On Watch

On Watch is the official magazine of AIMPE.

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Long-term Sydney Branch member Greg Primrose (ex-delegate Port Kembla tugs and prior to that with the CSR company) made a surprise visit to Head Office in Surry Hills in August. Greg had a suitcase in hand but he was not departing on a major overseas trip.

The suitcase was full of what will be known from now on as the J M Snowdon Collection.

When Greg unpacked the suitcase in the Boardroom it included a treasure trove collected by his Grandfather John M. Snowdon during his 57 years of membership of the AIMPE. Among the collection was the Australasian Institution of Marine Engineers Sydney District’s copy of the First Annual Report dated 1881. Leather bound and gold embossed. A little dusty for sure but a real beauty for all the history that it encapsulates.

Greg Primrose donated the JM Snowdon Collection

Several other bound volumes of the Annual Reports accompanied this gem along with decades of unbound Annual Reports acquired by a man who was born the son of one of the pioneers of the Institute.

R M Snowdon [Greg Primrose’s great grandfather] joined the infant organisation in 1883 and at the time was in possession of a Class 2 Certificate of Competency and was serving on a steamship called “Gunga”. It was an eventful year for Ralph Snowdon apart from the trips to Fiji, there was an incident of some concern that year because of a suspected outbreak of smallpox. A Fijian passenger on the “Gunga” was suspected on having contracted the disease and the ship, its crew and passengers were placed in quarantine. The NSW Parliament conducted a major inquiry. Telegrams were flying backwards and forwards from the Colonial Government to the Chief Medical Officer in Fiji. From the Health Officer to the Australasian Steam Navigation Company. From the Health Officer to the Superintendent of the Quarantine Station.  The passenger was removed to the hospital at Little Bay and his condition closely monitored. All documents and report were ordered to be published by the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales. The index of the items published lists 147 documents written between 26th August 1882 and 2nd October 1882. All the items were published by the Parliament such was the interest in this matter – heightened by the fact that at least some of the quarantine persons made an unauthorised visit to the “village of Manly” whilst they were under quarantine.

It seems that there was a real scare and the authorities took every step to make sure that there was no outbreak in Sydney. In the end, the medical authorities concluded that the illness was just a bad case of chicken pox.

Despite the smallpox scare on the “Gunga” in 1883, R M Snowdon continued with the Institute and remained at sea for forty years. In 1923 aged 66 and still serving in the intercolonial trade as Chief Engineer of the small steamship “Inga”, he died of natural causes.

His son J M Snowdon by this time was ashore working for the Texas Oil company after a stint at Cockatoo Dockyard. During this period J M Snowdon became increasingly involved in the affairs of the Sydney District of the Institute. He seems to have been a bit of a bower bird collecting multiple copies of Annual Reports and other publications of the Institute.The Tailshaft

As well as the Annual Reports, there were copies of the original magazine of the AIMPE – The Tailshaft. The Tailshaft was a booklet sized quarterly magazine which was first published by the Newcastle Branch of the AIMPE in May 1948. J M Snowdon collected a copy of that first edition and the second edition and so on. G.H. Varley Pty Ltd advertised on page one of the first edition and were consistent supporters of the magazine offering their services as Electric and Oxy-Acetylene elders, Coppersmiths, Blacksmiths, Boilermakers, Brassfounders, Plumbers etc. To contact Varley’s, you were asked to telephone B 2484.

During this period J M Snowdon was the Federal Treasurer of the AIMPE – a position that he remained in until the year of his death – 1966.

The Tailshaft continued up until 1957 when the On Watch was established as a magazine for the whole of the AIMPE. The form, layout and content of the first edition of the On Watch owed a lot to the style which The Tailshaft developed over its 10 years of publication. It also owed much to the fact that Jim Noon was a founding editor of both publications. (Noon started The Tailshaft soon after becoming Secretary of the Newcastle District.)

One of the advertisers in the first edition of On Watch was Ralph M. Snowdon – no doubt encouraged by his brother John and with a nod of remembrance to their father of the same name. Ralph M. Snowdon’s business was located at 110 Sussex Street Sydney when Darling Harbour was a hive of shipping activity. He advertised Ship and Industrial Plumber and Coppersmith, Sheet Metal Worker and General Pipe Engineer. Telephone BX 2293.

The J M Snowdon Collection now rests on the bookshelves in the boardroom of the AIMPE Head Office in Surry Hills bearing testament to the life of the collector, his family, his workmates and his comrades in the Institute.

Thanks to Greg Primrose for making sure this historic collection came to its most appropriate repository.


Martin Byrne

Federal Secretary