early May 1954 I saw an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald’s
‘Positions Vacant’ column for a junior male to join the staff
in the Adastra Airways Photographic Laboratory at 41-43 Vickers
Avenue Mascot. That address was four doors from my home at 33
Vickers Avenue. Aged 15 years I thought the role was made for
me and so I walked through the famous Adastra etched glass doors
and applied for the position. The Photographic Manager, Frank
Schneider, interviewed me. On Friday 21 May Frank sent a messenger
to tell me to come back to his office. He told me that I had the
job and handed me a well-worn white technician’s wrap coat. My
salary was to be £5/5 per week less three shillings tax.
23 May I reported for duty and was told I was to be trained as
the ‘Chemical Boy’ making up batches of chemical solutions to
be used as developers and fixing agents. The white coat was very
necessary as the chemicals left deep stains if splashed onto clothing.
There were other duties as well including cleaning floors and
helping out wherever required. Great emphasis was put on keeping
the place clean and there was a tidy-up period at the end of every
day. The other Photographic staff included Jack Townsend, Bill
Gow, Gordon Stack and Joan Pearce amongst others. The Section
was laid out somewhat like this:
produced by the aircrews came in and was developed in the darkroom
labelled ‘Film’. After fixing and washing the film was dried on
machines near to Frank’s office. These machines gave out a sound
of equal decibels to a Constellation engine and I am sure my present
deafness started then. A set of proofs of the negatives was then
produced, in one of the four print darkrooms labelled P1 to P4,
for Frank and his chief Lou Pares to check against contract maps.
The work then involved producing quality prints of each negative
that were subjected to developing, fixing, washing, drying and
trimming before being packed in delivery cartons. The print trimming
was performed on a wooden cover over the top of a billiard table.
I saw this table used for games only when the Christmas Party
was held in the room.
also held a big enlarger. The base platform of this enlarger proved
to be a great card table. P2 had a smaller enlarger. The basic
equipment in each darkroom was a contact printer and a large lead-lined
sink that held trays for developing, rinsing and fixing. Work
in the P1 to P4 rooms was carried out under orange lights while
the film room used a faint red light. Each of the darkrooms had
a sliding door opening onto a hallway or corridor that had two
entrances, both marked by black curtains.
soon learned that the workload of the section fluctuated because
if the aircrews could not fly due to cloud or otherwise inclement
weather no film arrived and there was no work. Such downtime was
filled by chores such as major cleanups and painting as well as
cleaning the cars owned by Frank and Lou. If the aircrews remained
grounded though, even the chores were fully exhausted and we would
gather in P1 to play cards. I was soon proficient in games like
Euchre and Canasta. Eventually the weather would improve and film
would again start arriving. If this coincided with the last three
months of the financial year then we would go from no work to
overtime. This was because the mainly government clients would
want to ensure they spent their budget allocation before 30 June.
I can still recall the dispiriting emotion that flowed while cleaning
up on a Sunday afternoon, after having worked nights and weekends,
knowing that I had to be back the next morning to do it all again.
allowance is made for inflation and changes to my age rates of
pay, the extent of overtime can be detected from my annual income
from Chemical Boy to Photographic Printer
big year for overtime
full year on adult wage
big year of overtime
last full year at Adastra
The salary was paid weekly in cash. While he was in command, Captain
Bunny Hammond would require that a pay parade be held. This involved
all staff forming a line in the corridor outside his office and
entering one by one. The Captain would have a word for each especially
if he had been told something significant about their recent work.
This process was of course disastrous for production but that
was the way he wanted it. Lou Pares discontinued the ritual once
he took over.
is doubtful the darkrooms would have been permitted in today’s
workplace safety environment. The chemical solutions and consequently
the air were frequently bitterly pungent. I can recall three personal
health issues that almost certainly related to the workplace.
Firstly a major skin eruption on my left forearm that required
hospital treatment. It took weeks of treatment with the hospital
pharmacist’s ointment to clear it up. Even so, the slightest irritation
in the next few years would see the condition return. The second
was when the community compulsory chest x-ray found a cloudy area
on my lungs. It was not TB but a condition not recognised by the
doctors. Decades later I was told my lungs still did not perform
to their capacity. This event led Frank to seek and install improvements
in the darkroom ventilation systems. Finally I started to get
recurring severe bouts of infected pharyngitis during the early
1960s. It was this that led me to look for a new career.
were other dangers around, especially if you became a little careless.
