we’d know as Occupational Health and Safety today. The men wore heavy navy blue serge uniforms which of course which made them nigh invisible at night or in bad weather. There were no high visibility jackets available at the time. Similarly, there was no arc lighting over the yards, rather the men carried a special type of kerosene lamp as they went about their duties. Imagine, if you will, these hazards combined with criss-crossing train tracks and the sheer tonnage of trains around them especially as they got further into their shift with associated tiredness. At a minimum they worked an eight-hour shift, walking between Roma Street and the Exhibition grounds. My mind boggles at how many kilometres and steps he’d have notched up on a Fitbit of today. In the 1970s, when he was in his 50s and we lived in Papua New Guinea, I remember there were many times when he worked extended shifts, sometimes as long as 16 hours. It has taken a long time, but I no longer get anxious with late-night phone calls –  when we knew he was on shift it could strike fear in your heart.

Roma St goods yard 1951 NAA

1951. Cities and towns – Brisbane’s main railway goods yards near Roma Street Station, the main suburban line terminal. National Archives of Australia, out of copyright. The photo was probably taken from the bridge across to the Grammar Schools. The huts on the right hand side are where the men had their smoko breaks.

During the war, the railways were a reserved occupation but before his death Dad told me how he’d had to supervise Italian POWs working near Corinda station. They would start early and work like crazy so they could “chill out” once they’d finished their duties. He always said that had he gone to war he’d have like to have been with the Ambulance Corps…he saw enough accidents that he knew he could cope.

VP Day 1945 Qld Police Museum

Brisbane Victory Celebrations – World War II, VP Day 15 August 1945, Queensland Police Museum.

Somewhere among my notes, he told me once about talking to a policeman about the events of the Battle of Brisbane. When the war finally ended, Mum told me he was pretty peeved to be on duty and unable to go into town to celebrate with the crowds.

Although Dad had learned to drive a car as a young man, we didn’t own a car until the late 1960s. He rode an ungeared pushbike to and from work every day….add that to the Fitbit tally! He would stop at the corner of our street before the hill, and wave goodbye – again part of that “you never know what will happen” concept.

All that fitness probably helped him a great deal aerobically and offset the effects of smoking at the time. However my own view is that his years on oxygen with emphysema had as much to do with coal dust in the yards as smoking. He caught pleurisy when he visited us in PNG in the early 1970s and our friend, the physician, said he had the worst lungs our friend had ever seen – full of coal dust.

On top of that he acquired industrial deafness, unsurprising in that environment, for which he was granted some compensation.

shunting Flickr

This wonderful photo gives a clear idea of why a worker’s lungs might be full of coal dust. Image from Flickr of a PB15 class locomotive shunts the Roma Street railway yards at the Normanby end.photographed late 1960s. Image by Leonard J Matthews, Creative Commons.

I mentioned the shift work which dictated our family activities to some extent. No air-conditioners then to offset a hot summer’s day in Brisbane when sleep was needed, and heaven help anyone who made lots of noise or who hammered on the door. Probably just as well we didn’t have a phone either! Throughout Dad’s working life, at least as I was growing up, his shifts rotated through 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm and 10pm to 6am. He would then do three weeks of 2-10 in sequence, making it difficult, surely, to adjust the sleep patterns. Nor was there a regular weekend for family outings. Of course they also worked hail, rain or shine and he swore blind that he’d seen snow flurries on the night shift in June 1984 when we were in New Zealand, hoping for snow.

Crowds and police in Edward Street infront of the Trades Hall during the Railways Strike Brisbane 1948

“St Hanlon’s Day” march and railway strike was held near Trades Hall on Edward Street, 17 March 1948. Evocative of the scenes of “right to protest” marches, Brisbane, 1966.

Dad was a strong union man though his union was not a large one. He could be vocal about expressing his opinions at the meetings, or so I’m told. It’s hardly a wonder, given the abysmal standards of OH&S. When the contentious 1948 St Patrick’s Day railway strike took place, Dad witnessed what happened, though I believe he was not marching. I wonder if any of his Kunkel cousins were on Police duty that day. He would use this experience to warn me against political marches in the 1960s “if I ever wanted to have children”.

The breaking point for Dad came when they introduced computerised systems. This was all too much for him and he decided it was time for retirement. The men gave him the gift of a recliner, funded from their soft-drink machine purchases…a gift that gave good service as ill-health overtook him.  He also received a Railway service medal.

