Ben Chifley’s Railway Handbook
Ben Chifley is remembered today as the locomotive engine driver who went on to become Prime Minister. In 1903, aged 17, Chifley went to work for NSW Government Railways as a shop-boy in the Bathurst workshops. Through hard work and diligent study Ben Chifley was promoted to locomotive fireman in 1909 and had qualified as a first-class locomotive engine driver by 1914.
The railway though was more than just a place of employment. Ben Chifley met his future bride, the daughter of a fellow railwayman, through the social life of the railway community. The library and lectures at the Bathurst Railway Institute offered an opportunity to improve his education. It was there Ben honed his speaking skills by offering his own lectures. Through union activities, he became involved in the ALP and the political issues of the day. The 1917 Railway Strike and its humiliating aftermath served as a catalyst to propel him into a full time political career in the early 1920s.
Ben Chifley spent almost half his life as a railwayman. His railway experiences shaped the man he became. Yet, there is almost nothing in the Chifley Home collection that speaks of Ben Chifley, the railwayman. No photographs. No working clothes. No crib box or tea flask. Even his railway pocket watch, emblematic of a locomotive driver, is absent.
After a careful search, the pictured Railway Handbook was found in a cupboard in the Dining Room. Published in 1914, Chifley would have used such a handbook in his daily work, but perhaps not this copy, as it shows no signs of having been in a grimy engine cab.
The fate of Ben Chifley’s railway mementos that were likely once in his home is largely unknown. Some may have been given away, while other items were probably chucked out as unwanted rubbish. This engine driver’s guide to the Western Division railway network is a rare survivor.