Interview with: Noel Brown (NB)
Occupation: Fitter and welder, Moreton Sugar Mill
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Moreton Mill, Nambour
Date of Interview: 28 August 2003
Noel’s father cut cane in the Maroochy River area and worked as a general hand in the Moreton Sugar Mill for many years before Noel was apprenticed at the Mill in 1964 as a 16 year-old fitter and turner. Noel spent five years gaining his qualifications through correspondence courses before getting full-time employment at the Mill. His father cut cane and also worked at the Mill as a general hand and several uncles also worked on cane farms in the area.
Noel has worked as a welder doing general fabrication and repairs and also obtained a pressure welder’s qualifications to expand his area of expertise. He is involved in workplace health and safety and is one of the First Aid officers in the Mill.
Noel Brown oral history [MP3 84MB]
GM This is a recording of an interview with Noel Brown, a fitter and welder at the Moreton Mill at Nambour, for the Maroochy Library’s “Last Crush” Project, recorded by Gary McKay on Thursday 28 August 2003.
Noel, firstly thanks very much for taking part in our project. Tell us when and how you got into the sugar industry.
NB My father worked as a labourer on a cane farm, and across the road from that cane farm was a member of the Board here at the time. He knew Dad quite well, and I guess through conversations found out that I had finished school and was ready to go out in the workforce or something like that. Consequently Dad put an application in for me and I got an interview. That’s 39 years ago.
GM This is in 1964. It’s got here on your form that you did your apprenticeship as a five-year course.
NB That’s right. I think it was just about the last of the five-year correspondence course. After that they cut it back to four years, then they started with TAFE Colleges and the like. I had to do it all by correspondence.
GM You basically worked here full-time?
GM Did your Dad cut cane?
GM By hand?
NB Yes. I only just found out – Dad passed on quite a number of years ago now – but I think it was just before his passing I found out he was a gun cutter too. He was only small in stature but by gees he could toil away.
GM They stopped cutting cane by hand I think in about 1957. Would that be right?
NB Somewhere around there.
GM That must have been terribly hard yakka?
NB It was hard yakka. But people those days they were used to hard yakka. That is how it had to be done. I don’t think they probably thought too much about it. I suppose if they were here today and looked back they would certainly think there is progress.
GM When you joined the Mill, how many people would have been working here then?
NB I can recall that question being asked of the Chief Engineer at the time and he said, ‘Well about half the bastards’. Back in those days there was quite a number of people working here. In the maintenance season there would have to be upwards of 100 or more, and then when you come to the harvesting season that would nearly double. Later on too, when we started doing the increased production, we did capital works and the like to bring us to speed there; there was quite a number of extras put on. About 100, 125 people working just in the slack. We call it the slack season, maintenance season, just a term you use. In the crush season you’d nearly double.
GM When you were here as an apprentice, did you do all your work under supervision?
NB Yes. That’s right. We had a workshop foreman. Engineers as well. But most of that time we spent in the workshop, which I feel with today’s apprentices they get experience from the first day they are here in the shop as well as outside. They help other guys on the job proper, fitters and welders. They are getting the proper experience right from the word go, whereas we spent most of the time in the shop and when you were about a fourth year apprentice you were allowed to go out with a fitter on some jobs. On weekends mainly. There was a lot of overtime in those days. When I started we worked a 6-day week – Monday to Friday and the Saturday was overtime, but Monday, Wednesday and Friday you did two hours extra as well. That went right up to when the crushing started and once the crushing got underway, you worked seven days a week non-stop. There were no breaks. You did Monday to Friday then your Saturday and Sunday maintenance. That went on right through the year unless there was wet weather or something like that. Towards the end of the year - I suppose late November - you thought it was Christmas if you knocked off at 3.00 o’clock Sunday afternoons. Now of course, Workplace, Health & Safety and that sort of thing, they wouldn’t allow that. Overtime those days wasn’t a dirty word as far as getting the job done. They found they were spending a lot of time on overtime but those days it was just part of getting the job done.
GM What sort of stuff did you work on mainly when you first started?
