Lake Macquarie History

Interview with Judy McQueeney, March 6, 2016

photo: judy mcqueeney wangi power station

I was a secretary during all stages of the construction of the station

Interviewer: Bill Bottomley

My first brush with Wangi goes back to the mid forties. I was about six or seven. My grandparents used to come here. Just after the war there were a lot of people buying disposal-store army tents cheaply for camping. You know, the khaki ones with the strange top on them. They must have brought me here for a holiday from the coalfields to stay for a while, because we weren't living here then, and they used to come down here on holiday.

Where they camped was a big wetland then. Very few people in Wangi would know that we were the proud owners of a very fine wetland. It was a casuarina and mangrove wetland. You can still see mangroves trying to struggle out and grow. It intrigues me that people camped there. It must have been a dry period, and they were near the mouth of the creek - Wangi Creek. People don't know there is such a thing as Wangi Creek. You can still find its headwaters, and it's actually forced into the canal up near the power station. It runs through the bush and has a nice old time, then it suddenly empties into the canal.

In environmental terms, there's no way that what happened there could happen today. There'd be people fighting on barricades. It was a different time then. It was just after the war and they needed more electricity. So they decided to build a power station, and make it a big one. Wangi was just right, because you had the inlet and outlet perfectly positioned on the peninsula to get the water coolant through the power station.

Awaba mine was already there to produce the coal needed for the power station, and my father was offered the job of Deputy there. He had been working in the coalfields of Cessnock. And so that's how we came to come down here when I was about ten or eleven or something like that. I suppose it would have been 1948 or 49.

Where we're sitting now, the road out the front there was called Wangi Rd, not David Street. It was part of the main road. Dobell Drive didn't exist, and all across the road was all market gardens. You can still see the channel across there that overflows when there's a flood. Because it's on a flood plain. These things tend to be forgotten. If you stand at Wangi Creek and look up you can see the valley that is part of the Wangi Creek flood plain.

There was also a big water hole down there, and I had a horse in that paddock for many years. It was quite a different world. Now I overlook a car park. The bus stop was down by the Workers Club and other roads around here didn't exist then. Of course the roads today are a great improvement, because then they were all gravel. It took you forever to get to Toronto, let alone Newcastle. When I went to high school I used to have to get a bus down there at six o'clock in the morning, and I didn't get back till six at night. I had to get a bus, then the train, and then walk. My father, who was put down the mines in Cessnock when he was 14, insisted I go to a good high school because he believed in higher education of the best quality, and girls or not, we were given the best that was available at the time, for which I'm forever grateful.

After I left Newcastle Girls' High (where I went to high school), I went to a Secretarial College where I was taught business principles, higher English, shorthand and typing. That set me up to look for a clerical job, and I got a job with a haulage company over at Boolaroo for about nine months.Women in general did not have a wide range of job opportunities in the 1950s.

The first part of the power house construction was to build the outlet canal, and the coffer dam over the south side of the Lake. All that boring and tunneling to create the canal was also burying poor old Wangi Creek. The canal had to be in place before they could start to build the station. A company called Citra Fougerolle, who were part of a huge French crowd Companie d'Industrielle de Travaux, were part of the Schneider group in Paris.

photo: wangi power station under construction c.1950

Down there near the bridge where you go in to the netball courts there was a big wooden building - it might have come from the RAAF base - that they used as a site office. They had another office in Newcastle, I think, but the one here was their main construction site office. They were looking for a secretary, and I'd done French at high school (my French was probably a lot better then than it is today). In 1955 I started working for them, and I was there for about 18 months. It was really quite fun working with them. I'd never had anything to do with urbane Parisians. Some of them were like that, and others were just quite mad. Occasionally I'd have to go into the Bank with one of the leading hands, and it was terrifying. It was a white knuckle ride! I was only about 17 at this stage, so it was quite a learning curve. But they were good people to work for - very generous. I did receive a large pay rise from them.

When they'd finished the canal they packed up and went, and I virtually walked straight into the job as a Secretary with the Construction Chief Engineer. The construction office was now on-site. This would have been in 1956. I think I was listed as a technical officer or a clerk on their records, but basically I was secretary to the Construction Engineer - he was the top banana who managed the site. And again, that was enjoyable work - and it was just literally a walk across the paddock to go to work from my home.

