Fond memories of years at workshops

Taieri Gorge Railway workshop manager Peter Clark (left) and KiwiRail depot worker Jim Kelly reminisce about their collective 41 years at Hillside on the eve of its partial closure this week. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Taieri Gorge Railway workshop manager Peter Clark (left) and KiwiRail depot worker Jim Kelly reminisce about their collective 41 years at Hillside on the eve of its partial closure this week. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
More than just a place of work, Hillside has been a social, cultural and communal institution for its thousands of staff and their families during its 130 years.

Long-serving former workers Peter Clark (57) and Jim Kelly (65) shared some of their fondest memories of the South Dunedin workshops with the Otago Daily Times this week.

Neither admitted to being a ''Fitzroy harrier'', but both recalled how the name came about.

Some decades ago, ''in the dark days when you were allowed to drink'', workers would venture along Hillside Rd for a beer at lunchtime, Mr Kelly said. The Fitzroy publican would have jugs of beer lined up along the bar in anticipation of the Hillside crowd, he said.

A lunchtime ''hooter'' sounded at noon, then again at 12.27pm, warning workers they had three minutes to get back to work. The 12.27pm hooter could be heard all over South Dunedin and inside the Fitzroy it gave Hillside workers just enough time to finish their drinks and run back to the workshops, hence the name Fitzroy harriers, they said.

More family-friendly activities were organised by the Hillside social club each year, including a Christmas picnic in which hundreds of children enjoyed a train ride to a special location.

The day was spent at places such as Wingatui, Warrington, Middlemarch and Brighton where Hillside workers and their families ate, drank and played games.

''We used to go around all the shops in the area getting donated toys and gifts for the kids, and we had lolly scrambles and fun races. It was a fantastic family day out,'' Mr Kelly said.

He and Mr Clark worked at Hillside in the 1970s and 1980s when it employed about 700 people and operated a large apprenticeship training school on Hillside Rd across from the workshops.

They said dances and socials were regularly held in the training school hall, and a few romances blossomed on site.

One young worker fell for a girl employed in the Hillside office, who happened to be the daughter of a Hillside manager.

Hillside had its own branch of St John, two nurses and a part-time doctor as well as basketball, cricket and rugby teams.

There was hardly a person in South Dunedin who did not either work at Hillside or know someone who did, Mr Kelly said.

''One guy had followed his father in, and his father had followed his father. There were third-generation workers and groups of brothers and cousins all working there - it was one big family,'' he said.

Hillside workers shared a bond for life and staff funerals were always well attended.

''It really is special. Hillside friendships last for years and years,'' Mr Kelly said.

''It's the best job I've ever had.''

Mr Clark said no matter what hobbies or interests workers had, there were always others at Hillside with similar pursuits.

It was that camaraderie people remembered above all else.

''That really helped me when I first came to New Zealand and Hillside,'' Mr Kelly said.

He moved from Scotland in February 1982, having worked for British Railways, and started at Hillside in May that year as a fitter working on locomotives.

Mr Kelly was made redundant from Hillside last year and took a job repairing wagons at the nearby KiwiRail depot.

During his three decades at Hillside Mr Kelly was a key union delegate, holding the position of national president from 1990 to 2011.

He recently took voluntary redundancy at the depot in order for a redundant Hillside worker to have the job.

Mr Clark started his Hillside apprenticeship as a 20-year-old in January 1976, alongside 31 other apprentices, at a time when Hillside had about 120 apprentices in total. He spent 11 years as a fitter at Hillside before deciding to leave when the company was ''downsizing'', but said the skills he learned there had served him well throughout his career.

Mr Clark is now workshop manager for Taieri Gorge Railway.

- rosie.manins@odt.co.nz

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