Flinders St Railway Station Melbourne, 1910
Clocks still over the main entrance today
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)
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 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.