There was a time when Adelaide was on the world map of engineering and manufacturing excellence because of this place – the Islington Railway Workshops.
At its peak this was one of the most important industrial complexes in the Southern Hemisphere. Today that once powerfully beating heart has been reduced to not much more than a thin thready pulse.
The Islington story starts just after settlement when the area was prime grazing land…and this is where the other flock would gather – Saint Ninian’s Anglican Church at the time the workshops were being developed.
In the 1880’s there was a railways boom and these workers at the Adelaide workshop on North Terrace had simply run out of room.
The expanses of Islington were chosen for the new facility. It was up and running by 1883 and soon became most important industrial site in Adelaide.
Grant: The South Australian Railways were fundamental to the history and development of South Australia. It was the rail network that supported the expansion of settlement and the growth of agricultural, pastoral and mining industries in the colony, without Islington the railways and the economy couldn’t expand.
It became even more prominent in the early 1920’s when American William Webb became Commissioner of the Railways.
With Webb at the helm, Islington expanded to become the most impressive industrial complex not only in Australia, but possibly the Southern Hemisphere.
The workshops were vital, powerful, noisy and thriving. Regarded as one of the most technically advanced facilities of its kind but as you can see, labour intensive and very hands –on.
In its heyday, more than two thousand men and boys worked here. Many young apprentices from here went on to become key players in South Australia’s industrial growth.
During the Depression Islington provided an important source of work and a great deal of relief for many skilled workers.
When World War Two started, the workforce swelled to around six thousand as old workshops went into military mode.
Vehicles like the ‘Bandicoot’ armoured car and the ‘Bren Gun Carrier’ reconnaissance and attack vehicle were built here, as were troop trains and hospital carriages.
Women came on site en masse for the first time to help in the manufacture of ammunition for aircraft. And in the assembly of key components of the wings and fuselage of Beaufort Bomber aircraft.
Grant: That happened in purpose-built workshops down here at the southern end of the Islington complex on the corner of Regency and Churchill roads. There was quite a bit of controversy a while back when those workshops were bulldozed to make way for this. “The future of Islington!”
Post-war the place was still buzzing with activity, in 1951 Islington produced Australia’s first mainline diesel electric locomotive.
And the workshops were still producing other locomotives like the 520 and 620 classes. They’ve been out of active service since the late 1960’s, but the Steam Ranger organization ran a 520 for many years, and the Duke of Edinburgh 620 class is a familiar sight on the ‘Cockle Train’ runs between Victor Harbor and Goolwa.
But as cars appeared in more driveways, and successive governments lost interest in rail, Islington’s days as a manufacturing powerhouse were numbered and going with it were future generations of skilled tradesmen.
As you can see from the honour roll outside this workshop, whole families learned their trades and spent their working lives here.
Thankfully six of Islington’s remaining significant buildings are now protected…but they are slowly degrading and today this site feels like an old man desperately trying to cling to his past whilst knowing deep down he’s just a shadow of what he once was and I think we’ll all be the poorer if and when he finally passes on.