Lake Macquarie History

Aboriginal railway workers

Professor John Maynard has compiled this research on behalf of the Lake Macquarie City Council for use on the proposed Fernleigh Track interpretative panels. Professor Maynard has generously granted permission to share his research with the community on Lake Macquarie History Online.

Aboriginal workers on the railways

The rail line that ran through Red Head and Belmont was a suburban and mining artery to Newcastle. Very few people are aware of the long Aboriginal connection to working on the local railway. In the early 1930s it was noted that Aboriginal people had moved back into the Lake Macquarie district to work on the construction of railway lines. Some of these people lived in tents along the Toronto line. Where these people had come from remains a mystery, but Aboriginal people of the time period were prone to travel great distances in their attempts to gain work and escape the clutches of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. (Turner & Blyton, 1995: 62; see also Maynard, 2001: 248-266) In the late 1930s an Aboriginal connection to the rail yards was evidenced by the visit of high profile Aboriginal activist Jack Patten to Newcastle. Patten held a mid-day rally at the Newcastle Railway Yards where white workers listened intently to Patten's speech and promised to bring the matter of Aboriginal injustice to their member of parliament. (Abo Call 1 July 1938: 2)

In 1955 the arrival of Robert and William Smith from Uralla to take up working opportunities on the badly damaged rail lines after the 1955 Maitland flood would prove a pivotal moment of Aboriginal connection to the railway. The brothers enjoyed many years working for NSW Railways before branching out in 1969 and establishing their own company Smith General Contracting Pty Ltd. The young company had a whirlwind start and they gained major railway construction jobs with BHP and won the major contract to lay the Port Waratah Coal loader railway line. At the height of the company's success it employed 130 men, and over seventy per cent of the workforce was Aboriginal.

During their years with NSW Railways Bob and Bill Smith and their railway works team did repair work on the railway lines at Belmont, Redhead, John Darling Colliery and also the Fernleigh Tunnel.