A pocket history of Commonwealth Engineering - Comeng

comeng-front-coverI was recently sent a magnificent book entitled A History of Commonwealth Engineering written by John Dunn published by Rosenberg for review on the site. While reading through the book, I jotted a few notes to make this short pocket history of this interesting and diverse organisation as covered in Volume 1 of the book - 1921 to 1955. This is just a bit of an appetite wetter for John's book.


Covering the progression from 1921 to 1955 this first volume incorporates the early beginnings of as Smith and Waddingtons as luxury motor car body builders. Smith and Waddingtons were located in Camperdown Sydney and known to be one of the best with their bodies often gracing chassis such as Rolls Royce. The arrival of mass produced comparatively cheap cars such as the Ford Model-T forced a change in business for this company. The company made a new beginning with body building for motor buses and an initial foray into railway rolling stock with a small order for rail buses and dabbled briefly in aircraft.

Surviving the depression, the company became known only as Waddingtons and moved to Granville where it commenced its first major railway contracts. During WWII Waddingtons secured war effort works keeping it afloat during difficult years. Supply problems and a cash crisis led to serious financial problems in 1940 with the company living a very tenuous existence. The federal take-over and reorganisation of railways for the war effort lead to huge contracts for Waddingtons to supply rolling stock and aircraft hangers. The company started to spiral down financially until its guarantors threatened to pull out to minimise their losses. The federal government of the day determined that Waddingtons must be saved because of its importantance to the war effort. Special legislation was enacted allowing the Federal Treasurer to buy into the organisation on behalf of the nation. Waddington was given the option of buying back his organisation at the end of the war. The government reorganised the company management and strengthened the accounting and planning processes resolving the immediate crisis. Waddingtons diversified into small ship and pontoon building for the war effort. Waddingtons became a protected industry.

Post war the company supplied RUB car sets and goods waggons to NSWGR, trams and buses for both government and private concerns. This boom of orders significantly boosted the company. In 1946 the federal government bought out Waddingtons' remaining shares as he was unable to meet the terms of the buy-back option. The company began a new life as Commonwealth Engineering and was floated on the stock exchange to allow the staff to buy shares. Post war material and skilled labour shortages continued to plague the company.

Later years saw the introduction of Australia's first significant plastics division - an innovation in the production of railway, tramway and bus bodies. The company built for a wide range of organisations including QR, NSWGR, TAA, TGR, VR including unusual items such as a prison bus and the Royal Train.

By the 1950's QR book orders had increased to the point where it became economic to open the Rocklea plant bear Brisbane in Queensland in 1949. By the end of 1950 Comeng had so many orders for railway items that their plants could not meet demand and some contracts had been outstanding with partial or no delivery since 1944! The Rocklea plant took on considerable steam engine maintenance work for QR in addition to its already full order books. The QR effectively financed the locomotive shops at Rocklea that would later produce diesel locomotives.

Even though life looked rosy with full order books, there were still financial troubles and notable failures. Comeng drove Melbourne car manufacturing firm Hartnett out of business by failing to supply car bodies. Hartnett won a settlement in court, but it did not stop that company failing.

Comeng built the first locally made diesel locomotives for what was then AIS in Port Kembla along with other rolling stock for use in their mill.

During the 1950's there were ups and downs with industrial relations problems that were not easily resolved, supply problems, lack of orders at Granville leading to dismissals and a new plant opening in W.A. at Bassendean to service contracts for railway equipment in that region of the country. In 1954 the Dandenong plant was opened in Victoria to service the Harris Blue Trains contract alongside Martin & King in a consortium. 1954 also saw the first itegral bus design to go to market successfully with the chassis and body built together. The Rocklea plant commenced building diesel locomotives to service the Queensland sugar industry.

Want to know more? Well, you'll just have to buy the book then won't you.