Australia Day 2012: Wealth for toil on the railway?

Denis Joseph Kunkel (Centre) with his brother James Edward (left) and an unknown friend or relation (right) c1917.

Shelley from Twigs of Yore has again initiated an Australia Day blogging theme. In 2012 the focus is  “wealth for toil” drawing on the words of our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. Our challenge is to choose an Aussie ancestor and relate how they toiled. There were several alternative approaches but I chose to tell the story of my grandfather’s occupation as a railway worker both in times of peace and at war. Is wealth for toil meant to signify the wealth generation workers create or does it mean they will gain “wealth”?

Many years ago, long before the advent of Ipswich’s wonderful Railway Workshops Museum, I visited a dusty, daggy old office where I was permitted to trawl through equally dusty drawers and boxes of old index cards. These were the records for some of Queensland’s railway workers. Although I’ve since searched similar records at Queensland State Archives, I don’t believe they hold the same cards.

This old image is thought to be Fountain’s (railway) Camp near Murphys Creek.

One of the cards I found all those years ago was my grandfather’s service history. Denis Joseph Kunkel came from a railway family, indeed he was born in a railway camp at the Forty Mile near Dalby. He might be said to have had iron tracks running through his bloodstream and the rattle of the trains in his ears: his grandfather worked on the Ipswich-Toowoomba line around its construction, his father worked on various lines on the Downs and near Jimboomba, while his mother also had jobs as a railway carriage cleaner and gatekeeper[i].

Denis joined the railway as a young lad and is first listed as a 19 year old lad porter at Central Station in Brisbane in 1900, earning a daily pay of 1 shilling and 8 pence (about 18 cents!). Wealth for toil…it appears not!

It’s likely Denis had been out working well before this but I’ve found no record of what he did or where. Denis was the eldest child of George and Julia Kunkel both of whom died in late 1901, and his move back to Grantham in 1902 was probably precipitated by the need to be involved in some way with his younger siblings. Even though he was still a lad porter, his pay increased to 5 shillings a day. Was this in any way related to his being the eldest and needing to provide some financial support to his younger siblings? My father always said that Dinny supported them financially though there are no anecdotes on this in other branches.

Roma Street railway yards c1897. John Oxley LIbrary Image number: APO-023-0001-0001 Copyright expired.

Denis worked his way through the standard railway progression from lad porter to porter then to shunter, the most dangerous job in the railways with a tremendously high injury rate. However shunting was a necessary stepping stone on the way to becoming a guard. As he worked these jobs he followed the opportunities from Maryborough to Roma Street then to Ipswich and Gympie before finally buying his block of land in Brisbane (see this post). The old timber storage box in which he carried his belongings as he moved from one posting to another is a fixture in my mother’s house.

In his early working days he was involved with the unions and thanks to Trove I now know he was secretary to the Railway Employees Association in 1909 and was the Traffic Employees’ scrutineer in the election of members for the Railway Appeals Board. He attended the Federated Railway Transport and Traffic Employees conference in Brisbane in 1909 after which he was one of a deputation of 5 men to present “certain requests” to the Traffic Manager. He attended the Federated Railway Transport and Traffic Employees conference in Brisbane in 1909 after which he was one of a deputation of 5 men to present “certain requests” to the Traffic Manager (ii). Wealth for toil….every step negotiated with “management” and dependent on the strength of your union.

Railway workers were in a reserved occupation during World War II and as yet I’m uncertain as to whether this was the case in World War I. Either way my grandfather didn’t rush to enlist even though two of his younger brothers and several cousins had already volunteered. Two cousins had already paid the ultimate price on the Western Front. It was only in 1917 when the Army called for men with railway expertise that he enlisted with the AIF in the 59th (and later 5th) Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (ABGROC). As the battles raged on the Western Front, experienced men were needed who could operate the railway infrastructure so vitally important to the movement of men, fuel and supplies.