Numbertaker duties

This is an extract of a submission to get an upgrade to the numbertakers’ pay rates. It gives some idea of the complexities they might be dealing with.  (personal archives)

Eventually the coal dust and cigarettes took their toll and he had repeated bouts in hospital. Each time I returned to Darwin, I thought might be my last farewell so when the final farewell came, the impact was less of a shock. I had managed to catch a flight with minimal time and spent the last nights with him at the hospital along with my other half, and one of our daughters.

Dad on his 80th

Dad on the Kookaburra Queen for his 80th birthday. He’ll probably haunt me for including this photo, but for me it highlights his blue eyes – his DNA bequest to two of his great-grandchildren. Snowy white hair like his mother, but when he was young he had jet black hair and a red beard.

 

On the national stage, those few days were eventful: Kevin Rudd, and the ALP, were elected into federal government ; the Northern Territory government got a new Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, and the long-term asbestosis campaigner, Bernie Banton, also died.

The Normanby goods yard and the men’s mess room are no longer there. The men’s smoko sheds have been overtaken by a bus interchange and Grammar School buildings.  Classy apartments are on the site where dad worked, and the beautiful Roma St Parklands look out over what was once a maze of shunting tracks. Next time you pass by along Countess St, or visit the Parklands, give a thought to my dad and his colleagues who gave their lives to the service of Queensland Rail and successfully delivered freight the length and breadth of Queensland.

Remembering Norman Kunkel

Today is the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. His death went unremarked in the wider world as he was always a loner and never cultivated a friendship circle but of course for me it was a sadly memorable event. In most ways those 10 years seem a long time ago, so much has happened in my own life since, and yet he was such an integral part of my life. It’s time to share a little of his story, both work and personal.

Norman Kunkel had turned 84 not long before his death. He’d been born in a private nursing home on Butterfield St, Herston and his parents planted a mango tree in the corner of their yard when he was born. There was always a superstitious sense that if the tree died, Dad’s days would be numbered, and yet it is still there, growing more healthily than it had done for some years. His parents were old to be having their first child in that era with his father being 43 and his mother 36. Norman would remain an only child and apple of his parents’ eyes.

29 Bally St c1930s_edited-3

This photo of the house where my Dad grew up. The photo would be c1930s as the backyard toilets are still in evidence. It’s difficult to see but there’s a horse in the foreground.

It is unusual, in this day and age, to find someone who has lived in one area for all their life, but Dad took this rather to an extreme.  With brief exception(s), he lived on the same block in Kelvin Grove his entire life, first in his parents’ home and then in the home that was built after I was born when my grandparents subdivided their land. He knew so much about the area, and the people who lived there, yet it was difficult to get stories from him – my best discoveries came when I was writing the family history of the Kunkel family.  I only wish I’d been able to extract more stories from him over the years. Mum called him “Elastic Jack” because she thought he exaggerated a yarn (common enough with story-tellers, I suppose). In retrospect it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, but when on a roll he could be very funny. He had a very particular view of his German heritage which I suspect my Kunkel research discoveries threw into chaos. I now wonder if his German surname, unchanged through two world wars, affected his and the family’s response to their heritage.

Dad’s social network as a child focused on his mother’s siblings and their children. While he may have met his maternal grandmother, Annie Sim McCorkindale, he would have had no memory of her, since she died before he turned three.  Growing up, Norman was closest to his cousin Isabelle who was only a few weeks older than him. I have many photos of the two of them together and I’m thrilled to have recently reconnected with Isabelle’s daughter, my second cousin.

Isabell Bryson and Norman Kunkel c1927

Dad with his cousin Isabelle. Both these cane chairs are still in the family.

Sadly, Dad had little knowledge of his Kunkel cousins, of whom there were many. My grandfather had had a falling out with his siblings, reportedly over religion, and only two uncles came to visit from time to time, and perhaps also their children, one of whom was lost in Korea. I suspect Dad knew more about his Kunkel 2xgreat grandparents than he shared, both frustrating and ironic given my paternal grandfather was their eldest grandchild.

Kelvin Grove State School children c1930

Kelvin Grove State School children c1930. Dad is 4th from left in second back row.

