Kempsey centenary of rail 1917-2017

Railway camp between Kempsey and Wauchope, 1917
Railway camp between Kempsey and Wauchope, 1917

RAILWAY camps were set up for the navvies and fettlers working on the construction of the railway line. The camps were portable villages with facilities for workmen and their families. Sometimes the camps became more permanent and vegetable gardens were established and necessary infrastructure such as banks and schools were established.

One of the biggest of these camps was at Telegraph Point where there were about 550 men working on the section between Kempsey and Wauchope.

In 1915 it was stated that with the completion of work at Wauchope three camps were likely to be placed at Commandant Hill, West Kempsey and Tamban.

In 1917, with the line progressing from Kempsey to Macksville, a camp was established at Spankers Flat about 16 miles from Kempsey where the locals and workers agitated for a school for the children. The Department of Public Instruction eventually agreed to the request.

In February, 1917, the provisional school of Spankers Flat was established but its time was short-lived as it closed in May 1917. At the time the school at Collombatti had closed and it was decided to transfer the furniture from there to the camp school.

However, the department in its wisdom decided to call the school ‘Oakland’ which was the name of a sleeper depot at the junction of the Tamban and Clybucca roads. The pioneer residents were then hopeful that both places might receive a school.

Along with the honest toilers there were those who sought to capitalise on the workers. One such incident was reported by the Port Macquarie News in June, 1917, when it was asked what had happened to the two-up schools and sly grog shanties that had been operating on the Glenreagh line.

According to the report some of them had moved to the Telegraph Point Camp where they then operated a two-up school. Hearing of this, the police raided the school only to see the ‘two-uppers’ take off  “for dear life through barbed wire fences and through every obstacle, some leaving behind pieces of trouser and others skin and trouser mixed.

“One man ran along the railway line, pursued by a constable, for nearly four miles, and although the constable took three or four shots at him with his revolver, the fugitive kept going the longest and got clean away.”

Three months later the same paper wrote that the line would be completed and the workmen would be moving to Urunga which was fortunate in getting “such a well-behaved lot of men as our navvies”.

With the closure of the local camps, at South and West Kempsey, the infrastructure was put up for auction by the Public Works which advertised roomy floored tents that were timbered half-way up from the floor. The sale offered an “opportunity to lovers of the seaside to secure a really good camp”.

Other items auctioned included galvanised tanks, iron and timber, storerooms, wash-houses and other sundries.

- Macleay River Historical Society

Watch for more railway snippets leading up to the Kempsey Centenary of Rail on November 27. Copies of the photographs are available from the Macleay River Historical Society, Phone, 65627572.