Interview with Greg Whitbourne, February 16, 2016
Apprenticed to Wangi Power Station at Age 15
Interviewer: Bill Bottomley
I started my apprenticeship at Wangi. There were five of us started together, from Toronto, Wangi, Awaba. I was only 15 when I started, and I was boarding at Wangi. This was after the tents on the hill had gone. The lady I boarded with was an industrial nurse for the whole Wangi complex when they were building it. She and her husband were a lovely couple, and I kept in contact with them till they died.
It was a big bloody step, you know, when they built the power station. It was the biggest in Australia at the time. This was just after the war. Originally the railways owned it - the railways were responsible for power generation back in those days. There was one at White Bay, one at Balmain - and Zara Street in Newcastle. They're all gone now.
When they built Wangi it was in two parts. There was A Station and B Station. A Station was a more old-fashioned type of design. The coal went into the furnace in lumps about the size of a big marble. There was a rotor that had blades on it that threw the coal across onto the back/rear of the grate, and the grate slowly moved forward and tipped the ash off the other side. That ash was very popular, and they used it just about everywhere - for footings, foundations. You know the football field that is near the power station? Well, that was all levelled off with ash from Wangi. And that was the last of the grate-fed boilers. But now they all use pulverized fuel, which is as fine as baby powder. That's fired into the boiler with air, and the ash that comes off is almost like cement. It is now used everywhere as a cement additive - you'd think it was cement to look at, like dry grey powder. It's not much good for filling, but the old ash from Wangi A Station was very popular. When they were building houses they'd put the ash down first and the concrete on top. It was particularly good because it was porous and drained well. I can remember planting grass on the football oval when they first built it.
I started my apprenticeship as a fitter & machinist when I was 15. I'd just done the Intermediate Certificate. I was only a kid, and to be put into an industry like that was daunting. Were they tough on you, you ask? Well, there was always some sort of initiation in those days. You were caught and had a liberal application of grease and coal dust applied to your nether regions. Once you'd done that, well, you were in. You couldn't do that these days, though. People'd want to sue you ... but it was all in good fun. I suppose, it was part of growing up and becoming a man.
I was very pleased with the way we got trained there. The apprentice workshop was the start of it, and it was very good. You learnt all the basics of the trade. I did a five year apprenticeship, and for first and second year I went to tech every week at Newcastle. The third and fourth year it was once a fortnight, and in the last year you had electives where you could go and do hydraulics or pneumatics, and I chose to do toolmaking.
My wife Pat and I got married. We were very young. She was 19 and I was 20. In those days you had to get your parent's permission to marry because we were under 21. After we were married I got conscripted to go to Vietnam. Out of the five of us who started the apprenticeship I was the one who drew the short straw, and it really pissed me off. I got deferred for a year because I was going to tech of a night time. But there seemed to be no end to the war, and I said to Pat that I might as well bight the bullet and get this over with, so as not to have this thing hanging over our head.
Serving in Vietnam sort of stole my innocence you know? Ironically a girl I used to go out with in Wangi lost her brother to the Vietnam war while I was there. When I came back the blokes seemed different, but it was probably me. They thought differently - and probably the war did me a lot of favours. When I got promoted in the Electricity Commission as far as I could go - I just pulled the pin and left - and we started our own business. I probably never would have done that if I'd never gone away. Of the other guys that I started my apprenticeship with, two of them died (I do believe their deaths were asbestosrelated, but you can never know that), and there are still two going. They've spent their whole life in the Commission. We still keep in touch.
We do a lot of volunteer work now. My wife and I have been all over the place. Two years ago we did a volunteer job in Hanoi, and the people we were working with and their families were the enemy forty years ago when I was serving in Vietnam. Pat and I talked it over and wondered if we should tell them that actually we were the bad guys from their perspective. Anyway, we decided we would, and it was the best thing we ever did. They'd never met someone from the other side and neither had we. The guy I was working with, his uncle had been killed in the war, his other uncle suffers pretty badly from PTSD. Anyway, back to Wangi. It was unionized at the time, but apprentices didn't have to join. The blokes I worked with were very good tradesmen and I learned a lot from them - not just trade things, but life things, you know … you'd been at school, and suddenly you were growing up with men. To me, many school teachers were adults who had never left school, you know - whereas you get out in the real world ... and a lot of those blokes I was working with were returned second world war blokes - later on I understood the hell they lived with. They were quite good, really. There was a very good relationship among the apprentices and we all got on well. I've got some great memories of my time there. It was a good place to work. I've got very good memories of Wangi generally, not just the work, but the lady I was boarding with. They had a son, and we were the same age, and we got on really well. There was the social life, football, the Wangi picture theatre and milkshakes at George's café with special friends.
