A Clapp of approval

A Clapp of approval
Ashley Smith

It is November 17, 1937. Australia is climbing out of the Depression as Melburnians gather at Spencer Street Station to celebrate the launch of a new train that would become a feature of the railways for the next half-century, the Spirit Of Progress.

The man giving the speech in the photo is the then Victorian Premier, Albert Dunstan. The man looking downwards to Dunstan’s right does not need an introduction; it is Sir Robert Menzies, who later became our longest-serving Prime Minister. At the time of this ceremony, he was attending as a representative of the Commonwealth Government, being Australia’s Attorney-General and Minister of Industry. However, his history with Victoria’s railways had run deep before this; while serving as Victoria’s Attorney General and Solicitor General in the 1930s, he also served as the Minister of Railways.

The lanky, bespectacled man on Dunstan’s left, by comparison, isn’t familiar at first glance. However, to those in the railway community, he is a well-known and influential figure, the Chairman of Commissioners at Victorian Railways, Harold Winthrop Clapp.

Harold was born in St Kilda on May 7, 1875. His father, Francis Boardman Clapp, was the owner of the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company, which operated the first cable tram services in Victoria. Harold shared his father’s passion for rail transport, working at his father’s Brisbane Tramway Co. as a superintendent of motive power. He then moved to America, where he worked for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, then became involved in various railway projects, serving as the vice-president of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., as well as railway companies in Columbus and East St Louis. When he heard that Victorian Railways had an opening for Chairman of Commissioners, he successfully applied and was back in his home state by September 1920 on a hefty wage of £5000pa.

Upon his return to Melbourne, he set the tone for the next two decades, explaining to The Argus (September 16, 1920) that “I am all for efficiency and teamwork, and want to know my men and my men to know me.” Throughout his tenure he got to know thousands of his co-workers by name, and he was reputedly fastidious, inspecting the shelves of station offices for dust whenever he visited, while keeping himself well-groomed and encouraging his fellow workers to do the same. Referring to Victorian Railways as the “Great Railway Team”, he improved conditions for workers with ablution houses and new cafeterias. While the 1930s Depression saw more than 8000 workers laid off, and those remaining had to reduce their wages, Harold also willingly took a substantial £1500 pay cut from his own salary.

During his 19-year tenure, Clapp achieved a lot for Victorian Railways. He oversaw the completion of the electrification of the railways and sought to improve train services. Stricter timekeeping was encouraged, so more trains ran on time, and other services were adjusted to run faster. VR was able to introduce new innovations to its lines, from automatic couplings to electric headlights. While giving passengers the best service possible, Clapp also believed railways could benefit the state’s economy, including the rural workers of Victoria. In 1922 VR introduced The State Resources Train (affectionately known as the “Reso train”), allowing business leaders to travel around regional Victoria to promote business. This was followed by the Better Farming Train in 1924, a co-project with the Department of Agriculture, which went to rural regions to promote new ways to improve farming. Described as “an agricultural college on wheels” (North Eastern Ensign, August 14, 1925) the train supplied agricultural displays and demonstrations of dairy farming, produce, cooking and infant welfare.

Another, though unorthodox, component of Harold’s campaign to help rural workers was the advertisement and promotion of fruit. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, one couldn’t stop at a station in Melbourne or Victoria without seeing a poster advertising “Eat more fruit”, a fruit stall, or a fruit drinks stall. The drinks in question weren’t particularly healthy (as the fruit juice was mostly sugar and soda), but they became a hit with thirsty patrons on summer days. In 1923 the Victorian Railways’ newly opened bakery on Dudley St produced raisin bread, at the time a novelty made by just three bakers in Melbourne, to improve dried fruit sales. It proved such a hit by decade’s end that 350 bakers were making raisin bread.

Arguably Harold’s crowning achievement was the Spirit of Progress. In 1934, he went on a journey to America and Europe to research improvements to the railways, especially as road vehicle sales increased. When he returned, he declared that to keep passengers’ posteriors on carriage seats, they needed to be absolutely comfortable. Soon an S-class train was built for the Melbourne to Albury journey, made of a lightweight but durable and cheap Corten steel, and fitted out with individual lamps, soundproofing, and, most importantly, air conditioning to mitigate the heat and dust. Painted in navy blue and gold, the train was formally launched on November 17, 1937, and made its first trip to Albury on November 23, a sight that became commonplace to all Victorians for the next 49 years.

Harold Clapp’s 19-year reign ended on June 30, 1939. With a war approaching, he was assigned the general manager of the Aircraft Construction Branch of the Commonwealth Department of Supply and Development. In this position, Harold oversaw the construction of Bristol Beaufort Bombers. In his later years, he became director general of land transport, and advocated for the standardising of gauges in Australia (at a time when gauge widths varied between states and passengers had to swap trains at state borders). Even at the ripe old age of 77 in July 1952 he was able to come on board the first diesel-electric train in Victoria, fittingly named the “Harold W. Clapp”. A few months later, on October 21, he passed away.  •

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