Culture Victoria

Elizabeth Street and the clock tower

By News Team Posted Under Flinders Street Station

 

 

 

The station entrance with its clock tower dominates the end of Elizabeth Street. Major Projects Victoria image.

 

The Elizabeth Street entrance is part of the long station facade that stretches down a whole block of Flinders Street and ends at Banana Alley.  The clock tower over the Elizabeth Street entrance is not as famous as the dome, but viewed along Elizabeth Street, it's taller and much more splendiferous.

 

Looking straight up at the clock tower. Major Projects Victoria Image.

 

A clock tower has stood on this site since 1883.  That first clock is now at the Scienceworks Museum in Spotswood.   There is more about the clock in its catalogue record here.

 

The clock tower at Elizabeth Street in the 1880s. It was operated by electricity. From the State Library of Victoria.

 

The current clock was built by F. Zeigler, a Melbourne clockmaker and was installed in the newly finished clock tower in 1907.  The clock is now operated electrically but can still be wound by hand. According to Cameron Robbins of CSI, who recently performed a jazz piece called Metronomic up here, it has the loudest tick in Melbourne.

 

The clock's central mechanism operates all four clock faces. Major Projects Victoria.

 

The entrance itself is complex - full of porches and alcoves. In one alcove a line of people queue at ticket windows.  The original ticket office used to be on the other side of the steps.  A line of round windows in the facade above marks were it once was. It's now become an undercover waiting area edged by ancient green cast iron bollards. Here the inevitable school girls are giggling around a photo booth (perhaps they come with the machinery), while people queue at vending machines. In a dark evil smelling porch nearby, a class of primary school children from the country sits waiting on the steps.

 

Elizabeth Street has always been a bustling and busy street, here in the early 1900s, trams, pedestrians, delivery carts and other horse drawn vehicles mingle before the entrance. Image from the State Library of Victoria

 

The three storey station building above the Elizabeth Street entrance is mostly empty despite its splendid red brick work and cream bands. Perhaps it's just my awareness of this emptiness that makes me find the whole intersection somber.  Perhaps it’s only the afternoon shadows.

 

It's five o’clock on a weekday and I'm watching as crowded trams glide into the tram stop in front of the station entrance. According to Jenny Davies, years ago one of the trams failed to stop and ran into the building here.  I would love to see a picture of this, but I've been unable to find one.

 

Due to the long exposure of many of the Railways photographs, they often include blurred figures moving too fast to be captured by the camera. In this one ghostly commuters emerge from the Elizabeth Street underpass in the 1920s. From the PROV collection.

 

The Elizabeth Street entrance is crowded with people rushing home. The flights of stairs, one leading to Platform 1, and the other leading down into the subway, are packed with commuters. Few look up to admire the splendid vault of pressed metal above the entrance, the graceful Flemish stained glass windows which arch over the whole or the sturdy granite columns topped with ionic pediments.

 

The curved Wunderlich ceiling over the Elizabeth Street Entrance. Photograph by Eleanor Whitworth

 

They seem unaware that the stairs and rails are over 100 years old and form part of the original building. Even though the space seems narrow, there are people giving out pamphlets and papers and sometimes musicians busking.

 

Without the gates, fences, (and commuters) the Elizabeth Street entrance appears much roomier. Stairs down to the subway c1920s. From the PROV collection

 

Down in the subway below there is often someone busking with a guitar.  Today the spot is empty, marked only by a lone milk crate, but the subway is still noisy. Trains roar and click clack overhead and the crowd chatters and clatters past.

 

Unlike the concourse, the Elizabeth Street subway has changed little from the time when it was first built. It even retains the Edwardian painted fingers directing you to the platforms and the "Do not spit signs" which fascinated me as a child. (My parents told me then that they were part of a public health initiative to cut down the spread of TB).

 

A serious entrance for a serious business. Photo by Eleanor Whitworth

 

Even the toilets have a certain old world charm. I can't speak for the Gents toilets but the Ladies, though dilapidated, is still rather wonderful.  There’s seats for waiting with your shopping, a gilt edged mirror for adjusting your coiffure, and the old fashioned tiled cubicles are huge because, according to Jenny Davis, there used to be two toilets in each cubicle so that mothers and children could go in together.

 

Women's toilets in the subway. Photo by Eleanor Whitworth.

 

Even its dearest friend must admit that missing tiles and water stains make the Elizabeth Street subway look shabby.  This is not just down to age.  Elizabeth Street itself was built on the bed of Williams Creek which now flows underneath it, and beside the subway, in storm water drains, and enters the Yarra right outside the subway entrance.  The creek causes Elizabeth Street to flood occasionally and is probably the cause of some of the damp problems facing the subway.

 

The entrance to Williams Creek can be seen here. Photograph by Max Strating, Courtesy of Museum of Victoria

 

An absolutely classic photo from The Age in 1965 shows men in uniform dragging people on trolleys through a flooded Elizabeth Street subway. Find it here at the bottom of this excellent blogpost by Melbourne Curious.

 

No its not fine Florentine marble but the water stains on subway tiles. Photo by Eleanor Whitworth.

 

If you look above the stained tiles to where the ramp leads up to the platform, the saw-toothed roof still has little windows that allow natural light into the subway, just as the original architects planned.

 

The subway has been divided down the centre by what looks like a swimming pool fence so that, as well a providing access to the platforms, people can use it as a thoroughfare to get through to the Yarra bank and the footbridge over to Southbank.  And a busy thoroughfare it is.  Take a trip though it with this Youtube video.

 

At the other end of the Elizabeth Street subway you climb six steps up to the Yarra embankment and travel forward a hundred years. There’s a modern wooden fence, a nicely paved set of paths and a neat little garden full of architectural plants.  On the river below, black swans nibble at water weed near the Williams Creek outlet. Cyclists ping their bells as they ride by.  Backpackers sit eating a global brand of fast food on green metal park seats.

 

The greyish workaday world of the Elizabeth Street intersection is gone. Now you're in a relaxed sunshiney world where the view of the shops and restaurants at Southbank over on the opposite side of the river offers good times. All you need do is join the steady stream of people crossing the arched footbridge over the Yarra which is decorated with a bow and wishes you 'A Merry Christmas from the City of Melbourne'.

 

Art @ Flinders Street

 

 

A busker in the Elizabeth Street subway sits below the Melbourne version of "Don't shoot the piano player". Photo by Phil Skeggs from Flickr

 

Buskers are an integral part of Flinders Street Station.  There's almost always some kind of sound track behind the sound of trains. Music students, visiting musicians pavement artists and eccentrics perform outside the concourse.  Quieter acts, guitarists and singers perform in the Degraves and Elizabeth Street subways.

 

A chicken 'Under the Clocks"!!!! Photo by Wes Boudreau from Flickr

 

A man with a chicken suit plays "What is love?", another in a wheel chair performs Elvis songs to a recorded sound track.  There is the Stickman, the Spaceman, the man with the top hat and the egg, and there used to be a bagpiper although I haven't seen him for quite a while.

 

Try entering "buskers flinders street station" in Google for a broad range of past entertainment.

 

Japanese buskers outside the concourse. Photo by Eva Colladao Mollenda from Flickr

 

We'd love to hear your stories about Flinders Street Station. We are looking stories of love, lost or found, or journeys that might have changed your life, or in fact any anecdotes that involve the station.

 

Do you have a story to tell?

 

If so, submit it (up to 500 words), along with any pictures to us at: [email protected]and become part of the larger story of our station and our city.  These will be published in a very special "best of" Flinders Street Station Blog post.

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