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Establishing a Railway Line to Mordialloc

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Steam Train at South Yarra railway station c1883.

At the end of 1854 the only railway line in the colony of Victoria was from Sandridge (Port Melbourne) to the town of Melbourne. It was constructed by a private company and opened to traffic on September 13 of that year. Later other companies were given approval to construct lines but by 1860 with the rapid increase in railway coverage, the government decided to step in and take responsibility from private companies for the development and operation of railways. On July 9, 1881 Thomas Bent was appointed Minister of Railways in the O’Loghlen government and over the twenty one months he was in that office Victoria experienced a huge railway building program, while significantly increasing its levels of debt. It was only five months after he was appointed to that portfolio that Bent officiated at the opening of the Caulfield to Mordialloc line on December 19, 1881. The following year saw the line’s extension to Frankston.

From the inauguration of the Government railways, and particularly after the establishment of the Railway Department, there was considerable political interference in management. This, Harrigan suggests, was because of the many Ministry changes that occurred. [1] From 1857 to 1883 there were 32 Ministers holding various titles, including Vice President of the Board of Land and Works and Commissioner of Public Works, or Commissioner of Railways, or Commissioner of Railways and Roads, and each dabbled in the management of the Railway Department. James Patterson, the Minister of Railways said he was tired of the political wrangling about the nature of the railway extensions and would have preferred that the routes be described on the basis of parishes traversed, rather than detailing them from allotment to allotment. [2]

On November 16, 1876 the Railway Construction Bill introduced into the Legislative Assembly made provision for the construction of thirty two new lines including one from Caulfield to Mordialloc, and authorized expenditure for the necessary survey work to be undertaken. Three reasons were accepted by Parliament to justify the construction expenditure of £40,916 on the nineteen miles fifteen chains track to Frankston. The first was defence, the second the existence of potential customers and the third was the need to provide rail transport to a proposed cemetery at Frankston. The view on the defence issue was that if Melbourne were attacked from Western Port Bay she would have to quickly assemble troops on the eastern shore of the bay to face the threat, and trains were the most efficient way to get troops to the site of the action. As far as customers were concerned, it was recognised that the area was rapidly developing with market gardens, orchards and small centres of population. The people living there required an efficient and cheap way of transporting themselves and their produce to the city.

Associated with the population argument, although not stated, was the fact that this line would open up new areas of land for sub-division and create new profit making opportunities for the astute investor. Several politicians and future politicians already had large land holdings in the area the line was to traverse or were exploring the possibility of purchase. Thomas Bent held a significant amount of land as did Charles Henry James, Benjamin Fink and George Taylor. At the time Matthew Davies was acquiring a taste for land speculation. One of his investment companies subsequently moved quickly, shortly after the line was constructed to Mordialloc, to acquire 255 acres from Herbert Balcombe in a swampy area south of Cheltenham. Later this was called Mentone. [3]

During the first reading of the Railway Construction Bill in October 1880, attention was drawn to costs of construction and the desire of the politicians to avoid the earlier situation where landowners extracted exorbitant prices for land resumed by the government for the rail lines. An answer to this, provided in the Bill, was to allow deviation of the surveyed route. [4] However this proposal was met with reservation by some members of parliament who, while recognising mistakes in the past, pointed to instances where the livelihood of small land owners was destroyed when the government acquired a significant part of their property. Mr Woods, a former Minister of Railways, said, “The House has the right to resume land for public purposes, on paying the owner the original cost and a fair amount for interest, but that it should not have to pay him the unearned increment, which belongs to the nation.” He drew attention to the claim of £4000 and £5000 for a strip of land through which a line was to pass. Through arbitration £400 to £500 was proposed but the owner laughed at the suggestion. The matter went to court and the jury awarded him £150 and he had to pay costs. [5]

A K Smith MLA suggest that it was a wise policy to keep the public ignorant of the exact route along which it was intended to construct a line, as, by that means, the operations of land speculators would be checked, and the land required for the line could be got at a more reasonable price than might otherwise be the case. [6] He went on to inform his parliamentary colleagues that some of the early lines were not properly surveyed. Only trial surveys were made, he suggested. It was three months later, in February 1881, that the Southern Cross reported that the route of the Caulfield Frankston line was being resurveyed with the expectation that the line would take a more westerly route than originally suggested.

