Regarded as one of the most scenic roads in the world, the Great Ocean Road was constructed following the end of World War I by workers, the majority of whom were returned servicemen. Iain Grant of the Portland Family History Group was asked by a friend if he knew how to find information about ex-servicemen who worked on the road. This has proved to be difficult. Regional Historical Societies, combined with stories from descendants have provided 327 names of workers, although some 3,000 men were employed. Of these about 600 were civilians employed by bodies such as the Great Ocean Road Trust (GOR) and the Country Roads Board (CRB).
The concept of having a coastal road goes back to the 1870's when contact between farms and towns was confined to very rough tracks or by sea going vessels. Survey work began in 1910 but it was not until the CRB, led by William Calder, became interested, that the GOR Trust was formed at a meeting in Colac on 22 March 1918. Minutes of the GOR Trust meetings are held by the Public Record Office in Melbourne. However, these records are not concerned with the men working on the road.
The GOR Trust headquarters were moved from Geelong to East Melbourne where the Managing Director, C. R. Herschell, had his offices. Herschell was a documentary film pioneer who is famous for the 'Rose' series of postcards. During World War II, a huge number of newsreels were produced, and as these took up a lot of storage space, the GOR files were destroyed.
The CRB supplied Surveyors, Engineers and Planners and it may be that some records of these people exist, but the files are apparently not easily accessibile.
Under the direction of Warrant Officer Jack Hassett, surveyors started marking out the road. Following behind them were men who hacked out a narrow foothold like a bridle path. Iain showed photos of men on steep slopes, tethered by ropes to trees, so they wouldn't fall. The initial path was gradually widened using crow bar, pick and shovel. Unwanted material was pushed down the slopes. When the track was a bit wider, wooden wheelbarrows with iron wheels were used to remove rubbish and then later horses pulling wooden or steel scrapers removed waste. Wooden sleds were also used. Gelignite and dynamite were used to break up solid rock and these materials were brought from the Deans Marsh Railway Station by coach. The driver carried the detonators in his shirt pocket for safety reasons!
The road when finished was only 8 feet wide, necessitating a one way system of travel at particular times of the day. Initially it was not properly gravelled and it became rutted and impassable in the wet.
Conditions working on the road were very tough. Author Peter Alsop has overseer's lists which provide an insight into the working conditions which caused some men to quit: too hard, too wet, too dangerous, too far from family, poor pay. However the men were paid 10 shillings a day, which was above average wages. The men were well fed, but the food was probably monotonous with a boiled leg of mutton providing meals for a week. Local farmers who worked on the road sometimes provided some fresh bread and vegetables. Cooks in the camps changed frequently.
Serried rows of ex-army tents were set up at various places, such as Stoney Point, Big Hill and Grassy Creek. The Salvation Army encouraged card nights, singing, reading, and discussion groups. The names of a few 'Salvo' officers who helped fight for the rights of the workers are known. Fishing, swimming, hiking and rabbiting were other pursuits which helped to occupy spare time and to keep up morale, family picnics at the camps were often held.
On 18 March 1922, the section of the road between Lorne and Eastern View was opened. Toll booths installed on 21 December 1922 helped to pay for the remainder of the road which was opened many years later, on 26 November 1932.
Finding out the names of all the workers on this wonderful road seems a worthwhile project and would certainly round off its history.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow ( PPPG Member No. 1057 )
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