11 December 2010

sharing caring Australian Railways: 1910-80

In 1882 the Victorian government decided to build a new central railway station in Flinders St, to replace the station that had made-do for the first decades of Melbourne's settlement. A design competition was held in 1899, asking contestants for a detailed design for the station building only; the location of the concourse, entrances, the track and platform layout and the type of platform roofing had already been largely decided.

Flinders St Railway Station Melbourne, 1910

Work began in 1900 on the rearrangement of the station tracks, while the design for the station building was still at the competition stage. Decisions were made rapidly, with work on the central pedestrian subway being started in 1901 and the foundations of the main building being completed by 1903. By 1907 Flinders St Railway Station had 11 platforms, and two more platforms were to be added in 1909. The main structure, featuring a giant arched entranceway that typified Federation era buildings, was indeed completed by 1909, and the verandas and booking office were completed in 1910. Space for shops was provided.

Clocks still over the main entrance today

The iconic clocks at the main entrance of the station were part of the original design plans, and today remain in almost the same place as they were originally placed. Many ticket windows were located at each entry, with services such as a restaurant, country booking office, lost luggage and visitors help booth at the platform level.

So Flinders St Railway Station represented an extraordinary example of a public building. But here is the important thing for this story: apart from its main purpose as a railway station, the top levels of the main building included many rooms that were available for a range of activities for railway staff and the general public. In fact much of the top floor was purpose-built for the new Victorian Railway Institute, an organisation which opened in 1910 as a social club and a training centre for railway staff.

The Institute's crowded lecture theatre, pre-WW1 (State Library photo)

Why would the state government and the State Railways care about the health, education and welfare of ordinary working families, particularly those who travelled to the city by train each day? Apparently the Victorian Railway Institute developed partly as a response to the railway strikes of 1903; morale amongst railway workers was low and it was hoped that educational and pleasure-filled facilities would increase stability and maintain loyalty. Everything that the Victorian Railway Institute could think of was provided: a large lecture hall (later a ballroom), billiard room, classrooms, gymnasium, games room, reading room and a decent reference library.

Jenny Davies said its purpose was to provide extra curricular activities and self improvement classes to Railway employees as well as training for specific railway jobs. It was not compulsory, but it was recommended that employees try to learn new skills to enable them to gain promotion in the Railways. Classes in subjects like accounting and bookkeeping were provided.

So in a very real sense, the Institute operated like the mechanics’ institutes that dotted our countryside. There were lectures to raise the learning standards of people who could not go to a university or technical college; there was a serious library and games rooms. Only the gymnasium and ballroom marked the Victorian Railway Institute as a very posh social outlet in the heart of a big city. Even now, older Victorians remember the large ballroom very fondly; it was once used for elaborate dances that appealed to young couples before, during and after WW2.

The Institute's library (above) and
billiard room (below)

The most amazing gesture made by the State government towards working families was the children's nursery. It was established by the Railways Department in June 1933, to help mothers visiting the city. This nursery included a number of sleeping and play rooms, as well as a kitchen. An open air playground was on an adjoining roof. According to the Victorian Railway Institute’s records, five mothercraft nurses and an infant welfare sister had cared for some 50,000 children. Probably if it hadn’t been for WW2, the nursery might have continued offering its wonderful service to harried mothers.

The final straw for educational and social facilities inside Flinders St Railway Station came in the 1980s when Melbourne's transport management was restructured. The change of administration directly affected the role of the Victorian Railways Institute and, although it was given offices in nearby Flinders Lane, the heart and soul of the Institute was gutted. The library books disappeared, the gymnasium looks unused and the ballroom looks decrepit. The most amazing piece of community development in our 20th century history ended.

Read the definitive book by Jenny Davies called Beyond the Facade: Flinders Street. Many of the photos are due to the good archives of the Victorian Dept of Transport. Other great photos of the Railway Institute activities can be found in Melbourne Curious blog.


J Bar said...

Very interesting post.

Hermes said...

Railways were so important and went deeper than just a transport system. Perhaps for the first time, the classes mingled.

BigJack said...

I love our railway station. The outside still looks very well looked after, and is a central city landmark. But the ballroom is falling apart and looks horrible.

Hels said...

J Bar and BigJack,
Melbourne has some sensational architecture, doesn't it. Public transport has always been the heart and soul of the city, but I am surprised nonetheless that an Edwardian building has survived so beautifully.

You are correct about the old social club and training centre. What a mess :(

Hels said...

Railways were critically important for Australian cities, in particular, because we didn't ever have any citizens living inside the Central Business District.

As our cities became more populated in the later 19th century, so the suburbs became more dispersed and the trains became more and more important.

But now I have to consider how they became important for social reasons. You may have spotted a very important issue. Thanks.

Gillian said...

Great post & thanks for the mention.

What an incredible photo of the lecture theatre!


Melbourne Curious

Hels said...

Love your blog :)

I am an architecturally sophisticated Melbournian, but until reading about Beyond the Facade: Flinders Street, I had no idea about Victorian Railway Institute and its super facilities. Strange!

Thomas Ryan said...

Great blog entry and very interesting photographs!

Hels said...

Thomas, thank you.
In the first public competition for Flinders Street Station, the winning entry was later rejected by the Parliamentary Committee. JW Fawcett and HPC Ashworth won the second (or was it the third) competition, this time open to architects worldwide.

Even then, controversy was fired up, by the newspapers and by the architect of the losing entries! AND modifications were still made, after the winners started building.
Melbourne is VERY fortunate that Flinders Street Station turned out so well.

Hels said...

Now (mid 2013) the state government is looking at Flinders St Station again. Are they aware of the station's history?

Hels said...

For a much more informative photo of the full length of the building, see Melbourne Fresh Daily.