A Hydro Girl at Heart

Hydro Tasmania has shaped the Australian state’s industry, economy and community for generations. The company’s boom years brought thousands of workers and their families to Tasmania, intertwining Hydro Tasmania’s own history with those of the “Hydro People.”

By Jane Crosswell

Twenty-two years is a long time to work somewhere. You could say that I grew up with Hydro Tasmania in my blood.

My father, Geoff Apted, worked on construction of Meadowbank Dam [on the River Derwent, this dam impounds water for a 41.8 MW hydro powerhouse] in the late 1960s. As a family, we moved to Strathgordon [the village built to construct the 432 MW Gordon power station] when I was 3 years old, and I went to primary school at Strathgordon.

I remember my father coming home from work and telling us about the strange foods many of the migrants [who arrived during and after WWII] would bring in their lunch boxes. We were fascinated that someone could eat whole chilies or black pudding for lunch! These were things we had never even seen at our dinner table.

I grew up in Hydro Tasmania villages and, like my brothers and sister, went to work for Hydro Tasmania straight out of school. So as you can imagine, I witnessed a lot of change.

I commenced my work career at the Tullah office aged 15 years as what was known as a “nipper.” I earned $1.50 per hour – washing cars, making tea and washing floors. My favorite task was taking the rain gauge readings each morning. I felt very important as I had to take the reading at precisely 9 a.m. each morning and report the levels to Head Office for passing on to the weather bureau.

You could say I have been a bit of a trailblazer. I’ve had quite a series of firsts in hydro. I was the first girl to work at Stringers Creek (now the site of Reece Dam) and I remained the only female for some time. There were no female engineers around in those days. I worked there until the Zeehan bushfires went through the site and burned down the only female toilet on site. I couldn’t go back until they built a new one, so we ended up with what was probably to first unisex toilet on the West Coast. It made for some interesting encounters!

When I later moved into the office environment in the Accounts section at Tullah, I was the first person to operate an electric typewriter in the office. We only had one!

And at the tender age of 17, I was acting Paymaster for three months during the height of the West Coast Construction era. There were more than 2,000 people on the payroll and we paid everyone in cash. I remember the day I was given the combination to the huge bank safe. Again, I felt very important and responsible!

They were more innocent times back then. We worked hard (nothing compared to the effort we would put in now of course). I remember that in the pay office at Tullah, our first task each morning was to complete the Advocate newspaper’s crossword as a team! We mucked around a lot and created our own fun. Some of the practical jokes we played would probably get us fired today – but it was all harmless and a typical part of Hydro village life. We were very insulated.

Increasing demands for power during Tasmania’s post-World War II boom gave rise to a number of Hydro Tasmania company towns, established to house workers and their families. At its peak, the utility employed more than 5,200 “Hydro People.”
Increasing demands for power during Tasmania’s post-World War II boom gave rise to a number of Hydro Tasmania company towns, established to house workers and their families. At its peak, the utility employed more than 5,200 “Hydro People.”

I was in the first group of girls who applied for an apprenticeship with Hydro. There were three of us and we were not accepted into the program. I don’t think the organization was ready for us to be rolling our sleeves up with the boys just yet, so they didn’t know what to do with us.

I was working on the West Coast at the height of the Franklin Dam debate – a time I remember as volatile and unsettling. We were introduced to a new breed of people, commonly known as tree-huggers or “greenies.” They did everything they could to stop our progress, and at the time it caused a lot of division in the community.

In later years, I became friends with one of those original greenies and learned he was proud to have been one of the protestors who had travelled down from Sunbury in Victoria, chained himself to a bulldozer and been arrested for what he believed in. The high court decision not to build the Gordon River below the Franklin scheme changed many people’s lives and signaled an end to those heady construction days – something that at that time, we never thought would end. Although we didn’t agree with the greenies, they increased our awareness of the importance of preserving the environment and being sustainable.

