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Tommy Watson: West Gate Bridge collapse

Tommy Watson immigrated to Australia from England with his family in 1961 at the age of fourteen. By the time he was twenty-two Tommy had witnessed the worst construction disaster in Australian history. From this experience, Tommy went on to become a leader of the union movement in Australia, rallying for improved worker safety in the construction industry.

Tommy Watson

Tommy was born in Newcastle, England to a working class family. His father was a boilermaker and his uncles worked in the mines. Tommy recalls living in a house right next to the shipyards where his father worked.

Where we lived in England was right next to the shipyard gate. So when the cranes used to swing around, my bedroom used to go black. The siren in the shipyard used to go for... starting work and finishing work and all that sort of thing. Open the door and you are on the front street.

Tommy remembers early life in England as a struggle. Everyone worked hard, and work was dangerous. Three of his uncles eventually died of asbestosis from the mines, as did his father at the age of fifty-eight. Tommy also lost an uncle to an accident in the mines.

I was with his wife, my mother’s sister. She got married at sixteen and a half. She was seventeen and a half, we’d been shopping in Edinburgh all day, we were standing in a milk bar getting milk to go home and three people in front of us talking about this accident in the pit. Three people had been killed. Mentioned the names and the last name is her husband. So she runs out, leaves me standing in the shop. I was seven or eight.

Tommy’s parents brought he and his little sister out to Australia in 1961 aboard the Fairsea[i], they said, ‘For me and my sister to get a better life, a better life than it was in Great Britain.’

The day my parents arrived they said they were never going back and they never did, which was very surprising. I mean, my father went back when his brothers died and things like that, but they never went back to live.

The Fairsea, one of the ships of the Sitmar Line, was renown for its austere conditions.

We had six weeks on a ship, just like cattle. My father and myself were in a men’s cabin of fourteen men, no shower, no toilet. That was at the end of the corridor. My mother and sister were five decks or four decks above us and they were in a cabin of ten women. So it was just like cattle coming over.


[i] The Fairsea brought many immigrants to Australia after World War II. Originally an American passenger and cargo ship (called the Rio de la Plata), the ship was converted during World War II for use in the Royal Navy (as HMS Charger) and then later in the US Navy as an aircraft carrier (as USS Charger). After the war the flight deck was removed and the ship was used to transport refugees and displaced persons from Europe to Australia (MS Fairsea). The ship was later used to transport those on paid passage, and then assisted immigrants, to Australia.

Jean Nysen (McKenzie): Women's Royal Australian Naval Service WR-87

Jean Nysen (McKenzie) was the 87th woman inducted into the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) during World War II. Born at sea aboard the TSS Jervis Bay in 1922, Jean’s life story reads like a history book about the Royal Australian Navy, the WRANS and even Australia’s involvement in aeronautics for aeroplanes and spaceflight.

Jean Nysen (McKenzie)

Jean’s father, Donald McKenzie, was a Warrant Officer in the Navy at the time of Jean’s birth. Only nine years prior, on 4 October 1913, Donald sailed into Sydney Harbour on board HMAS Australia, the first time the Royal Australian Navy fleet entered the harbour after King George V had granted the Commonwealth Naval Forces the title of ‘Royal Australian Navy’ in 1911.

He was a Leading Telegraphist on board the flagship, HMAS Australia, a battle cruiser, the only one we ever had. So he was able to enjoy the entrance into Sydney Harbour, which was a great thrill.

In November 1922 Jean’s father and mother (Ella) boarded the TSS Jervis Bay in Sydney.

My father was required to go over to England to do a course with the Royal Navy and my mother was expecting a baby at the time, but they found that there was, one of the bay liners, the new Commonwealth steamers, which was on its maiden voyage out to Australia and they heard there was a very good doctor on board, and so the shipping company then made sure that they had a nurse with midwifery experience. And they boarded the ship, I think it was the 27th of November 1922 and I was born down in the Southern Ocean on the 1st of December, before the ship reached Adelaide. My father went ashore at Adelaide and registered the birth and so my birth certificate reads Semaphore Anchorage Outer Harbour, Adelaide.

Jean and her mother Ella on board TSS Jervis Bay in 1922

Once the ship reached Fremantle Jean was taken ashore and baptised. The ship’s captain suggested they name her after the ship, so she was baptised Jean Jervis McKenzie.

Jean’s younger brother Donal was born during their two years in England and they returned to Australia on board the Jervis Bay in 1925. Jean and her family went back to England, on board the Jervis Bay, in 1927 and then returned again to Australia two years later on board the ship. Jean’s father, however, returned to Australia in 1929 on board the HMAS Canberra. It was the ship’s maiden voyage.

Jean was, to say the least, a well-travelled child. She was also fortunate to have fairly liberal parents who allowed her to participate in many activities that would have been seen as ‘adult’ activities in the 1920s and 1930s. One such event was a flight over Sydney Harbour in 1933.

