Lake Macquarie History

Interview with Jim and Merle Rawson, February 6, 2016

photo: jim and merle rawson wangi power station

Some reflections on working in power stations

Interviewer: Bill Bottomley

Jim:

I was an engineering officer with the electricity commission for 35 years, my work was the installation and maintenance protection and communication systems. I was on shift work at they state control center at Carlingford for about 20 years. At Wangi, on top of the hill there used to be two microwave towers. One originally had a valve type microwave system that operated to Carlingford - which was the state control - and up to Newcastle and then down south to Yass. And they always had A and B back-up. Then they decided that they'd go for the new solid state stuff, and that's why they had to build the second tower. Anyhow, when the place got decommissioned, they had these two towers that had nothing wrong with them and which covered the whole Lake and what did they do? They pulled the towers down.

Merle:

And then they closed the roadway and ploughed it all up. The power station closed down about 1987 or 88 ... but it stopped being a power station around 1982 or 83.

Jim:

There was a skeleton staff there for years. There were four 25 megawatt GEC generators there. We had to scrap the lot. There were big round insignia on the generators, and the last time I saw them they were over at Eraring power station. They were quite big. It cost them 30 million to get the asbestos out of the station at Wangi.

Merle:

Lots of blokes got dusted. I had one bloke who was due to retire. Now, I was the person who organized his pay and everything. I asked him why he didn't get on and do everything he had to do with the Dust Diseases Board, and Superannuation and all the rest of it. I told him to do it straight away and make sure he got it all done. His wife was with him at the time, and she came in the next week and said: "Thank you for doing that. He died yesterday."

Jim:

There were a lot of rip-offs went on, but they were pretty good about it when you got dusted.

Merle:

Yes, they were pretty good, actually. They didn't tell you that you could get it, but once you did, if you told them about it they came good.

Jim:

The trick was you had to tell them that you had it. The thing is, I worked at Bunnerong, Pyrmont, White Bay and Balmain - all of those stations, but I didn't work in Generation. I was with Transmission, which looked after all the communications and protection, which was beaut because you could get to go where you wanted to go under the guise of checking the communications out. The Wangi station was pretty tame, asbestos-wise, compared to Bunnerong, Pyrmont, White Bay and Balmain They were very old stations. Bunnerong was one of the first - that's where they used to run "brownouts" - remember brown outs?

Most power stations are built on coal mines. You'll rarely find a power station that's not near a coal mine, except Bunnerong. There they used to ship the coal in. They were the only one they brought the coal in by train. There are coal mines all under Sydney - the place is riddled with them.

Jim:

In Balmain, and Pyrmont there's tunnels (which) would still all be there, I'm sure, they go out under Snapper Island, right under the harbour, and even over to Mosman. Sydney's rich in coal, but imagine the yike that would go up now if they started digging it up for coal! But anyhow, that's why - where you find a power station, you'll find a coal mine.

Merle:

This mine here (Myuna) extends right out to Swansea. I came to Wangi to sort of work at the power station, but I was working from Newcastle as a time-keeper. Prior to that I was a time-keeper in Sydney. I was in Head Office, and I did relief work, so I've worked in every power station in NSW and every Transmission section - I've even worked on the Hume Weir, so I've had pretty wide experience of power stations. I love ‘em! Love technology, love engineering - all that sort of thing.

Jim:

Whereas I was in Communications in every station I worked in. I started off with the PMG as a TIT (technician in training). It was a five year course, and it was a meaningful course - it wasn't just electronics. You spend a year at the Training College at Alexandria - twelve months full time. And the kids who hadn't done woodwork and metalwork - we're talking 15 and 16 year olds, though some of them had their Leaving Certificate - they didn't know the front end from the back end of a file. They had to file all these carbon blocks, and drill holes in concrete and then in tiles without breaking them - all basic stuff. They spent twelve months giving you all your colour codes and your basic electrical theory, and then they let you loose!