A Railway Operating Division (ROD) train at Couchil-le-Temple 1918: precisely where my grandfather was stationed at the time. AWM Image AO2516 copyright expired.

As their train steamed south to meet the troop carriers, Denis passed through Murphys Creek where his grandfather had worked on the railway and where his grandmother still lived. His young cousin, Anne Kunkel, remembered seeing these khaki clad men going off to war. Did his grandmother also come down to the station from the Fifteen Mile to see him while the steam train took on water for the steep climb up the range? A newspaper report specifically mentions that he and his brother Jim passed through Toowoomba en route[iii]. Did he defer joining up until after his German-born grandfather died in March 1916? So many questions without answers.

Although these new army recruits were experienced with Australian railway systems, they needed training in the specifics of European rolling stock before playing their part in the battles, and once in Belgium or France, to learn the routes. The Company’s war history reports on the shelling of the line in July 1918 between Ypres and Poperinghe, where Denis was stationed. It was generally thought that the Railway Operating Division’s men were “Right Out of Danger”[iv] but when the enemy knew how vital the railway was to the Allied war effort it’s hard to imagine it was entirely safe. Dad talked about the heavy weaponry being brought to bear on them with the Germans’ “Big Bertha” guns taking a line on them. The war diaries provide a surprisingly rich description of life for the members of the ABGROC. No doubt they were preserved to a degree from the craziness and unpredictability of the battlefront which impacts other war diaries. Perhaps this is the closest they came for wealth for their toil, despite the hazards of war.

Denis’s army file shows that only days after his 38th birthday he had two weeks leave in Paris. Somehow it’s hard to imagine him strolling down the Champs Elysees. Afterwards he had little to say about this adventure other than “one city is much the same as another”. After the Armistice he was granted a further two weeks leave in England and it’s also possible that during this leave he may have visited his future wife’s family in Scotland, but this is merely family story.

Railway staff card for Denis Joseph Kunkel showing wage variations based on economic conditions, changing Awards, and war time allowances.

On his return to Australia in 1919, Dinny resumed his working life in the railway. He was posted at Roma Street (1919-1925) then Mayne Junction (1926-1945) and by the time he retired he was a 1st class guard. Over the years his wages fluctuated with the Depression, the 40 hour week, and the WWII effort but he earned enough to have a secure livelihood for his family. Wealth for toil = steady wages + secure position – physical danger.

The workplace was a different environment then – no workplace mediation or counselling. If you got something wrong, you got fined, and every now & then if you did something innovative, you got a financial reward. In 1940 Dinny was fined £5 and loss of pay while on suspension for having “failed to keep a good look out and give due observance to the down home signal when approaching Roma Street station, thereby contributing to the engine and portion of your train passing the said down home signal in the stop position[v]. This annotation was on his staff card but from TroveI learned that this resulted in “his” train being in a collision with the up train. Denis appealed the charge at the Railway Appeals Board and won, gaining compensation of £2/2/- (two guineas). It’s not clear whether he was also recompensed the lost fortnight’s wages or the £5 fine. Wealth for toil: if you got it right and made no mistakes.

Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander October 2 1930 shows te head and hands of a railway guard. With one hand the guard holds a whistle to his lips and with the other he raises a green flag. John Oxley Library Image 702692-19301002-s001b. Copyright expired.

Denis took his job seriously and a family friend remembered that you didn’t dare run late for a train on which he was the guard, because he’d just blow his whistle at the allotted time and you would be left behind. Eventually, after 45 years and 9 months employment with the railway he took a well-earned retirement. He enjoyed sitting on the back steps smoking his pipe and watching the world go by. The wealth from his toil kept him secure in his retirement thanks to his pension and his savings.

However even in his retirement his occupation left its traces: his old railway whistle was one of my informal inheritances while his old guard’s cap lived at the very top of my grandparents’ wardrobe and was the home “bank” with spare cash, savings books, best jewellery etc stored in it. Obscured by the riser at the front top of the wardrobe it was “as safe as houses”. Wealth for toil indeed.

