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Stories

These are true stories about what it was like to work in the Explosives Industries.

This is a story of Melanie Castleman's Great Grand Father Michael Sudomlak. He worked in the Albion Explosives Factory now Cairnlea, from 1978 to 1988


Helen and Michael Sudomlak

Here is Melanie's interview with her Great Grandfather

What sort of clothing did you wear?

"Wool clothes, with trousers or blouse with no pockets. could have no pockets or belts, just a strap to tie pants up and a cap to cover your head. Shoes were rubber boots. Icant remember what other shoes were worn but mainly people wore rubber boots."

Did you think the work was dangerous?

"Yes, the work was very dangerous all the time, because we were producing explosives and explosives were dangerous."

How old were you when you started to work at the Ablion Explosives Factory?

"I was about 52 years old when I started and finished when I was 63 years old. I worked for about ten years."

What year did you start working at the Albion Explosives Factory?

"About 1978 I started work and they closed the factory in 1988."

Did you have a choice if you wanted to work there or not?

"You had a choice. You could leave whenever you wanted to. People were working down there to earn there lifes and get money"

Where did you work?

"In the Propellant area, all the time preparing explosives ingredients. There was a mixing room, milling room, pressing explosives, on propellant, like there was only dry work on propellant. It was about that long (showing me how long it was, about 30cm long) like thick spaghetti. It was pressed down. People was working when the machine was pressing, they just cutting so much, stick on trolleys. There was a special place where they put the explosives. It has to go to the dryers to dry out. There was different job all over the place."

What was it like working there?

" You do what you was told to do, you do different things, plenty buildings, every building was doing something else, maybe one day in one building or half a day in another building or go work somewhere else. Some people worked in the same building, others mostly worked in different buildings"

Did you get paid?

"Yes, I was paid roughly $200 a week."

What hours did you work?

"Worked eight hours a day. When there was day work, work only five days. When there was three shifts of work, might work overtime and Saturdays. When we work four shifts on TNT Explosives, which means everybody worked seven days, then two days off. When you worked night shift you get weekend, four days off. But the rest of you have to work through Saturday and Sunday."

Did you get your house from I.C.I?

"I.C.I built houses for their workers in 1951-52 but i didnt get my house from I.C.I, they didnt build houses that far down my street."

Did you know if the Black Powder Mill was still there?

"I didnt know that the Black Powder Mill was still there. I thought everything was demolished."

Did you ever make a mistake when working with the explosives?

"No. You couldn't get wrong because, whatever you were doing and each building, what you was working, you couldn't be wrong. Because over there on the walls was instructions, whatever you was doing you was supposed to know what the instructions was for. If you following the instructions you couldn't be wrong."

Did you like working there?

"No. If you go to work, you just work, whatever you had to do."

Do you have any stories to tell?

"Yes. Before people went to lunch they needed to have a shower, and change their clothes before lunch, after working with the TNT and other explosives.

Before they went to work with the TNT, they needed to take their clothes off in one room and walk naked into another room, to change into their work clothes, so they were ready to work with the TNT'

Some people fell down from the steps and had bad back pain and had to work somewhere for a few months.

A few people had accidents with the chemicals, when something went wrong, mainly with TNT. The TNT needed to be discharged in big cooling tanks. About five people needed to go to Footscray Hospital because of the fumes from the TNT in the cooling tanks'

When working with TNT, my hair went orange and hands were a dark colour.

Acid went on my pants, put holes in it and Icould feel the cold, because it burnt a hole through my pants, but it did not burn my skin.

We weren't allowed to carry anything on ourselves, everything needed to stay in our lockers.

You were not allowed to bring smokes in because it was dangerous. Some people would sneak some in and hide them into some bushes where it wasn't dangerous. When they had a break, they would go and find them and smoke them.

The buildings was that far apart, sometimes they needed to catch the bus to each building.

I was foreman on 3 shifts work and four shifts work. I have trouble with the workers, they was lazy, they don't work, many times I had to work for them because they were lazy. They don't do enough to keep going. I have to help them make something.

