Era: 1945 - 1965 Cultural background: Australian, British, German, Italian, Norwegian Collection: Powerhouse Museum Theme:Economics Immigration Restiction Italian Labour Movement Settlement Snowy Hydo-Electric Scheme WW2
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.
Snowy Hydro Hard Hat.
White painted Bakelite hard hat, Snowy Mountains Authority, Australia, c 1953-1954. Standard issue protective clothing for use on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme. Dimensions: approx 300mm diameter x 210mm high.
The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme is the most complex, multi-purpose, multi-reservoir hydro scheme in the world with 80 kilometres of aqueducts, 140 kilometres of tunnels, 16 large dams and seven power stations, two of which are underground. The project commenced under an Act of Federal Parliament in October 1949 with the goal of diverting the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Tumut Rivers in south western New South Wales to provide irrigation water for the western side of the Great Dividing Range, and in the process generate hydro-electric power.
Prior to World War II Australia relied on the export o wool, wheat and coal as the mainstays of the economy. Most manufactured items were imported from Britain. In terms of infrastructure Australia was under developed compared to Europe or America.
Migrants with engineering or construction skills and experience in working alpine conditions were targeted for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. Dams, power stations and tunnels were built so that the water from the Snowy River could be used to provide power and irrigation.
Fourteen major contractors and consortiums were engaged on the project. These included French and US companies as well as Australian. Thiess Bros Pty Ltd, Australia, had the biggest contract.
One hundred thousand people worked on the Scheme and 121 lost their lives in industrial accidents. Those workers were Australian-born, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, British, Polish and Yugoslav. Most migrant workers on the Scheme arrived under assisted migration schemes.
At the launch of the project, the Prime Minister Ben Chifley declared it a national milestone – important for drought relief, power generation and the prosperity it would bring the nation. Work on the Scheme was finished in 1974 with a total cost of $820 million dollars.
Snowy Mountains Authority workers excavating for the Murray Power Station in 1954. Courtesy National Library of Australia
Because the project was more ambitious than anything that had been attempted before, engineers needed to develop new tunnelling and construction methods that would revolutionise industry around the world. Safer and cheaper construction techniques were created and the project set new standards in occupational health and safety. The power stations adopted higher outputs of electricity transmission than ever before. The Scheme used one of the world’s first transistorised computers called Snowcom from 1960 to 1967 that ensured the efficiency and success of the project.
The work was hard and the conditions were tough. Because ninety-eight per cent of the Scheme was underground, there was a lot of tunnelling, often through solid granite rock. Work in the tunnels was dirty, wet, noisy, smelly and dangerous.
Living conditions were also hard in the camps and towns built in the mountains to house the workers and their families. Often these dwellings were not suited to the freezing conditions. They were cold and the water would freeze in the pipes. When the workers’ wives came to join them in the townships, these women had to work hard to overcome the hardships and establish communities in the strange new wilderness environment. When work in one area was completed, the dwellings were dismantled and moved to another area, so very little remains of these towns today.
Most of the migrants found themselves in this strange and harsh environment within days of arrival at Sydney or Melbourne. Some men suffered post traumatic stress driven by the war. The Snowy Mountains Authority didn’t have time for people to adjust and people had to get on with it or leave. Stress on married men with families in Europe had its toll with many men buying out their contract and returning home.
The Building Workers Industrial Union was concerned about the validity of the qualifications of migrant workers and was critical of the government’s policy of recruiting ‘foreign’ labour. Despite this the union doggedly represented the migrant workers rights and conditions. The 1951 issue of the Union’s ‘Building Worker’ was printed in both German and English reflecting the high numbers of Germans working in the trades.
On its completion in 1974 the Snowy Hydro Electric Scheme had employed over one hundred thousand. In harsh and dangerous conditions, they built a new future for themselves and for the nation. Many families were built on the scheme with children born and growing up in the mountains. The majority of the workers stayed on to live in Australia making a valuable contribution to Australia’s modern multicultural society.
The Snowy Mountains Authority Hard hat is historically significant as evidence of the hard and tough work conditions experienced by the Snowy workers and their families in the construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.
The Snowy Mountains Authority hard hat represents the attitude of post war Australian community and the government policies and programs required to build ‘New Australia’. The hard hat represents the hard work, optimism and determination in nation building that was prevalent in post war Australia.
Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Thompson. S 2011, New Australia: The Snowy Mountains Hydro – Electric Scheme 1949 – 1974, Migration Heritage Centre, Sydney
Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
Crown Copyright 2011©