I went into it, not because I was interested in electronics, but … I started off as an apprentice pastrycook. My grandfather owned a whole heap of cake shops, but he wouldn't let me work in any of them. I had to go and work with another mob, and I started with the Greeks over at Five Dock. They were paying me three pounds two and six a week and I had to ride my pushbike from Croydon Park to Five Dock every day. At the tender age of fifteen it was ruining my sex life! And the only reason I went into the training was because they paid me three pounds seven and six a week. I was used to working, and I couldn't get used to sitting on my arse all day at school and getting paid for it.

Merle:

In the fifties five bob was a lot of money.

Jim:

With the Commission, no one was allowed into high-voltage areas till you were 21, except if you were an apprentice, and then you had to be accompanied by a tradesman. So they never trained any of their own staff as far as communications and electronics went. So you had to be 21 for a starter before you could go into a switch yard. They've changed the rules a lot since then - now it's eighteen. That's the reason I ended up with the Commission, because I was on Country Install with PMG then, putting in all the coaxial cable stuff as it was in those days between Lismore and Brisbane. But the thing was, once you're appointed to an Install division you can't get released. The jobs were twelve month jobs - they were long jobs, but that's the reason I joined the commission. I could see the writing on the wall - they'd appointed me as a senior tech and I wasn't going anywhere fast - I was going to stay on Install for the rest of my life. I was 21 when I stared with the Commission.

The whole secret of the power system is not the voltages - from Eraring you can get 500,000 volts, and now that we've got DC volts going to Tasmania we're up to a million volts. The voltage doesn't mean diddly - it's the frequency. 50 cycles is the whole secret of the system. They change the voltage, but the frequency never changes. If it gets down to 47.9 everything trips out. At 48.5 all sorts of bells and whistles start happening, and below that, things start popping out. Wangi power station was the only power station you could light with a match! Basically, that's what they did. They'd light the boilers up and bring it up on line. All the other power stations required power to start them up.

Merle:

Except for Warragamba Dam. To open it you had to go down to the bottom.

photo: photographic display at opening of wangi power station 1958

Jim:

Warragamba was hydro. They used to have a thing called a black start, where they simulated everything. If all the power stations go out, they've got to start them up before they can supply power to the people. They've got gas turbines now that they use as part of the black start, but prior to that, what they used to do to simulate was to say: "OK. Black Start. Everything's shit itself. We've got to get Pyrmont on line first up, because it only takes a few hours." So they simulated the feeder transmission line right through to Warragamba through Penrith and back up. They'd open the mains there and get 25 meg coming down to start Pyrmont. This particular time, everyone's all set up and ready to go, and they found that the battery that was used to start the diesel to open the valve was flat!

Merle:

And you know how high Warragamba Dam is! Well, the diesel was right down the bottom. And there were no lifts, were there, because the power was out ...

Jim:

... so the operator had to race up and get the battery out of his truck! But this place here (Wangi), is a pommy design. It's triple brick thick. When the earthquake came there were a few cracks. We lived at Puna Road at the time, in an old miner's cottage…

Merle:

... and the earthquake lifted our house up and dropped it back down again.

Jim:

We were out at the time, and when we got home the chimney had fallen down.

Merle:

I was at the hairdresser's and the ceiling fell in.

Jim:

See, the power station is built on a swamp. It's all reclaimed land, right through to where the workers' club is. I think they had to go down sixty or seventy feet to find bedrock. The design of the place is meant to look like a ship, and if you go to the front of it, it looks out ... it's got magnificent views over the lake. Being a pommy design, it was designed to keep all the heat in - which is the last thing you need in Australia! You look at all of the so-called new stations - they're all steel and aluminium, but they've all got big gaps at the bottom so that they can get the ventilation going up. I was at Vales point once when Turbine No 1 caught fire, and boy was the ventilation good. It just went whooof! And took the roof out! That's when I said: "I don't work in Generation, I'm in Transmission. Hooroo!" Anyway, when Wangi was generating it was bloody hot. They had salt dispensers everywhere - little tablet things. And you had to keep taking them.

Merle:

And at that stage they didn't realize that the body salt you were losing wasn't the same as ordinary salt. It was mandatory to use them, but I never did. The Timekeeper's office was up on one of the higher floors, and we had all these beautiful views. One of the best parts was they spent around ten thousand dollars on repairing the roof into the Timekeeper's office ... and remember, I'm the only timekeeper there, and the whole station was closed down, and I was alone in a room as big as this house. Nup. I went downstairs to work! The station by this had been mothballed and there was just some maintenance staff.

