For most of his working life,
Tom was a guard on the railways in Queensland.
Thomas Byrnes (1883-1973)
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This photo has been taken from a home movie, shot in the 1950s by
Thomas's son-in-law Jim Boyle. To see it in the movie, plus a
short sequence of Thomas's wife Lily, click
Thomas, a railway guard for most of his life, was also a keen athlete -
and he wrote about these two facets of his life in a series of
memoirs for the Queensland Times, in the 1950s, after he had
retired from Queensland Railways.
These memoirs have now been transcribed, and can be read by clicking here:
Thomas Byrnes, with 11 children and
more than 50 grandchildren and great-grand-children, was the patriarch
of a large family.
He was born in 1883 in Black Gully,
in the Wilsonton area of north-west Toowoomba where his mother’s family,
the Pobars, lived.
Shortly after his birth, Tom was taken to Brisbane, where his father was
a compositor with the Government Printing Office. He was educated in
Brisbane, first at what was called "the Normal school”,a highly-rated
primary school (in inner Brisbane near the intersection of Edward and
Adelaide streets), and then to a GPS school, St. Joseph’s College at
Gregory Terrace, known to all as “Gregory Terrace” or simply “Terrace” (left).
In later years, Tom recalled that when he was a boy, living with his
parents and young brother James at Kangaroo Point, he was an altar boy
in his local parish. The parish extended for a considerable
distance, and when a new church was opened many miles away at Balmoral,
Tom was called on for the ceremony, and he was invited to accompany the
parish priest in his sulky for the occasion. This church became
the local church for Tom when he retired to Balmoral, some 60 years
In his late teens, Tom continued the family connection with the printing
trade, joining his father at the Government Printing Office as a proof
reader’s assistant, and then working as a “reviser” for the Daily
Mail newspaper, in Brisbane, for more than a year. Next, he went
to Toowoomba, and worked as a book-keeper in his mother’s family’s
butcher shop. In 1907, 23 year old Tom made yet another career
move – this time, one with more long-term prospects. He joined
Queensland Railways in Brisbane as a porter and after three years on the
platforms, became a train guard, at age 27 the youngest guard in
Queensland Railways, according to one newspaper report. For two years, Tom went up and down on
the line from Ipswich to Marburg, after the opening of the line in 1911.
In Marburg, a town composed of settlers of mainly German origin, he met
Lily Dance, the daughter and granddaughter of Marburg farmers who,
coincidentally, also owned and operated a butcher shop. In
reminiscences Tom wrote more than 40 years later for a local newspaper,
he recalled that “Marburg was a busy little farming centre.
There were two hotels, a butter factory, a police station with a
sergeant in charge and a constable, a dance hall, showground and a good
in his railway guard uniform, sitting on cow catcher (far right) on the
first train to Marburg, 18 December 1911.
These memoirs are quite remarkable – written as they were in 1952, when
Tom was nearly 70 years of age. They show an amazing memory for
detail of life, work and sport before and after two World Wars. He was paid a total of £3/13/6 for the series
of seven articles.
Life must have been busy then – as well as working long hours with many
days away from home, courting Lily when the train took him to Marburg,
he was elected as a union branch secretary, a position he held for two
years before he was transferred to Boonah.
The construction of the Marburg line, which was so instrumental in the
courtship of Tom and Lily had been built after a financial guarantee by
the farmers of the Marburg district, including presumably Lily’s father,
Bill Dance, a prominent local farmer and businessman. At that
time, the principal cargo for the line was sugar cane; the line was
built to connect with a private line to a sugar mill.
In 1913, Tom and Lily married in St. Mary’s Church in Ipswich.
After the wedding, Tom and Lily lived at Woodend in Ipswich, then moved
to the nearby township of Boonah, before settling in the mid 1920s
for most of their married life at 19 Kendall Street, East Ipswich. The
house was probably bought or built with part of the proceeds of Lily’s
bequest from her father, who died in 1924, and as a result, the house
remained in Lily’s name.
Tom and Lily on their wedding day in
The life of a train guard was vastly different then, with many days and
nights away from home. Tom recalled that the accommodation for
railwaymen in Toowoomba was very good, large and well-equipped, near the
station. He wrote:
“In the large kitchen were always two
stoves burning night and day, and each bedroom had two beds.
Those days the men worked in real harmony with one another and some
good tales were told while having midnight meals.”.