Then I got a motorbike. I got a special licence to ride it from Mannering Park (where Dad and Mum lived) to work and to tech. I had to get a special licence because I was under age. Apparently you can still do it under special circumstances.
Just before I went to Wangi they had a major disaster with one of the turbines in the power house. The governor failed and the turbine oversped and lifted the whole bloody unit out - just destroyed it. That was pretty serious, yeah - particularly in those times, when electricity was in short supply. By the time I started there it had been repaired, but there was still evidence of damage around on the building.
As far as the asbestos goes, I probably got dusted. I've got marks on my lungs, and I keep a check on that. If you've got it, you've got it, and you can't do anything about it. On the turbines the asbestos was very thick, and we'd dig it off with a pick, and then blow it all off with the air! It was everywhere. And it was the same at Vales Point. I remember going to a lecture once at ... I think it was Vales Point. It was a time when asbestos was a really hot topic - it was very controversial - if it was good or bad, you know. They were trying to convince all the employees that there was nothing wrong with it - that it was quite safe. You'd go to these lectures and they'd bullshit to you about how safe it was. I remember there was one smart arse out the front once who got some asbestos and actually ate it. But there was a bit of poetic justice to that because I heard later that he died of asbestosis. But they knew it was bad - they knew. The precipitators never worked properly at Wangi. (Precipitators scrub the dust out of the flue gases). I remember, every day, where I was boarding, the dust was just everywhere. But it wasn't asbestos dust.
These days Myuna Bay and Cooranbong collieries supply Eraring. Wangi used to get their coal from Awaba. There was a train used to come across. You know where you turn in to go to Wangi today, and you go over the hill and down a bit? There's a road to the right that used to be the way to get to Wangi. The one where you go in now wasn't there. That's all new there now. Originally you went into Wangi down that second turn to the right, down past the power station, and down past where Myuna Colliery is now. And if you look now, just after that turn-off, the railway line is still there but they've taken the bridge down. The bridge was there for years and years, and for some reason they decided to remove it. They might have taken the railway lines too. I don't know. But that's the way they used to bring the coal in from Awaba. The railway line and all that was built specially to bring the coal in. The line links in with the main railway line between Sydney and Newcastle, and it's a shame that they let that go. And the one at Toronto. I used to go to tech on the train from Toronto. Sometimes I'd get the bus into Toronto and go that way, or I'd get the bus over to Awaba, and get on the train there to go to tech. You'd think they'd have at least kept the land. There's a line runs from Newcastle out to Redhead. That land should have been kept secured, because in fifty years' time they'll probably want to run a railway line out there.
It was interesting for me. I did a volunteer job a few years ago in Fiji. I went over there to set up a training programme for first and second year apprentices. Not that I've got any teaching background, but they still use that training programme now in tech colleges, which I'm quite proud of. Before I left I called in at the Tighes Hill tech college in Newcastle where I did fitting & machining, just to see the teachers and get a few clues from them, you know, suggestions and advice. And they were very helpful I asked them how many classes they had these days. They said they had about two or three. "What, is that per day?" I asked, and they said no, per week. When I was there we used to have two classes a day, and that was 40 or 50 years ago. It's just gone backwards. I had a bloke helping me with a job one day, and I asked to put a pop rivet in, and he didn't know how to do it! Just basic hand skills are disappearing - like knowing how to hang a door.
As I said earlier, the boilers at Wangi were old-fashioned compared to nowadays, in that they were a grate-type boiler. They had cast-iron bars that ran across on a chain thing. It had all holes through it, and it would slowly move over and the combustion air would blow up through all the holes. The coal would burn on a big bed on the grate, and when it was fully burnt it would drop off into a hopper underneath. The new furnaces now are just a furnace from top to bottom - just a ball of fire in them.
B Station at Wangi was the first power station that burned pulverized coal. It was the new direction in thermal power station design, and it hasn't changed that much since. They've changed the boilers a bit - the way they run the hot gases through has changed slightly but not significantly. It is interesting to note that the coal crusher in those days used big steel balls like oversized marbles - one person could just barely lift one. Anyway they were widely used on buck's nights. A handle and chain was welded to the ball. The unfortunate victim would have the ball padlocked to their leg. Sometimes the chain was left short and the poor victim would be seen stooped over drinking his beer, as the night wore on the inconvenience became less apparent. There was a big demand for Wangi coal crushing mill balls.