My father was always an inventor, so he was known as an ideas man. And in the Navy there was a colleague of his called Lieutenant Commander Eric Kingsford-Smith, who was a brother of the famous [Sir] Charles Kingsford-Smith, who was the pilot of the Southern Cross. And he was about to do a trip to New Zealand, so his brother rang my father and said, ‘[?] is going on a trip over to New Zealand. He wants to know if you can think of some way he can drop something from the plane which will float on the water.’ In order to take their bearings or something like that. The word I remember from the age of ten was assess the drift, whatever that is.

He always liked to include me in interesting happenings and so he thought for a while and he said, ‘If you get those very thin bottles that chemists use, scientists and so forth for experiments, and fill those with aluminium powder, drop them from the plane, they should break on impact and leave a patch on the water and you should be able to get a bearing from that.’

So we went out on the Sunday afternoon and I helped them fill the bottles and then eventually we boarded the plane and went off round to sea and all around Sydney Harbour, which was fascinating because I had never been in a plane before and I had never seen Sydney Harbour from up there! And anyhow, I don’t know what went on in the front of the plane because I was in one of the only about two seats in the back anyway. Weren’t even fixed to the ground [floor], you know.

So I was fascinated because I found I could open the window and put my hand out to feel the force of the wind, which was really quite interesting. Anyway, they came back and landed after about half an hour and I found that the idea hadn’t been successful because the glass didn’t break in the flasks. So my father’s next idea was, ‘Well you will just have to get some of those little brown paper bags and put some of the aluminium powder in those, a few pieces of metal so that they will drop, and that should work.’

And as far as I know that’s the way they navigated over to New Zealand the following day.[i]


[i] An article titled ‘Tasman Sea flight: the navigator’s log’ published in the West Australian, Monday 16 January 1933, p. 8, corroborates this story. Article can be found on Trove at:

Captain Donald L. Garnham: Cape Horner

Captain Donald L. Garnham is one of the few remaining ‘Cape Horners’, an association of those who have rounded Cape Horn on a non-stop journey under sail of at least 3,000 nautical miles. Sometimes called the Mount Everest of sailing, it is thought more people have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest than have qualified as full members of the International Association of Cape Horners.

Captain Donald L. Garnham

Captain Donald L. Garnham

Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, is renowned still for its treacherous seas, strong winds, currents and icebergs. Don, at ninety-eight, remembers his journeys around the Cape as though they happened yesterday.

Don first rounded Cape Horn as a nineteen-year-old in 1935 aboard the four-masted barque Herzogin Cecilie. As a paid crew member, he sailed from Port Lincoln in South Australia to Falmouth in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Don took the place of one of the five deserters who had left the ship.

I went on board and was met by a savage Alsatian dog ‘Pike’[i] that belonged to the ship’s Master[ii], Captain Sven Erikson. I met the Master in his beautiful saloon, and signed on as a seaman, and was then shown the apprentices’ quarters in the fore port side of the long poop deck. It had wooden bunks in tiers and a long wooden central table with backless bench seats on either side. A small oil lamp that swung overhead was the only night lighting. There was a cupboard for dishes and a small tank for our daily ration of fresh water. Six bunks were already occupied, so I chose a bare vacant top one near the door. As there was no bedding or anything else there I asked the steward if there was a mattress and he said, ‘We don’t supply bedding’. Any rate he kindly got me a mattress. I got an empty flour bag from the cook, which I filled with chaff from the sheep’s feed, and that was my pillow. I got an old piece of canvas from the sail maker to put on top of the mattress as a sheet. Luckily some bedding and an oilskin suit from the chap who had deserted had been hidden by the crew from the Mate. So I used his rug, a thin blanket and luckily my heavy overcoat for the whole trip around Cape Horn for warmth.

The barques and other square-rigged sailing ships were called ‘windjammers’, and many were used to carry wheat from the grain ports in Australia to Europe. They were the last of the great sailing ships to take cargo across the seas but were rapidly being replaced with steam ships that could carry more cargo and keep to a schedule without relying on the wind. The windjammers, in contrast, could wait for their cargos at anchor and were cheaper to run. They could sail from Australia to ports in the United Kingdom in about a hundred days. Some of these ships were able to do so in less time, such as the record-setting 83-day journey of the Parma from Port Victoria to Falmouth in 1933. Thus, the legend of the ‘Grain Race’ began, as the public took an interest in the fast-sailing ships and an unofficial race was reported on each grain season. Don disagrees with calling it a grain race.

They called it a grain race but they weren’t really races. The newspapers said that. They had an official prize in just one year for a two-ship race on different routes! The reality was that the grain ships left different ports, at different times and had different final destinations for discharge orders; Queenstown in Ireland or Falmouth in England. How can you call it a race? But the ship that made the fastest passage and ‘tall ship stories’ were what the newspaper used to write about.

By the time of the last Grain Race in 1949 the Herzogin Cecilie held the record with the most victories at six.

