The Lithgow Small Arms Factory is one of the main tourist attractions in Lithgow. Other local museums and historical sites were higher on my list and it took me a while to visit the factory. But my assumption that it would be of minimal interest was far from the reality. It is an intriguing place with a fascinating history.
The museum is in the former administration building, built in 1961. The ground floor has displays on production, processes and fire power. Industrial evolution and the Hayes handgun gallery are located on the first floor. There is an extensive collection of the guns, armaments and other items produced here. Special attention is paid to the social history of the factory as it was the major town employer for decades. Parts of the site are still in use, but much is in a state of decay.
There had been various proposals for an Australian arsenal leading up to Federation in 1901. Possible sites included Lithgow and Ballarat in Victoria. Lithgow was the final choice in 1909. Various factors including location, cheap coal and steel production played a part in its selection.
The successful tender for the plant was by Pratt and Whitney, an American company. They were experts in repetitive manufacturing procedures with a guaranteed manufacturing time. The factory opened in June 1912 and employed 190 people. It had its own forge shop, tool room and powerhouse.
Shiftwork was introduced during World War I to cope with increased demand. More buildings were required for extra machinery. Staffing levels increased to 1300 in 1915/16. After the war, the workforce reduced. By the early 1930s, it was down to about 250 people.
Between the wars, the factory took on commercial work. There was some resistance but it kept staff employed. Products included shearing handsets, handcuffs and sewing machines. There was periodic reorganisation to produce new weapons, such as light machine guns.
Production levels picked up again during World War II. Demand was so great that smaller ‘feeder’ factories were established. Bathurst and Orange were the larger sites with other plants located across the central west. Across the sites, there were 12,000 employees producing 4,000 rifles, 150 Bren guns and 70 Vickers Guns per week. Staffing levels waxed and waned over the decades following World War II. In 1988 the factory was corporatised. By 1996, there were 120 staff on the sprawling factory site.
There is an excellent two-volume history of the site by Tony Griffiths. It provides insights into the significance of the factory for the people of Lithgow:
For its Workforce, especially those families who lived permanently in Lithgow, the factory was frequently much more than just a job – it was their gateway to a life richer than offered by Lithgow’s traditional, coarser industries. There are men aplenty, and quite a few women, who put in their entire working lives there, as perhaps did their fathers, their mothers and even their grandfathers, and as many confidently expected their children would do also. (Lithgow’s Small Arms Factory and it’s People, page xviii)
Throughout the museum there are many personal stories of connection to the factory. Photos of factory floors filled with people help to provide a sense of what the place was like. Artworks by Heliodore (Dore) Hawthorne provide another perspective. Small touches include wooden stools: there were hundreds of them, but workers personalised them. There are also old signs from the factory as well as posters from the war years.
The Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum has an excellent website with an overview of the site. The legacy of the factory continues in many ways. Lithgow streets named for military weapons made at the site include Bayonet Street, Enfield and Ordnance Avenue. There are also streets named for metallurgy (Cupro, Calero and Ferro Street). Others record key personnel at the factory (Finlay Avenue, Wrights Road).
A visit to this museum provided a deeper understanding of the impact that this factory has had on the town of Lithgow.
Have you discovered a new perspective on something recently?
[Photo: front of the old administration building, now the museum]