Union Jack

Dale Lorna Jacobsen

I never knew my grandfather; he died too young and long before I was born. Details of his life were sketchy: he had migrated from the coalfields of Wales as a young man; had taken his bride to live in a navvy camp on the Mary Valley branchline; he held a position of importance in a railway union.

Determined to fill in the blank canvas that was Jack O’Leary, I trawled through nearly a century of records at the Rail, Tram and Bus Union in Brisbane. A fascinating tale of political intrigue emerged that reached to the very top of the Australian government.

My grandfather and his union – the Australian Railways Union (forerunner of the RTBU) – had, by remaining true to their ideology, played a major role in bringing corrupt politicans to account, an action that deeply affected Jack’s life and his family.

As I began documenting Jack’s story, drawing on crumbling newspapers and bound minute books – each page, recorded in copperplate handwriting, signed by Jack – the characters jostled one another to leap into life. I needed to loosen my grip on the recorded facts and set these characters free to tell their own story. My role would be to ensure they told their tales truthfully.