A walk through Richmond markets leads to a chance finding of a public history flavour…

A chance encounter and a chance to reflect

Wandering through Richmond Markets on a crisp winter morning, keep-cup in hand and eyes drifting between bagels, relishes and crochet mittens, I stumbled across a locomotive-enthusiast’s goldmine: a stall manned by a gentleman selling what looked like (and were indeed) photograph books of Australian regional railways. After talking, I realised the gentleman was one of the two author-photographer brothers: Robert and Bruce Wheatley and, not only were these books with images of trains (how naïve of me to think it was just so), but books with portraits of trains. Beautifully presenting the locomotives in striking black and white, Railway Portraits (a volume of five) send you back to a past age, where steam powered the Australian countryside and the Nation. Not only do they capture the energy and essence of this mode of transport (one favoured by the Royals during their many tours of this country), but also that of the age and the people it enriched: the workers, the drivers, the mechanics, the lot. Don’t just take it from me either. As one appraiser says: “Robert and Bruce did things a little differently, focusing instead on the operation of the railway and the men who worked it”, noting that “[t]he books really catch the soul of the railway”.

This event and these works, for me, illuminate the beauty of community public history. The visual histories fashioned by enthusiasts, nay specialists, such as the Wheatley brothers can provide a glimpse into ages gone (especially for a young fellow like me) and allow access to these times in ways some scholarship does not (but can mind you). My finding of these books in a weekend market — a regional Aussie staple of life — is testament to their production by and for the community. In this particular instance, for people of a town with a rich rail-history. Public history in action I say.

a photo of a man behind a market stall holding a photographic book. the front of the stall reads railways portraits, and atop the stall are several piles of coloured books with images of trains in black and white. behind the man sits a rectangular banner with a larger black and white image of a locomotive
The stall and gentleman in question at Richmond Markets, and the books in all their glory. Image: Ewan, Public Domain.

Railway Portraits

If you want to get yourselves one of the five volumes (or the whole set), you sure can. One could even, I’m sure, ask their library to buy the set. Several purchasing deals are offered: $55 for 1, $90 for 2, $130 for 3, $170 for 4 and all 5 for $200. Please email [email protected], contact (02) 4757 3570, or, better yet, pop down to the markets and have a yarn as well. Trust me, it will be worth it.