There were two waves that changed Wangi, in my opinion. First were the miners who came here with their tents for a holiday. The whole waterfront was full of tents. And lots of the guys who holidayed here, thinking of their retirement, bought land here while it was cheap and built on it. A lot of the people who first came here in tents ended up as residents. A lot of them moved down way before retirement because all the collieries were opening up. You had Awaba, and Newstan over the back of Fassifern. Awaba was the main source of coal for the power station. It was all in place, waiting for the power station to happen. So that changed the dynamics of the place. You got a lot of people from the Hunter Valley moving down here, and it was no longer the little village it once was. The other wave was like a small Snowy River Project. There was an influx of Italians, and Europeans generally to work on the construction site, and it was a beehive! The whole hill up the other side of the power station was covered in tents. A lot of them were white because it was very hot - army tents used to hold the heat pretty badly. My mother, who hadn't worked since she was a young girl was asked to come up and do some cooking for them because they were hardpressed to get that sort of help in that early period and they had lots of hungry young men to feed.

So the construction phase brought in all these European workers, and there was a much more continental vibe around the place - and all these handsome Italians! By this time I was 18 or so, and quite a few people thought they were pretty spunky. But they were very nice and polite. They were terrific people. Anyway, the construction went on, and the opening was in 1958. Premiers and all that sort of thing were there from memory. And again, I just walked out of construction and into the newly-built power station straight into another secretarial job. The opening signaled the commissioning of all the plant and the handover to Generation.

From the get-go the power station was unusual. It was the first (and it turns out to also be the last) still living "P&O-style" power station - the three big chimneys and bricks everywhere. If you look at the more recent power stations around the lake, they're a much lighter framework. But not this one, there are millions and millions of bricks and it was built to last. It was a huge building, and in its day it was the biggest power station. It solved pretty much all the power problems that NSW was having at the time.

Another wave of people who started to come to the area were the engineers, technicians, tradesmen and the all people that worked for the Commission. The Commission became a big employer, and suddenly you got people who might have been working in Newcastle moved down here. And a lot of people came up from Sydney.

Those waves went along almost side by side. The miners were a bit ahead, because this had been a favourite spot for miners for years. But these changes were what changed Wangi into a township, from a village. A small township, but different to a village.

When I moved into the new building to work for the power station Superintendant/Generation all the offices were in the upper quadrant. There were dozens of engineers worked in all levels of the quadrant. I remember there was a big open space that was going to be a cafeteria, but they never seemed to get around to that. Until you get up there, you don't realize what a huge empty space it is. I had just started to play golf, and some of the engineers said they'd give me lessons. We used to take coir mats down there, and a few golf clubs, and those lightweight plastic practice golf balls with the holes in them, and they used to teach me. We used to whack balls all over the place! It was such fun. We used to do that at lunchtime - it was really great.

The power station superintendent for generation was head of a different group from construction. His floor was a big office area, and he had a closed-in office down in one corner. One wall was entirely glass - tough glass - and it looked down along the line turbines. You could stand there and see down to the power station floor - to the turbines - and always the background hum was there. Mind you, if I'd realized how much asbestos was in that place I mightn't have been all that happy standing there.

Some years later, generator #2 overheated and blew up one scarey night. I went to work the next day, and I'll never forget the sight, looking down on the turbines. You can imagine the size of the shrapnel. That caused a lot of problems for a while losing all that production while they waited for a replacement generator to be shipped from U.K.

I became involved in various green movements and got really involved with climate change before anyone else was talking about it. Back in the early 80s I was fighting open cuts and that sort of stuff. At that time they were wanting to put an open cut mine at the foot of the Watagans!

A large part of my early life was spent overseas. After I stopped working at the power house, I went up to New Guinea for six months or so to see my sister. I got a job up there - doing drawings for airports. I'd say I could do anything if it meant I could get a job, and I'd learn on the job, so to speak - it seemed simpler! My sister and her friend were going to England, and I thought: "That's not a bad idea. I'll go to England!" So another very good friend, Anne Roberts, who worked with me at the power station, agreed to come too, so the four of us took off for England in 1961.

