Keeping in touch


One of the glories of social media and the internet is the connections that are possible between like-minded people. Of all the posts that I’ve put out over the years, the two most popular were on the demolition of the Islington Junction Box (hello, rail buffs) and on my attempts to save an injured fruit bat (hello, North American bat buffs). We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of visits, and loads of feedback.

Most of the time, though, the connections take the form of a friendly email from someone who wants to bring something to my attention: I mistake I’ve made in describing a place or a person; a comparison with what’s happening in urban waterways in another state or country; or a g’day from a kindred spirit in another part of the world. I also get wonderful follow-up messages that help me to understand this wee square of inner Newcastle that much better.

Recently, Lachlan pointed me to these two Ralph Snowball photos of repairs to the railway bridge over the Styx at Islington. The caption states they’re of a washaway following floods in 1897. You can see a better version here.


As is so often the case with Snowball’s pictures, they’re wonderful human studies with levels of detail that the smartest smart phone couldn’t hope to match. Again, direct link for a decent view here.


Another photo link was sent to me by Alex, a former Newcastle resident who used to cycle through Ham North to and from the BHP back in the day. Alex also lamented the loss of the Islington Junction Box. In an earlier post I’d made the following grossly sexist comment:

The Wife and I were discussing [the signal box] just the other day, trying to remember when it stopped being manned. (She said “staffed”, though when I challenged her to name a single lady signalperson she knew she was cornered. Ha!)

Well, step forward and take a bow, Margaret Tomlin, “one of the first and most successful women to break into a male industry”. Margaret is pictured here at the Flemington box in September 1982; click here for a better version of the picture.

signal woman

However, in defence of my sexist self, Alex does note the:

Different lever configuration though, pistol grip power assisted (most likely compressed air assisted similar to Newcastle Signal Box). The levers at Islington Junction signal box would definitely have been of the ‘armstrong’ mechanical type.

Yeah, Margaret Tomlin. Lightweight!

Lame sexist comments aside, I’d love to know where you are now, Margaret. I bet you could tell some stories!

Undefined sadness


English is a pretty good language. It’s got a stupidly large and insanely flexible lexicon and so it’s disconcerting when you see or feel something and don’t have the word for it.

I found myself in such a situation this morning, Sunday, at Clyde Street lights by the old signal box.

Islington Junction Box

In olden times, which these days seems to be a period frighteningly close to when I was a young man in my prime, signal boxes like these were manned (yes, manned, not staffed – I’m willing to bet that only 1950s Soviet Russia had lady signal operators) by men who pulled great big levers, levers that wiggled the points back and forth and sent locos to wherever they were supposed to be going.

Like everything that once required human effort, there’s now an app for it. Or something electronic that dwells in “the cloud”. So I’ve been watching the demolition guys over the last few weeks as they strip the box of its asbestos sheeting and prepare it for its final destruction.


For a while it stood naked, just its oregon timber frame and the steel joists, and yet somehow it was still the signal box. On the second storey you can just make out the items that define this wooden-framed box and tell us what it once was; that is, the levers that the men pulled and pushed to move the points to send the trains along their way. As long as the levers were in place it was still, somehow, a signal box.


But on Saturday afternoon, as Jambo and I headed towards the dog park, I heard a crushing, grinding noise the closer we got to Clyde Street lights. And there it was; or, rather, there it wasn’t. A big scoopy diggery thing had smashed it down: timber frame, steel joists, big levers and all. The Islington Junction signal box was no more.


I felt sad – not necessarily for the asbestos sheeting and oregon timber, but for something else indefinable. Something that was focused on the row of levers. I got it into my head to go and get one, but there was still someone guarding the site quite late, and when I headed down on Sunday morning the crushing crew was already there, the huge mechanical monster crunching up the last remains and dropping it, scoop by scoop, int a waiting truck.

I asked one of the guys if they’d taken the levers out first but he said, no, they’d gone the same way as the frame. He asked me why I was interested and I said that I didn’t know, that it just felt a shame. He agreed, and we stared in silence for a few minutes at the digger as it scooped up splintered timber, metal and busted levers and piled the dump truck high.

That was when I felt the undefined sadness. It was a sadness partially for the loss of the building itself but perhaps more for what the building embodied: the thousands of hours of the presence of men working and talking and joking and arguing within its walls. The funny incidents. The narrowly avoided catastrophes. The pranks. The sadness.

I have some photos of the interior from a few months ago. There were stacks of time sheets and log books that had all been filled in with great care and diligence, yet now they lay scattered among the filth and rat crap.


And the levers, all ranked in line and looking like they were ready to go back to work at a moment’s notice.


I couldn’t think of an English word for what I felt. Not nostalgia, because I never worked in the signal box. Not poignancy. Not German Weltschmertz or Portuguese saudade or anything else that I could think of. Perhaps wabi-sabi, a Japanese term for “a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay”. That’s not bad. Wabi-sabi would fit for the feeling I get when I see tumble-down all cottages, such as this one at Tighes Hill.

Beauty in decay. In the midst of life is death. And on that happy thought, dear reader …

Islington Junction Box


If you’ve ever found yourself stuck at Clyde Street lights as a coal train lumbers past (OK, so that’s everyone in Newcastle) then you’ll have had a few moments to contemplate the Islington Junction box.

Poor old thing! The Wife and I were discussing it just the other day, trying to remember when it stopped being manned. (She said “staffed”, though when I challenged her to name a single lady signalperson she knew she was cornered. Ha!) She certainly remembers seeing the “signalperson’s” car parked down the side in recent years, but no more.

Islington Signal Box

Then, in the strange way that these things happen, some scamps sent me these pics of the inside. So that’s what it looks like! I’d bet a dollar that very few signal ladies would be able to wrassle any of those levers back and forth. Is that an iron spiral staircase in the background? And a comfy viewing armchair? All very intriguing.


I’ll take it that this is the reverse view, not that there’s another entire bank of levers.


I got a few pics of discarded rubbish and general detritus too. It’s all very poignant, a whole stack of attendance books that were probably filled in with great care and diligence over many months and years.


And, I’m not sure if this is reassuring or not, a list of instructions.

ISB instructions

“Noooo! DOWN! I said 164.500 down, not 164.376 up!”