Interview with: Dave Mitchell
Date of Interview: 13 February 1985
Interviewer: Gillian Pechey
Transcriber: Colwyn Boulton
Dave was born in 1898. He talks about his work as a carpenter at the Moreton Sugar Mill in Nambour.
Image: Entrance to the Moreton Sugar Mill off Mill Street, Nambour, 1982
Dave Mitchell oral history [MP3 41MB]
GP: When were you born?
MITCHELL: March the 4th, 1898.
GP: And where?
MITCHELL: Mitchell Street, Nambour.
GP: When did your family come to Nambour, do you know?
MITCHELL: My father, oh in the 1800's they first came to Petrie Creek had a sawmill there and there was no railway. Come to it before the railway come through. The timber from the mill they used to take to Brisbane, over the bar and down to Brisbane. My eldest two sisters was born near Petrie Creek. This was when the railway come through in 1903 I think about then well they shifted the mill from Petrie Creek over to Nambour and they run it for years, a lot of years. Then they sold it to a man named Mr Hiliam and he had a man working for him named Low, Harry Low. Well Mr Hiliam died then and Harry Low married one of his daughters. It was run then by H.E.Low. Before it was run by Hiliam and Low.
GP: Did you ever work in the mill?
MITCHELL: No, I was only that high, I can remember it.
GP: So what were you doing then, did you go to school at that stage?
MITCHELL: Well then later on, the father sold the mill, you see, and he bought a farm out of Nambour, well I worked on that. From when I was about fourteen til 1918. Then he sold the farm then and I went to work in the sugar mill. I've been practically there all the time, until we shifted down here, it was twenty years ago you see.
GP: What did you do at the sugar mill?
MITCHELL: Carpenter, I was at the mill. I helped build the first bridge. It went across the Maroochy River, belonging to the mill. Locomotives used to go over; they punted the cane before; up to it then run it - most of the sugar cane was on the north side of the river you see. Well we built a bridge in 1919.
GP: Is that at Bli Bli?
MITCHELL: No further up, ten miles further up.
GP: What was it like building that bridge then do you remember? Did you camp there?
MITCHELL: The line was down like from the sugar mill it was down to the bridge. Yes. The sugar came up on punts, the trucks run onto the punts you see. They run up and then they snigged them off you see. That's what they done, well once they got the bridge over they didn't want the punts anymore. You know where that restaurant up here - the Maroochy River -that's one of the punts. That's one of the punts.
GP: Did they have sugar on them?
MITCHELL: The cane was loaded onto them and then they come to just above where the
bridge was and they used to run onto the bank and they used to snig them off with horses.
GP: Then the cane went to the mill?
MITCHELL: Went to the sugar mill.
GP: The horses pulled the whole thing?
MITCHELL: No, locomotives picked it up there after it come off the punts. We built the bridge in 1919, well it was years before and the line used to go up and over the hill from the sugar mill and down onto the river. Really the line come from Petrie Creek over to the Maroochy River over the top of the hill. They had locomotives, they had a shay locomotive, there was one for hilly country you see, they had it and anyhow they built a bridge and when it finished there, one of the locos capsized on one of the bridges. My brother was firing on it. He didn't get hurt, the driver got hurt, he got his nose all bashed in. It was a wonder they wasn't all killed.
GP: What was the work like, did you work six days a week, do you remember?
MITCHELL: In the crushing season we worked forty-eight hours a week and in the off season worked forty-four.
GP: Was that Saturdays as well, did you work on Saturday?
MITCHELL: Saturday morning, yes.
GP: Do you remember what they paid you for that?
MITCHELL: A pound a day. I used to bring home five pounds a week.
GP: Did you live okay on five pounds?
MITCHELL: Cripes yes, we lived high. There was three engineers at the mill there, the first, second and third engineer. The third engineer was number three, mine was number four. Well that was the next highest paid man at the mill. (SHOWS PHOTO) - There's the loco. That was the chief engineer - the old fellow. That was the second engineer. These are the navies, these fellows. I was about fourteen or fifteen then.