Dad attended the Kelvin Grove State School for his primary schooling. It was the closest to his home and many of the stayers in the area were kids he’d attended primary school with…handy one time when some boys threw stones at me en route home from the Catholic school. Dad was round totheir father, quick as a wink, and it never happened again. I’ve been lucky to inherit many school photos from those days. In high school he ended up at Brisbane State High School at West End. He was never a good scholar and yet he was a prolific reader all his life – a love he shared with me. A fond memory is that whenever I was sick he’d bring me special comics or books home to read.

Norman Kunkel v young

Dad in his railway uniform as a young man.

As a teenager Dad joined Queensland Railways, like his father and many other Kunkel family members. Ironically while I have staff files for many of my ancestors, there is none available for Dad as these have been destroyed. It’s likely he joined first as a lad porter but for decades he worked as a numbertaker in the Roma Street goods yard, of which more anon. He worked shift-work for many years and our family life revolved around accommodating these constraints.

There was no tennis or golf, cricket or football, in Dad’s off-duty time – he’d got quite enough physical exercise during his shift. Instead he did the standard things men did in those days: mowing the lawn, mending shoes, and keeping the yard tidy. Unlike many families of that era, there was no vegetable patch in our garden and no chook yard. I have a distant memory of Dad having to kill a chook one year (probably for Christmas) and it running around, headless. He’d have hated that as, looking back, I can see that he hated killing fish or chooks, and, only once, having to drown some kittens in the nearby creek.

Norman Kunkel

Dad and his roses – an early colour photo thanks to a family member who brought the film back from the USA.

He grew beautiful roses in the front garden, the most prolific of which was a red rose called Roundelay and one I loved that was pink striped (name?). Gerberas held a fascination for him and he grew magnificent double gerberas back when singles were the norm (oops a name pun there!). He would order them and the roses in from a nursery in Bundaberg.

Having lived near a tributary of Breakfast Creek all his life, he was familiar with the hazards of snakes and taught me early how to deal with them – a skill that proved handy many times. When I was very little we would fish in the creek but all I remember catching was the odd catfish. However, whenever we went to Magnetic Island on holidays, Dad and I would go fishing, either off the jetty or in a dinghy which he’d row out into Picnic Bay. There we’d catch delicious tropical fish like coral trout, rock cod, rainbow trout etc, and yet somehow I picked up his reluctance to having to kill them. I liked to be Daddy’s girl and go fishing, but it’s not something I’ve continued into adult-hood, for the same reason as him.

He loved the bush and he, Mum and I would often go bush-walking especially when on holidays. From him I learned the names of birds and some plants. They were special times as a family.

norm and joan at picnic bay1

My parents climbing up from Rocky Bay,

One time I came home from Girl Guides very upset about something and Dad’s advice has stuck with me down the decades “don’t always turn the other cheek”. This was so contrary to my religious education that it truly caught my attention. Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself.

Dad also shared his love of cats with me – a love that has continued throughout my life. We were never without one when I was a child, and only for one very brief period as an adult. They are a fundamental part of my well-being.

pauleen norm at picnic bay

One of my favourite photos – Dad, me and kittens on holidays at Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island

When they were planning to build the Ballymore Stadium in the 1960s, familiar to Rugby Union aficionados, Dad was up in arms battling all the powers that be. It was ironic that after it was built he became a dedicated rugby fan (helped a little by his daughter’s new boyfriend!). He was never much of a drinker, but he liked an occasional beer or whisky, which led to a funny story one day when we were all engrossed watching a game on TV and Mum moved his coffee table as she tidied.

Like many men of his era he enjoyed bush ballads and poetry and could recite some by heart.

Reading, flowers, cats, fishing, snake avoidance and the bush: all great gifts but the greatest he gave me – apart from his love – was the opportunity to have the best possible education. With mum’s committed and dedicated support, this was truly a gift that has kept on giving. It wasn’t always easy for them, with limited finances, but they made it a priority for which I’m grateful to them both.

Thanks Dad, for everything.

Why not come back to read the story of his working life, and how it contributed to his death.

Grandad goes to war: Remembrance Day 2017

One hundred years ago today my grandfather, Denis Joseph Kunkel, was at sea en route to England thence  to the war in France.

dinny jim & friend

James Edward (Front left) and Denis Joseph Kunkel (centre) and unidentified friend or relation c 1917.

