All aboard for Spencer Street

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

While hauling goods and passengers to and from the nearby wharves and the city, a single steam engine stops at Spencer Street Station (now Southern Cross Station) to smile for the camera.

This photo was taken by photographer Charles Nettleton, who extensively recorded Melbourne and its people (including Ned Kelly) for more than 30 years, but the exact date of this image is unknown. Various sources list it as sometime between 1872 and the mid-1880s, as evidenced by the existence of Finley’s Hotel on the left (right of the Sailors Home, see Docklands News, July 1, 2020), which opened in 1872. From 1873 until 1889 the Sands and McDougall directory listed the hotel’s proprietor as John Felix, whose name is visible on the building. On the extreme left is Alexander’s Family Hotel, which had been erected in the 1860s, and is now occupied by the Savoy Hotel.

The station during the 19th century was a different beast from today’s modern Southern Cross. Here, there are only a handful of platforms visible; until 1874 the only platform used by passengers was the one shaded by a verandah on the left. Another curious detail about this photograph is how the station was a dead end for all lines heading north or west out of Melbourne. No track connected Spencer Street to its older sibling, Flinders Street Station, until 1879 when a ground-level, single track night service ran for freight trains. It was replaced by the viaduct in 1891, but passenger trains didn’t take advantage of this new route until 1894.

The train seen in this image is steam locomotive No.64. It was part of a series of passenger steam engines known as B-class locomotives, which were regulars along Victorian rail lines from 1862 until 1917. They were known for their 2-4-0-wheel arrangement that allowed them better traction along steeper grades, such as the Geelong-Ballarat line. If you look closer, you can see two engineers posing for the camera, with one of them standing at the front of the engine.

In 1850s Victoria, rail travel became an enticing alternative to long, costly and dangerous journeys by horse and cart. A number of private railway companies formed, and one of the few granted government approvals to build a railway was the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Co., formed in 1853. They bought land near Batman’s Hill, west of Spencer St, with intentions of building a branch railway to Williamstown and a line to Echuca. However, not only were they scrambling for funds, but progress proved slow. It wasn’t until June 1854 that the first sod was turned at Williamstown, and by May 23, 1856 the newly-formed Victorian Government took over, with the creation of the Department of Railways (later Victorian Railways). By then, a train service had been puffing between Flinders Street and Sandridge/Port Melbourne for nearly two years.

Even with new management, construction continued at a snail’s pace as many key materials and rolling stock had to be shipped from overseas. There was also the issue of navigating the swampy region and rivers between Batman’s Hill and the Maribrynong River. The latter was resolved when around 164,000 cubic metres of soil were excavated and two bridges constructed. This included the Maribyrnong Bridge, which consisted of three tubular iron pieces spanning 200 feet and cost around £90,000. By the time construction on the 14-kilometre Williamstown Railway was completed, the whole line had cost around £697,000.

On the Spencer Street end, the small station of wood and iron was built. It consisted of a single 183m long platform, five ticket windows and separate refreshment rooms for ladies and gentlemen. Several carriage sheds, a turntable, and a goods shed surrounded the premises, and the rails were parallel to the street (unlike now when they are on an angle). Even in its infancy, the station was described by The Herald (paraphrased by Ballarat Advertiser, January 15, 1859) as “regarded as only temporary, to be replaced at some future period by more substantial structures”. But due to the cost, those refurbishments were decades away.

Regardless of first impressions, the station soon became the site of much fanfare on January 13, 1859 when both the railways from Williamstown, and the connecting railway to Sunbury were opened. Thousands flocked to the station and even watched from Batman’s Hill, to see Governor Sir Henry Barkly leave on the No.1 engine for Williamstown Station at 10.20am. Travelling at around 25 to 30 mph, it arrived at the unfinished Williamstown Station in 22 minutes, where Henry was welcomed by a flowery arch, and a guard of honour from the Williamstown artillery corps. However, the festivities met with disaster when the stage designed for the ceremonial speech collapsed not once, but twice! Fortunately, there were no serious casualties, and the speeches were conducted from ground level. It was then off to Sunbury to commemorate the opening of the branch line there. Upon arriving at 12.30pm, another ceremony was held to place the foundation stone at Jackson’s Creek, before 1600 people reportedly gathered to attend a special late afternoon luncheon.

The Williamstown railway officially opened for civilians on January 17, 1859. Anyone glancing at the front page of The Age that morning would’ve found that a first-class ticket to Williamstown was 1s (shilling) 6d. (pence), and 2s. 6d. for a return trip (second class tickets were 1s. 3d., and 2s. respectively). On weekdays, trains arrived and left Spencer Street from 8.30am to 6pm. The Sunday services created so much uproar that 250 Williamstown residents submitted a petition to Parliament protesting that the Lord’s Day was being disrespected. The petition was rejected, and, by year’s end, more than 300,000 passengers had booked a train at Spencer Street Station, which was more than half the colony’s then-population of more than 517,000. By comparison, by the late 2010s, the station’s annual patronage had ballooned to more than 18 million (almost three times the state population of more than six million).

Beginning as the start and end point for many new train lines, Spencer Street Station would grow and evolve over time. The station has now expanded to 16 platforms and 22 tracks under its wavy roof, with electric-powered trains replacing the sooty steam trains of yesteryear. But while today’s trains are cleaner, it’s fair to say that with today’s high-speed trains, no driver would dare climb out the front for a photo opportunity •

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