Life moved on and after a year in the Queenstown Distribution Branch office, I served a short stint in the Burnie Customer Service area, where I was to take on a role as relief clerk for the North West Coast. This involved travelling to regional depots relieving people who had taken annual leave and included work at Devonport, Deloraine, Ulverstone, Wynyard and a six week posting at Smithton depot.

I guess it was romance that made me move to the thriving metropolis of Hobart to work in 1991. There, my series of firsts continued. I was the first female to ever work in the MHP office in Davey Street, a group of 35 engineers. Like others before them, I’m not sure they knew what to do with me there either!

On only my third day in the office, one of our technical officers said, “C’mon girly. I’ll take you out in the field and show you what we really do!” He took me to Trevallyn Power station to assist him with magnetic particle testing to test for cracks and imperfections in the machine runners. I was a bit daunted when he asked me to crawl through a small hole in the side of the machine to take us underneath the runner, where our work occurred. It was a bit scary but such a great experience. There were plenty of those at Hydro.

Not one to settle for simple office work, I got involved in carrying out oil filtration work to test for particles in the governor oil. I even went to Sydney to complete a two-day course on oil filtration. It wasn’t really part of my role. I just had a penchant for getting involved in the more non-traditional things, and at one stage a couple of the guys thought it would be fun to call me the Chief Lubricating Officer! Thank goodness that one didn’t last.

It was a wonderful time. We were a social group and great friends both inside and outside of work. We worked hard and played pretty hard as well! Those who were around at that time will remember the wonderful Bob Moore who was our boss and mentor. Bob always encouraged us to strive for excellence and to step outside of our comfort zone, and when I decided I needed a career change, he was a great supporter.

Due to some unexpected circumstances, my life took a different path and I went off to explore the world outside of Hydro for a while.

It wasn’t long though before I found my way back. I swore it was only temporary while I found something better. Strangely enough, my series of firsts continued. I became the first person to work as the support officer for Business Development, helped to set up the first Basslink office, and went on to become the first person to have a role solely dedicated to marketing in the Consulting Business. Finally, I moved into the Public Relations Team into a newly created role that took me to the end of my tenure with Hydro. The temporary turned into eight more great years.

There have been many highlights of my years with Hydro Tasmania, but ones I particularly remember include:

  • Representing Hydro Tasmania at the World Renewable Energy Conference in Germany in 2001;
  • Establishing a fundraising program in 2001 that saw many senior managers shave their heads and employees raise $12,000 to see them do it;
  • Working with the Communications Improvement Team;
  • Building a team of recycling champions and introducing a widespread recycling program;
  • Managing many corporate events, including the groundbreaking event to kick off the Cathedral Rocks Wind Farm;
  • Implementing the Corporate Blood Donation Program;
  • Serving as master of ceremonies for Hydro’s annual meetings;
  • Managing the HPEE Conference in Tasmania that saw Hydro Tasmania showcased to 106 delegates from across the world; and
  • Being part of the original Values Facilitation team. This was life-changing for me. We shared a special time and were privileged to be involved in such a leading-edge program.

I was also able to help Hydro win a number of awards, including:

  • The 2001 Export Award for our Consulting Services;
  • The Sport & Recreation Partnership award for our association with Junior Surf Lifesaving; and
  • The AbAF Partnership award for the Artists in Schools Program, which is a partnership with Arts@Work.

The most important part of working there – and ultimately the reason I stayed so long – were the people. We were Hydro people! Those people believed in me and helped me to believe in myself. Many strong friendships developed, which have continued. I was fortunate to be involved in so many different areas of the organization. The opportunities presented always allowed me to stretch myself and to try new things. All of those things have made me a better person and I hope I have left at least some small footprint behind.

No matter how long its been, it still makes me smile to run into old Hydro colleagues in the street. We stop for a natter and catch up – and we are still “Hydro People.”

Editor’s Note: Hydro Tasmania originally published this story as part of its centenary celebration.

Jane Crosswell was formerly Internal Communications, Events and Sponsorship Coordinator for Hydro Tasmania’s Public Relations team. She spent 22 years with the company and is now business development director with Cancer Council Tasmania, among other roles.

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