NB As an apprentice, mainly axle boxes for the old wholestick cane trucks, and there was a lot of maintenance involved in that – brackets, bearing supports which were called horn plates. All that sort of drilling work. Lot of drilling. Screwing too on the screwing machine. We had to do that. Making up log bolts and the like to hold the timber trucks together. That was probably the first couple of years that took up most of the apprentices’ time.
GM After you got out of your apprenticeship, what did you tend to do then?
NB The factory those days, right up to now, used to have the workshop foreman and the rest of the workshop was run by apprentices. They put one or two apprentices on every year and when they came out of their time, they were let go to find their own way. On the occasion when someone retired or whatever, I guess the outgoing apprentice - if he had the qualification - he had the option of taking it on. I enjoyed the welding part of the apprenticeship, so when it was my turn to go there was a welder retired and I asked the Chief Engineer if he would give me consideration. I am still here.
GM You’ve been here almost 40 years – what do you think have been the biggest changes that you’ve seen?
NB I suppose safety for one. Way back in the early days I suppose it was nearly every man for himself. You had to be aware of what’s going on. But now it is very structured. Also there was a lot of demarcation in those days, where a person was only able to do a single job. Nowadays, we’ve got a multi-skilled workforce here and obviously that’s had to happen.
GM What union did you belong to you?
NB The Metalworkers’ Union. I guess some of those changes we didn’t feel was proper, but looking back on it now it had to happen, and we’ve got a very versatile workforce here now.
GM You also said something about safety. You yourself have been involved in it.
NB Yes. I was the first Workplace, Health and Safety representative. We have an officer who is a supervisor at management level, and then we have a representative of the guys that work for us. I was the first one of those when it became structured as such. I had that position for quite a number of years.
GM You can be pro-active can’t you – you can say, ‘Listen that’s not really safe’, or someone can come to you and say, ‘Let’s sort that out’.
NB Yes. A lot of times too just because you were the rep it was your fault or your responsibility. If there was something simple, like a hose on the ground that you might trip on, they would come to talk to you about it. I used to get tired of saying, ‘What did you do about it?’ It was just an education thing. That was in the early days. Now everyone is taking responsibility for their own safety, as well as others, and it was just a learning thing. Back then I suppose safety happened. It wasn’t as structured as it is now.
GM When I read the history book (“Moreton Mill: sweetheart of Nambour), I noticed about the three or four deaths that occurred at the Mill. They tend to be blokes doing fitting and welding and stuff like that. They had falls or they had been caught in a machine.
NB That was in the early days. There hasn’t been a fatality in my time here. But there has been a bad accident. One of the very bad ones, a very close work colleague at the time, fell and he ended up in a wheelchair.
GM What was his name?
NB Neil O’Connor. He was the other welder with me. He showed no fear on heights - I know that. I am very wary of heights, but Neil could do anything.
GM That was a fall wasn’t it?
NB Neil had a fall.
GM How far did he fall?
NB I suppose he must have fallen about – I am just trying to put it into my mind. It has all changed in there now. There was a pit, probably 15 feet, I suppose, as I can recall. He also did some damage to his head; I think it was gashed. Serious stuff was in his back. I admired the man the way he got back into it and took it in his stride and got into a wheelchair and he just went from strength to strength.
GM The Company employed him didn’t they?
NB They did.
GM You said there had been a lot of changes inside the Mill since you started. What have been the real big ones that have impacted?
NB Well, they put all turbines on the milling train. That was done by a company by the name of Howard Smith. They, to my mind, were one of the saving graces of this factory in the early days, because when I started, not knowing the business of sugar but you just listen to the fellows around talking, we were struggling there. Then Howard Smith brought us and injected a lot of money, which was at the right time and they got us motivated and moving along again. So they spent a lot of money but the main thing, for my mind, was the milling train. They had the old reciprocating engines and they put turbines on that. I guess the bagging plant. That came along later. That made us think I guess that we still had a good future because, I suppose for want of a better term, value-adding, because the sugar was not just going out in bulk and we were actually putting it in bags. They gave us confidence for the future.
GM Someone was saying yesterday that his own father was here as a bag sewer, and you think in one generation how far it has come.
NB My dad ended up here too.
GM What did he do here at the Mill?
