THERE’S a story down every street. Or four Newcastle streets in this case. Streets like Avon, Vine, Bull and Usk in the old instant workers’ village of ‘‘Pommy Town’’ at Mayfield East.
Started suddenly in 1920 for industrial pioneer John Lysaght (Australia) Ltd, the area is identifiable today by a stately avenue of tall palm trees off Industrial Drive.
Some 103 skilled English migrants with wives and families (about 220 people in all) were lured out to Australia in March 1921 with the promise of jobs making galvanised steel and with homes to rent provided.
While 70 homes were initially erected, an old Mayfield linen plan map of ‘‘Lysaghts subdivision’’ from 1927 seems to indicate 86 home sites with more proposed.
Sheet steel manufacturer Lysaght’s began in England in 1857, but soon found Australia was its largest customer.
It began exporting portable, prefabricated iron roofed homes into Australia for gold boom towns in the 1860s. ‘‘Our Mayfield village was called ‘Pommy Town’ by everyone, with lots of houses quickly built for the new English workers,’’ said Robert Hopkins, now 82 years, of Mount Hutton.
‘‘But it’s really the story of the Lysaght firm,’’ he said.
‘‘Three generations of my own family worked there. It was once a big, vital part of Newcastle life.’’
‘‘BHP Steelworks and Lysaght’s went hand-in-hand. Everywhere BHP went, Lysaght’s followed, first to Newcastle, then Port Kembla [in 1947] and then to Western Port, Victoria.
‘‘That’s why I believe there should be a permanent memorial to Lysaght’s in Newcastle, just like the one former BHP Steelworkers are now planning to build,’’ Hopkins said.
‘‘Besides making pre-painted, sheet steel like Colorbond [from the 1960s], other Lysaght products included material for motor cars, refrigerators, washing machines, stoves, airconditioning units, roofing and cladding, truck bodies and rail wagons.
‘‘My father Bill Hopkins worked there for 40 years, I worked there for about 26 years and my son even worked briefly at Lysaght’s.
‘‘Dad was working as a seaman and in December 1920 got talking to a few friends in Newport, England. They told him they were coming out to Australia soon to start a new Lysaght’s plant in a place called Newcastle,’’ Robert Hopkins said.
‘‘Dad then told them he’d go to Australia later and join them. And he did. That was in 1924. He said he’d been impressed by the men coming out to pioneer a new industry.
‘‘Then recently I found a long article my father wrote for the Silver Jubilee issue of the company newsletter, The Lysaght Gazette, to celebrate 50 years of operation by April 1971.
‘‘In his article, he talks about the early days of the Mayfield industry, from the 1920s, when the Lysaght workforce all spoke English, but in accents from all over Britain.
‘‘He wrote that the Bristolians, especially, had a strange dialect and a clipped manner of speaking, so fellow workers were not always sure whether they were being praised or abused,’’ Hopkins said.
‘‘Besides early communication problems, their then Midlands pay system caused many headaches.
‘‘There were no computers back then and 10 classifications of pay to work out for manual mill workers; like different rates for furnacemen, breaker downers, the roller men, the heaver overs, bar drawers, scalers and scrap cutters.’’
The Lysaght Gazette issue from 1971 states that 75 skilled English rolling mill workers from Newport and 28 galvanisers from Bristol were initially recruited to come to Newcastle, NSW, in two ships. The company’s first sheet steel here was produced on April 4, 1921, or only nine days after the second shipload of migrants arrived.
And the subsidiary truly proved its worth. In 1939, Lysaght’s Newcastle exported 40,000 tons of heavy steel sheet back to England to use as air raid shelters and supplied parts to make World War II’s famous Owen submachine gun.
By 1950/51, the company was employing about 1600 men in various divisions. The old Lysaght’s then ceased in December 1979, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of BHP.
‘‘Dad earlier had started the retired employees association, but later its numbers dropped off. The original close-knit community members were all getting too old, I expect,’’ Robert Hopkins said.
‘‘It was hot, hard, dangerous work with the rolling and dipping, the acid, the fumes, the sharp edges of metal and all,’’ he said.
Hopkins said he himself had a close call when acid splashed over his face at work and he remembered all Lysaght millmen seemed to limp.
‘‘The muscle at the back of their legs would be cut in accidents caused by sharp metal. That’s why they later had protective metal strips put into the back of their steel-capped work boots,’’ he said.
Hopkins said before he left Lysaght’s as a special products foreman he was offered jobs in Adelaide and Sydney, but chose to stay to live and work locally.
‘‘Lysaght’s was a funny place to work, you know. After the mills closed, in the early 1970s I think, other jobs were found for those displaced,’’ Hopkins said.
‘‘Then came some surprises. Some people were working under, say, their brother’s birth certificate.
‘‘I remember one young bloke I had to find an alternative job for and it was a bit challenging. Eventually I showed him this lever, which he only had to move back and forth to punch holes in metal.
‘‘I asked him if he could handle that and showed him a few times. So, I then said, ‘Reckon you can do that? It’s as easy as hitting a nail’.
‘‘He then told me he couldn’t do the job, saying something like, ‘You said hitting a nail? I’ll have to go and join the carpenter’s union, won’t I?’
‘‘He was a bit dim, but in the end he worked out fine,’’ Hopkins said.
‘‘And I also remember boxers coming to work there briefly to do serious training. They wanted some heavy work to sweat it out, rather than just exercise in a gym,’’ he said.
Returning now to the Pommy Town site, the Hopkins clan ironically never lived in any company-built house until much later.
‘‘We rented instead in Southern Street, Mayfield, but after dad retired I bought a house off Industrial Drive right alongside that historic  sandstone place, Simpson’s Cottage,’’ Robert Hopkins said.
‘‘I got the house very cheap at the time. Lysaght’s then wanted to know if I wanted to buy the cottage as well. I said, ‘No thanks’ but I could have also got it as cheaply.
‘‘Our old house is not there now. Maybe it was too damaged in the 1989 earthquake, like others that had to be demolished there,’’ Hopkins said.
‘‘A lot of Lysaght worker homes are left there though and some descendants of the original workers still live there, I believe,’’ he said.
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