Jim:

It was basic. It was the same as at Bunnerong. With Bunnerong, they sent all the communists - all the agitators and troublemakers ...

Merle:

... and all the blokes that didn't play nicely with others ended up at Wangi.

Jim:

It was a three ring circus at Bunnerong. They used to put meals on. For three and sixpence you got a big meal, and the tea was in big pots with the milk already mixed in it. You'd get your meal, and be about to sit down, when you'd hear: "Brothers, we've got to have a meeting, ..." and everything had to stop while they had this meeting. But we would get our meal out and go to the gardens.

Merle:

Wangi garden were like that too. See they always had gardeners - true gardeners, people who had horticultural degrees were the gardeners there, in all of the stations. The gardens were magnificent, though they're falling apart now, of course.

Jim:

There's lot of land there at the Wangi station.

Interviewer:

Probably worth quite a few bob ...

Jim:

Well, do you want the official version or do you want ... some of this might prove hard to repeat. They spent thirty million just getting all the dangerous materiel out of the place, and then they decided to sell it. They sold it to a bloke called McDonald. I could never work out how this bloke came into it ... not just the land in the power station, but the whole shooting match. He tried hard to do deals with the Council because he wanted to subdivide all the other side of the place, and he wanted to put in a big theatre complex/convention centre where the power station is. You're not allowed to knock it down, and now they're stuck with it. The Council wouldn't play, and they wanted the project backed up first, before they'd let him subdivide, because they thought that if they let him subdivide, he'd go off and leave them with the station.

Merle:

Which he would not have done.

Jim:

Then he said to the Council that he wanted to put a marina in down here near the open canal. And where the football ground is, when the lake comes up it all floods, because it's all swamp. He wanted to give them the land further up, and take that land to make a dry marina out of it.

Merle:

Until his death, he maintained it.

Jim:

Yeah. He had a gardener there full time maintaining it.

Merle:

But I got the feeling that he stopped being their mate when he got hold of it, because he really did want to ...

Jim:

He wanted to, but the thing is, the council then dug in on him and wouldn't let him develop it. So anyway, a couple of years ago he died. Next thing you know they closed it all up, and every couple of months they'd come and mow the lawns ...

Merle:

It was full of foxes, and rabbits, and feral plants and animals ...

Jim:

photo: generator room wangi power station c.2000

... and last Monday someone set fire to the place. One fire engine turned up, and I was wondering how they were going to get in. Easy. Boltcutters. Then three more engines and the ambos turned up, and we couldn't work out what was going on. Next thing, they're out here looking for the water stand pipes, because there's no water on in the power station. I got dressed and went out to see more, and a young girl told me that there was a fire in the power station itself. I said I couldn't understand this as it was all concrete and brick and nothing would burn. She told me that apparently there had been squatters there.

Merle:

The school kids used to get in there all the time.

Jim:

Yes, there's graffiti and all sorts of shit in there now. That was never there when McDonald was alive. Since he's died the security has obviously slackened. He had sirens, sensors and all sorts of security stuff set up ...

Merle:

... and dogs.

Jim:

All that's gone now, and apparently the squatters got in and set fire to it.

Merle:

But there was no smoke. You can see how close we are to it, but we couldn't smell anything or see anything.

Jim:

According to my understanding there is a heritage order on the power station and chimneys.

Merle:

They're a gorgeous piece of industrial architecture.

Jim:

It's the only station of its type in Australia, and it's very, very unique in the way it's designed.

Merle:

There's this wonderful sweeping circle, all glass and everything - right up high. That was where the power station superintendent was. All the bigwigs were up in there. They didn't interact with the workers much, although I must admit that there was a guy at Eraring who was great. He was lovely. He just lives around the corner. I remember it was my 50th birthday and he came up to me and asked me if I was OK with what was happening, because these bastards had gone out in the middle of the night and put huge signs up all over Eraring power station saying that Merle had turned 50 ... and everybody knew Merle! The only time I'd speak to the operators was if I made a mistake with their pay. You see, they're on shiftwork, they've got nothing to do with their time, and nothing happens in the middle of the night, so they work out that they're a cent short in their pay and they'd come and annoy you.

