On February 4 1908, Australian military officials approved a site at the coal mining town of Lithgow in New South Wales for a small arms factory. The fact that coal could be delivered to the site very cheaply was an important factor in the choice.
With the outbreak of World War I the factory became an increasingly important (and sensitive) site. Sentries were positioned around the perimeter and at one point they became aware of mysterious lights. Patrols were sent out, but frustratingly, the source could never be identified. In the end management approached the local paper and published what we would now regard as a very politically incorrect warning;
The khaki-clad sentries have decided to shoot at the lights on their next visitation. If it is the work of practical jokers they may be sorry for their pranks, as a bullet in the neck is a difficult load to carry away.
Not everyone had confidence in the guns made at Lithgow. It was rumoured that 50% of them would not shoot straight. This gave rise to a poem, with the last verse reading;
And the young Australian soldier the enemy attacks,
Will get it where the chicken got the dirty little axe;
We’ll carve upon his monument how gallantly he died,
While his crazy Lithgow rifle lay useless by his side.
THE KNIVES ARE OUT!
As the war came to an end the factory ended up with an abundance of stock, and not much work for employees. We all know the saying, ‘The devil makes work for idle hands….’ In this case the work was very interesting indeed. The first inkling about a clandestine industry came when an ultra-patriotic Melbourne storekeeper placed this advertisement in his window;
The advertisement created quite a bit of interest. Aussie householders were more used to buying such utensils from Great Britain.
Melbourne was considered too far away for the sets to be traced back to their illicit origins, but maybe Tasmania would have been safer. It didn’t take much for someone to put two and two together and come up with ……The Lithgow Small Arms Factory! It turned out that the carving sets had been made by a syndicate of employees with filched bayonet steel. The wood for the handles came from the rifles the bayonets were meant to be attached to.
Police went on a round of employees’ homes armed with search warrants. However, word had got around and not a single, gun based carving implement was discovered.
A local man was fishing in the nearby lake at the time and pulled up what he thought must have been a weighty fish. When he realized it was a ‘hot’ carving knife he hastily threw it back.
Investigations continued and eventually several men were arrested. They were fined £5 each…..and sacked.
The carving set pictured below was donated to the factory’s museum relatively recently, by a lady from Bathurst. She said it had been in her family for as long as she could remember. Despite hearing many rumours about the existence of such sets it was the first ever seen by the museum’s custodians. The pieces look sturdy enough to last forever, so there are no doubt many more lurking about. I must say the screws in the handles have a slight hint of the amateur.
MURDER MOST FOUL AT LITHGOW?
In the summer of 1926 the Small Arms Factory was in the news again. It appeared that a love triangle had led to murder;
This story gained credence when local residents claimed to have heard a gunshot on the night in question. However, just as it seemed the building may have to come down there was a breakthrough.
Police had not been convinced by the story and they searched the country for the two men and the woman mentioned by the prisoner. Finally, all three were located. The so called ‘victim’ was brought to Parramatta Gaol to confront the informant, who then declared he had nothing more to say. Apparently his motive had been to have his sentence reduced for providing police with information relating to a crime.
OLYMPIC FAME IN A FLASH!
By the way, one of the workers at the factory moonlighted as an athletics coach. His name was Jim Monaghan and in 1945 he began training a local typist by the name of Marjorie Jackson. As a sprinter, Marjorie went on to win two Olympic gold medals for Australia at Helsinki, and seven Commonwealth Games gold medals. She became known as The Lithgow Flash.
I highly recommend a visit to the Small Arms Factory Museum. It’s a fascinating place. Here are the details. My sincere thanks to custodian Donna White for photographs and information used in this piece. Also included is information from Tony Griffiths’ book, Lithgow Small Arms Factory and its People.
If you or your family have stories and memories of the Small Arms Factory, the museum would be delighted to hear from you.
Here is a final mystery. Dear readers, your challenge is to guess who it is.
COMMENTS ARE ALWAYS WELCOME. DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’.
UPDATE – A lot of additional information is included in the comments below, especially from custodian of the Museum, Donna White.