When I was working, ordinary work, I always do more [than] what they expect me to do. I become assistant foreman, then later on I was foreman. Many people have worked hard for 20-25 years, they never got anywhere.

There was hundreds of kilometres of footpaths. If you go from one building to another, you shouldnt go across the paddocks, you always have to go on the footpaths'

Before you enter any buildings, there were dips on the footpaths, where they put water, about 2-4cm of water. You have to go through it to wash your shoes, of any contamination, before you enter the buildings.

You have to prepare, whatever you need for the nitro-glycerine. Prepare your water, the water was used to cool down the machines and washers. It was 15 degrees below zero, which goes through the pipes and cools down the nitro-glyercine. Where there was nitrate, glycerine and acid mixed together. If no cooling it would get too hot and explode. You have to watch all these things.

Different sort of work, there was some work I wasn't even in. There was plenty work everywhere all over the place.

There was RDX, it was very high explosives, they were all very high explosives. RDX was made, what they used RDX in World War II in Germany. Denmark is where they used it, the fear of what they discovered RDX. It was made of nitric acid, nitrate and maxamine'

There was like sugar, it goes through the mills and they sawed it out. Two big things go back into the mill. The dust we sell it to some factory.

I worked with nitro-glycerine. If Idropped some, Iwouldnt be here today. You just go up when it explodes. It was really dangerous."

 

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Some other stories by people that worked in the munitions explosives factories from... 'Go West, Young Woman!: Munitions Diary 1985" compiled by Jenny Mitchell and Rod Fauklkner, Melbourne's Living Museum of the West, Melbourne, 1985, reprinted 2003.

 

"This girl was working with a very high explosive, taking pellets out of this machine. Well, that stripped the protective clothing from her. When Isaw her, all she had is one little stubble of hair on-toward the front of her head...her undies were still on, but her shoes, everything, was stripped, gone. I was working on another job similar to hers and we were closest together. It was right on knocking off time, we knocked off usually around half an hour before because you had that cleaning to do, all the machines, clean the press and all the pellets and everything. You had to weigh them all up and so forth. I had been speaking to her about five minutes earlier and we were discussing how far ahead we were, how much more we had to do. I said: 'Well, when my press runs out I'm finished and Iwill be cleaning up'. She said: 'mine is nearly out and I'm nearly finished'. I walked back to my room where the press was pressing the pellets. You used to walk down a passage and it was just a room where the press was and you put your powder in. You'd go outside and you would control it from there, watching in the mirror at the end of the passage. You could see your work from outside and Ihad just gone back to my machine and just as Iswitched off I heard ...it didn't really sound all that large because if you can understand, these walls were about 18 or more inches thick and they were solid brick, or stone. It made a very dull sound but you could always tell when it was a big explosion, because loud or not, if it was bad it would rumble. An explosion like a 'pop' sort of thing never did any damage. when there was a rumble Iknew she was in trouble, and Icould see smoke coming out. Iran in to her and she was standing up against the wall. She was just conscious and she was saying: 'let me out!'. By this time the foreman came running in and he said: 'Who is it?' he couldn't recognize her, that's how bad she was"

Mrs Billie Anderson, West Footscray, Explosives Factory Maribyrnong, 1942-1944

WORk HAZARDS

" It was one of these dangerous powders-very temperamental, very unstable. You'd see people going around with their skins all yellow, and you'd know: Well, they were working om such-and-such powder or TNT powder. Made you just go all yellow, you know. Just discoloured you like dye."

Mrs. Billie Anderson, West Footscray, Explosives Factory,1942-1944.

"I can remember too, if you were packing 9mm, they're only small, but they're very dangerous and when Icame home and we did our own washing, and Iwashed my overals, put them in the washing machine and when Itook them out there was a 9mm in the washing machine. 9mm bullet in the washing machine! I thought: 'My God, it's a wonder it didnt go off' (Laughs)

Mrs Mabel White, North Altona. .303 Brass Section, Small Arms Ammunition (1940s).

 

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