Tom was a very strong man, fond of athletics, and represented Queensland
in marathon running and later in long distance walking races. "Dad
also liked a bet on the horses, but couldn’t afford this until all the
children had grown up," his son Peter said.
Thomas reserved the right for himself to name all his children.
Towards the end of the line of 11 children, it sometimes took him a long
time to decide on the name - some, such as his son Peter, had to make do
with only one Christian name.
the time came to name the youngest child, a girl, Tom delayed making up
his mind, much to the despair of his wife, who remonstrated with him
that he had only one month after the birth to register the child,
complete with name. “I know, Lil, I know,” he would say to her urgings,
“I’m still thinking about it”.
Finally, 30 days after her birth, Clare was named and her birth
registered by her father.
(far left): First Communion day for daughters Teresa and Clare.
(left): Tom and five of his daughters, in their Sunday best.
During the years of World War 1,
Tom continued his interest in athletics. When a club was formed in
Boonah he set about preparing for serious competition. Before
that, he had been an active member of the champion East Brisbane
Harriers’ Club, but now, in 1920, he was invited to compete in the first
South Australian marathon championships.
Middle age didn’t stop Tom making what were then lengthy journeys to
compete in his favourite sport. In 1926, he was invited, as the
only Queenslander, to take part in the first 50-mile walking
championship held in Sydney. The field started from Martin Place,
in the centre of the city, winding its way out to Upper Bankstown, and
return. He returned for a second attempt at this race in 1928,
coming in sixth.
From Sun Sporting Pictorial, Brisbane, November 21, 1929:
A rift developed between Tom and his mother Grace (Pobar) in the
1930s. Son Peter said his father wasn’t certain what caused it –
although he believed it may have been that his mother disapproved of his
marriage to a farmer’s daughter, but whatever the cause, Tom was very
grieved by it. The family recalls two of Tom's cousins replaced him in his mother’s affections, and,
after the death of his father James in 1932, he wasn’t able to see her
without one of them being present.
Tom was not told of his mother's death until after her funeral.
Peter said it was a very hard day for his father when he heard his
mother had already been buried. Grace's will did in fact
disinherit Thomas completely in favour of her two nieces, while
providing £100 for his brother James.
of Thomas and Lily Byrnes at their home in East Ipswich, 1941 (shortly
before their son Peter left Queensland to study at Sydney University).
Back row, from left: Joan, Peter, Frank, Tom and Kathleen
Centre: Margaret and Eileen
Front: Teresa, Mary, Thomas & Lily, Grace and C
(left): Thomas with the family's cow, outside the house in
Kendall Street, East Ipswich.
His wife Lily was a farmer's daughter, and milked the cow to provide
milk for their large family. Middle son Frank also helped with the daily
task of milking.
with his grandchildren, Peter and Mary Byrnes, at his East Ipswich
Tom retired from the railways on New Years Eve, 1949 – but some few
years before that, he featured in the rescue of a woman who had fallen
from the station platform just as a train arrived. To the everlasting
gratitude of the woman, Tom’s swift reaction scooped her from danger,
with only shock, a bruised hip and grazing to show for it. The
woman, Nora Long, of East Brisbane, wrote to Tom, thanking him and
enclosing a lottery ticket, regretting that it was all she had to offer
him. Mrs Long said “I thought my days were numbered”.
After Tom retired from the railways, the couple left Ipswich and moved
to the Brisbane suburb of Balmoral.
(left): The house at 38 Alexandra Street, Balmoral.
In his retirement, Tom spoke up about animal cruelty on the trains
transporting animals. in 1953, Brisbane's Truth newspaper
launched a campaign against electric batteries being used to control
cattle on the freight trains. Tom was quoted as saying:
If a jockey on a racecourse uses a battery, he is sent out for life, yet
the racecourse battery is only a miniature, compared to the battery in
use by drovers on stock trains.
Thomas outlived his wife Lily
by 15 years, and after her death, continued living in Balmoral with his
youngest daughter Clare and her husband Pat Dugger. Clare and Pat
had already declared that Tom would have a home with them as long as he
lived. So, when the young Dugger family moved a short distance
away, Thomas went with them and lived with his daughter's family until
his death in 1973.
 Queensland Times, October
3, 11,18, 24 and 31, (1952)
 Gladys Helen Pobar and
Veronica Margaret Pobar (the daughters of Grace’s brother Thomas
 However, the estate did not
have sufficient funds left to provide the full £100. It’s believed the
Kangaroo Point house had been assigned before Grace's death to the
Pobar girls. (James did divide the amount he received with Tom).