From there I got involved in the computer industry - the early days of it - and we were sent to Europe on courses and over to Canada and that, so it was quite a few years till I wandered back to Wangi. The company that I worked for overseas was in Sydney, and when I came back I worked for them. But even in those days it was only two, two and a half hours to travel to Wangi, so I came home regularly to see my parents. (Both of them died much younger than they should have). So I've always had this attachment to Wangi.

In my early thirties I had a child, and I decided that I didn't want to bring him up in Sydney, and that's why I moved back to this area. I can remember when I first came back from overseas I went for a walk down the waterfront, only to find that it had been asphalted! All in front of the Workers Club. They'd asphalted it and were using it as a car park! Well, that took about 5 seconds for me to get on the phone to Council and give them my thoughts on this desecration and work to get all that ripped up!

When you think back and you see some of the vandalism that occurs, Wangi is still very very beautiful. But it's hard to describe how beautiful it was before the whole ecostructure of that bay was changed. It used to be sand. It was crystal-clear. You could walk along through the fine water grass and see octopus (not the blue ringed ones, but big ones) and small fish. It was just magical - it was a wonderful place to grow up in. We rode horses everywhere. Because of the shape of Wangi peninsula with its narrow neck at the point, it was a perfect place to use for agistment, and people just brought their cows and horses out here and let ‘em go! My friend and I thought it was our civil duty to give them exercise, so we just used to pinch a horse or two occasionally and take ‘em for a ride. Bareback, of course. It was classy if we had a bit of rope. It was an amazing and fun life, but obviously that was before I started working in my teens. The power station was going full tilt in those years that I was working in generation.

When they closed the power station down, my Mum had never had a happier day because she was always whinging about the dust, in those days before people were as aware of pollution. And the filters they put into the power station never worked properly. If the wind was coming the wrong way you'd get all this muck on your washing. But mostly in the summertime you had nor'easters so it didn't matter.

Recently I was eating out with friends and telling them I was going to talk to you. They asked me why you wanted to talk to me, and I said: "Well, I built Wangi power station!" In a way I sort of did, because I was there at every stage, from the very beginning to when it was all in full flight, and all the generators were online. I knew most of the electrical and mechanical engineers who headed up the group of technical officers, and they were all friends. There were a lot of staff, and they all got along very well. When I got back from overseas I would know peoples faces, but I couldn't always remember the names.

It was a big, well-constructed Power Station definitely one of a kind, and it saddens me that nothing has been done with it since its closure. It would make a great centre for the arts.

It is true that back in the day there were more state-run things like the Electricity Commision. The Awaba mine is now owned by Centennial Coal, I think, but before it was a State-run Mine. And as I say, those waves of new people had quite an effect on the area, especially the Europeans. I'm not sure that many of them would have stayed, but there was an influence. They must have been encouraged to come here as immigrants, like or maybe part of the scheme used for the Snowy River Project. A lot of them had little or no English. I remember when my Mum first started working up there she was pretty gobsmacked, but she found that after a while she just loved it because they were so nice to her. You can imagine these Italian boys away from home for the first time, and my mother - well, she was just a lovely woman and everyone told their problems to her even though she did not understand a word. She must have stunned the Europeans with her three veg and grey meat!!.

photo: wangi power station

Because of where I was, in that main office, I heard most of what was going on - especially if they were shouted discussions. Most of the leading hands were Italian, I think, so they must have had some English. I'm not saying all of them did, but if you think what Citra did, going back to the first stage - all their employees were French. The key element was European and they just moved in and did the job.

There didn't seem to be much resentment of the newcomers. I have to say that some old white men do tend to be a bit racist. I'm reminded of a conversation I heard in Coles one day recently. This very Aussie bloke was talking to an acquaintance: "Ah, g'day Mahomet. How're ya going?"… and they started talking about pumpkins in their back yard. Now if you'd gone up to that Aussie guy and asked him how he felt about Muslims, or Indians, or Pakistanis or whatever, he would probably have said something negative, and if you'd then said to him: "But what about Mahomet?" you'd get "Oh, he's alright, he's a good bloke he lives just down the street". I find that sort of thing fascinating, and I honestly think that's why it would be really easy to turn Australia back into having a more generous attitude because I suspect our so called racisim is casual rather an endemic.

