We’ve known for a long time that William Sixsmith drove the first train in New South Wales but we didn’t know that much about him other than his important role during the construction, testing and operation of the first line from Sydney to Parramatta in 1855. Since 1961 the Museum has had portraits of both William and his wife Maria in its collection but information about his early life was a complete mystery until a family member, Lynne Barnett, contacted me with his amazing life story. He’s closely connected with the beginning of railways in three European countries as well as the romance and harsh reality of the Australian gold rush thrown in for good measure.
What Lynne found was that William grew up when the first English railways were being built and developed virtually in his own back yard. The famous steam locomotive “Rocket”, George and Robert Stephenson, and other important railway engineers were all part of his world. William eventually brought his expertise in rail operation to Sydney enabling Australia to develop its own Industrial Revolution. The introduction of railways everywhere meant that passengers, but especially goods, could be quickly and efficiently transported, leading to rapid industrialisation and the creation of markets for products of the Industrial Revolution.
Before the age of 12 William began work on the construction of the Liverpool to Manchester line, the world’s first double track public railway, building the Olive Mount railway cutting not far from his Watertree home, near Liverpool, England. His first job was to carry the pick heads for the stonecutters toiling away on the 3.2 km cutting. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 and William went on to be a driver on the line as well as the London and North Western Line which opened in 1838.
In 1842 William married Maria Townsend in Birmingham and the Sixsmiths travelled to Paris in 1845 with their young family where William worked as a locomotive driver on the new Paris to Rouen line. This had been opened in 1843 and been built by the British engineer, Joseph Locke, who had worked for George Stephenson. Apparently, Locke only employed British drivers on his line. In later life William claimed that while in Paris he had driven the King of France, Louis Phillippe 1. The Sixsmiths remained in France for about 3 years and left before the revolution which deposed Louis Phillippe in 1848. Their next port of call was Ireland where William was employed by Sir John MacNeill, the consulting engineer for the Dublin and Belfast Railway Company, whose line opened in stages between 1849 and 1852.
By the end of 1849 the Sixsmiths returned to England and lived at Liverpool. Almost three years later they set sail for Australia, in search of a new life as unassisted passengers on board the “Delta” which arrived in Melbourne on 19 October 1852. Lured by reports of the fantastic gold discoveries made in 1851, it was the gold rushes which brought them to Australia not the construction of railways. It is thought that conditions in Melbourne were so difficult that the Sixsmiths travelled on to Sydney where Maria and the family were to remain. Once his family were settled in Pyrmont, William walked 600 km back to Victoria, to the Ovens Goldfield, present day Beechworth. As with most gold fields, the Ovens Goldfield were a glittering lottery. Some diggers made their fortunes but many more did not. William was unsuccessful and eventually left the diggings and walked 290 km to Melbourne from where he got a job shovelling coal on a coastal steam ship to work his way back to Sydney.
In the meantime the Sydney Railway Company were busy constructing the first line in New South Wales from Sydney to Parramatta. The government granted them a loan to purchase rolling stock for its operation and the first four engines were ordered from Robert Stephenson & Co. of Newcastle-on-Tyne, built in the same factory as the famous “Rocket”. The first two engines arrived at Circular Quay on 13 January 1855 and William Scott came out from England to supervise their erection and operation. It was Scott who had the responsibility for recruiting the first crews. How relieved he must have been when he hired William Sixsmith with his wealth of locomotive driving experience. No one else in the colony had driven a steam locomotive and only a handful would probably have actually seen one.
William trained the other drivers and became the NSW railway’s most senior driver. He had the honour of driving the official train at the opening of the line Sydney to Parramatta line on 26 September 1855. With him on the footplate was fireman, William Webster (who went on to be Locomotive Inspector for Goulburn), while in the guard’s van was Richard Darby. The official train was pulled by Locomotive No.3 with 2 first class, 4 second class, and 5 third class carriages and a brake van. The stationmasters and other railway staff were dressed in flamboyant uniforms of “stovepipe” top hats, frock coats and bell bottom trousers.
From the railway’s contractor, William Randle, who built the line, the crews of the first trains were presented with inscribed silver-cased pocket watches. William’s was inscribed: “Sydney Railway, September, 1855. Engineman, William Sixsmith”. As few people owned watches, the railways brought universal time to the colony with the need to run to a timetable. Randle certainly appreciated the dedication and contribution of his senior driver who had worked tirelessly in the months before the opening driving ballast trains (rocks on which the sleepers and track sat) and transporting navvies (railway labourers) out to works sites. During the opening day he apparently was heard to say to William Sixsmith, or ‘Six’ has he was known “I don’t know what we would have done without you, Six”.
After its opening William Randle ran the railway for about a year before it was taken over by the New South Wales Government in September 1856. At this time it was known as the NSW Railway Service and William was paid at 14 shillings per day. He was listed as driver No. 1. By 1878 his salary had risen to 15 shillings a day. William spent most of his working life driving on the Southern line which had reached Goulburn in 1869, as well as the Rookwood Cemetery line which had opened in 1865. Working conditions were tough at the time as noted by William’s fireman Webster in reminiscences in the “Old Times” magazine in 1903. “A greater part of the time was spent in conditions more trying than the present. The day comprised twelve hours instead of nine. They had no sheltering cab on the engine, no handsome quarters to rest in when away from home, and no allowance for expenses if compelled to seek lodgings”.
William remained with the New South Wales railways for over 30 years until his retirement in 1885 at the age of 70. His contribution was recognised in 1879 when he was presented with this painting at a dinner in Sydney of the drivers and firemen employed on the Great Southern Railways. He was apparently so pleased with his sennotype portrait by the Sydney artist and photographer, Jacob Audet, that he had one produced of his wife, Maria, as well.
William died in 1893 at his Cleveland Street, Redfern, home in Sydney. He made his last rail journey along the route of the funeral train service which he had driven for years travelling from the nearby Mortuary Station in Regent Street to Rookwood Cemetery where his impressive headstone still records his achievement. At his death he is thought to have been one of the oldest engine drivers in the world! William was justly referred to as the “Father of the Railways in New South Wales”, rather than the politicians, contractors, and graziers who instigated the first line’s construction.
Information provided by Lynne Barnett
Simpson, Margaret, Locomotive No. 1, Powerhouse Publishing, 2005
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, February 2015