Robert John Cornwell was born at Booleroo Centre, SA, on 16th August 1949, to Jack & Nell Cornwell. He was taken to the family home at Benda Station, located 10 miles from Mannahill, on the road to Broken Hill, to be one of 6 children born to Jack & Nell, and the eldest male, 3rd oldest sibling.
“A” on the map indicates where Mannahill is – Benda is located 10 miles due south of Mannahill
My recollections of Benda Station were of an idyllic existence for a young kid. Basically, I could do as I pleased. I was never home, always out exploring, trapping rabbits, riding a BSA Bantam motorcycle around from the age of 8, helping Dad with “stuff”, and generally just having a good time. Due to our relative isolation we were educated by Correspondence, and had a live in Supervisor. In the late 50’s, just prior to his death, my Grandfather, after whom I was named, came to live with us. Although quite young, I have pleasant memories of the gentle person, who went away as a trooper in the Boer war, joined the Canadian Mountie’s on the way home to Australia, and married my grandmother (born at Mannahill goldfields), and raised a family at a small railway siding called Ucolta, not far from Peterborough. He used to teach all us kids card games, and seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of new games for us. These card skills came in handy later in life, on flight lines, and onboard P3 Orions, Hercs, etc.
This family photo taken late 1950’s at Radium Hill, on the occasion of my sister Helen’s Confirmation and my First Communion, at the Catholic Church, with Bishop from Port Pirie in attendance. I’m in the middle!
Some events stick in my memory, in the 1950’s, include being thrown in a dam by one of our station hands, who then had to dive in and save me as I was going down for the third time. I didn’t learn to swim till some time later in Peterborough. Another one was when my eldest sister Anne managed, with our cousin, to get lost on the adjoining peak, which we called “the Bluff”, and Dad raising a search party with Tilley lamps to find them – which he did, and I think they may have had an earful!
The other thing was the social life that station people led. Tennis afternoons, picnics in the creeks, which had gum trees lining the banks, and events for us kids – 3 legged races, sack races, etc. I was particularly proud one year to catch the rooster, though I couldn’t imagine what we should do with it. We ate it.
In 1960, at the age of eleven, my world was turned upside down, when my father passed away. So, Mum packed up us 6 kids, and moved down to Peterborough, about 100kms away. Peterborough in those days was a thriving railway town, located at the junction of 4 railway lines, the main ones being from Broken Hill and Port Pirie. I was sent off to St Joseph’s convent school to continue my education, and was dropped back a class, because I only had “correspondence standard”. Mind you, no test, just an arbitrary decision. After a year or two at the convent, I moved to the Peterborough High School. My main memories from my school days are the sporting opportunities, as I had nothing on the station, apart from a tennis court. I just loved football, basketball & cricket. I also kept the habits of living on a station alive, by riding my pushbike out in the bush around Peterborough, shooting rabbits with my .22. I quite often would ride down the main street of Peterborough, rifle slung over my shoulder, without a comment from anyone. Can you imagine the pandemonium that would ensue if you did that kind of thing nowadays?
I was three months into my Intermediate year (3rd year of high); when I decided that I needed to be out of school. In reflection, I wasn’t a well behaved student. I didn’t have a great problem with study or results, and probably due to the absence of a guiding hand from a father, continued to be acquainted with the Principal’s office. I can remember an earlier incident at the convent, when they had built a new wing, and the Bishop was coming to open it. The marble engraved stone read something like “This wing was opened by Bishop XX on 16th April 1962, etc, etc”. Little Robert Cornwell got a marking pen, and put a line thru “wing”, and wrote the word “dunny” above it. No loyalty in the schoolyard in those days, I soon fronted Sister Richard, for the mandatory thrashing with a thick leather strap. We called her the fastest draw in the west, as she had the strap up the sleeve of her habit; she could make it appear in her hand with a flick of her wrist, ready for action!
So, the main game in town was the SA Railways (SAR), & off I went in April 1966 to become a Trainee Engineman. (As part of my non participation in school routines, I used to spend a lot of my time around the railway yards, and had a fascination with the equipment, especially locos). In fact, a better title for my first few months was Engine Cleaner. The locomotives used by the SAR in 1966 were predominantly steam, with diesel electrics just being introduced into service. Cleaning steam locos involved applying tallow with cotton waste all over the loco, the result being a (nearly) gleaming loco, and an absolutely black cleaner! Diesel electrics were much easier to clean.
After a few months, and having studied the basic things needed to become a Fireman, such as tending boilers, railway signals, etc, etc, I was allowed to fire a loco, used as a shunter in the yards. First time Trainee Firemen were allocated night shift, of course! I thought this was great, especially as my wage went up! I reckon my wage, from memory, was around $50 a fortnight. Of course, I went and purchased a Honda 90 (on time payment); I was really moving into the big time, and still not quite 17!
Y97 was the 1st loco I tended – it was used as a shunt loco at the Peterborough roundhouse
T186 at Quorn – this was an oil burner (no shovels, just taps!)
After my turn as a fireman on the shunter, I was moved onto main line duties. This involved being assessed by an examiner as being capable of actually keeping a loco in steam, which involved shovelling coal or feeding bunker oil into an oil burning loco, and ensuring water was kept up to the boiler, as well as keeping a lookout for obstructions on the tracks, cars at crossings, etc. When in a diesel electric, my function was mainly as an observer, however the drivers liked their sleep, so it wasn’t long before I learnt to drive a heavy ore train. It was illegal to do this, but I believe the system turned a blind eye, or at least didn’t push the issue too hard, as it became a good way to gain experience necessary to eventually become an Engineman, or “driver”. One downside of this was when, whilst waiting to “cross” a railcar at Caltowie, on the Pirie line, the driver had told me to wake him when the railcar approached, as we had to wave him in with a green light. I had been playing footy the day prior to my shift, was also tired, and decided to have rest myself. The result was the guard knocking at our window, the railcar blowing it’s horn trying to get a response, the railcar being delayed (delaying a passenger train was a big No No), and the driver and myself on the carpet. Even when I used to return home after joining the RAAF, he never forgave me – no blame sharing, I was low man on the ladder!
In those days, there weren’t a lot of OHS&W considerations, especially in relation to rostering. I would have a trip up to Cockburn, near Broken Hill, which would take 14 hours. Stay overnight at the barracks, then another 14 hour trip home. After 8 hours off, I might have a shift of 4 hours, a short trip to Terowie and return. Then 8 hours off (or maybe 24), and off again! Talk about circadian rhythm disorder!! This type of living contributed to my decision to leave the railways.
To be continued (part 2)