Jim:

You know all this performance that's going on at the moment over the power lines? Who's going to buy what and they're trying to sell it? You know what that's all about? It has nothing to do with power. It's communications. All the cables, when we put them in, they've all got fibre-optic running along the earth line. That line that runs along the top of your normal 330 line is fibreoptic. So there's a fibre-optic backbone on all the power lines running around Melbourne and Victoria. This is what they're after, and it's worth millions and millions as a communication system. They don't want the power lines. They want the communications system.

There's already an NBN line running right around Australia. Telstra put a backbone system in ten or fifteen years ago, but it doesn't go to local consumers. When they put in the coaxial cable systems, there's a coax from Sydney to Brisbane, and a coax from Sydney to Melbourne.. All the holes had been dug, and the pipes had been put in, so it all they had to do was to put the fibre-optic through the existing coax cable stuff. Coax cable is much bigger than the fibreoptic. The first fibre-optic stuff we put in was from Eraring down to Kemps Creek. The 500,000 line. They did test runs of the fibre-optics and found it was red-hot. So that's why they're after the poles and wires.

Merle:

I don't understand why they're always privatizing stuff - and its always the stuff that makes a profit. They have to pay their shareholders so they don't do any maintenance and the whole thing falls apart.

Jim:

So it's the fibre-optic they want. You imagine, if they had to put that fibre-optic in they'd have to dig a hole in the ground for starters, and imagine the yikes and scream that would go up. The cost'd be phenomenal. But we're getting off the topic here.

Interviewer:

Why did you choose Wangi as your base, given that you worked at so many other stations?

Merle:

Well why wouldn't you? It's such a nice place. Originally, when Eraring was built, we had young children in school and everything, I could have lived here easily, but Jim always had trouble.

Jim:

See, I couldn't get out of state control at Carlingford. But Merle was the one who commuted. She stayed at hotels and pubs and such. We had 5 acres at Maraylya. I had a Commission vehicle and I would drive it into Carlingford and work shifts. I had to cover all of NSW.

Merle:

When I first came up here, I was up here 18 months before Jim was. I lived in a caravan park and went home of a weekend. It was great fun. I loved every minute of it.

My youngest was 16, and he came up here with me because he'd been hit by a car and smashed his leg up ... I was 32 at the time. We've been living here for about 30 years.

When they closed the station it didn't affect our lives very much at all. I went to Eraring, but not to the station, to the training centre. I was a computer trainer. I was still a timekeeper, but ... the Commission actually had a brilliant time-keeping program written by their own programmers. It was called "Time and Attendance", and I was involved in the development and the training for this particular computer program.

I was the oldest person there. Everyone was in their thirties, and I was in my forties and fifties. I started in computers in second generation computers. The first computers I ever used, we had time-share in the front. By the afternoon we'd have put all the information in, and then it was sent to Minnesota, because that's where the computer was. We had punch cards, and punch tape. I used to be able to read them. Put it in front of me and I'd be able to tell you what was on it. Mind you, I couldn't tell you a word of it nowadays. And I'm losing it with the programming. I can't program mobile stuff.

Jim:

She trotted off to TAFE and did a Diploma in web design ...

Merle:

... and I also have an advanced diploma in ceramics. It's all because I love chemistry. The best part of the ceramics course was the chemistry.

Jim:

They were scared of you because you had too much on 'em.

Merle:

Yeah. That was the funny thing. People think that timekeepers know how much you're earning. Now I used to pay Jim… and I didn't have a bloody clue what he was earning! They're just numbers, they're not money. You do all these numbers, and you put them through the computer and they come out the other end, and someone will ask how much they are earning. And how would I know?

Jim:

Back in the good old days when they paid you cash, the guys used to pocket so much for their pocket money and give the rest to Mama, but Mama never knew how much they were earning. A lot of the older guys in Wangi thought that Merle knew how much they got paid.

