Reflecting on a legacy: Former dam builder visits Warragamba Dam

Fred Patchell reminisces about dam building days

When we heard 96-year-old former dam builder Fred Patchell was reminiscing about his time building Warragamba Dam and wondering if the site was open to visitors, we jumped at the chance to hear his stories first-hand.

So Fred and his son Cliff joined Paul Johnstone, WaterNSW Maintenance Coordinator Civil Assets, for a behind-the-scenes tour of the crown jewel of Sydney’s water supply system.

Fred helped build the dam wall from 1954-58, beginning as a pipefitter before moving into a role measuring water temperatures, and later as a clerk recording information such as safety incidents.

“Those were different times,” Fred said. “I remember we used to have to walk down to the base of the dam and back up again before the unions got involved and we got to ride in trucks.”

An Irishman who landed in Tasmania aged 25, Fred was looking to make money. He heard through the grapevine that Warragamba was the place to do it, and headed north.

Living on site - at first in a tent, later in a fibro room - provided Fred with accommodation and meals (including steak for breakfast!). Most importantly, the pay was good: “I worked every day I could get and regularly took advantage of the 56 pounds offered for also working on the weekend.”

The hard work paid off, and within a few years he was able to send for his fiancé back in Ireland, Audrey, marry and buy a block of land in old Mt Druitt. Audrey sadly passed away earlier this year, but Fred remains in their old Mt Druitt home of 63 years.

Now with 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, most who live locally, Fred is looking back at his time building the dam with great fondness.

Freddie with crest in background
Fred Patchell in the Warragamba Dam Visitor Centre overlooking the dam wall. (Photo by Adam Hollingworth.)
Freddie on crest with visitor centre in background
Fred on the crest of the dam wall during his tour, with the Visitor Centre high above in the background.

One of 1800 workers who built Warragamba Dam

Construction on Warragamba Dam started in 1948 and finished in 1960. More than 1800 people from over 25 nationalities worked on the site.

It’s not every day that one of them gets to come back and see firsthand the contribution they made to such a critical piece of infrastructure.

Visiting the dam gave Fred the opportunity to reminisce and share stories of life as a dam-builder – from picking mushrooms along the pipeline, to swimming at Blaxland Crossing and heading into Warragamba town for dances.

“My time at Warragamba gave me many great memories and a great footing in life,” Fred said. “I love Australians and I love Australia - it's the best country in the world.”

“I love Australians and I love Australia - its the best country in the world.”

That’s not to say his time was without drama. “A friend and I painted pipe inserts black and white to make a set of draughts then snuck off to play in a cave downstream. While we were there, a huge storm hit and washed away our access. We thought we were going to be in terrible trouble, but it turned out everyone was in a panic looking for us, so they were just relieved we hadn’t been washed away!”

As for the highlight? “The best thing I learned at Warragamba,” Fred told us cheekily, “was how to swear in four languages and cheat at cards!"

Freddie near spillway
Paul Johnstone from WaterNSW took Fred on a tour of the spillway at Warragamba Dam.
Freddie on crest - lake in background
Fred on the crest of Warragamba Dam. Parts of the dam wall are open to the public on weekends and public holidays 10am-4pm.

Published date: 7 December 2023

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