Well-known Rockhampton personality Vince Pheely started his working life as an apprentice fitter at the Rockhampton rail yards where he spent the next 25 years.
Well-known Rockhampton personality Vince Pheely started his working life as an apprentice fitter at the Rockhampton rail yards where he spent the next 25 years.

An old rail yard larrikin recalls the good old days

BACK in 1955, the Rockhampton railway and it's workshops were the beating heart of Rockhampton.

Over 1000 men worked there and while the money wasn't a lot, it was regular and the work was constant.

"You knew you could wake and go into a job and your fortnightly pay would be there," said 78-year-old Vince Pheely, as he reflected on 25 years at the workshops.

"People relied on it, Rockhampton relied on it and you didn't have to worry."

Vince was just 14-years-old and straight out of school at Mt Morgan when he lined up with 600 young apprentices on his first day.

"When I stepped in, there were 80 first year apprentices, just fitters," he said.

"Don't worry about the boiler makers and carpenters, that was just fitters.

"It was my first job and I didn't know where I was - big overhead cranes running up and down the shop, it was noisy and I'm thinking what have I let myself in for."

It was the start of a lifetime of learning.

Tradesmen in those days were great tradesmen, he says.

If they taught you something you remembered it - like the day he was taught filing.

"I spent half a day filing this thing. You had to cut it down and I was proud I'd done this.

"Til this bloke from Mt Morgan...I took it over to him and he threw it into the tip and sent me away to do it again.

"I was so proud, I'd never done it before but no, he said do it again."

 

RALLY DAY: Aurizon workers devastated about losing their jobs
RALLY DAY: Aurizon workers devastated about losing their jobs Luke Mortimer

Vince got on with his job and learned everything he could, but with that many young blokes on the job there was bound to be some larrikin behaviour.

Lunchtimes would often see them heading to the pub for a couple of beers.

"We had 45 minutes for lunch but time and time again we'd be sneaking back in through the back of the place at 1.30, a good half hour late," he said.

"We never got the chat from the bosses, except if there was a smash we had to go to.

"They'd say 'where's Pheely' and I'd be down the pub.

"Or we'd go up to the toilet for a talk and next thing someone would yell out that the boss was coming so we'd all cram into the one cubicle.

"The bloke sitting in there's yelling at us to get out and we'd be on his lap.

"The boss would come in and he'd know what was going on and you had 30 seconds to get back on the job."

As the years rolled on, the steam engines continued to roll in, each one needing 80 fitters to jump on board.

"The last steam loco that came out...I can't remember the number," Vince said.

"I was doing the job I was taught to do and next thing the Bully's (The Morning Bulletin) down taking photos of the last one ever sent out."

He says once the diesel locomotives replaced the old steam engines, everything changed.

Cranes would lift the locos, take the bogies out and put the new wheels on.

"There was something wrong with you if you didn't have a little cry," Vince said.

"We'd been taught so much and it wasn't anywhere near the same.

"On a steam loco there was a million things to do...it was fitting, but the diesel wasn't fitting.

"You have to remember, us blokes back in that time, that's all we'd done and we had to learn diesel fitting."

 

Aurizon employees with the last wagons to be overhauled at the Rockhampton workshops.
Aurizon employees with the last wagons to be overhauled at the Rockhampton workshops.

But Vince says he was always happy to go to work..."the knowledge I was learning there and learning how do deal with other blokes".

"Learning that you don't say something wrong in front of people, and for a bloke that's 14 or 15 it carried me right through life," he said.

Vince admits he doesn't know if he was a good fitter but he got on with the job and worked his way through the ranks to become a second grade foreman.

Back in those days, there was one criteria for being promoted and that was who'd been there the longest.

He says the thing that made him was his final 10 years on the job on the "pick up" crew, which would collect trains that had smashed and take them back into the workshop.

On one job, Vince and his mates were almost killed when the train they were travelling in to a smash on the other side of Emerald also crashed.

"I nearly got killed a couple of times," he said.

And there is that one night, relieving out in Mt Morgan, he'll never forget.

"There was no-one there, the loco had to get out at midnight and you can't just press a button to start a steam loco," he said.

"I got this loco going and I wanted to move it - it was a monster, you should have seen the size of them.

"Down from there was a creek, like a river.

"The drivers had no problem because they knew what they were doing, but I'm a fitter, so I pulled the big lever back and it went whoosh, whoosh.

"The wheels just went and went and it's taken off and I'm by myself.

"It would have gone into the creek it was going that fast.

"I forgot you had to put air in first."

It took a while but eventually the air came through and only his closest mates ever knew about that night.

Men like Merlin Krause - the two men started their apprenticeship together and stayed friends their whole lives, until Mr Krause passed away last year.

And Gerry Burgess who also died last year while Vince held his hand.

Mateship meant looking after each other, if there was trouble at work or at home, everyone pulled together.

"Last weekend, I wanted to go and join in arms with the blokes up there, to show they weren't the only ones feeling it," Vince said.

"I think it was a disgrace. You can't tell me they couldn't have done something better.

"We had 1000 men working there, that's a lot of jobs gone."