He had volunteered with his younger brother, James Edward, on 22 October 1917[1] probably as part of a push at the time to recruit qualified railway workers to work on the lines to the front in the north of France. I wrote about his life-long railway career some time ago. Denis would join the 5th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company and given the rank of Lance Corporal.

We don’t know why Grandad left it until 1917 to enlist, as his much younger brothers had already joined up along with their cousins and he had already lost two cousins in the carnage of France and Flanders (James Gavin and James Paterson). Perhaps he was older and wiser, or perhaps he’d been reluctant to serve in a war against Germany while his Bavarian-born grandfather was still alive. Perhaps it wasn’t until the call for railway expertise that he thought he could contribute. We will never know.

Railway Units 20 Oct 1917 p5 Bris Courier

RAILWAYMEN WANTED. (1917, October 20). The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), p. 5. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20193813

At the time of his recruitment Dinny was already living on the Ballymore Estate where I’m told he was renting a room at 33 Bally Street.  His attestation records document that Dinny was aged 37 years and 1 month, 5ft 6inches tall[2], weighed 165lbs, had a fresh complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. His chest measurement was 36-39 inches. He had a scar on his right thigh and another on his left knee. He was regarded as medically and dentally fit. Denis gave his religious denomination as “None” though a later notation has been made to suggest that on the rolls he had given Church of England as his religion. From a family point of view this is interesting because his parents, and grandparents, were devout Catholics. Family anecdote tells that he had a major falling out with the clergy out west (obviously pre-dating his enlistment) and he never returned to Catholicism.

Denis left Brisbane by train for Melbourne and was accompanied by his brother, James. Gossipy war news was part of the journalism of the day and on 5 November 1917, The Toowoomba Chronicle reported that “On Tuesday’s troop train, Privates James and Denis Kunkle (sic) passed through Toowoomba for the front. They are sons of Mr Geo. Kunkle of Toowomba and well known in this district. They are also nephews of Mr Gavin, of Pechey, who has five sons[3] at the front”.[4]  Their much younger cousin, Anne Kunkel, who was only a child at the time of the war, remembers that the Murphy’s Creek school children would see long trains with “carriages of khaki-clad young men going off to war” as they passed through en route to the south. She also remembered meeting Dinny at some stage when he returned safely from the war.

Port Sydney AWM 4029449

This photograph shows the interest of the men in the Crossing the Line ceremonies. Image by C.W.L Muecke, copyright expired. Image J06289 Australian War Memorial.

Denis sailed to war on the ship Port Sydney which left Melbourne on 9 November 1917. I was fortunate that there was an enthusiastic photographer on board, documenting some of the sights and events along the way. Today I’ve also discovered a digitised copy of The Limber Log, a souvenir journal on the voyage edited by Lt H Garland. (As it’s under copyright, those who are interested will need to follow the link). It includes references to the joy and pangs of the departure, the sad death of one of the railwayman soon after leaving Colombo, and his burial. Many of the comments will raise eyebrows today with their political-incorrectness and racial slurs, but it’s well worth a read if you had relatives on this voyage. At the end of the journal, they included a Roll of Honour of all the men on board, including one Corporal, Kunkel, D J.

 

4105393

Unidentified soldiers, probably British, grouped around two 12 inch howitzers on Railway Hill used to support the Australian troops. The howitzer in the foreground is mounted on railway tracks, which allowed it to be moved to take up different positions along the railway line. Note a railcar on the right and piles of sandbags in the background. Australian War Memorial image E04615 out of copyright.  While this is an Allied weapon, there would have been similar on the German side.

Railway WWI Goulburn Evening Penny Post 2 Feb 18p4

1918 ‘The Railway Unit.’, Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 – 1940), 2 February, p. 4. (EVENING), viewed 11 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article99019997

My father recalled that Denis, as part of the ABGROC, was responsible for taking the heavy artillery to the Front along the railway line, unloading heavy weaponry, then quickly re-hitching the engine to make good their escape before the German’s “Big Bertha” gun could get a “line” on them.  The 49th Battalion’s historian tells us that the Australian military had railway lines as extensive as those of the British.[5] The threat may have been very different from that experienced by the front-line troops who had to go over the dugouts, but having heavy weapons taking a line on a large piece of rolling stock would surely have made the heartbeat race! The railways were pivotal to the movement of men and supplies and the railwaymen played their part, however mundane, and largely forgotten.[6] The war diaries provide a surprisingly rich description of life for the members of the ABGROC.

