Workman’s Weekly

By gerard oosterman

Workman’s weekly.

You knew the week-end was coming to the end on any Sunday afternoon, rain or shine. A kind of gloom set in as if any enjoyment should never have been trusted in the first place. The suburban strips of hooded shops and steel awnings were closed up, and dogs and people had disappeared. Was this not the time on a Sunday afternoon to expect the arrival of the “Demon of Noontide’?

Some of the tens of thousands across Sydney and other places would now be getting ready for the routine of obtaining the ticket to work by rail during the week. In those days a weekly train ticket was the best option for those that did not yet have a car. This ticket was called ‘workman’s weekly’. It was coloured a cheerful red and had both the destination and the year’s week number printed on it. Next week the same colour but the next number would be featured.

It is rather nice to know that in those days, a workman and his workman’s ticket was part of a society that had not yet discovered the stigma that would later attach itself to the word ‘workman’ by some. How many would now saunter up to a rail station, let alone buy a” workman’s weekly ticket”?

Of course, to avoid queuing on Monday morning in the thick of it all, the better planned would get the ticket from the nearest railway station on the Sunday afternoon.

Therefore there would often be a slight flare up of life and respite from the ‘Sunday demon’ between four and six pm or so, especially around the railway stations, when one could see fellow workers, so staunch and brave, facing the coming week with an heroic and fearless grim determination to buy his weekly ticket.. Oddly enough, those tickets, as far as I remember, could also be bought by work-women. Perhaps I am wrong here. Was there some sort of letter of proof from employer that one was engaged in physical work?

Monday mornings were so much better for having survived the Sunday, another week and another quid was now coming up, we are talking about seventeen pounds ten shillings per week here, being about the average adult wage, back in 1956. It was mid-summer.

The trains had sliding doors that were manually wrenched open by burley blue yakka’ed station attendants. The waiting workers would flick away the Ready Rub fag end and all would align and board the train.

The trains then, as perhaps still now, were of a past era but very much accepted as being modern, almost in vogue. There were no toilets or water on board, so passengers would develop strong constitutions and camel like water retaining attributes and bladders, even travel by late pregnant women would be undertaken with no worries. The date on the steel couplings between carriages was around 1932 or 34 and above the seats were still those brass ornate luggage racks, now keenly sought by inner city residents to use as holders for their terracotta potted geraniums.

The workmen and their workman’s tickets were of the norm then and so were men in overalls and travelling women with hair curlers. The trains would be packed.

Heralds and Telegraph papers would be spread open and many women would knit, young men would glance through Post and Pix magazines, with photos of girls in swimwear revealing nude knees and even feet. The afternoon papers, Mirror and Sun featured scandalous stories of Princess Margaret’s romances and titillating scandals of Professors at Tasmanian Universities. Every six months or so, when sales were down, papers would print front page with a single word ‘WAR’. It was often a fracas in Egypt or disturbance in Malaysia. But the paper’s edition went sky high.

As the train arrived, its passengers would be disgorged and new ones would hop on, perhaps shift workers going home on the reverse trip.

Many workers carried those big bags that clipped together at the sides and would bulge downwards. Inside those bags one could easily have discovered tinned containers with clip on lids that held the previous night’s dinner leftovers. Those tucker tins and other goodies would then be eaten after the factory siren heralded the thirty minutes lunch break.

A lot of work carried out in factories was done by unskilled or semi skilled workers. It often involved very repetitive work, day in day out arms and hands sometimes combined with feet would perform the same movements all day. Those movements sometimes also had a counter on the machine and a minimum number of movements were required per day. To make extra money, it was encouraged to do more movements with working faster or taking shorter breaks. Often safety shields on machinery would be disengaged for extra speed, risking workers losing hands or limbs by compromising on safety.

But what sustenance the men derived from their tucker boxes of the previous night’s morsels, many women would get for tuppence out of the slotted coin machines fastened on the wall next to the bundy clock, in the form of headache powders. The bundy clock was that dreaded invention that would stamp arrival and finishing times at the factory.  Some stricter regimes also had time for lunch breaks recorded on those machines.

The bundy clock 

It wasn’t so much the headache or other ailment those women suffered from, no it was more for the enjoyment of ‘getting a lift’, as I was often told. It was also not the single occasional paper foil of headache powder, no, three or four a day, and every day. Are you a bit sick, I asked? “No no, it picks me up you know, it makes me feel a bit better”.

Years later, when thousands of women developed liver and kidney ailments it was blamed on those headache powders, the ingredient of phenacetin was the culprit. Many women ended up with all sorts of organ breakdowns through their overuse.

I sometimes thought that in those times, with the six o’clock swill at the ‘Locomotive or Cricketer’s Arm’ and similar, and those men pissing money on boots and porcelain, with pyjama clad kids hanging around pubs waiting and hoping daddy would come home soon for dinner, had a lot to do with the ‘lift’ that those factory women were getting and needing out of the tuppence phenacetin loaded headache powder slot machines.

Then there were those that did not have clip on bags nor clipped tucker boxes. These were the recently arrived Europeans from complicated countries and backgrounds. Thick accents, some heavily vowel rounded, others guttural consonantly. Many silently doing the factory processing work, week in and out, bending over machinery, often imported from their home country, making bolts and nuts or putting thread on same.

Hungarians, Czechs, and Slavs with professorial demeanours and qualifications from Giessen or Vienna and with Cum Laude as well, doing now in factories what the Bill O’Reilly’s had done for generations. These were the times of ‘workman’s tickets, factory work and European migration’.

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