By May of 1881 tenders were called for the project [7] and eleven were submitted, with Faulkingham and Bunn submitting the lowest cost estimate of £40,916/1/2. By August 1881 it was reported that the laying of rails had been completed as far as the Shire Hall in Brighton South (Moorabbin) and the contractor was pushing on vigorously with construction to Mordialloc. Although the construction of the bridge over the Mordialloc creek had not commenced it was expected at that time to have the line open to traffic as far as Mordialloc in the course of a month. [8]

The railway line, as constructed to Mordialloc, proceeded in a reasonably straight line south from Caulfield until it reached South Brighton (Moorabbin) where it darted across Point Nepean Road and tracked on the western side of that road until it reached close to Mordialloc when it resumed it eastern orientation. The route traversed was a controversial issue for many local residents as well as officers of the Railway Department. [9]

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Route of the Caulfield-Mordialloc railway line. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

The original surveyed route of the line detailed by J P Madden, the engineer in charge, was not followed in the construction although what he suggested was the less expensive option. [10] The report in the Argus indicated that the original route was very much straighter, traversed cheaper land, and was further away from a line that Bent proposed to run from Brighton along the coast. Six road crossings with gate keepers at a cost of £80 per annum each would have been required in contrast to the twenty two on the revised route. The Age noted that no one seemed to know why the original surveyed route was abandoned or who was responsible for the decision. [11] Martin, an engineer involved in the construction, denied rumours that he was responsible for varying the route at Cheltenham so that it came nearer to land in which he held an interest. In a letter to Mr Watson he indicated the decision was made by the former Engineer in Chief, Mr Higginbotham, the Engineer from the Shire of Frankston and Mr Walton the then Engineer of Surveys. While he acknowledged he was present at the meeting he stressed he had no involvement either directly or indirectly with the change of route. [12]

People from Friendship Square in Cheltenham were irate about the change of route and expressed their displeasure at the official opening of the line at Mordialloc by the Minister of Railways, Thomas Bent. [13] They had expected the line to traverse Holloway’s original purchase of Two Acre Village bringing the line closer to their properties and thereby improve their value and saleability.

Despite the anger directed at the Minister by individuals, the Brighton Southern Cross reporter [14] relieved Bent of responsibility for the changed route pointing out that he was not accountable for the apparent blunder because the construction of the line was almost finished at the time of his appointment. Nevertheless, this does not exclude the possibility that Bent used his influence amongst his parliamentary colleagues to gain an outcome he desired. His hands may not have been totally clean. [15] After all, his Brighton constituents wishing to maintain their exclusiveness were not in favour of a cheaper option of extending the Brighton line around the coastline to Mordialloc. [16] While Bent had purchased several allotments in Friendship Square in 1879, after the line was first mooted, he listed them for sale a few months later. [17] Perhaps Bent got wind of a possible change of route for the railway line and decided the opportunity for making large profits on this particular venture had dissipated.

Besides the fuss caused by the adopted route there was also trouble about the ballast used on this and other lines. A Select Committee was appointed by the parliament to establish whether the Commissioner of Railways, Thomas Bent, was guilty of corrupt conduct regarding several matters including the supply of ballast for the Caulfield-Mordialloc Line. Three thousand six hundred cubic yards of gravel had been obtained from land owned by Mrs Bent without either her or her husband’s knowledge, or so it was claimed. As soon as Thomas Bent was aware the gravel was being used for railway purposes, he ordered the cessation of any further supply, according to evidence he gave to the Committee. One of the conclusions of the Select Committee was that the available evidence did not disclose any improper conduct whatever on the part of the Commissioner of Railways. Margaret Glass in her book, Bent by Name and Bent by Nature, queried this decision. While Mrs Bent had bought the land at a land auction in May, in the year before her husband was appointed Minister of Railways, Glass claims Thomas Bent failed to explain all the circumstances surrounding this so called ‘purchase’ for the quarry paddock had in fact belonged to Bent himself. [18]