NB He worked as a carrier hand. In the early days they didn’t have hydraulics and the likes.
GM He must have been tough?
NB He was. There were a lot of people employed in that area. A carrier hand is at the beginning of the process where they bring the cane in to be processed where it is tipped into the carriers to be crushed. That was very, very labour intensive where they had to push the trucks by hand around that area, and also grease or oil the bearings in the cane trucks by hand. That is going back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before they started to get ball bearings on the axles on the wheels. He went from there, in the slack season, he worked in the navvies and then he ended up on the pan stage as a cleaner. (He also worked in the gardens of the Manager and senior staff).
GM Are the navvies the guys who go out and do the railway?
NB Yes. Tramway maintenance.
GM Sleepers and ballast and all that sort of thing. Hard work.
NB It was in those days, because they did it all by hand. They didn’t have pneumatics and the likes and front-end loaders with cranes to lift the rail around. It was all done by hand.
GM As you said, as a welder you are doing general fabrication and repairs, and I guess there is not only stuff in the Mill, but all the rolling stock that you’ve got here too?
NB No. We have another fellow who is employed to do the cane bins, because it is a constant. The bins are always needing repairs and it is not something that you just do now and again. He has a roll-through bay and they come in one end and he has got to keep pushing them out the other.
GM Then you got into the pressure welder’s ticket.
NB Yes. It ended up that it was suggested that we get tickets because some of the equipment we were getting in and installing required that type of welding. So I was asked if I would be interested in doing it by the then-Chief Engineer. I did that. It involved more correspondence. We ended up having a week or two down in Brisbane doing some practical exams or practical welding of that type, pressure welding, and went from there.
GM That brings me onto my next question. In 1981 were you on shift or were you at work on the day that the boiler collapsed?
NB I wasn’t on shift. I am a day worker. But I was here the very following day of course when everyone was running around trying to organise welders and a multitude of things. The cane was in bins, there was burnt cane, there was product in all the vessels throughout the factory that had to be processed somehow or all got rid of. Some of the lesser-refined juice and the likes were put on cane farms.
GM How big is this boiler, the one that collapsed?
NB In terms of size I suppose… the boiler furnace is like a small house would fit in the furnace area. (Would fit four small houses on top of each other in the combustion chamber). That is where the bagasse, which is the main fuel for the boiler, and it comes into that area with air blowing up under the grate and the bagasse is already alight. It sort of combusts in mid-air, the bulk of it does. The heavier particles drop to the grate and burn, but the finer particles sort of combusts in the air. You can imagine all that amount of heat to run the factory. It has to be a big area to generate enough heat to operate the boiler.
GM What about the boiler itself – how long is that?
NB The drums would have to be 12 metres, I guess, by about a metre and a quarter in diameter. Then you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of tubes connecting the two drums together.
GM Someone said yesterday they looked inside - it might have been George Hadley - and he said it looked like a mass of black spaghetti.
NB That’s what it was like. It overheated and all just collapsed.
GM It ran out water basically did it?
NB That’s what happened. A tube burst and the alarms apparently didn’t operate or for some reason malfunctioned and with the continuous heat in there, it wouldn’t take long.
GM I guess you were then asked to work on it?
NB We were. But we had assistance from the manufacturer. John Thompson Boilers brought down a team, and a couple of the welders were involved with it. Working 12-hour shifts. We mainly assisted the expert tube welders. Tube welding and pressure welding was the same, the bottom line was the same. They are specialist jobs in themselves, tube welders, because you’ve got to work around the back of a tube and you can’t physically see the tube area being welded, and these guys were welding with mirrors. If you have ever tried to do anything in a mirror, it is all back to front. So yes, it was an experience. It was something I will never forget. I guess no one will forget that. Particularly when it was suggested how long it was going to take to do the job, and I think we got it done in half that amount of time. It was just amazing the effort that went in and how quick it did come together.
GM How long was it off-line for?
NB Well, I’m using the Centenary book and I’m quoting the figures on that. It was the lst September ’81 it went off. Four o’clock in the morning I believe is when the incident happened. According to the book we were steaming on the 22nd September. That’s excellent. No one would have suggested that you could get it done that quick, particularly when you’ve stuck your head in that furnace and just seen that black spaghetti.
