GOOD MEMORIES: John Day, a former derrickman on a wharf where sugar cane was loaded, looks over some photographs of the period.
GOOD MEMORIES: John Day, a former derrickman on a wharf where sugar cane was loaded, looks over some photographs of the period.

Glory days of the sugar industry

JOHN Day, of Broadwater, has sweet memories of the days when the Richmond River was alive with cane punts hauling crops to the sugar mill.

Mr Day, 71, worked for 19 seasons as a derrickman at Garretts Wharf, near Boundary Creek, up to 1969, loading cane from cane carts onto punts to be towed by tug to the mill.

“The river then was quite busy – sugar boats were coming and going to Sydney and these little fellas (the punts) were running up and down 24 hours a day,” he said.

He estimated there were about 20 wharves on the river, and some in creeks, where the cane was loaded during the cutting season, extending from June through to November/December.

The wooden punts, he said, could hold about 45-55 tonnes of cane, while the record for a steel punt, introduced in 1969, was about 86 tonnes.

When Mr Day finished up as a derrickman, he worked at the mill where he had the job of weighing the punts before they were emptied, and again after the cane was unloaded, to check the weight of the haul so the farmer could be paid.

“Most of them (the wooden punts) leaked,” he said, saying that water made up some of the weight.
He said the sugar industry back in those days was a much bigger concern than it is today.

And with the introduction of truck transport after 1974 – the last season the cane was hand cut – ‘a lot of people have no idea this (the river hauls) went on’.

Two men worked on each wharf operating what was first a hand-winch derrick and then the petrol engine-powered derricks which came in the 1960s.

He said that on a good day, four punts could be loaded at each wharf.

He remembers the steam-powered tug Captain Tom Fenwick doing its runs up and down the river with ‘a string of punts’.

“It was a lovely sight. It would go up and down at night with the lights on the punts – beautiful,” he said.

Mr Day worked for a few months as a cane-cutter as well.

“That was hard yakka,” he remembers.

And the crews also had to move the portable rails which the cane trucks ran on to the wharf.

They lived in tin barracks around the area.

While Mr Day remembers sign-on days at Wardell for the cutters and crews as ‘big days’, the ‘bigger day’ was sign-off day.

And that’s because the cutters, derrickmen and boat crews were paid their ‘retention pay’.

He said a percentage of the workers’ wages was taken out of the pay and given to them at the end of the season as a way of making sure the workers would stay for the whole season.

For the derrickmen, threepence per tonne loaded was taken out of the wage and paid out at the end of the crushing season.

“The money was good,” Mr Day said.

“It would have been nice to have a few extra months (of work) a year.”

While Mr Day enjoyed reliving ‘great old days’, he hopes others will, too.

He and his mate Terry McKeough have organised a reunion for cane-cutters, boat crews and derrickmen to be held at the Broadwater Community Hall on February 28 next year from 10am.

The event will be BYO drinks, and there will be a small cost to cover the hire of the hall and the barbecue lunch. RSVP by February 12.

For more information, phone Mr Day on 6682 8361 or Mr McKeough on 6682 8286.

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