All aboard for Spencer Street

By Ashley Smith – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

While transporting goods and passengers to and from nearby docks 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 has extensively recorded Melbourne and its people (including Ned Kelly) for over 30 years, but the exact date of this image is unknown. Various sources list her as between 1872 and the mid-1880s, as evidenced by the existence of Finley’s Hotel on the left (to the right of Sailors Home, see Docklands News, 1 July 2020), which opened in 1872. From 1873 until 1889, the Sands and McDougall directory lists the hotel’s owner as John Felix, whose name can be seen on the building. On the far left is Alexander’s Family Hotel, which had been erected in the 1860s and is now occupied by the Savoy Hotel.

The station in 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 that shaded by a veranda on the left. Another curious detail in this photograph is how the station was a dead end for any lines heading north or west from Melbourne. No track connected Spencer Street to its older sister, Flinders Street station, until 1879 when a single track night service at ground level operated for freight trains. It was replaced by the viaduct in 1891, but passenger trains did not take advantage of this new route until 1894.

The train seen in this image is steam locomotive #64. It was one of a series of passenger steam locomotives known as Class B locomotives, which were regulars along Victorian railway lines from 1862 to 1917. They were noted for their 2-4-0 layout wheels that allowed them better traction on steeper slopes. , such as the Geelong-Ballarat line. If you look closely, you can see two engineers posing for the camera, one of them standing in front of the engine.

In 1850s Victoria, rail travel became an attractive alternative to long, expensive, and dangerous journeys by horse and cart. A number of private railway companies formed, and one of the few government approvals granted to build a railway was the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Co., formed in 1853. They purchased a land near Batman’s Hill, west of Spencer St, with intentions of building a rail spur to Williamstown and a line to Echuca. However, not only were they looking for funds, but progress was slow. It was not until June 1854 that the first turf was laid in Williamstown, and on 23 May 1856 the newly formed Victorian government took over, with the establishment of the Ministry of Railways (later Victorian Railways) . At that time, a train service had been running between Flinders Street and Sandridge/Port Melbourne for almost two years.

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

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

Regardless of first impressions, the station quickly became the site of much fanfare on January 13, 1859 when the Williamstown Railways and the Link Railway to Sunbury opened. Thousands of people flocked to the station and even watched from Batman’s Hill, to see Governor Sir Henry Barkly set off on No. 1 engine for Williamstown station at 10:20 a.m. Traveling at around 25 to 30 mph, he arrived at the unfinished Williamstown station in 22 minutes, where Henry was greeted by a flower arch and an honor guard from the Williamstown Corps of Artillery. However, the festivities were devastated when the stage designed for the solemn speech collapsed not once, but twice! Fortunately, there were no serious casualties and the speeches were delivered from the ground. He then traveled to Sunbury to commemorate the opening of the branch line there. Arriving at 12.30pm, another ceremony was held to place the cornerstone at Jackson’s Creek, before 1,600 people gathered for a special late afternoon lunch.

The Williamstown Railway officially opened to civilians on January 17, 1859. Anyone glancing at the front page of The Age that morning would have discovered that a first-class ticket to Williamstown cost 1s ( shilling) 6d. (pence), and 2s. 6d. for a round trip (second class tickets cost 1 s. 3 days and 2 s. respectively). On weekdays, trains arrived and departed from Spencer Street from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday services created such an uproar that 250 Williamstown residents submitted a petition to Parliament to protest the disrespect of Lord’s Day. The petition was rejected, and by the end of the year over 300,000 passengers had booked a train at Spencer Street station, which accounted for more than half of the colony’s population of over 517,000. By comparison, by the late 2010s, the station’s annual attendance had soared to over 18 million (nearly three times the state’s population of over six million).

Beginning as the starting and ending point for many new train lines, Spencer Street Station will grow and evolve over time. The station has now expanded to 16 platforms and 22 tracks under its corrugated roof, with electric 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 to step up front for a photo op •

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