Prior to the construction of the line, On May 26, 1881, notices in the Government Gazette called for tenders for the building of stations on the route from Caulfield to Frankston. In those notices the stations were named Weritmuir (probably South Brighton or later Moorabbin), Warren Road (became North Road and later Ormond) and Hythe Street (later Highett Road), Subsequent Gazettes listed East Brighton, Beaumaris, (renamed Balcombe Road and later Mentone) Mordialloc, Cheltenham, Glen Huntly Road as well as listing Hythe Street, Warren Road and Weritmuir with changed spelling to Whitmuir. [19] The following tenders were received:

Glenhuntly, E. Cholerton £750;
North Road, E Cholerton £750;
East Brighton Road, J Shimmin, £830;
South Brighton, Davies and Batty, £729 10s.;
Cheltenham, Davies and Batty, £729.10s.;
Frankston D Spence, £776 10s.,
Mordialloc, Wm. Chaffer, £749.15.[20]

At the time of the opening of the line in December 1881 no station buildings had been constructed. This was because Thomas Bent refused to accept the tenders for the wooden buildings that were similar in design to those on the Shepparton line. [21] However, platforms and sidings had been formed. Although some of the houses for gatekeepers were still in the process of being constructed most had been built. A twenty thousand gallon water tank to supply the steam engines had been erected at both Caulfield and South Brighton and two bridges with three openings of ten foot each constructed between these two stations. It took some time before stations deemed satisfactory by members of the travelling public were built.

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Moorabbin Railway Station c1900. Courtesy Public Transport Corporation.

Mr Gossoon of Bay Road, South Brighton, wrote a letter to the editor of the Brighton Southern Cross in which he asked “our kind, good natured railway king” to erect a temporary roof or shed at Highett Road so as to afford some shade for those waiting for a train. He said he was aware that Mr Bent had ordered the erection of a building at Highett but so far no builders or material had appeared. He could cope, the scorching sun would have no effect on him, but he was pleading on behalf of the “fair daughters of Eve.” [22]

Almost seven years later Cr Vail expressed concern about the lack of suitable shelter at Cheltenham. His worry was not lack of protection from the sun but from the rain. He told fellow councillors he had witnessed several people standing in the rain on the Cheltenham platform awaiting the arrival of a train. There were several ladies amongst the thirty people waiting. The only shelter on the platform was a small box like office where passengers were refused admittance by a railway official. He urged his council colleagues to write a strongly worded letter censuring the Commissioners for not providing accommodation and requesting that the necessary shelter be provided without delay. [23]

The following year a deputation waited upon the Railway Commissioners urging them to provide better accommodation at Mentone. It was claimed that the buildings provided were of a temporary nature and very unsightly. The deputation pointed out that £2,800 had been provided in the estimates for station requirements at Mentone [24] so lack of money was not a hindrance. Nevertheless, it took some time before the deputation’s goal was achieved. The first issue of the Moorabbin News reported in April of 1900 that Young Bros of Moonie Ponds had been granted the tender to build the new station replacing the old ramshackle buildings that had been in operation for twenty years. The main building on the Melbourne side was to consist of a booking lobby, station-master’s, parcels and telegraph office; a general waiting and ladies’ retiring room with marble mantelpiece, and lavatories. A verandah, extending 66 feet in front, was also to be built on the same principle as the new one at Cheltenham. There was also to be a building erected on the Mordialloc side consisting of booking office, ladies rooms and a verandah to provide ample shelter. All were expected to be completed by the first week of June of that year.

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Mentone Railway Station c1910. Courtesy Leo Gamble.

