Unsung HeroesRevealing the Remarkable in Seemingly Ordinary People
John Williamson was born in Albany and came to Narrogin in 1947, originally stationed as a Cleaner in the West Australian Government Railways (WAGR), later known as Westrail. John's nomination for this project comes as a nod to the significant contribution the Railways made to Narrogin in days gone by, thriving particularly during the 60s and 70s. In those days, Narrogin's population was at its peak, with more businesses and department stores in the main street and Railways employee's families having their own football team, tennis and bowling clubs to add to the existing town's sports landscape.
Transferring back to Narrogin in 1954 after a number of years at the Albany depot, John settled into the community with his wife Margaret and eldest children Mervyn and Susan, their younger children Ian, Joanne and Lynette later being born at the Vailima hospital. The family lived in different railway houses in town, including one on Hale Street opposite the Railways Bowling Club, where John, a talented bowler, could often be found on weekends.
John was a hard-working Railways man, at a time when Narrogin was the heart of the Great Southern due to its important position on the Railways network connecting six separate lines travelling to York, Wagin, Collie, Wickepin, Kulin and Boddington. Due to his diligence, John worked his way up from Cleaner, to Fireman, to Locomotive Engine Driver, when in 1955 he became the second youngest Locomotive Engine Driver in WAGR history. This was a remarkable achievement, as during the 50s passing the Driver's examination was a rare feat, because there was little formal training provided by WAGR, especially for those working outside of the city.
An accomplished train driver with both steam and diesel engines, John's abilities were recognised on one occasion in 1978 by Westrail's acting Chief Traffic Manager T.A. Swan. The evening trip from Forrestfield to Narrogin was tipped to be a rough one, the Yard Foreman warning Mr Swan this would be due to the No.7's large freight load being coupled only with drag hooks, instead of link couplings. However, to the Chief's surprise, the journey was particularly smooth, owing to John's commendable efforts that night with his handling techniques.
Not only was John a recognised Westrail employee, but he was also a tireless and active member of the West Australian Locomotive Engine Drivers, Fireman and Cleaners Union of Workers. He wasn't afraid to stand up for the rights of employees of Westrail, and would often put questions to the Government officials who visited the Narrogin depot to discuss operations. John fought for correct calculation of overtime pay and time-in-lieu for workers with those in charge, in accordance with the award. WAGR would push the envelope, expecting employees to work excessive hours without adjusting days at the end of long trips, providing only poorly maintained barracks for tired workers to utilise when away from home.
Described as "a good union man" by his peers, John rarely missed a branch meeting down at the Cornwall Hotel - drinks possibly taking priority over the agenda and he developed several lifelong friendships in his days at the Narrogin Branch, including with Derek Jeff and Les Young, who went on to serve as Union Presidents for the state. Upon John's retirement in 1987, after more than 40 years with Westrail, he was honoured with Life Membership of the WALEF & CU, one of only 41 life memberships awarded since the union's creation in 1898.
Aside from work, John was a well-loved member of the Narrogin community, a popular figure at the races and trots and he and Margaret were regulars on the local ballroom dancing circuit, with John being a graceful and talented dancer. A registered fruit-fly baiter for the town council, John tended neighbourhood fruit trees to ensure a plentiful harvest and was a regular entrant in the Narrogin Agricultural Show's vegetable section. He and close friend George Forrest maintained a good-natured rivalry for many years over whose produce would be considered superior.
So highly was John regarded within Narrogin that on his passing in 1997, the local florist ran out of fresh flowers for arrangements to be sent to Margaret and the family. His funeral remains one of the largest held in Narrogin's Catholic Church, signifying the love and respect which the community had for John, a true gentleman of his generation.
Revealing the remarkable in seemly ordinary people
Portrait painted by Graham Smith 2020.
Text compiled by Jan Smith from notes provided with the nomination in 2020.