Jim:

The linesmen used to go away on Susso (sustenance) and repair the insulators and everything. They were paid good money, but they'd come home and the wife would ask them where the money had gone, and they'd say that they broke some insulators or something. And the wives would believe them!

Merle:

A lot of women are just so bloody stupid! I was lucky. I had a mother and a father who believed in education for women. My mother believed in it because she hadn't been educated, and my father believed that everybody was equal, and so you educated them, so I was very lucky.

Jim:

When they were cleaning the place out, they found a body in one of the boilers ...

Merle:

I thought it was in the chimney ...

Jim:

Well, it was somewhere in that section.

Merle:

They think he was an itinerant who went in there to get warm. It was a very old body ...

Jim:

They think it was there when they were building the station.

Interviewer:

And was Wangi power station a good place to work?

Merle:

Oh wonderful. I'd look forward to going to work there because of the people. I didn't like working in Sydney very much, when I was in Head Office, but once I got on the road and started doing things it was just wonderful because you would meet all these people, and they were always nice, and they were always helpful.

I never had any trouble with the management. I probably had more trouble with the office staff. I'm an office worker, and I thought they were a bunch of ... I'm not going to use the word ...

Jim:

There's another power station up at Liddell. Liddell is the dirtiest power station. They burn all the rubbish coal there.

Merle:

At one stage there I put in for a coal plant operator's job, but I didn't get it. I was too highly qualified, and I was female.

Another time one of the coal plant operators came up to me and said: "How would you like to have a drive of a D9?", and I said that I'd love to. He said: "OK then. Do you want to come and do it now?" I can remember I was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and red high-heeled shoes. He said: "No. You're alright. C'mon, we'll go and do it". And I actually drove the D9 for about half an hour.

Jim:

They're big bulldozers, but the blade's about thirty foot wide.

Merle:

The payroll system was a huge old book, and then we got computers.

Jim:

When they set up all the power stations initially, Bunnerong belonged to the railways, Pyrmont belonged to the railways, White Bay was the council, and Balmain was a private power station. They were all individual utilities. So the Commission took over the lot. The bloke who ran the Balmain power station was the first Chairman of the Electricity Commission, and he had power over all the other ones. But the Balmain power station were given a big pay rise just before the Commission came on the scene, so the Commission had to match the pay rise for all the other power stations. This guy wasn't a bean counter, he was an engineer and he knew his stuff, and he knew how to handle people, and from there on in ...

Merle:

... once the bean counters get in nothing matters but the bottom line.

Jim:

Anyway, he was the one who started the whole thing up. He had the foresight to set up the substations and start getting the power stations together, and it really was a magnificent organization they set up. They set up in Rannon House originally, then they moved to where they had the American Embassy on the floor above. That was fun, after hours, when I had to come in and check things ...

Merle:

It was even more fun when they had a bomb scare and we had to walk down thirteen floors!

Merle:

But as a result of all this our salaries were very good.

Jim:

The work conditions were very good. They brought in the 35 hour week ...

Merle:

Thirty seven and a half hours. You were on 35 hours because you were shift work, and I was on thirty seven and a half.

Jim:

We got four weeks annual leave, plus shift loadings.

Merle:

They were one of the first to have maternity leave.

Jim:

The Public Service Union was pretty strong, and if they rattled the chain enough they'd usually end up getting what they wanted. And the ETU - they were the two good ones. The there was the Miscellaneous Workers, for the cleaners and labourers, and they all combined. They'd go through the ritual of negotiations, but there were no real fireworks. The place was making money, and they were building.

Interviewer:

Were there any light-hearted moments associated with your job?

Jim:

Like the time they caught the bloke blowing the sub station up?

Merle:

Yes, that was good fun.

