Telling hydro's tale

10 December 2008

A book which traces the development of hydro power in Tasmania has become a best-selling title in Australia. By sharing their work and family experiences of the hydro industry, past and present employees of Hydro Tasmania have made this unique book an astonishing success

Hydro Tasmania has been integral to the development of Australia’s island state. Much has been written about its role in generating the energy that drove the local economy, and how the corporation dominated the political and cultural landscape throughout much of the twentieth century. But less is known about the thousands of people who worked for the government-owned entity and the impact this had on workers’ lives and families.

In October 2004, author Heather Felton undertook the task of researching an intimate and personal history of those who had worked for Hydro Tasmania since the formation of the hydroelectric department in 1914. The result is a 512-page book called Ticklebelly Tales and Other Stories from the People of the Hydro. It was published by Hydro Tasmania in May 2008 and contains over 2000 photographs which depict numerous events and technical processes. The book is a social history told from the varying viewpoints of employees, contractors, their spouses and children. Individuals share their experiences which were pivotal to Tasmania’s development.

‘This is the first time that the history of The Hydro [Hydro Tasmania] has been told from the perspective of the many thousands of people who worked for the business,’ says Hydro Tasmania chairman David Crean. ‘The book is an acknowledgement of their immense contribution and a celebration of what it meant to be part of The Hydro.’

During its 84 years up to disaggregation in 1998, Hydro Tasmania employed more than 20,000 people, peaking in 1985 with a total workforce of 5247. ‘That’s a lot of people and a lot of stories to tell,’ Crean says.

As most dam construction sites and power stations tended to be located well away from settled areas, between 1912 and the 1970s Hydro Tasmania built ten company towns. While some were transitory, virtually disappearing when their power schemes came to an end, others were more permanent. They housed employees who worked in the power stations and maintained transmission lines and other structures. Many families moved from village to village during the construction era. Their connection with The Hydro could last for up to five generations with both parents and children becoming employees.

The origins for the name of the book can be traced back to Ticklebelly Flat, the name given to the married quarters at Tarraleah camp number 2 during the 1930s. The name has come to signify the humour, tenacity, resilience and sense of community characteristic of the people who worked for the hydro commission. As one contributor to the book said, ‘the comradeship and friendship were outstanding’.

Developing Tarraleah

The Tarraleah power development was approved by the Tasmanian parliament in 1934. It was viewed not only as a way of meeting future demands for electricity, but as helping to solve Tasmania’s employment problems. Initially, as the construction sites were not served by roads, recruitment was restricted to single men and to those married men prepared to live on their own at isolated worksites. Only tent accommodation was available and facilities were rudimentary.

Gradually more wives joined their husbands as many families could not afford to maintain a separate home. In 1934 the Australian Workers’ Union raised the need for family accommodation but it wasn’t until the following year, with building materials more readily available, that camps were upgraded. Milled timber was also distributed to workers who were prepared to build their own accommodation.

As Crean acknowledges: ‘The book highlights the challenges of living and working in drought and flood, heat and snow and the harsh landscape of the Tasmanian bush. It also deals with the challenges of isolation and bringing up a family with few services and little comforts of home. It shows how people adapted to the way of life in camps and villages.’

Felton’s book traces the development of hydro in Tasmania throughout the 1930s, focuses on the arrival of migrants during and after the Second World War to the great post-war development boom. After the environmental debates of the 1970s and 1980s, it then reflects on the end of the dam construction era in the 1990s.

Crean admits that Hydro Tasmania is now a much different business to what it was ten years ago, let alone the previous decades that are featured in the book. However, its history remains a vital part of the company’s culture. ‘We know the people who built The Hydro have provided the foundations, the building blocks and the capability of what Hydro Tasmania is today. This book recognises the ingenuity, foresight, skill and dedication of the many thousands of people who worked for the company, as well as their families. The book is their story.’

Ticklebelly Tales and Other Stories from the People of the Hydro by Heather Felton is published by Hydro Tasmania ( and is available from good book stores (listings can be found on

Focus on Tarraleah

The Tarraleah power development was approved by the Tasmanian Parliament in 1934. The area was largely inaccessible and the first task was to construct an access road. A small weir with control gates was built at the southern end of Lake St Clair, raising its level by 3m and providing control over downstream flow. A pumping station was also constructed. The pumps had the ability to lower the level of the lake by 6m but were rarely used and removed from service in 1993.
Early work on the Tarraleah power development also involved the building of a small weir on the Derwent river at Butlers Gorge. Water flow in the river was diverted by the weir and sent some 25km overland in a combination of flume, canal and pipeline. It then dropped through steel penstocks, into the Tarraleah power station in the valley of the Nive river. Camps for construction workers were established at Tarraleah and Butlers Gorge as well as at five separate localities along the route of the overland channel. In 1938 the first three generators at Tarraleah were commissioned.
A further expansion of the scheme was hampered by serious labour shortages during the Second World War. The arrival of Polish and British migrants in 1947 allowed the completion of the 61m high Clark dam at Butlers Gorge in 1951. This created a second and larger storage for the development – Lake King William.
The small Butlers Gorge power station, with a capacity of 12.2MW, was constructed at the foot of the Clark dam. The dam itself was raised a further 6m in 1964. A second overland channel between Lake King William and Tarraleah was completed in 1955. Extra water is diverted into it via an automatic pumping station on the Derwent river a few kilometres below the Clark dam. Water is also diverted into the channel from three small tributaries of the Nive river. These works were completed in 1959.
The fourth, fifth and sixth generators at Tarraleah were commissioned in 1943, 1945 and 1951 respectively. All six operate with a head of about 290m and a total capacity of 90MW.

Last bucket Last bucket
Wayatinah Tunnel Wayatinah Tunnel
The mole The mole
D9 bulldozer D9 bulldozer
Heather Felton Heather Felton
Worker Worker
Tunnel crew Tunnel crew
Tarraleah Tarraleah
Accomodation Accomodation
School children School children
Book cover Book cover

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