ROY Bennett remembers the Shoalhaven Paper mill as a lively metropolis with its own credit union and canteen and 700 employees who called the place home.
Today it’s a far cry from that – following a smattering of cars in the car park, empty pathways wind through looming and empty-looking buildings.
“It’s a ghost town now,” he said.
Roy’s father Harry worked at the mill before him and his son Troy still works there now.
His wife, daughter and son-in-law all worked there too.
It’s not an unusual situation by any means – many generations of families have worked at the mill and still do.
The question now is for how long?
Roy’s father Harry Bennett came to Australia as a £10 Pom, sponsored by friends Dennis and Connie Wilkinson.
“One of the things they had to do was make sure they had a job,” Roy said.
“They arrived here on Friday and Dad started at the mill on Monday.”
It was 1958; the mill had been operating for two years. Roy was 11, his father 38.
“He worked his way to becoming the machine man on No. 3,” Roy said.
Today, No. 3 is the only mill machine still running, with No.1 and No.2 no longer operational.
When Roy left school he got a job on No. 2 machine as a “broke boy”, a helper.
Over the next 37 years he worked his way through various sections and positions.
He met his wife Lynne on site.
“She used to walk past the basement where I worked and I’d wolf whistle at her. And she completely snubbed me. But I chased her,” he said.
Roy retired in 2002 as a maintenance co-ordinator.
His memories of the mill in its heyday were clear.
“It was fantastic. You could go on for days talking about this place,” he said.
“There were lots of shenanigans – but work got done. It was hard yakka.
“It was a family. It was a social place.
“You worked hard, but they looked after you.”
Roy’s voice softened with emotion as he described the demise of No. 1 machine.
“I looked at the hole where No. 1 was and I could have cried.”
In the past 20 years, the mill has seen the closure of machines No. 1 and 2, the Wartsila, No. 2 winder, No 1 and 2 cutter, the boiler house, waste plant and linters plant.
Staff numbers, once a buoyant 700, are now fewer than 100, with 51 on the production floor and another 20 to 25 administrative and office workers.
“It’s a sign of the times. I know people will be replaced with machines,” Roy said.
“That’s all right, but just as long as someone is here to keep those machines going.
“A lot of people would be gutted to see the mill shut. It has been the lifeblood of Nowra for many years.”
Roy’s son Troy started at the mill in 1996.
He came on for a week’s work on the machinery which cuts paper into A4.
“I did ask how this position became available,” he said.
“Apparently someone had cut their finger off using the machine, so I thought ‘Ooo, OK, I’ll keep my hands away from that one’.”
Now a machine man on No. 3 machine, Troy is literally in the footprints of his grandfather.
“The saddest thing about it was my son; he said he wanted to work here where I work. I said, ‘No son, you probably won’t’.”
Now his fellow workers worry about their future, where they will get a job in the future and how they will pay their mortgage.
“I think, how am I going to get a job? I don’t want to leave the area but I might have to.”
One reason the mill has survived as long as it has is the culture he said.
“We have a lot of loyalty to the mill. There’s been many times I thought I would leave, but I decided to stay and make a future for someone else.”