Archives Outside

For people who love, use and manage archives

Archives Outside - For people who love, use and manage archives

Regional Staff Pick [Camel train photograph, Broken Hill]

On a recent trip to Broken Hill I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Brian Tonkin from the Outback Archives about his favourite archive.

FS: I’m here today with Brian Tonkin the Archives officer at the Outback Archives Broken Hill and as part of his job Brian manages a collection that includes some State archives; mainly Police and Court records, as well as a very large community collection which incorporates mining records, local business records, community records, parish records and a large photographic collection. Today he is going to talk to you about his favourite archive, so Brian over to you..

Inspired by Photographs

BT:  Thank you very much Fiona. Yes, my favourite part of the collection is the photographs. When I first came into the archives some years ago, I was really inspired by the work of Wooler [James Wooler 1873-1944] and his photogrpahs of Broken Shire in particular and how they make a  social history of Broken Hill through photographs. He went out and just photographed every day activities, sporting events, people on the streets and buildings. He certainly left us with a really great and very personal record of 100 years ago.

So when we’re thinking back about how Broken Hill developed in the 1880’s there is probably scant photographic record, but certainly by 1892 the population was around 20,000 people, it  boomed from about 0 to 20,000 in a period of 7 years. It was pretty…

FS: A pretty busy time

BT: ….prolific, prolific growth you know….. talk about satellite towns and that qualified definitely as a satellite town. Of course there were different groups of people that came along, we needed miners naturally enough, that was our main industry here. Probably, by the mid 1890’s there was something like 5,000 to 10,000 people employed along the line of lode.

Camel Train

Why this photograph?
BT: The photograph I’ve got now shows camels pulling a wagon. One of the great things about camels and cameleers is that they really did open up Far Western NSW as far as the transport of goods throughout this district. In this particular photo we have four sets of camels hitched up to an obviously very heavy wagon that fairly well laden with goods. I don’t know if they are making just home deliveries, whether they are going to a warehouse or from a warehouse to a shop. I’m not exactly sure, but you can see it is taken in town itself. You can see the power lines so we are probably looking at 1910. It’s probably about 100 years ago. We can even see down the street “Ice”…..How about that?…We can even see the “Ice” sign….. So we’re pretty civilized here, we can cool each ourselves down with a slab of ice (laughter).

So we can see this wagon is pretty heavy, we’ve got the bigger wagon wheels at the back and the smaller set of wagon wheels in the front. Two companies in town,  were Walter & Sons (?) and Wood & Sons (?) and they used their own camel teams and they probably used wagons or they used individual camels laden with goods. Usually in the outback they’d make deliveries to isolated towns and isolated homesteads

Camels (Landcruisers of the Outback)

FS: Home delivery by camel!

BT: Yes, basically that’s what it was. We also had a railhead about 60 kilometre’s north of Broken Hill and they also had camel teams up around that area. They’d collect the goods off the trains and then send them off to the outback areas, to station properties etc.

The great thing about a camel, they could go anywhere, they could put up with long spells of not having a drink and they were actually ideal for this semi arid area around Broken Hill. Considering that we only get probably….what?…. 8-9inches of rain. These days we’re having some good seasons so we’re looking at around 16-17inches so far this year (Ed note: up to June) which is really quite a boom. But the great thing about the camel, it never needed an actual road, if they were pulling the wagon of course they’ve obviously got to go on a certain track but as individuals they can just be packed with a hundred weight of goods and they were just led off.  If they wanted to go due north then they would just walk due north and that’s how they used to travel, didn’t need a great deal of water. Once they got they’ve got a belly full of water then they can then travel off.  As opposed to bullocks and horses; they needed water every day, a camel could do without water for several days at a time. So you could see they were superior, they were like the Landcruiser today with air-conditioning and everything.

FS: The outback luxury vehicle? (Laughter)

BT: Right, you’re just sitting there.. [thinking]Wow, this is good! The old horse and bullocks were like the old push bikes in a sense, that’s how great the difference was. These were a superior beast as opposed to horse and cattle.