Don’s journey aboard the Herzogin Cecilie was his first on a windjammer and it was also nearly his last. When called upon to climb out to the edge of the main sail to unhook a line, the ship went a bit off course, causing the sail to lift in the wind: ‘The sail just lifted me up and over the edge of the sail. I was hanging on with two hands for dear life! That was nearly my last day at sea as the ship could not turn back and the albatrosses would have pecked me to death.’ This moment is immortalised in a painting by Australian maritime artist Dennis Adams, showing Don clinging to the ship’s sail above the rough seas. The First Mate aboard the ship, Elis Karlsson[iii], sketched the incident and the sketch was later sent to Dennis who painted it. Dennis had been aboard the Herzogin Cecilie as a paying passenger at the time of the incident.

Passing Cape Horn and getting to European waters was no guarantee that the hard sailing was over. Don recalls losing about half the sails on the ship in the English Channel:

We worked our way nicely up through the doldrums[iv] and we then picked up the north-east trade winds, that meant we were close-hauled[v]. Our first steam ship since leaving Australia was sighted. We got up to the English Channel in a couple of very good days sailing in the westerlies. There was a strong wind and I am down in the starboard fo’c’sle doing the dishes and I feel this very strong squall hit the ship.[vi] The porthole starts to go under the water and the dishes start  falling off the table. I was up on deck before they blew the ‘three whistles’ for all hands on deck. The wind sails are flying to pieces and we were almost on beam ends. Any rate, we lost twenty-three sails or more, some brand new sails also; straight out of the ropes, the wind was that strong. We had sleet and snow and poor visibility. Then I had to put the end of the rope over my shoulder and take a block pulley and climb up the main mast to the top, make fast a gantline pulley, and reeve the gantline rope through (used for replacing sails). We were cutting loose the very torn sails and sending them down and then sending up new replacement sails. We worked ‘til about 4 o’clock in the morning in very poor visibility. You couldn’t see hardly anything, ships suddenly coming very close to us, bit of a worry at times. Then we went below at 4 o’clock for a couple of hours rest in the sail locker and then up again, bending on more sails until we got every sail back on replaced. We sailed past the Lizard Lighthouse[vii] next day in beautiful weather, every sail set and our flag flying. We were there for orders, Falmouth for orders, as to which port we were to discharge our grain cargo at. After a weeks wait, anchors aweigh, and we were sailing to Belfast.


[i] The Alsatian was also known as Paik.

[ii] Sven Erikson, the Captain of the ship, is referred to as the ship’s Master. Sven was nephew to the ship’s owner, Gustaf Erikson (from Villiers, AJ 1947, Voyage of the Parma, Hazell, Watson & Viney, London, p. xii).

[iii] Many of Elis Karlsson’s sketches from this period are published in the Oxford University Press book, Pully-haul: The story of a voyage (1966).

[iv] Colloquially refers to parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans where the Intertropical Convergence Zone becalms ships in a low pressure area near the equator. This results in calm winds and periods of no wind at all. When the winds return to the equator as the Trade Winds, this can cause unexpected weather, such as squalls and thunderstorms, in the doldrums.

[v] Close-hauled refers to having the sails flat, thus sailing close to the wind.

[vi] The Lizard Lighthouse keeper recorded the squall at over 80 miles per hour (128 kilometres per hour).

[vii] The lighthouse at Lizard Point, Cornwall, United Kingdom. It marks the most southerly point of mainland Britain.

Sparra from Yarra

Sparra’s horse-drawn caravan is parked next to the pub at Whorouly, a tiny town on the Ovens River, just off the ‘Snow Road’ and a few minutes’ drive from Myrtleford in Victoria. Sparra, whose real name is Ray Weygood, passes this way each summer on his travels around northern Victoria. Known as ‘Sparra from Yarra’, he lives in Yarrawonga, where the Murray River cuts the border between Victoria and New South Wales and forms Lake Mulwala.

Ray Weygood a.k.a. 'Sparra from Yarra'

In the summer months he is more likely to be found travelling slowly down the backroads of northern Victoria in his horse-drawn caravan. Sparra built the caravan about ten years ago and had it painted by the Yarrawonga Arts Group. Kitted out with a twin-system air conditioner, Sparra carries just about everything he needs on board.

I’ve got a bed and I’ve got a twin system air-conditioner in it and I’ve got a satellite television and I’ve got a fridge and all these appliances run off solar, a panel up on the roof with two big batteries under the cart and a George Foreman grill and a toaster and an electric jug and so I don’t need power or anything like that.

Travelling up to 3,000 kilometres in a summer, Sparra sets out from Yarrawonga and follows the local shows and music festivals throughout Victoria and lower New South Wales: ‘Well this trip will be about 500 kilometres, about 3,000 kilometres a year, I suppose, because I go to Rushworth, to Balranald. I go to Echuca... about 3,000 kilometres in a year.’

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