GM The bagasse loft fire – were you here for that?
NB I was home for that, but I got a phone call, which is so strange. The Workplace Health & Safety Officer – he lives close by and is one of our supervisors of course - I got a phone call from Geoff saying could I come in and that the bagasse loft was on fire. We kid amongst each other at times at work and I just thought he was just having a lend of me at that particular time too. But he was serious, and I could see the importance of having guys like ourselves in with the “firies” who didn’t know their way around the factory. We could assist, without getting into the fire because there was breathing apparatus and lights required to handle a fair bit of that area, to give advice and help the “firies” on the job.
GM What year was that?
NB That was ‘91 (sic: 2001), I think. It wasn’t too long ago. It started off with spontaneous combustion. It was getting towards the end of our maintenance season so when it happened it was pretty serious stuff considering we had a deadline for the crushing to start and all of a sudden, when you’ve got your work all planned for the year and it is going to take us that long, and we will be ready to go, and all of a sudden you have something like this which is going to take all of those man hours out of that already planned time for maintenance to get us back up to speed in that area again.
GM How much damage did it do?
NB It burnt out all the belting. There are several (conveyor) belts up there that were burnt. Plus some of the roof structure. The complete iron on the (west side) roof had to be renewed. Even steelwork in some of the chutes was so buckled that we had to cut it away and replace it. All the electrical wiring, because there are controls everywhere.
GM This stuff from the loft takes the bagasse down and then throws it in the furnace, does it?
NB The way the system worked, the process, the crushed fibre when it comes out of the mills is dry enough to burn so it goes straight up and is fed into the boiler, and when the boiler is running normally there is some left over. This gets carried on and is stored in the bagasse loft. If the load increased - where they haven’t got enough coming through the process - they will just feed from the loft to add to what is coming through the process to the boiler. That’s how it works. And we need a storage there of course for when you have start-ups. We don’t store any of the bagasse for long periods of time anymore.
GM You mentioned in your form something about a Christmas tree up on the chimney.
NB Yes. That was another one of those things where the boss calls you into his office and says he wants to put a Christmas tree on the chimney and you think, pull the other one. But it was the year that we got our first half-million tons. We got more than that but that was the sort of the line in the sand, a half million tons, and we got that plus. It was something that they wanted to celebrate. I think we got some T-shirts as well that year. At the time a Christmas tree on the chimney - to me it was a (problem); how would I put a Christmas tree on a chimney? It’s got a big hole down the middle. So we just decided to build a big sort of an A-frame and mount the top half of the tree anyway, and mount that on the top, bolting it to the railings of the chimney.
GM How do you get up to the top of the chimney?
NB There is a ladder up. I got up very carefully I can tell you.
GM How high is it?
NB It is 180 feet (58 metres). Originally that is how we built it. So, it was all pulled apart, disassembled, and the long pieces, the main frame, stayed up there and all the rest of the lights and the bits of pieces came down for the crushing. At the end of the crushing, we erected the tree again, which involved the riggers of course, the electricians, the young apprentices and anyone that could handle the heights. Then someone came up with the bright idea that we would use the rescue helicopter to put it up. So we modified it so we could assemble it on the ground with the lights and everything on it. It was a big job up there like a meccano set getting it together and then putting all the lights on and attaching all the bulbs. Up stairs - 180 feet above the ground. So you can imagine how easy it was to actually be able to work on the ground with this, install it, and just drop it up with a helicopter and drop a lead down and plug it in and “Bob’s your uncle”. But I tell you what – it is amazing the town people that really do appreciate it.
GM You’d see it from everywhere.
NB You do. Sundale across the creek here, the old peoples’ residence, I know for a fact that they live for the day that that goes up. We usually try to get it up so it is working on the night of the Carols by Candlelight. That is usually the first Friday in December or something, but of course if a crush is going past that point we can’t. I know from experience because my parents were over there and they always used to say how all their colleagues there just couldn’t wait to see the lights going. Also the townspeople too.
GM What has been the worst season here that you can remember?