If you have relatives from the Darling Downs please have a look at this picture which includes Denis and some people with a Kunkel family resemblance. I’d love to find anyone who might recognise one of the other people in the photo.



[ii] . The Brisbane Courier, 23 February 1909 and The Brisbane Courier 28 June 1909. The Worker 3 July 1909. .

[iii] The Toowoomba Chronicle, 5 November 1917. Both Denis and Jim were said to be well known in the district.

[iv] No doubt a sentiment exacerbated by the large ROD acronym on the side of the engines.

[v] Rule 71b, 223a, 251s, Book of Rule By Law 308.

43 thoughts on “Australia Day 2012: Wealth for toil on the railway?

  1. Loved this post. I have a certain affinity with you, as my maternal grandfather and his brothers were all railway workers here in Ireland. Lovely to have such memories of your grandfather and to have his whistle! Toil it was for sure — and the ongoing wealth is certainly in having a granddaughter who records it all for the world to see!
    Happy Australia Day!


    1. Thank you Angela..I really appreciate your comment on his wealth. Funnily enough I had Irish railway workers too, the (Mc)Sherry family from Wexford, so we do indeed share occupational ancestry. Hope you’re having a good week. It’s blowing like mad here still so lots of Oz Day events cancelled.


  2. I really enjoyed your Australia Day post. My own post (FamilyHistory4U ) is about my g g grandfather who also worked at one time for the Qld Railways being foreman at the Upswich Carriage Workshop. Perhaps they even met!


    1. Thanks Sharn. The location timing is a little different but it’s entirely possible they ran across each other (so to speak) along the way. Another 20 years later my maternal grandfather was also a foreman in the carpentry section of the Ipswich workshops. Small world in Qld!


  3. Pauleen, I always enjoy your articles, and this one is outstanding. The photo of Fountain’s Camp is beautiful. I can’t imagine what it was like to wear those dresses in that environment!


  4. Thanks for your post as it reminded me that my great grandfather and great great grandfather worked building the NSW railway line between Tenterfield and Wallangarra and that one of them worked on building the tunnel between Brisbane Central and Brunswick Street Stations. Others were involved with railways in England.


    1. Thanks Sharon..the railway seems to run in lots of people’s blood streams I find. I guess you’ve looked at the railway records for England on Findmypast. Sadly they don’t have Irish records 😦


  5. Wonderfully interesting post Pauleen, with such a lovely collection of images. I have found out a lot about railway workers from reading this, thank you.


  6. Loved the story about the wardrobe stash and the cap that you stil have…..thanks for sharing….particuarly the bit about the war time service in France…really interesting stuff …I laughed out loud at the comment that one city was pretty much like another – yes I always thought Brisbane and Paris were very similar 😉 Alex


    1. Thanks Merron, I’m pleased you enjoyed the story. I also have his railway watch but that’s another story. I think I value my memories of him most of all -he was such a gentle man and so kind to me as a child.


  7. A fascinating profile of your railway ancestors and I was intrigued by the title “wealth for toil” and also that you were allowed to browse through the records in the dusty office of the Railway Mueum. The many images added so much to the story and I particularly liked the one of the women at Fountain’s Camp.


    1. Hi Susan, I didn’t mention in my blog that the “Wealth for Toil” comes from our national anthem. Yes in those old days I was left to my own devices rummaging through drawers. Heaven! Glad you liked the pics. I really admire, but don’t envy, those early pioneer women trying to keep house by the railway line construction, bringing forth the next generation, and not infrequently burying them as they died from the adverse conditions in the camps.


  8. What wonderful details you have discovered. It’s obvious the time and effort that has gone into your post – thank you for helping build a picture of the people who made Australia.


  9. Are you able to tell me just where Fountain’s Camp was? Stephen Fountain was my Great-great-grandfather and as with the Kunkel story, I have found out a lot about him from Trove. His story is an interesting one too. I live in WA so am not familiar with the country round Toowoomba but from my reading I would think Fountain’s Camp might have been somewhere near Highfield. Are there any traces of it left, I wonder?