GP: Did you have a lot more than other people.
MITCHELL: There was no refrigerators or anything like that, no ice either, but when we came down here I burnt a lot of account things you know. When we ran an account with a butcher, he used to deliver, and our monthly account having a joint at the weekend and something else for stewing and a piece of cornmeat, sausages or something on Tuesdays, and that was for a month, every week that was. It was fifteen shillings a month our meat account. I'm always sorry I burnt all those things. Sausages was four pence a pound. You could live on that then.
GP: You wouldn't have had a car though would you?
MITCHELL: Nobody had a car, I remember when the first two cars came to Nambour. The basic wage was three pound five a week. How much would that be - that'd be six dollars odd a week. The basic wage. Houses to rent was five bob a week, five shillings week.
GP: You rented a house in Nambour?
MITCHELL: We had our own home.
GP: Did you build it?
MITCHELL: Yes, it only cost three hundred pound to build it. It was a nice place. See that china cabinet there - well that cost seven pound something. I've got the dockets on all of that. Talking about up the river - I was up there a few years ago, there was a chap there fishing off there. I walked on there onto the bridge and stood looking down.
He said, "What you looking at?"
I said, "See that pile there, that's the first pile that was driven on the bridge."
He said, "How did you know that?"
I said, "I worked on it."
He said, "When was that?"
I said, "1919"
"Cripes," he said, "How old are you?"
GP: Did you work as a carpenter at the mill until you moved to Mooloolaba?
MITCHELL: No, I worked at the mill as a carpenter til the end of this last war, and then boys was growing up. Alan he was apprenticed to a builder there and then when Ray left school –
I said, "Bill, do you want another man?"
He said, "Yes"
"Ray, he got a lot of 'A's in his junior. He got an 'A' for carpentry."
"Oh cripes", he said, "He'll do me, I'll have him."
It was the last year of the war you see - well they wouldn't sign an apprentice on in the wartime. That means he was working as an apprentice, wasn't signed on, which didn't count you see. Well he put his five years in, the boss give him full wages and then he had to serve again you see. So he really had about seven or eight years apprenticed. Well the war ended, the Apprenticeship Board began to work again you see. The bloke he was working for said, "I'll have to put your boy off."
I said, "Why is that?
"He said, "I haven't got enough carpenters". You see they would only allow a fellow an apprentice for each carpenter. Two apprentices to one. Well he had about four to one you see and he said, "What about you coming to work for me?"
I said, "Well if it's to keep him on, I will". So I left the mill and they didn't want me to leave to tell you the truth but anyhow I knew the job from A to Z you see and then I went to work for him. I worked for him til Ray got through his apprentice and then Alan said to me, "I think we'll go building on our own".
I said, "Whatever you want, I'II be with you". Well the three of us worked together then you see. Than Alan went to Bell. He got sick of it and went to Bell. Ray and I worked together for awhile, and I was about sixty odd and I reckoned I'd had enough. I retired and handed it over to him. But I used to go and help him when he wanted me you see, that's how it worked. You got your kids, you got to look after them.
GP: What did your father do?
MITCHELL: Coles in Nambour, that was his. He had four shops there and he always rented for years, he used to get rent for them. The rent for those shops was four pounds a week, for each shop.
GP: Did he sell the sawmill and get the shops?
MITCHELL: No. We was fairly well off. A heap of people they were pretty poor around Nambour you know, well who could live and rear a family on three pound five a week? That was the labourer's job. Well I used to get five pound ten without deductions you see, and then when the wages went up to six pound the time-keeper come to me, he said, "The wages is up to six pound. What a terrific wage, what are you going to do with it?" (LAUGHS) Well that was six pound a week, that was twelve dollars. The carpenters they get fifteen or eighteen dollars an hour. We used to get a week, we used to get twelve dollars a week.
GP: There was times when sugar wasn't doing so well, did that ever affect you?