I always have a good memory of a fitter I worked with. He was the union delegate, and a lot of the time he was away on union business. They always had a TA (tradesman's assistant), and the TA and myself were always doing what he should have been doing, 'cos he was always away on union business. Sometimes I would make a mistake; he would then sometimes give me a bolicking and if it was bad enough he would give me a bit of a backhander. I was never offended by this. In fact I had not seen him for years, and it was at Ted's funeral (the lady who I boarded with) that I met with him. He had had a stroke and had a walking stick. I said Alex, I should kick that bloody walking stick out from under you: with that we embraced each other, he was a great bloke and taught me heaps; thanks Alex.
They cooled the generators - and they still do it today - they cooled them with hydrogen, because hydrogen has the best heat transfer of any of the gases. So they circulate the hydrogen and it's all contained, with no leaks or anything. (If it does leak it's very explosive). Then it goes through heat exchangers and that's the way they cool the generator. They don't just blow air through it. You can imagine, the shaft drives through into the alternator, and you've got to seal where it goes through so no hydrogen escapes. So they use labyrinths (a maze of fixed rings that are very close to the shaft, oil runs through it and stops the hydrogen getting out) with oil, and where that bolts on, they had a big rubber gasket. And that had to be joined. You had to be able to put it on around the shaft without having to take the shaft out, see. It is a major job to remove the shaft so there must be a way of changing the gasket without removing the shaft; hence join the gasket. I can remember that I made a vulcaniser up to do it - I was only a second year apprentice at the time - and Alex gave me the directions on how to do it, and it came up really good. He took me up to the superintendant to show him this thing that I'd made, and apparently he was quite impressed with it. Now the nuts that I'd put on it - d'you remember nuts called "acorn nuts?"(dome nuts) - well, they didn't have any in the store, but the doors in the toilets were all fastened with them. So I stole them from the toilets and put ordinary nuts back on the doors. The superintendant had been a fitter himself years ago, and had come up through the old school. "Hmmm", he said to me, "Where'd you get the nuts from? They don't have them in the store." Cos he knew, see? "They look like the ones they use in the toilets," he said. And I said" Yeah, they do", and he laughed his head off. At that time I would have only been around sixteen and a half, and it was quite daunting to be up in the superintendent's office, even though I was not up there in trouble or anything.
A lot of time you worked with the same bloke, but they did move you around a bit. At Wangi there was foreman who looked after the turbine and the boiler and another foreman who looked after the ash plant. Sometimes you'd be in the ash plant and other times you'd be in the boiler/turbine section. At Vales Point and Munmorah they broke it down even further. There was a mill section where they crushed the coal - a mill section, a turbine section, an ash plant section, and a boiler section, and you moved around to the different sections for your training in all those sections. Then in your last year they'd put you in the instrument workshop, because they had instrument fitters there who installed the controls. Then they'd put you down with the draftsmen for a while - they had draftsmen there then, then they'd put you down with the technical officers who did all the ordering and that for about three months - just to give you a general idea of the whole operation, which was good. I was given the chance a few times to move to the operational side of things - you know, blokes who actually drive the machines - but I preferred the maintenance side. Operational work paid a bit more because they had to pay for shiftwork, and in the end they had maintenance done in shifts, too. At Vales Point they were working day and afternoon shifts. The operators, of course, have to be there 24/7.
I started my apprenticeship in Sydney - I was actually only 14 when I started. I left school in the November, and by December I had a job in Sydney, at St Leonards. I only worked there for about three weeks when I applied for this job at Wangi, and I got it. There was quite an opportunity to choose your work. Remember, that in those days, people who were trained as apprentices were working in the Railways, BHP in Newcastle, the Electricity Commission, the Lampworks in Newcastle, Gonninans were there, Stuarts and Lloyds … I can't think of them all now. And of course there were the coal mines, as well ... public works - see, there were all these opportunities.
But today… the Electricity Commission hardly have any apprentices now. The problem we've got is that there aren't any places to train apprentices any more - nobody's training anyone but they all want the best, you know. BHP's gone, so there's nothing there, the coal mines all have contractors, so they have very few apprentices. What's going to happen in twenty years time?
Well, I know what's happening now. They bring planeloads in from Korea when they do a re-fit. That's what they did with Eraring. It's a disgrace. It was a whole new chapter in my life when I started up the engineering business. I was used to picking up my pay at the end of the week, and suddenly I was putting in tenders for jobs that I had to do for that price. The apprenticeship course didn't teach you how to do that, you picked that up from the school of hard knocks.
I couldn't work under the conditions they have now. All the restrictions ...
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