    1. Yes Jennifer, thanks to the man who’s been the local historian for Murphy’s Creek I can tell you where it is roughly. Nothing exists per se anymore. I remember when I was Murphys Creek a few years ago there was another descendant of Fountain’s there. It’s just near the M Ck cemetery. Perhaps Fountain also had other camps that were named after him…I haven’t pursued that as yet. I have put a yellow marker on Google Earth, so if you search for Fountain’s Camp, Murphys Creek, Queensland it should come up. If not give me a yell and will see what other strategies we can use. Cheers Pauleen


      1. Thanks very much for your reply Pauleen. I have found the spot on Google Earth (wonderful programme, that!) There were certainly other places named after the Fountains, but this was the one set up for the workers on the section of the railway line Stephen Fountain had been contracted to build. The job was completed by April 1867 and the Fountains moved on but the camp was still used for several years afterwards. It was more of a little town really. This is what the newspaper of the day said about it in January 1866:

        “From all appearances this must be one of the most flourishing camps on the railway line; for not only are there five stores, three butchers’ shops (another one just setting up), and two bakers, but we have actually a full-blown sausage-maker and tripe dealer, whilst vegetable carts are arriving every week from Ipswich and Toowoomba with vegetables of every description, most of which are sold at very reasonable rates.”

        My great-grandfather was one of the butchers. He married one of the Fountain daughters and later whisked her off to Fiji to grow sugar.

        Regards, Jennifer.


      2. How great Jennifer! I used that self-same quote in my family history book (found in the very early days of Trove). You see my George Kunkel was a pork butcher and I can’t help wondering if the’s the “full blown sausage maker” as his family were in Bavaria. I know the Chapmans were there as butchers…is this you connection or another name? How interesting that they then went off to Fiji. It’s a small world. I’m so pleased we’ve made contact.


  10. Fabulous site…My Grandfather was in the 5th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company, joining it in Western Australia. I have inherited his collections of photos taken during his journey to England, a few from the camp at Bordon and several of the trains and camp life in general. Unfortunately only some are labelled but when viewed in conjunction with the fabulously detailed appendix to the official company’s diary really adds something. Happy to scan these and email them to you. Regards Noelene


    1. Wow Noelene! how fabulous to have those photos! I would absolutely love to see scanned images if you are able to send them to me…my email is on the contact me page. You are the first person I’ve met with family from this rather unusual unit. they may have said “Right Out of Danger” but I can’t see how when the trains were carrying men, munitions and supplies. Their diary is fascinating isn’t it? What kind of railway work did your grandfather so? Mine started out, as so many did, in the junior ranks but ended up as a guard…I have railway tracks instead of blood vessels 😉


  11. This post was great reading. I found it when I searched the internet for railway camps in Queensland. My grandfather was born at 22 Gang on the SW railway line, a mysterious address I’m trying to understand. Your blog is full of helpful hints. Thanks.


    1. Thanks Trish! There is a man who’s an expert on Qld Rail, Greg Hallam, who has a facebook page…might be worth asking the question there. Have you Trove-d it?


  12. Hello,
    My GG-Granfather came from and was hired in Scotland and landed in Moreton bay 26/3/1866 and started work on the Southern & Western Railway as a platelayer. He worked all the lines in the Southern area right up until his death in 1907. His name was John Ewing and I’m desperate to find a photo of him. He was one of the instigators in fighting for the 8 hour day. I have some family photos but none of him.

    I would love to hear from someone if they have anything about him.


    1. Hi Les, Let’s hope your comment here brings forth some luck! Have you checked Trove in case he’s pictured there given his role in the 8hour day. It’s interesting isn’t it, how railways run in some families’ blood. Pauleen


    2. Les, I am here looking for the exact same thing… for the exact same reason. John Ewing was my GGG-Grandfather. I would love to get as much info as you have on that side of the family!
      Karina Wells


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