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.

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.