NB That’s a hard call because if you are asking from an engineer’s point of view, he’s probably going to say when we had the worst mechanical failure.
GM It would be the boiler wouldn’t it? But the General Manager might say the year that we had our worst crush.
NB To me this is the worst year because it is the last year.
GM Good answer.
NB If you ask the farmer he’s never had a good year. But when you look back I think it was in ’91, but I’m not sure when we got that 500,000 tons, but we are only just getting past that now. I think it is about 12 years. It’s not that we’re having a bad year this year, but we haven’t expanded; we haven’t got bigger. What company can afford to stay stagnant for 12 years? I guess in hindsight, it is clear sight, but the writing was on the wall for a while when you look at it in those terms.
GM At least you’ve got incredible efficiencies.
NB We tried to do that (by suggesting that we expand our cane growing area and eliminate the tramway system), but it fell on deaf ears. The Company said we need to be more efficient and the tramway system was one area where we could save a lot of money by going to road transport but that just didn’t get off the ground.
GM I just can’t see how road transport is more efficient when you consider how much cane they can move by train.
NB But it was the cost involved. You take nearly 120 kilometres of tram track maintenance, the fuel for the locomotives. Of course you’ve got to keep in mind too that the farmer doesn’t pay any cartage on the rail system.
GM It is unusual.
NB It is unusual. What other industry gets their product to market for nothing? I guess they were going to have to pay for the cartage too and that is where it was going to bog down. Something that they were getting for nothing before, and now it was going to cost.
GM What would be the more memorable milestones for you at the Mill?
NB Wage rises were good and I suppose the ownership changes. As I said earlier, when Tate and Lyle (sic: Howard Smith) took over, we needed an injection of capital and that really set us up.
End Side A
Start Side B
GM This is side B of tape 1 of an interview with Noel Brown. You were talking about new owners.
NB When Bundaberg (Sugar) took over I guess we were wondering what would happen there. Then Tate and Lyle. They were the biggest sweetener manufacturers in the world and we thought, that’s big, we’re going ahead here. But we didn’t. We didn’t get anything out of them. I guess in fairness I suppose they did build a brand new sugar mill on the (Atherton) Tableland and that would of cost a lot of money, but it didn’t help us here.
GM What are you going to do at age…..? What age are you?
NB I will be 55 by the time they turn the lights out here.
GM What are you going to do if the Mill closes?
NB I haven’t set anything into concrete but I will have to look for something. Rumour has it that we may be involved here disassembling some of the equipment that could be used elsewhere. That’s why I haven’t made any concrete plans. When it is all finished I’ll have to look for work. I feel like I still need to work and I don’t feel like retiring yet. That is what I will have to do.
GM You’ve lived in this area all your life haven’t you?
NB I have. Lots of friends and family are here.
GM What will be the greatest loss do you think when the Mill closes?
NB The sugar industry. Because there’s generations of us. That is what has given us our sustenance and the fact that we have had a sugar industry. We worked here and our family rely on it. It is a snowballing effect. It’s a fact that we spend money elsewhere and those people are relying on us to spend money. I’ve heard business people say, we’ll survive without a sugar industry. That could be right, but I think they are the “Johnny-Come-Latelys”. They haven’t got sugar in their blood. I think there will be a bit of a hole.
GM Someone said to me yesterday that the thing they will miss the most, and what their loss will be, will be their friends at the place that they have worked for 30-odd years.
NB That’s right too. The camaraderie, the mateship. I’ve never had a day where I have got up of a morning and said, ‘Not this place again’. I enjoy my job; I enjoy my work, and your mates at work. They are all good mates and would do anything for you.
GM You’re very lucky if you can say that I believe. I feel sorry for people who hate going to work.
NB I haven’t had any other experiences of course because I started here as a 15-year old and now going out as a 55-year old. I dare say I wouldn’t experience anything better than what I have experienced here.
GM You’ve seen a lot of changes here too. You’ve seen going from wholestick cane and the little two-ton trucks and then the four-ton bins. You’ve seen changes in the steam replacing turbines in the mill. You’ve seen an awful lot of change.
NB There has been a lot of change.
GM Well, that’s the end of the interview. I thank you again for taking part.
NB My pleasure.