Sunday, August 24, 2014

George Smith is a dam labourer

Part eight: Continuing the transcription of the diary that my great-grandfather, William George Smith, wrote when he travelled from his home in Minyip, Victoria to Western Australia in 1889.

After a short break exploring some areas north of Perth (see previous entries) George went back to spend to more time working as a labourer along the Great Southern Railway that had just opened between Beverley and Albany.

 12/7/1889 Went to the Perth station early to go to Beverly found the train did not leave for there until one o'clock so went to the rifle range & viewed Perth from the highest hill. Left Perth at one, at Beverly at 7. Went onto a raffle at night and lost.
13/7 Left Beverly at 8, at Wagin Lake at two. Had a look at the men working, taking out a dam, blasting it, putting it into drays.
14/7 Fixed up my tent and decided board at the rate of pound a week.
15/7 Started to work at eight shillings a day. The work was pretty hard and awkward shovelling among big lumps of stuff almost like rock.
16/7 Got onto the work a little better but the navvies were very coarse and rough especially at the table, a class of men truly that exists without God in the world.
17/7 I found myself camped alongside an English man, a new chum who comes from Newcastle on Tyne. A very interesting and agreeable companion with a lot of very drool sayings.
18/7 At our dray we have the most comical drivers in the pit. Several times we thought we would get sacked because we laughed so much.
19/7 Getting into work splendid, a real navvie with my knee straps and my shirt undone in the front and hat on three hairs.
20/7 A bobbie on the scene, the men a little scared owing to some of them having a lot of sandlewood [sic] on hand illegally.
21/7 A lot of men working in the dam ploughing and picking. There is no Sunday here.
22/7 We had a long talk with and ex Queensland cockie, a Frenchman who judged the colonies by their results. Reckoned half boiled corn left standing for a few days was good to make fowls lay.
23/7 Two men arrived on the camp from the Horsham district. They had been through Minyip. They said it was the wettest season that they had on the Horsham plains since 1876.
24/7 Their opinion of WA was very bad & they thought of returning to Victoria. They couldn't sight paying one pound a week board. They worked with us one day and left for the north west.
25/7 Heard some very curious yarns about the Blacks in the N. West and also in Queensland. Had a Queenslander with us. 26 men in the boarding house.
26/7 Heard a good deal about Bunbury district. Nearly got hit with falling stones from one of the blasts.
27/7 A very dull and damp day. Reckoned the dam to be finished in a fortnight.
28/7 Paid one weeks work 1/18/6 and a shovel 6/6 (2/5/0)
29/7 Considerable amount of gambling going on in the Camp. It seems it is a general thing among the navvies after pay day.
30/7 This morning an extremely heavy frost. A great argument on religion with the Frenchman.
31/7 learned we were going to shift to the next dam this day week.
8/8 At the drains and making a small dam to catch the sand filter on the main drain into the reservoir. Number of yards in reservoir 14 thousand.
9/8 preparing for shifting. The Boss hurrying the men and horses scooping. They were regular done up.

Horses used in scooping process in NSW. Source
Dam scooping. Source
Wagin (pronounced 'wagon' by locals) today is an agricultural district with cereal crops, sheep and cattle. It hosts the largest sheep show in the southern hemisphere. When George returned to Minyip he was also a cereal and sheep farmer in the Wimmera where his father had selected land. But several times in his dairy he mentions other areas that he was assessing as possibilties but I don't think he had Wagin on his list.

The railway dam that George was working on was near the railway siding at Wagin Lake. The town of Wagin developed near there so the boarding house that George was living in was probably there. Some of the early settlers supplemented their income by cutting sandalwood (legally or illegally). Sandalwood is a small tree that has been a very important part of Western Australia's economy because its valuable oil has been used as an aromatic, a medicine, and a food source. Since the 1880s land clearing and over-harvesting has greatly reduced the natural population of the plant but it is now a plantation timber. It was illegal to harvest it in 1889 and unfortunately it still happens on a large scale.

Sandalwood harvest, 1940s. Source: Wikipedia


  1. This is an interesting diary so thanks for sharing Lorraine. It seems unlikely that anyone could have made a fortune at the time if board was one pound a week - except for boardinghouse keepers. The comments about the conditions (and lack of OH&S!) are real eye openers. Sounds like George was a bit out of his comfort zone.

    1. George was absolutely out of his comfort zone but the experience was probably positive in the long run.


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