Culture Victoria

What was there before "Our Station"?

By News Team Posted Under Flinders Street Station
Known as the bucket image becasue of the bucket the photographer forgot to remove this is a photo of the station staff. The gangers down on the train line are getting into the act as well.
Dignitaries pose on one of the platforms of the old station with gangers and other workers behind. A bucket lies forgotten in the foreground. The large man on the right looks very like Thomas Bent who was Commissioner for Railways between 1881- 1883. Bent was the kind of politician of whom it was said, "Bent by name and Bent by nature."  Photo from the ARHS archives.

 

Of all the organisations in the Culture Victoria Organisation page, The Australian Railway Historical Society (Victorian Branch) (ARHS) has the most to do with things railway, so I didn't feel that I could write about Flinders Street Station without finding out what they had in their archives.

 

Accordingly, one spring day I hopped on a train to North Williamstown. The train was full of school kids on holiday loaded up with huge slushies scored from some promotion in the centre of town and at the railway station they met up with friends who had clearly been to the same promotion on an earlier train and had even bigger slushies.

 

The sky was black with the promise of rain and I hurried off down Champion Road towards the Newport Railway Workshops, home of the ARHS. As I walked, I passed tantalizing glimpses of the locomotive through the chain link fence of the railway museum, which is currently closed for maintenance.

 

I reached the safety of the security guard's office before the rain started and Ian Jenkin of the ARHS picked me up in his car. The Newport Railway Workshops are big! On wide expanses of green, rabbits were taking advantage of the rain to hop among stored railway carriages in varying states of repair. Beyond, modern silver trains clattered along the adjacent railway line.

 

The Newport Railway workshops were built in 1884-6. Photo from the Victoria Victorian Heritage Register, courtesy Heritage Victoria.

 

The Newport Railway Workshops were established in the 1880s for construction and maintenance of the Victorian Railways rolling stock. At its height, it was one of Victoria's largest and best-equipped engineering establishments, with up to 5,000 employees on site. Some of the site is still in use by railway engineering works, while the 1880s brick and bluestone workshops are used by a variety of railway heritage organizations.

 

Steam engines awaiting completion in the Erection Shop of the Newport Workshops in the 1920s. Image from PROV.

 

The  archives are stored in what was once the old wood drying shed. In a staff room at the back 4 or 5 rail enthusiasts (known in the trade as gunzels) were cataloguing and scanning slides into laptops. The ARHS has a wide focus and strong interest in rolling stock, so their archives didn't contain a lot about the present Flinders Street station building. Nevertheless, I was charmed by their pictures of the old Jolimont rail yards. They also possessed a variety of material relating to the history of the site (but more of that later).

 

The Jolimont Rail Yards (now the site of Federation Square and Birrarung Marr). On the far left, behind the Tait carriages can be seen the mortuary trains used in the days when coffins were transported out to Fawkner or Springvale Cemetery by train.  A railway Hearse J wagon is still on display at Fawkner cemetery. Photo from the ARHS archives.

 

In the background of this photo, behind the shunting rolling stock, the Flinders Street and Princes Bridge Stations can be seen through wreaths of steam. Jenkin pointed out the old Tait "red rattler" carriages that I remember fondly from my schooldays in the 70s. I was most delighted by the sight of the little steam locomotives, puffing about looking so like model trains. If you enlarge the image, familiar destinations such as Reservoir, Alphington and Kew can be seen under the boilers of some of the engines.

 

As Jenkin showed me through the archives, I saw that there were a number of pictures relating to a story I hadn't explored yet - the history of the site before the current station was built.

 

The Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Rail Company built the first small weather-board rail terminus on Flinders Street in 1854 as part of a rail line that travelled between Flinders Street and Port Melbourne (known in those days as Sandridge). Opened during the Victorian Gold Rush, the line transported the flood of hopeful miners into the centre of the city from the busy port. This was the first railway line in Melbourne and, indeed, in Australia.

 

Flinders Street Station c1854. Australia's first railway. This is a copy of the original sketch by S.T. Gill showing the first station buildings and the single line from Sandridge. Image from the State Library Victoria collection.

 

As the suburban rail system grew and passed through the hands of a number of companies before landing in Government, so too did the Flinders Street terminus grow, with platforms and a higgledy piggledy collection of timber and corrugated iron buildings thrown up without any particular plan.

 

Looking down from a Flinders St office building in the 1880s, this view shows the main entrance near Elizabeth Street where passengers could drop in for a snack at the Oyster Bar on the left of the station entrance. Photo from the ARHS archives.

 

By the time the above picture was taken, discussions about building a new station had begun. The terminus pictured consists of booking, waiting and staff rooms, as well as a telegraph office, lamp room, oyster saloon, bookstall, licensed bars and a fruit and confectionery shop. There are ramps from Swanston Street and a bridge over the tracks provides an exit to Elizabeth Street through the station building in the foreground beneath the billboard for Waldron's Sauce. With so many exits, ticket control must have been very poor. The veranda over the second platform from the river still exists but is now part of heritage-listed Hawthorn Station.

 

The corner of Swanston and Flinders Street had been the site of an open air fish market from the 1840s and in 1865 this two storey building was built. It operated as the Melbourne Fish Market from 1865 - 1892. Image courtesy of Royal Historical Society Victoria.

 

Between 1865-1892, the Melbourne Fish Market occupied the Flinders and Swanston Street corner, sited near the railway station because in the days before refrigeration, rail was the fastest way to get fish to market while it was still fresh.

 

Flinders Street station entrance in the 1890s. The old fish market is visible on the left hand side of the photo. Photo from the ARHS archives.

 

By the time the above photo was taken, the fish market had been moved down to a magnificent purpose-built (and sadly now demolished) Gothic building on the Spencer Street corner. In this photo the building has been given over to the sale of meat and fruit and the stabling of bicycles. The entrance to Melbourne's main railway station is the stylish curved weatherboard building beside it, complete with the iconic clocks that we know so well. This is the streetscape that the hansom cab with its gruesome cargo would have passed on its way to St Kilda road in the novel (and now mini-series) of early Melbourne The Mystery of the Hansom Cab by Fergus Hulme.

 

Old Flinders Street Station, now covered with billboards, on the day in 1901 the Victorian Light Horse contingent left for the Boer War. On the roof, leaning over the billboard for corsets, a man cranes for a better view of the parade which appears to have exited stage left, and a jaunty man swings an umbrella as he crosses the street. Photo from ARHS archives.

 

The water tower clock that was so important to the city is centre stage in this photo. By the time the picture was taken in 1901, the competition for the new station had been held and the winning design by Fawcett and Ashworth had been favourably received by the Parliamentary Standing Committee. The projected cost was 265,061 pounds.

 

Whether they planned it or not, the Victoria Parliament had initiated the building of a landmark.

 

Flinders Street in Art- Souvenirs.

 

Box commemorating the Melbourne and Victoria Centenary 1934-1935. Item held in the Museum Victoria collection

 

Some may argue that souvenirs don't count as art objects but I don't. There's no doubt that the image of Flinders Street Station winds up on a lot of souvenirs of Melbourne and has done so since it was built. After trams, the station must be one of the city's most iconic symbols. The State Library of Victoria has postcards of the station facade from before it was even opened.

 

Held between October 1934 and June 1935, the Centenary of Melbourne celebrations occurred during the depths of the Great Depression. The celebrations of the first 100 years of European settlement emphasised progress and community cohesion, and what better to symbolize this than the great station that united the city. The manufacturer of this little wooden box, with its borders and edges heavily decorated with burnt lines and dots, evidently thought so when he affixed a printed picture of the station to its lid.

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