Cameleers in Broken Hill

BT: This then created very tense moments between the white man, the white man being the people who ran the bullock teams and the horse teams, the people we call the teamsters in those days and the cameleers.  Well of course they [the cameleers] were the foreigners. They were villified, especially around 1903, 1904….they were treated as outcasts and they were looked upon as people stealing the white mans job. In the main there was that enmity because  they were different…..

So you can see straight away, even in a multicultural centre like Broken Hill….You remember we were importing our labour in from all over the world. The miners mainly came from Bendigo [Victoria] and from Moonta and Burra in South Australia, but they also had Cornish heritage. They were mining people, they were mining families and that’s why they came to Broken Hill, to develop the mining industry. You also had the Russians and Italians and you had the Scottish people. You had Germans… a big contingent of German people. So you had what you call very much a multicultural society in Broken Hill from the very beginning of its development….But for some reason because these guys kept to themselves, these men and women just went about their business and they were really quite efficient and of course their rates, their transport rates, were a lot cheaper than what the teamsters could [offer]……they couldn’t compete in a sense. So then there was this, more or less this lets get this person and villify him. So it went on that they were virtually banished from the town, so they had to set up camp on the outskirts of town. They also said that camels and horses never mixed…”so keep your camels away from us we don’t want to know about them”…. and so yes from the very beginning we see these camps. This happened all over the country…Coolgardie, Bourke….. we find that the Afghan cameleers, the camel handlers that were the experts in camelology??

FS: There must a word.

Changing Attitudes

BT: Not Geology but we’re going to call it Camelology. So they were the experts but yes unfortunately, hence a lot of the Afghan people were just living on the outskirts of town and that’s how they coined the terminology camel camp. We don’t talk about a horse camp do we? We always talk about camel camps and people remember the camel camp being down the end of Chapel street. People remember…men and women would say ..”Oh, when I was a kid I can remember the cameleers you know, with their turbans and their strings of camels going along the streets.” People have fond memories of those days. Today of course we’ve got memorials around the town to salute their [cameleers] contribution to transport in Far Western NSW. There’s a plaque in the main park of Broken Hill and we’ve even had exhibitions of pictures, memorabilia and …artifacts….that toured here in the Broken Hill Art Gallery. That was only about 2 or 3 years ago and on opening night you could not move there. It was absolutely packed out, there was hundreds of people that turned up for the opening night of that particular exhibition. How things have changed!

FS: Yes!…Are there still descendants of the original cameleers in town?

BT: Yes, there are. We do have a couple of families that are direct descendants from the cameleers and still living in Broken Hill.

Photographs tell a story

FS: You really enjoy the photographic aspect of your archival collection?

BT: Oh Absolutley, I think……I just picked this up today [Ed note: The photograph] and [thought] Wow! Have a look at this, this is really quite stunning. When you think about how the picture sort of goes on and describes itself once you start looking at it……look at this it tells a story in itself….without motorised vehicles how did they get around? How did they get their goods and transport them around the town and outside to Outback Areas? There’s our answer.  We had schools, we had to have blacksmiths, we had to have coach builders did we not? The one’s that built the carts, use of timber and steel, we also needed handlers…animal handlers….all these skills needed just to be in the transport business. I think all those people that were working, we had as I say the animal handlers, we had the blacksmiths, we had the builders working in timber…..all of these people had their own businesses and were obviously part of that era when animals like horses, camels and bullocks were the main way of transporting goods in and around the town.

FS:  Brian Tonkin thank you very much.

BT: Thank you.

  • David Bales says:

    Camels were still being used within Broken Hill in the 1920’s. I have a photo of my grandmothers house being moved by a camel team in about 1926. My mother remembered the event and said she was about 8 to 10 years old and she was born in Broken Hill in 1918

    April 2, 2012 at 11:48 am
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    How times have changed! Thanks for sharing your story David. I will make sure it’s brought to the notice of the staff at the Outback Archives.

    April 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm