As you pass through the northern suburbs of Adelaide on Churchill Road, it's hard to miss a huge place in Kilburn with old stone buildings and high fences. A large sign proclaims Islington Workskops, although its current use hardly reflects the proud history of this place.
The Time Office/Correspondence Room - on State Heritage Register
Throughout much of the history of South Australia the state has depended on its rail network for transporting freight and passengers. With an area around four times the size of the United Kingdom, we needed railways to transport our farm produce and minerals from the country to markets here and overseas. From the 1850's a rail network snaked out around the state, linking us to country centres in all the regions of South Australia.
The expansion of the rail network brought more demand for maintenance of South Australian Railways rolling stock and locomotives, and by 1883 the railway workshops had been moved from Adelaide railway station to a new site at Islington. In 1907 the Cyclopedia of South Australia reported: The South Australian Railway Workshops, situated at Islington, about 3 miles from Adelaide on the main North line, comprise an area of 47.5 acres of which 8.5 acres are under cover, while there are 7.25 miles of railway line to facilitate the handling and transport of work from one department to another. In extent, arrangement, equipment and general efficiency, it is claimed that this establishment is unsurpassed by any other of a similar character south of the Equator.
Brill Railcar Under Construction (Courtesy History SA GN06175)
Islington Workshops expand When William Webb was appointed the new Chief Commissioner of Railways in 1922, the operations of the South Australian Railways were modernised and Islington Workshops were massively overhauled. While many buildings survived, the tools and equipment were replaced with the most modern available, allowing the production of locomotives bigger than ever produced in Australia before. The Islington rail yards became one of South Australia's most significant industrial complexes, and with a workforce of 1800 was among the state's major employers.
Chief Mechanical Engineer's Office & Fence - on State Heritage Register
Such was community spirit at Islington that the Adelaide News reported in 1929 that the Islington Workshops band played Christmas carols for the workers while the workshops choir sang Sleep Holy Babe. In 1913 their picnic was held in Belair National Park, while in 1929 six special trains were laid on to take workers to the Mt Barker Showgrounds for the annual picnic.
Former South Australian Railways Locomotive 621, the Duke of Edinburgh
Even during the Depression years Islington was one of the few industrial sites that continued to provide employment for South Australian Railways workers. The late 1930's saw the introduction of the 620 class steam locomotives, one of which continues in service today for SteamRanger.
The LP4 Armoured Car was Produced at Islington Rail Yards During World War 2
The Second World War South Australia won wartime contracts for armoured cars, Beaufort bomber aircraft components, and munitions, and its work force grew to a peak of 6,300 during the Second World War. For the first time women formed a very significant part of the workforce while many men were in the armed services. Purpose built workshops were erected for assembly of wartime goods, but were demolished a few years ago to make way for a Bunnings store.
A 900 Series Diesel Electric Locomotive at the National Railway Museum
Post war production Islington Railway Workshops soon resumed their lead in producing South Australian Railways rolling stock and locomotives. In 1951 they started producing the 900 series diesel locomotives - Australia's first mainline diesel electric locomotive.
Only three of these are known to survive, one in the National Railways Museum, and the other two in a train graveyard at Tailem Bend. These mighty locomotives once thundered and whistled across South Australia's unforgiving terrain in search of passengers and freight, but are now at risk of being scrapped.
The Metrology Lab or Test House at Islington Railway Workshops
The slow decline
As cars became increasingly cheap from the 1950's, people in Adelaide deserted public transport in droves. Tram lines were soon closed down and removed, while the rail network struggled on. The reduced demand for South Australian Railways rolling stock and locomotives meant that Islington Railway Workshops no longer provided as much employment as before.
The Fabrication Workshop Made South Australian Railways Rolling Stock & Locomotives
In the late 1970's ownership of the non-urban railway system passed from the South Australian Railways to the Commonwealth, and Islington Workshops was no longer the institution it once was. Leased to a private operator since the 1990's, Islington Workshops are now a pale shadow of their former glory days.
Making Cases for Twenty Five Pounder Shells in World War 2 (Image Courtesy State Library B7798/424)
Seven buildings and part of the front fence at Islington rail yards are now protected on the State Heritage Register - the Chief Mechanical Engineer's Office (1891), Electrical Shop, Time Office/Correspondence Room (1892), Fabrication Shop and Annex (1890's), Apprentice School (1882) and Foundry (1892).
But it is not just the buildings that deserve a place in our history. The Islington Railway Workshops played a significant part in the South Australian community for around 130 years. Entire families - even generations of families worked here, as evidenced by the family names on the wartime honour roll.
Many workers lived locally and played for sporting teams in the area, drank and socialised at the Reepham Hotel down the road, spending much of their lives together with work mates. That sense of community spirit and comradeship survived two world wars but has now all but gone.
A nearby park commemorates the many Islington workers who died of asbestos related diseases contracted in the workplace. Ironically, the park is now a popular place for railways enthusiasts who gunzel there. A short distance away bulldozers raise a cloud of dust as more of the Islington Railway Workshops is demolished to make way for a shopping centre.
This article was so interesting, so kind of tragic and so expertly researched, too. This would make a great film, concentrating on a few 'characters ', who worked there, and their families. A story crying out to be told, and one that should be immortalised. So so sad. Come on Tim Winton, write the book, and Scott Hicks, secure the rights! Amazing tale, Dave. And, by the way, a trip with steamranger, is a really good value jaunt; especially when you have a visitor from interstate! My children and their friend from interstate, loved it, and we could only get a diesel, at the time. It was like a trip on the Orient express, stopping at Goolwa market, on the way! Loved this piece.
What amazing history and many talented professions disappeared when they closed the Islington Workshops down in 1995. I worked at The Workshops from 1980 to 1995. Many characters , knowledgable crafts and friendships disappeared the day the workshops closed. My family was a railway family from the north of South Australia which stretched in history from the early 1900's to 1995. When I began working there were at least 2000 men and women working at Islington, when I was made redundant there were 350 men left. It will never be forgotten. I will never forget.
I have often driven past some of these old buildings and especially the chief mechanical engineers office (I think ) I used to wish I could win lotto so I could buy it . They are gorgeous buildings . We are losing so much of our history .
There is an LP4 armoured car "Bandicoot", that has been fully restored, on display at the National Military Vehicle Museum in Edinburgh Parks. There is also a Universal Carrier that was built at the Islington yards.
John McGowan senior worked here from 1883 after initial service at Terowie. The family's address was "Islington" tho I am unclear just what was that housing location. At one stage, there had been a large master plan for Islington, complete with five squares on Adelaide City model, but evidently never built or even sub-divided. In 2014, we held a McGowan tribute film show in the front bar of Reepham Hotel across the road from the workshops, Interesting and historic place itself.
What is the current role of the Kilburn Community Centre for this heritage, I wonder.
That large aerial photo must be looking towards south-west with Croydon in the distance? What would be the solid street running from bottom of frame?