Jim:

The only time a bomber got loose in Sydney - he was blowing subs up because it turned out he just like throwing switches. He was nuts. But the thing is, no-one knew who he was or what was happening because he blew Dundas sub up! Everybody was getting very upset about this character. I was over at Carlingford, a 133/33 substation - and the state control centre was over on the other side. That was my base, and a operator called Bob Friend rang me up from Sydney West, which controlled Carlingford, and told me they were getting all sorts of funny discrepancies on their circuit-breakers. So we had a look at the supervisory system and everything looked all right. So I said I'd go up into the control room and check it out, and here's this bloke up there turning all the switches! What he didn't know was, that to operate them you don't just turn them - you have to push them in and then turn them. If he'd know how to do it he would probably have taken out just about all of Sydney! But just turning them accounted for the discrepancies Bob was seeing back in Sydney West. It turned out that this person was deaf and dumb

I was wondering what to do next, as I didn't think to bring a phone or anything with me. I didn't even have a pencil and paper, but there were glass panels so you could see in from the control room, and I ended up writing in the dust on the glass! And I dared not go anywhere, and I decided I had to get to a phone to get some help.

Eventually I got near a direct line phone, and Bob twigged that something was going on because I was talking very loud. He phoned the police, and they said they'd be there in four to five hours! So Bob got hold of one of the council line gang ... see there were three keys: PS3 was your high voltage key, SS3s were the country keys. There was a whole sequence of key numbers, and the higher the number the higher the authority you had to have to get the key. SS3 was Substation stuff, and the PS3s were power station ones. Anyhow, the line gangs had a key. Once they came over I was right, and I could get on the phone and tell Bob what was going on.

OK, so we had the coppers coming - eventually - so we took him down and locked him in the Communications Room. At that stage, management turns up on the scene: "OK We'll take over from here. We don't need you any more". I never got a mention in dispatches, and these blokes were the heroes of the day. Gee, I was cranky over it.

Merle:

I had a supervisor like that once. We never went out to Broken Hill, but we used to check their payroll book. I got banned from Broken Hill because of the Barrier Council - the timekeeper out there was running a scam, and everybody knew about it. I wasn't in on it, so I got banned by the Barrier Council.

I was also the third woman timekeeper in the Commission, and Pyrmont power station wouldn't allow female timekeepers to go over there. If you worked in the Commission in Head Office you got no allowances, if you worked in a Transmission area you got transmission allowance, which was about ten dollars a week, and if you worked in a power station you got power station allowances which was about eighteen dollars a week, which was fairly reasonable. And we weren't allowed to go to Pyrmont. We were about five women at that stage, and we kicked up a stink. They said that there were no female toilets there, and we said that we didn't care, we'd share the toilets with the men. "We'll go in a stall and we won't watch while you're at it" I said. Eventually we managed to get to go to Pyrmont, and we'd been there a few years when this bloody stupid woman - with a university degree and all the rest of it - came in and declared that she couldn't go anywhere where there was no ladies toilet. So we got banned from it again! They were so up themselves.

... (long digression) ...

Merle:

We've had a good time working, really. The Commission were a good bunch to work for. They used to have a social club that you paid bugger-all for. They had flats up at Port Macquarie that you balloted for each year and go there to have a holiday. Everyone who worked for the Commission was entitled to it. They also used to have a Commission Picnic Day, and a camp where everyone went to the Sports Day. It was a very social place.

Jim:

The bloke that started it all up wanted to keep it like a family.

Merle:

And the management would turn up at all these social functions. If you think about it, the miners in England all had these social clubs - I think it was a carry-over from that sort of era. It's a shame we've lost that community spirit.

Interviewer:

When Wangi closed, did you stay working for the Commission?

Jim:

I wasn't working full time at Wangi. I was all over the place. All the time.

Merle:

And I was at Waratah, which is in the Newcastle transmission area. It's behind the Uni up there. And then I went to ERRO - Eraring Regional Recruitment Office.

Jim:

In the end we got the golden handshake. They kept changing the names. First it was Pacific Power, then it was Transgrid - every day you'd come in and it would have a new name. It was terrific - every time they changed the name you got another uniform! Prior to that they decided that all wages staff should wear blue, and salaried staff were to wear khaki. I used to dread going to Liddell power station. We'd have to go and check out all the stuff around the power station, and it was so dirty. And if they saw me coming, wearing khaki, they'd get the hose, and I'd end up covered in the stuff. That was their idea of a joke. It was because I was wearing the salaried employees' colour.

Merle:

There was a definite distinction between salary and wages.

Jim:

So in the end they figured out that it would be better to put everyone in the same coloured uniform.