I had at least three electrical shocks from a combination of liquid
and power. One threw me to the other side of a darkroom. The Reproduction
Camera had a motorised travel along a screw centre rod. Bill Hohnen
was working with it when the end of the rod became entangled in
his trouser leg at the thigh. He could not reach the on/off switch
and called out. Joyce Owen heard his call and screamed out for
me. I reached the switch and reversed the travel as Bill was about
to pass out. The combination of the fabric and the metal rod could
easily have resulted in major injury. As it was he had a sore
leg for a while.
was a good manager: firm but fair. Mostly the team got along in
harmony and it was a friendly workplace. Social events were held
from time to time and one of these had a great bearing on my life.
Joyce Owen had joined the team of females that looked after the
print drying and trimming. She was the aunt of the Australian
tennis great Lewis Hoad and was involved in the sport herself.
Joyce proposed a social tennis night that was held at courts on
Botany Road at Mascot. Everyone had a great time and it was suggested
a tennis club be formed. A number of the staff lived in the St
George district of Sydney and it was felt reasonable to find a
court in that area. Joyce found a court behind a private home
in Alfred Street, Ramsgate and we were away. The club was a success
but with time there were fewer Adastrians playing although Bill
Hohnen and I remained steadfast. Acquaintances of players joined
up but eventually in 1960 it was decided to advertise in the St
George Leader for locals to join. Three young ladies came along
and one of these later became my wife.
Gow was an avid Socialist and he sometimes caused problems for
the management. Once he found that Adastra was paying under the
award rates and on another occasion that the company should be
laundering the protective coats and overalls at its expense. At
one point Bill resigned and took a job doing retail developing
and printing. He said he thought that was a more responsible thing
to do in society. After a time he returned to Vickers Avenue saying
that, after reflection, Adastra’s work was building the nation.
I was an avowed reader and Bill encouraged this with all
types of left leaning publications. Jack Townsend who at one stage
lent me his enormous tomes on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte balanced
this to some extent. The work was about the size of Gibbon’s Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire and just as detailed. About the
year 1960, given the sensitive nature of some of the work, the
staff were subjected to an ASIO check. I wondered how Bill would
get on but once I had the forms to fill in I saw that it was mostly
about ensuring that you could list some referees, had Anglo-Celtic
ancestry and had not lived or worked in some dubious country.
As far as I know all staff but one passed the check. He was an
Eastern European migrant who detested Communism. This was probably
an ironic outcome.
role of work in the isolation of a darkroom for hours did lead
to some hi-jinks at times. One often repeated wintertime jape
was to fill a large jug with cold water and lie in the wait for
a fellow worker as they entered the darkroom corridor through
the black curtain. They could not see the cold water dousing coming.
I received and returned a number of these and at one stage was
continually victorious over Ken Snell. One especially cold day
Ken heard me go out to the drying area and lay in wait for me
to return. He hit the target with the lot but it was Frank Schneider
not me. Frank was dressed formally: suit pants, shirt/tie and
woollen no sleeve pullover. He said nothing, turned and went back
to his office. Ken was left quivering, convinced he was about
to be sacked. Frank though said and did nothing. Given he had
played for the St George Dragons he had probably endured worse.
one in management at Adastra ever seemed to want to dispose of
any redundant items and there were surplus pieces of equipment
and stores packed everywhere. During some of the no-film times
we located some old nitrate based survey films in a back storeroom.
Under the guidance of Ken Snell we cut the leaders off the films
and chopped the leaders into small pieces. The pieces were then
crammed into aluminium 36 shot 35mm film cans. The type in use
had a screw-on lid that rose to a peak. Holes were made in the
base of the cans and the lid taped down well. We then made a fire
under a launch platform in the Tenth Street playground. Once the
nitrate ignited the can became a rocket. Our most successful launch
saw the can climb about 200 metres and towards the East-West runway.
Unfortunately a Qantas flight crew also observed the launch. Civil
Aviation gave the company a blast and the rocketry experiments
encouraged the younger members of his team to go on to become
camera operators in the aircrews. We tended to regard the crew
with awe especially the pilots but we had an obvious affinity
with the camera operators and I regarded many as friends. In particular
the loss of Gordon Murrell in the 1958 Hudson crash at Lae made
a big impact on me and probably deterred me from further interest
in becoming a permanent aircrew member. Once the Eleventh Street
hangar was allocated to Adastra we also came to know the ground
crews much better. We would often walk across to say hello and
look at the kites under service. Obviously we were cheek and jowl
with sections like photogrammetry and drafting and saw those people
for lunch and tea breaks. Within our own little group we were
pretty close and often socialised as a team. Bill Hohnen and I
took a most enjoyable Gold Coast holiday together.