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Ben Chifley, about 1949. Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.

Steam locomotive 5112, the Chifley engine, Bathurst railway station, 27 December 2017. It is believed that Ben Chifley drove this engine during while he was a locomotive driver with the New South Wales railways.

Ben Chifley, Engine Driver and Prime Minister

David Matheson

16 June 2018


Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley was Prime Minister of Australia from 13 July 1945 until 19 December 1949. Prior to his entry into Federal parliament, Chifley had been an employee of the New South Wales railways from 1903 to 1928.



Joseph Benedict Chifley was born in Bathurst, New South Wales, on 22 September 1885. After leaving school he worked in a general store in Bathurst, before commencing with the New South Wales railways as a shop boy at Bathurst locomotive depot on 15 September 1903. Bathurst was a busy depot, with around 70 steam engines on its allocation. As a shop boy Chifley was engaged in a range of basic tasks to keep the locomotive depot and its facilities clean and in order. Employment in the railways was considered secure, but involved following numerous rules and regulations. During the early years of his employment he studied at night, and later became an instructor at the Bathurst Railway Institute.


Chifley was promoted to labourer at the beginning of 1907, and around this time became involved in the union movement. He was an oiler for several months later in 1907, before being transferred to Wallerawang as a cleaner on 15 November. The position of cleaner involved cleaning the engines externally and internally. Cleaners became familiar with the operation of steam engines, and it was considered that it was a step towards becoming a fireman and later a driver. Cleaners were also required to move engines around the depot at times. While at Wallerawang, Chifley was appointed fireman on 5 September 1909. The work of the fireman was hard physical labour but also required considerable skill to ensure the right amount of coal was shovelled into the firebox to provide sufficient steam for the locomotive to operate effectively. Firemen assisted the driver by observing signals and filling the tender with water when needed.


Chifley was promoted to engine driver on 8 July 1913, at the age of 27, and was re-appointed to Bathurst. It is often stated that he was the youngest driver in New South Wales at the time, but this is not supported by biographers Crisp and Day. Even as a driver there were levels of promotion ahead, with senior drivers being given charge of driving express passenger trains. Nevertheless, by becoming a driver Chifley had already achieved a position of considerable status and responsibility.


Engine drivers worked long hours. On occasions they were required to stay overnight in a railway barracks before returning to their home depot. Most of Chifley’s work involved driving goods trains, including wheat and stock trains, which were numerous in the central west region of New South Wales. His employment records indicates that he was warned on several occasions for want of care leading to minor damage, such as breakage of draw gear. Minor incidents happened to many enginemen at times. Chifley was fined a day’s pay for an incident on 18 April 1916 involving the derailment of two sheep vans and two brake vans at points.


1917 Strike

During August and September 1917 there was a general strike throughout the New South Wales railways and tramways, which also spread to other industries and to other states. The strike began after a card system was introduced that measured the time individual workers took to complete tasks at the tramway workshops at Randwick and the carriage workshops at Eveleigh. Workers were concerned that the cards could be used to identify and dismiss slow workers. During the strike Chifley was involved in the negotiations regarding a return to work, but was dismissed on 14 August, along with other strikers.


Following the strike Chifley was not going to be re-employed, but after appealing to the Chief Commissioner he was subsequently re-employed as a fireman. Like many other strikers, Chifley’s re-employment was at a lower grade and at a lower rate of pay. He was placed in the position of working under some men he had previously been senior to, and also under men he had trained. Many railwaymen involved in the strike lost seniority and privileges that were not restored until 1925. There were ongoing tensions between the strikers and those who had remained ‘loyal’ and did not strike. Chifley soon became a driver again, but his experience during the strike and afterwards became a major factor in his determination to enter politics. He was reduced to fireman again for short periods in 1918 and 1919.


Chifley had been actively involved in the Locomotive Engine Drivers’, Firemen’s and Cleaners’ Association, and became a member of the New South Wales general committee of the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen when it was formed in 1920. Between 1917 and 1929 he was a delegate to the State General Committee and was at times a New South Wales delegate to the Federal Conference. He appeared at various industrial tribunals. Chifley also helped to rebuild the railway unions after the harsh impact of the 1917 strike. In September 1925 he was presented with a gold medallion for his railway union service.


Political career

Chifley won the seat of Macquarie at the Federal election held on 17 November 1928 and resigned from the railways. He lost the seat in 1931, but remained active in politics and regained Macquarie in 1940.


In 1941 the Labor party won government and Chifley was given the senior position of Treasurer. In late 1942 he also became Minister for Postwar Reconstruction. He served for some time on the Advisory War Council. Following the death of John Curtin, Chifley became Prime Minister on 13 July 1945.


Achievements of the Chifley Government included:

  • Inauguration the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme

  • Establishment of Trans-Australia Airlines

  • Establishment of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

  • Manufacture of the Australian-made Holden motor car

  • Enlarging the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation

  • Foundation of the Australian National University

  • Extension of social security

  • Improving workplace conditions

  • Providing support for returned soldiers

  • Implementation of an extensive immigration program.


Chifley was a simple man who was committed to improving the lives of others. His logical mind and practical nature won him the respect of many. The Chifley Government was defeated in December 1949 and he then became Opposition Leader.


Ben Chifley died in Canberra on 13 June 1951 and was buried in Bathurst. He had married Elizabeth McKenzie, the daughter of another engine driver, in 1914. They had no children.



Many years after he had left the railways, Chifley recalled how deeply the memories of his work as an engine driver impressed on him: “I used to get a lot of pleasure at night with 14 carriages behind me. There was always something fascinating about the eyes of 14 carriages looking at you round the bends. Sometimes I still have my hand on the throttle. I hear the blow of steam and the hiss of the Westinghouse. Sometimes nowadays people complain to me about the whistles of the engines as they call for a signal. But I never hear them as they do. They are music to me still. I feel that I have kept so close to engine-driving that I could go back to it tomorrow.”


The house where Chifley and his wife lived at 10 Busby St, Bathurst, remains today with furniture dating from when they first moved there in 1914. It is open for guided tours on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays: Chifley Home & Education Centre <>.


A railway museum in Bathurst is currently under development. It will be housed in the former Railway Institute building, where Chifley lectured as a train driving instructor. Also located within the Bathurst railway station precinct is D50 Class steam engine 5112, which it is believed Chifley drove during his service as an engine driver.



‘Australia’s Prime Ministers, Ben Chifley’ <>, accessed 16 June 2018.

Chifley Home & Education Centre <>

Crisp, LF, Ben Chifley: a political biography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1977.

Day, D, Chifley: a life, Harper Perennial, Sydney, 2007.

State Archives & Records, New South Wales, State Rail Authority Records, NRS 12922, Personal history card, ‘Joseph Chifley’.

Waterson, DB ‘Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885–1951)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National

     University <>, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online

     16 June 2018.

Chifley home, where Ben Chifley and his wife lived, 10 Busby St, Bathurst, 15 January 2011.


Plaque commemorating Ben Chifley, Australian Railway Monument, Werris Creek, 20 August 2013.

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