A few years ago we did a tour of the Western Front and I asked if it was possible to visit Poperinghe, near where my grandfather had worked at Peselhoek. At the railway station, I went down the platform looking for someone to speak to. My first reaction was to speak in German (hmm, perhaps not a good idea), and as my French is very poor and my Flemish non-existent I was dithering about what to do. Along came our tour guide and did the obvious: spoke in English to the railway worker we saw.

4103895

Ellarsyde. Broad gauge and light rail tracks and rolling stock at a railway yard near Ypres. On the far left some wagons are standing on the heavy gauge rail tracks; on the adjacent light rail tracks are several sets of flat cars, some loaded with building materials. On the right are some locomotives. The light rail was used to take the men and material closer to the front. Australian War Memorial Image C01384 out of copyright.

In a bizarre Who Do You Think You Are moment, the gentleman went into his office and then handed me about six photographs taken around 1917-1918, as well as talking to me about where the lines went. I was beyond thrilled and quite blown away by it. The guide swore blind he had not organised it, and as he was very chuffed with what I’d got, to this day I don’t know if it was serendipity or pre-arranged. Either way I was extremely happy to have a better sense of where Grandad had been during the war.

Poperinghe 13

Poperinghe Railway Station near the time when my grandfather served there.

Peselhoek Poperinghe

It has to be said, that compared to many, Grandad’s war was a short one, less than one year, although he did not return to Australia until August 1919 on board the transport ship Karmala. It seems the men had a fairly lively time of it on the way home with a wide array of activities. An orchestra was established and dancing took place every night. An on-board newspaper was established called the Karmala Kuts.[7] No doubt Dinny, who liked a good joke, rather enjoyed the railway-based story which appeared in Vol 1 No 2. Sports were held daily and chess, bridge and drafts competitions occurred. The men also had four lectures from the ship’s master who had been a member of Scott’s polar expedition. Education classes were also offered. Yet again the men were given gifts from the Comforts Funds with 1000 pairs of socks distributed. The ship stopped at Cape Town, Fremantle and Adelaide on the way home. “The people of Cape Town were very kind to the men who had a splendid time there with picnics, dances, motor trips etc”.[8] It is difficult to imagine in this day and age how mature men would respond to such simple pleasures. Denis disembarked in Melbourne on 17 August 1919. His military service was at an end.

UPDATE 16 Nov 2018: Grandad and other Queenslanders from the Karmala travelled home on a special train. His return and arrival in Toowoomba was recorded in the Darling Downs Gazette [HOME AGAIN (1919, August 20). Darling Downs Gazette (Qld. : 1881 – 1922), p. 6] .

 

To the best of my knowledge, Grandad never went to Remembrance Day ceremonies, though he was elderly when I knew him and perhaps did so when he was younger. His service medals and his RSL membership badge have been safely preserved in the family. As far as I know no photographs of him in uniform have survived.

LEST WE FORGET

Check out the treasures to be found at the Australian War Memorial including war diaries, photographs and personal diaries. I wrote about them here.

Are you looking for the service records of your WWI soldier? You can search through this link (select WWI) where they have been digitised.

It’s also worth looking at the digitised collections of the Imperial War Museum, especially for photographs.

There are also often letters/stories home in the local newspapers of the day. Our good friend Trove may have the answers.

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[1] The Courier-Mail, 23 October 1917, p. 8 reports on the previous day’s volunteers including the two brothers. Denis Kunkel’s service number is 2311.

[2] This was atypical of the Kunkel height genes.

[3] Sons were James, Stephen, Patrick Joseph, George and John Joseph. James was killed in action in the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916 and is buried in the War Cemetery at Rue Petillon, near Fleurbaix. He is remembered on the War Memorial in Crows Nest.

[4] Toowoomba Chronicle, 5 November 1917, p. 5.

[5] F Cranston, Always Faithful: The History of the 49th Battalion, Boolarong Publications Brisbane, 1983, p. 18.

[6] “Any activity out of the ordinary, such as …a light railway at work… served as a tonic for the Diggers”. D Winter, Making the Legend: The War writings of CEW Bean. UQ Press, Brisbane, 1992, p. 154.

[7] AWM 31. Karmala 306.

[8] AWM7. Karmala 4. Report on the Karmala 17 August 1919.