World Heritage Day

by Dr Geraldine Mate, Principal Curator – History Industry and Technology

World Heritage Day celebrated on 18 April gives us a reason (if one is really needed) to delve into the amazing heritage-listed industrial precinct of the North Ipswich Railway Workshops, home of The Workshops Rail Museum, part of Queensland Museum Network.

Industrial heritage, including the buildings, machinery, workshops, practices and social activities of industry are all part of what might be considered significant for showing historical industrial and technical endeavours. The North Ipswich Railway Workshops is a wonderful example of all of these different elements of Industrial Heritage.

Built heritage of industry

The first buildings of the Railway Workshops in North Ipswich, assembled from prefabricated parts, including iron beams, support pylons, roof trusses and cladding shipped from Britain, preceded the running of the first locomotive in Queensland by several months. Constructed on the bank of the Bremer River in 1864, the first workshop buildings were soon out grown and the site expanded north. By the 1880s the site had stretched to the location where the Workshops now stand. Still operating today, maintaining Queensland Rail’s heritage fleet and the outgoing EMU (Electric Multiple Unit) fleet, the North Ipswich Railway Workshops are oldest continuously operating railway workshops in Australia.

The built heritage and industrial technology still surviving on the site hark back to the beginnings of rail in Queensland. The industrial architecture on the site, seen along the traverser track shows changing approaches to working conditions, with the transition from early workshop buildings with peaked rooves, like the saw mill, to later buildings (such as in the Blacksmith shop) with saw-toothed rooves to improve light and ventilation. There is also symbolism inherent in the structures: the Powerhouse, symbolic for its gracious architecture in what is really a functional industrial building, is one such example. Not only does the architecture proclaim its prominence, but its location on the hill speaks to the importance of the building, sited to showcase the technological innovation of electrical generation at the Workshops.

The North Ipswich Railway Workshops Powerhouse, built in 1902, looks out over the grounds of The Workshops Rail Museum. Queensland Museum collection.

A Place of History

As well as the history of the site and the technological heritage, the North Ipswich Railway Workshops is a place that historical links of railways to the history of Queensland can be explored. The expansion of the rail network across Queensland from the second half of the nineteenth century connected places, delivered produce, supported resource extraction and moved people across the state. The railways are an integral part of the social history of the state.

The social significance of the Workshops to Ipswich also extends to the labour history rooted there, a focal element of the heritage of the site, as a workplace of many – over 3000 at its height – and the largest single work place in the state at one time. The preserved industrial facilities act as an emplacement of memories for the community. Over the more than 150 years of operation, multiple generations of Ipswich residents have worked in, or encountered, the Workshops.   

The memories of former workers are framed through the monumental architecture. The stories of the floor in the generator room in the powerhouse being “clean enough to eat your dinner off”, the experiences of first-day apprentices, the camaraderie of the individual Workshop teams and the visceral impact of the size of buildings, regularly feature in oral histories.

The dirt floors, and the energy and noise of a large number of people in a building present a different view of the Workshops. Casting in the Foundry, North Ipswich Railway Workshops, 1943, The Workshops Rail Museum / Queensland Rail collection.

Workers stories and secret places

These accounts – of heat and noise, and the experience of working on dirt floors – is not something that is physically conveyed in the spaces today. It is a form of intangible heritage – a “heritage that is embodied in people rather than an inanimate object” (Logan 2007) and encompasses workers stories and secret places – social memories of the sites and spaces around the complex – and in the trade skills still practiced at the Workshops.

One way this intangible heritage can be accessed is through Workshops open days. These annual events, where former workers are invited back to revisit the site, allow them to re-remember and share stories. Workers speak of personal experiences, the impact of the Workshops on their lives, and the connection they have to place. They disclose otherwise innocuous and often hidden graffiti that speak to personal experiences and tell stories of subversive workplace activities.  The open days also resonate with the local community: different stories of place emerge – the impact of workers flooding out of the gate, the siren that echoed across the streets, and the chance to see “behind the tin fence” previously inaccessible to those who didn’t work there.

Ipswich Railway Workshops – Steam Shop employees, 1950, The Workshops Rail Museum / Queensland Rail collection.

On World Heritage Day these stories remind us that heritage is found in the prosaic and mundane, the everyday of labour and industry, and in amongst the once grand buildings of a railway workshop.  

The echoes of 157 years of skill and labour at the North Ipswich Railway Workshops can be heard today amongst the buildings, or is it the cacophony of the current Workshops tradesmen still maintaining rolling stock at the site of the birthplace of rail in Queensland.

Visit The Workshops Rail Museum to see the industrial architecture of the heritage listed North Ipswich Railway Workshops, explore the history of site through the publication Behind the Tin Fence or hear more about the history and stories of the site through the virtual tour available through the Google Play or the Apple App Store.