Bus shelter in Macquarie Road, Springwood, with mural depicting ‘The Fish’, 2 May 2010.
The Fish, hauled by a 36 class locomotive featuring smoke deflectors, heading west across Knapsack viaduct, between Emu Plains and Lapstone. Photo: Blue Mountains City Council Image Library HS0316
Social Club on Wheels
26 April 2023
A Blue Mountains commuter train popularly named The Fish has operated since 1880. Before this time the name was used to refer to a service between Sydney and Penrith from the mid 1860s. During its heyday from the 1930s to the late 1950s The Fish was like a social club on wheels for many of its passengers.
The character of The Fish was quite special among train services. Some commuters caught the train for many years and established firm friendships with other regular passengers. It had the reputation of being like a social club on wheels. There was a community spirit on board the train, with card games and other activities taking place regularly. Many passengers had a permanent seat reservation on both the morning and evening service. Other passengers without reservations would have to find whatever empty seats were available. Compartments were close groups and there was rivalry between the different sections of the train. Different compartments developed different interests: one had a political atmosphere; in another, presided over by a retired army major, the playing of bridge became so strongly contested that it had a waiting list for passengers, even when there were vacancies in adjoining compartments.
A coach captain was elected in each carriage of The Fish. Part of their responsibility was to report defects and anything that required attention to railway officials. Specially printed certificates were at times presented to certain passengers for faithful service to “The Fish Train Social Club.” Each morning and evening the conductor would take a roll call, marking off the names of those people entitled to use a booked seat who were actually on the train. A passenger absent for a period of time ran the risk of having their permanent seat booking cancelled. Reserved seats on The Fish were a prize not easily come by, particularly those next to the window. Once they were obtained, they would be guarded carefully until surrendered.
Bede Lonergan, a passenger who travelled regularly on The Fish from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s described some of the social aspects of life on the train:
If a stranger came into your midst he usually got the freeze treatment, or was ostracised in some other way. You just didn’t brook any outsiders invading your territory. Everybody used to look after their carriage. If you got in and there was some stranger sitting there, you’d inform him the carriage was fully reserved, and if he didn’t move you’d get the guard and have him put off the train or found another seat. If you were still waiting to receive your seat reservation, you got on at the end of the train and walked through. If you found a vacant seat, you asked if it was occupied and then you asked if the others in the compartment would mind if you sat in it. Sometimes you were refused.
If you were misguided enough to name your birthday, the whole carriage would turn on a birthday party – this was one of the few times the guard turned a blind eye to liquor on the train, though 90 percent of the time he was invited to the party anyway. Everybody brought something. The girls brought sandwiches and cakes, usually from the Railway Refreshment Rooms on Central, and the men would bring something to drink. There would be beer for the men and brandy or gin for the girls; we drew lots for who would buy the gin. The birthday cake was always a cupcake with a candle and they would decorate the compartment or carriage with streamers or balloons.
Attempts to socialise outside of one’s own compartment frequently met with a somewhat frosty reception. There were exceptions at Christmas and Easter when parties were held and most of the passengers joined in. Carols were sung under the guidance of musical enthusiasts. Many public servants travelled on The Fish and they would take it upon themselves to decorate the outside of the train from the engine backwards with streamers and balloons. These celebrations only occurred on the evening services because most people did not feel like celebrating in the morning and couldn’t arrive at work after drinking. Parties would begin with the train’s departure from Sydney and continue until people got off at their various stations.
The driver and fireman frequently wore party hats. Bede Lonergan tells more of the story:
With engine crew decked in silly party hats and streamers and balloons trailing form the train, the grog flowed freely to Mount Victoria. It was a real slap up party at Christmas and Easter. I doubt half of them knew where their seats were by Strathfield; they fraternised throughout the train. Someone would go up to the engine with a few grogs for the crew and the trip would take hours longer than usual.
At Springwood, the bus driver who normally met the train knew it would be hours late and he usually waited the extra hours. Some of the other commuters used to snatch a bottle for him. As it happened, it always fell to my lot to make sure that those who normally got off at Springwood still did on those occasions.
The buffet on the train provided various refreshments for passengers. Many commuters in the morning relied upon a breakfast of tea and toast purchased on board. A hostess would also walk through the train selling ice creams and other sweets. Interest was taken in the welfare of the buffet attendant, usually a youth dressed in a spotless white coat. If they transferred or left the service, gifts and an enthusiastic send off were usually provided. At one stage a romance blossomed between the ice cream girl and one of the passengers. There was a party on board the train after they announced their engagement. When the train made its regular stop at Valley Heights to attach a bank engine, passengers spilled out on to the platform to present the happy couple with a wedding gift.
A regular passenger on The Fish for a number of years around the late 1940s was known by other passengers as the ‘pyjama man’. Each morning he boarded the train at Springwood wearing pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers, with a suit draped over his shoulder. Upon arrival in his compartment he would remove shaving brush, shoes, collar and comb from a brief case, head to the toilet for a quick scrub and shave, then be back in his seat before the train arrived at Penrith. A breakfast of poached eggs on toast and tea was taken with never a drop spilled between the buffet and his compartment. After breakfast was finished, with pyjamas packed neatly in his brief case, the ‘pyjama man’ would take out a copy of The Sydney Morning Herald and quietly blend in with the other business travellers on the train. Although he was a topic of conversation among regular passengers, only a few ever engaged him in conversation or knew his name.
Jack Lewis, who worked as a guard on The Fish from 1914 to 1923, noted that a small number of passengers travelled the complete journey from Mount Victoria to Sydney and return each day, but many more joined the train at Katoomba. Nearly all of the passengers were regulars who used the same compartment every day. Jack Lewis described another passenger on the train:
Mr Pitt travelled on this train for over 40 years and was a real figure. Everybody knew him with his cap and bag, and each morning he would walk across the bridge at Wentworth Falls with his watch in his hand, saying jocularly, ‘Half a minute to go.’
Many passengers travelled daily on the train for a long period of time, including some for several decades. Regular commuters were often on first name basis with a large number of other fellow passengers. There was a great camaraderie among the passengers on board the train. Families grew up on The Fish and different generations would travel together. Businessmen and public servants were regular commuters on the train, and some interesting characters were identifiable. People took pride in being on The Fish, with some viewing it as a kind of status symbol. The social aspects of travel became a major part of passengers’ lives because they spent so many hours together on the train.
Low, J 1991, Pictorial memories: Blue Mountains, Atrand, Sydney.
‘The decline of ‘The Fish’’, Blue Mountains Gazette, 21 January 1976.
‘The social club on wheels’, Blue Mountains Gazette, 22 July 1987, p. 46.
Yapp, G, 1989, ‘Notes on ‘The Fish’’, Springwood Historical Society Bulletin, no. 66, pp. 6-7.
Ticket issued to G. Phillips for permanent seat reservation on ‘The Fish’ in 1947. Photo: Blue Mountains City Library Local Studies Collection.
Signatures of the ‘The Fish’ commuters travelling on its last steam-hauled trip from Sydney, 4 March 1957. Blue Mountains City Council Image Library 000283A.