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.