An earlier deputation to the Railway Commissioners to that noted above occurred in May 1887. On that occasion the members of the deputation were urging the duplication of the Mordialloc line. They claimed it was important from a military point of view, for the safety of the passengers and for an enhanced financial return. [25] Mr Speight speaking for the Commissioners said they would like to see duplication of all lines but it was a question of expense. If parliament provided the money they would not hesitate in laying down the rails. While agreeing the traffic might be heavy in certain seasons, under the existing system no mishaps could occur unless a mistake occurred. Speight commented that there was not much ground for complaint when eleven trains ran per day to Mordialloc, and when responding to the request to increase the speed of the trains, he pointed out that the trains ran at 30 to 40 miles per hour and no train service in the world kept better time. He added, the number of places the train had to stop to collect passengers influenced the total time of the journey to Melbourne. [26]

During November 1887 it was announced that the government had allocated £36,000 to duplicate the line from Caulfield to Mordialloc. [27] The community welcomed this information as it removed the apprehension of collisions and it opened the possibility for a more frequent service because after the opening of the railway line to Mordialloc no Sunday service was provided. For many years public meetings were called in an effort to convince the Railway Commissioners that a more numerous train timetable was required. In addition, they hoped that the fare structure could be improved. Success on these issues proved elusive.

Two years later Cr Ward of the Shire of Moorabbin said the timetable for trains was a farce. Some passengers, he claimed, had often to wait two or three hours to catch a train. Oakleigh had four trains to Cheltenham’s one. Often trains ran to Caulfield but no further and after 9.30 pm no train left from Cheltenham to Melbourne. The expectation that the duplication of the line would result in improved service was not met. In fact, he believed the service was worse. [28]

Community agitation and efforts of Moorabbin councillors continued over decades for a more frequent train service on the Caulfield Mordialloc line and the provision of better facilities. Over time, parts of the line were regraded, new track laid, rolling stock improved and station buildings completed or replaced, but the operation of the line continued to be a political issue with various governments attempting to make it an efficient and cost effective system.

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Members of Chelsea Historical Society meet Centenary Train at Carrum 1982. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Harrigan, L. J., Victorian Railways to ’62, 1962.
  2. Railway Construction Bill 1876, page536.
  3. Thomas Bent was elected to parliament in 1871, C H James in 1880,and Matthew Davies in 1883.
  4. Railway Construction Bill 1876, page 539.
  5. Railway Construction Bill 1876 page 760.
  6. Railway Construction Bill page 761.
  7. Brighton Southern Cross, May 7, 1881.
  8. Brighton Southern Cross, August 20, 1881.
  9. The Argus, December 20, 1881.
  10. Madden is noted in the Argus article as the person responsible for the survey but at the time J Elsdon was the Engineer in Chief of the Department of the Railways.
  11. Age, December 20, 1881.
  12. Public Records Office 525-54-3017, 27/5/82.
  13. Sheehy, T., Mordialloc-Chelsea: Aspects of History, 1970 page 40.
  14. Brighton Southern Cross, December 24, 1881 Thomas Bent was Minister of Railways from July 9, 1881 to March 8, 1883.
  15. The Argus of October 23, 1881 expressed the view that Bent was responsible for the demise of the Berry government and the bringing to power of the O’Loghlen ministry. Margaret Glass in her book Bent by Name and Bent by Nature saw Bent as a man who ruthlessly used the authority of his position to achieve his own political and financial ends.
  16. Burren, P., Mentone: The place for a School, 1984.
  17. 8 acres – allotments 273/275/276 plus land originally set aside by Josiah Holloway for a National School, Brighton Southern Cross, June 15, 1879.
  18. Glass, M., Bent by Name and Bent by Nature, 1993.
  19. Government Gazette, September 2, 1881.
  20. Brighton Southern Cross, January 7, 1881.
  21. Brighton Southern Cross, December 24, 1881.
  22. Brighton Southern Cross, November 25, 1882.
  23. Brighton Southern Cross, May 4, 1889.
  24. Mentone and Moorabbin Chronicle, July 19, 1890.
  25. Brighton Southern Cross, May 7, 1887.
  26. Brighton Southern Cross, May 7, 1887.
  27. Cheltenham Leader, November 26, 1887.
  28. Brighton Southern Cross, May 4, 1889.

Article Cat. Events in the Past
Article Ref. 329

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