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Australian History

On this day (Australia): In 1854, Flinders Street Station, the first city railway station in Australia, was opened


Flinders Street Station 1854

On 12 September 1854, Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria Charles Hotham opened Flinders Street Station, the first city railway station in Australia.

Flinders Street railway station is located on the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets in the central business district (CBD) of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Opened in 1854, the historic station serves the entire metropolitan rail network, as well as some country services to eastern Victoria. Backing onto the Yarra River in the heart of the city, the complex includes platforms and structures that stretch over more than two whole city blocks, from east of Swanston Street nearly to Market Street.

The first railway station to occupy the Flinders Street site was called Melbourne Terminus, and was a collection of weatherboard train sheds. It was opened on 12 September 1854 by the Lieutenant-Governor, Charles Hotham. 

The terminus was the first city railway station in Australia, and the opening day saw the first steam train trip in the country. It travelled to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne), over the since-redeveloped Sandridge Bridge and along the now-light rail Port Melbourne line.

The first terminus had a single platform 30 metres long, and was located beside the Fish Market building on the south-west corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets. An additional platform was provided in 1877, along with two overhead bridges to provide passenger access, followed by additional timber and corrugated iron buildings and a telegraph station in 1879. 

The first signal boxes were opened at the station in 1883, one at each end of the platforms. By the 1890s, a third island platform had been constructed.

Melbourne’s two other early central-city stations, Spencer Street and Princes Bridge, opened in 1859. Spencer Street served the lines to the west of the city, and was isolated from the eastern side of the network until a ground level railway was built connecting it to Flinders Street in 1879, this track being replaced by the Flinders Street Viaduct in 1889.

Princes Bridge was originally separated from Flinders Street, even though it was only on the opposite side of Swanston Street. Once the railway line was extended under the street in 1865 to join the two, Princes Bridge was closed. It was reopened in April 1879, and from 1909 slowly became amalgamated into Flinders Street. 

Federation Square now occupies its site. Up until the 1880s a number of designs for a new station had been prepared, but none ever went further.

By the 1880s it was becoming clear that a new central passenger station was needed to replace the existing ad-hoc station buildings; a competition was held in 1883, but the winning design by William Salway, with a pair of grandiose Italianate buildings either side of a rebuilt Princes Bridge, was not built.

A second, more comprehensive design competition was held in late 1899, and 17 entries were received. The competition was essentially for the detailed design of the station building, because of the track and platform layout, the location of the concourse and entrances, that there would be a single platform roof, and even the room layout to some extent, were already decided.

The £500 first prize was awarded in May 1900 to railway employees James Fawcett and H. P. C. Ashworth (Fawcett and Ashworth), whose design, named Green Light, was in the French Renaissance style. It included a large dome over the main entrance, and tall clock tower over the Elizabeth Street entrance, an entrance opposite Degraves Street, and two subways.

There was to be a roof over the platforms ‘supported by 12 columns’, of corrugated iron and with minimal amounts of glass to protect against the summer sun, though drawings have not survived. 

The Swanston Street elevation does survive, which shows an impressive three-arched roof running east–west, with a tall stained glass east end, which most likely was only to cover the concourse.

Work began in 1900 on the rearrangement of the station tracks, while the final design of the station building was still being worked on. Work on the central pedestrian subway started in 1901, with the foundations of the main building completed by 1903.

In 1904, in mid construction, the plans were extensively modified by the Railways Commissioners. The proposed train shed was replaced by individual platform roofs, and it was decided not to include the arched concourse roof. To increase office space, a fourth storey was added to the main building, which resulted in the arches above each entrance on Flinders Street being lowered, decreasing their dominance.

In 1905, work began on the station building itself, starting at the west end and progressing towards the main dome. Ballarat builder Peter Rodger was awarded the £93,000 contract. The building was originally to have been faced in stone, but that was considered too costly, so red brick, with cement render details, was used for the main building instead.

Grey granite from Harcourt was used for many details at ground level on the Flinders Street side, “in view of the importance of this great public work”. The southern facade of the main building consisted of a lightweight timber frame clad with zinc sheets, which were scored into blocks and painted red in order to look like large bricks. That was done to create corridors instead of what were to be open-access balconies inside the scrapped train shed.

Work on the dome started in 1906. The structure required heavy foundations as it extended over railway tracks. In May 1908, work was progressing more slowly than planned, with the expected completion date of April 1909 increasingly unlikely to be met. Rodger’s contract was terminated in August 1908. 

A Royal Commission was appointed in May 1910, finding that Rodger could be held accountable for the slow progress in 1908, but he should be compensated for the difficulties before then. The Way and Works Branch of the Victorian Railways took over the project, and the station was essentially finished by mid-1909. The verandah along Flinders Street, and the concourse roof and verandah along Swanston Street, were not completed until after the official opening in 1910.

The building had three levels at the concourse, or Swanston Street, end, and four at the lower Elizabeth Street, or platform, end. Numerous shops and lettable spaces were provided, some on the concourse, but especially along the Flinders Street frontage, many at lower than street level, accessed by stairs, which created a fifth/basement level. The top three levels of the main building contain a large number of rooms, particularly along the Flinders Street frontage, mostly intended for railway use, but also many as lettable spaces.

Numerous ticket windows were located at each entry, with services, such as a restaurant, country booking office, lost luggage office and visitors help booth, at the concourse or platform level. Much of the top floor was purpose-built for the then new Victorian Railway Institute, including a library, gym and a lecture hall, later used as a ballroom.

Those rooms have been largely abandoned and decaying since the 1980s. For a number of years in the 1930s and 1940s, the building featured a creche next to the main dome on the top floor, with an open-air playground on an adjoining roof. Since 1910, the basement store beside the main entrance has been occupied by a hat store, known as ‘City Hatters’ since 1933.

The first electric train service operated from Flinders Street to Essendon in 1919, and by 1923 it was thought to be the world’s busiest passenger station, with 2300 trains and 300,000 passengers daily. 

In 1954, to cater for increasing traffic, as well as for the 1956 Summer Olympics, the Degraves Street subway from the station was extended to the north side of Flinders Street, creating Campbell Arcade. In March 1966, platform 1 was extended to 2,322 feet (708 m) long.

Source: Wikipedia

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

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