MITCHELL: You see, the crushing season used to begin in about May, June probably and was running on to December. Then it was what we called a slack season. Well all the machinery and that was repaired. The trucks, they had about nine hundred trucks; well it was my job to look after them you see. And any other repair work that was wanted in the mill. The mill had five houses, the manager, the chief engineer and the secretary, cane inspector. Those houses always wanted repairs you see, because they was old. They were built when the mill was built. I wouldn't know when exactly. It was after the '93 flood anyhow. I was living two hundred yards from the mill and you see, I wasn't old enough. I was only a little kid.
GP: So the mill looked after the staff there, they looked after the workers?
MITCHELL: Yes, not all of them. Only the ones, the right hand men you could say - loco drivers and sugar boilers, engineers, engine drivers. It's a mill you see. There were jobs repairing machinery.
GP: Was it hard to get labourers?
MITCHELL: Oh no, they could get labourers at six a dozen. You could get them anywhere. You could whistle and you'd get knocked over with labourers. Yes, it was very slack. They was very poor a lot of them.
GP: Did you remember strikes when the labourers were trying to get., better wages and better conditions?
MITCHELL: Strike, never thought of a strike. If you mentioned a strike you'd get the sack. There was a million others trying to get your job quick and lively. But they kept the men on who knew the jobs you see. The sugar boilers and all that, they were kept on. If they had a good sugar boiler they had to keep them because he'd been working there since he was a youngster and as the old sugar boilers left the young blokes took them on and that's why they had to keep them, cause you couldn't get sugar boilers.
GP: What did you do in your days off, did you play tennis or anything like that?
MITCHELL: Fishing. On holidays or anything like that, when the kids grew up a little bit, when they left school or before they left school. We had a motor car then. When I first came to Moolooolaba, brother and I, there was no road really to Maroochydore. Bullock track where you couldn't bring a motor car down there for years. There was a corduroy, it was logs you know. We used to come down by motor-boat down to Maroochydore and then we used to walk to Mooloolaba. There was no road, none at all. We used to walk along the beach, to Mooloolaba along to the lifesavers then we used to walk along to the river. We knew some people who had a boat, from Buderim. We used to get a loan or it, Brother and I. We used to go outside. We didn't fish in the river, we fished out in the ocean. That was in the winter time. We used to just row a couple of hundred yards from the mouth of the river you pull fish up as many as you wanted. You got a half a sugarbag or whatever we could carry. We used to knock off and have a sleep. The morning come, we'd mess around sometimes if the weather was alright. Sometimes we'd go out again and have a fish again. What we didn't want we'd give to anybody who happened to be there. Buderim people had a lot of bits of humpy’s down there.
GP: And they used to come down on weekends too?
MITCHELL: Yes, ride horses down.
GP: Who did you know from Buderim?
MITCHELL: The Burnetts and the Guys, the Fieldings, Dixon. He had a sugar mill up there see, two sugar mills up there, one belonged to Fielding and the other to Dixon. Quakers they were, my father and his father. Quakers they were. Knew each other you see. He sold the mill and went to Flaxton to live. He took a big acreage out there, beautiful place and he had two boys and the old house was rented, the old house. It was sold later on, the woman who bought the house, someone must have told her to come and get Ray. She wanted repairs on the house and she wanted Ray to have a look. Well he went up and had a look. "Phew" he said, "I'll go down and get Dad to come up" He looked it over you see and I said to him, "Tell the woman to burn it down, we'll build a new one." "Oh no fear, I want this house repaired the same as the original, don't alter anything"
GP: Is this the house that Dixon built?
MITCHELL: Dixon, yes. Dixon Road was along there. He had the sugar mill and he had a lot of South Sea Islanders working for him you see. Twenty odd or thirty, but he was a religious man, he used to look after those boys. I know someone who was working for him. Every weekend they used to kill a beast, a bullock, and he used to share it amongst the Kanakas, amongst the blacks. He used to give them the meat you see. He used to have what he wanted and then the Kanakas had the rest.