I mentioned asbestos before. It cost the council I suspect possibly millions to clean out all the asbestos from the power station. It was serious. They got a whole team of people … I think it was probably a joint operation between Council and State government. Then a guy from up north somewhere bought it for a peppercorn amount from the Council. He was going to do it all up. Apparently he had been a fitter and turner or something, and he had fond memories of this 'last of the P&O power stations'. You can see why it was called that if you get out on the lake and look back at it. But he died a few years back, and his sons were never keen on the idea, so it never advanced. But I remember seeing plans put forward by one group where the canal would go up and form a big marina where yachts could be moored, and all of the quadrant part of the station would be turned into units, and the shell of the station would be turned into a mall like Stocklands, with arts centres there and shops and all that sort of stuff. I'm not clear what's happening with it now, because my understanding is that it does have some sort of heritage protection - but these things can be brushed aside with impunity if it suits the powers that be.

When I look back to those times, when you look at the size and scope of that building - it wasn't just that you had a big building, you had the generators that came out from England, you had all the auxiliary stuff that went along with the power station. You had the substations, the lines that took the power all over NSW, so it was a huge undertaking. They actually had a rail line that came off the main Newcastle-Sydney line that enabled them to bring the coal around from Awaba. There were huge coal dumps up behind the power station.

Way back in those construction days they had Clydesdale horses up there. I used to go up there with a friend and sit on them. It was like sitting on a tanker! They were gorgeous. I have this memory of seeing them pulling trees out, you know, the stumps.

The other unusual thing about the power station, and I suspect that they discovered this when they finally got on site, is that the power station is sitting on caissons. And when people talk of building houses there I feel like "Good luck to them", because it's a wetland. It's a flood plain. I can't remember now whether it was 60 ft or 60 metres, but they had to go a long way down to find solid ground. When they were tunneling under where the station was to go, they would have found out how unstable it was. I mean, any flood plain is unstable. It looks fine when it hasn't had water running over it for years, and when they stopped Wangi Creek with the canal, that would have dried it out a lot anyway. I wrote a paper on the Toronto wetlands when I was doing my postgraduate work at Newcastle Uni, and it was really awful what happened to that wetland. You look at photographs of it that were taken when I was a kid - again, a flood plain, all around Stony Creek and that bay there, and they stabilized it with chitter from Newstan mine. I used to play netball there, and sometimes you couldn't play because you were ankle-deep in water. But that wetland was just so vibrant. I used to get my long lens and take photographs of the birds there. It was just an amazing place.

But there's no point gnashing your teeth. It was a different world then. Nobody thought about what they were doing with all that warm water, beyond that the fishing was great. Yet what it did to the whole ecosystem was to make the seagrasses grow, but they were weak because of the chemical input of all the warm water, and they snapped off, and suddenly you had piles and piles of weed coming in on the big nor'easters, and so the whole ecosystem of the shoreline changed. When people start to argue with me on climate change, I can get quite aerated, because I saw it happen. Suddenly, all that sand that we used to swim over down there is gone! Back in the 80s, when we were talking about the tonnes and tonnes of particulates from the power stations as they began to ring the lake, we discovered that Toronto Bay, by the early 80s had silted up one metre in 50 years! And that's pretty dramatic in a shallow lake. The particulate fallout also created acid rain, which is another problem. You would hope that as you grow old (a bit disgracefully in some areas, I hope), that you'd also get a bit of wisdom and learn to look at things differently.

Climate change is becoming more obvious in our changing weather patterns… I have just been loving the past few days because we're getting the old style booming nor'easters, and they're not often like that a lot anymore. They have become quite flukey. It's changed a lot since I was a kid. You can even see the flowers getting all confused about when to flower.

That power station was a very necessary blessing - it made a big difference to all of NSW, I can see that, looking back. I think I was always aware of my environment because I grew up in a beautiful area and in a very natural way. It was a great place to be as a kid and I love it still 60 odd years later.