Steel Tramways in Kingston

The Moorabbin Roads Board was created in 1862 with the prime task of constructing and maintaining roads in the district. To enable it to undertake these responsibilities the Board was given the power to charge road users tolls and to collect rates from property owners. On its establishment in 1871, the Shire of Moorabbin, assumed these responsibilities as the successor to the Board.

A major problem for the Shire was the constant deterioration of major roads due to the traffic that they carried. The area had many market gardeners who regularly and frequently transported their produce to the Melbourne market in heavily laden horse drawn wagons, often returning home with loads of manure. The other major group of users were the nightsoil contractors bringing in human waste from the inner city areas to be trenched and covered in the sandy soil of the municipality. The wheels of these heavy riveted steel tanks, drawn by horses, carrying several tons of human effluent cut into the often poorly formed roads. The principal thoroughfare, Point Nepean Road, in the 1880’s was in a bad condition being a succession of deep hollows and ruts.

Trenching the Night Soil.

It was Councillor Henry Comport, a member of the Moorabbin Shire Council, who raised the possibility of using tramways as a means of reducing damage to roads. [1] These tramways consisted of two iron strips mounted on red gum sleepers, embedded in the roadway, between which the horses could walk pulling their heavy loads.

Comport was persistent in promoting the cause, pointing out that Nepean Road between Brighton and the Plough and Harrow Hotel was almost impassable shortly after the Moorabbin Shire Council had paid £500 for metal. [2]. He argued that the State government should be urged to give municipalities the power to construct these tramways. His fellow councillors were convinced and as a result the Council decided that the district’s parliamentary representatives should be asked to act to have appropriate powers incorporated into the new local government legislation being drafted at that time. [3] In addition, the Secretary of the Council was instructed to write to the Boroughs of Brighton, St Kilda, Prahran and the Town of Melbourne seeking their cooperation in this matter. [4]

Representatives from the municipalities met under the chairmanship of Comport to examine the proposal. Drawing upon the experience and costs of the Brunswick tramway used by the potteries, the proposal was rejected as being too expensive. One participant was quoted as saying “The Bank of England was required to finance the scheme.” [5]

More than a year later the local parliamentarians, Thomas Bent and John Keys, introduced a deputation to the Minister of Public Works, Alfred Deakin, seeking financial assistance for their scheme to construct a steel roadway along Point Nepean Road between the Elsternwick Hotel and the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Moorabbin. The Brighton members of the delegation indicated their intention to invest nearly £5000 in the project while the Moorabbin Shire had voted £300. To this sum the delegation argued the Government should contribute at least pound for pound towards the total cost as the road was principally used by the Mordialloc and Schnapper Point traffic. It was claimed that less than one third of the Brighton rate payers used the road; hence the reasonableness of their request. Although Alfred Deakin said he was favourably disposed towards their proposal he indicated their request was breaking new ground and he would have to consult the Cabinet before a decision could be made. [6] The Shire Council was informed that a sum of £800 was placed in the estimates of the Public Works Department for the construction of a tramway on Point Nepean Road in 1885 [7]

The first section of the tramway in the Borough of Brighton, stretching from the six mile post near Asling Street to the intersection of Bay Street, was opened by Thomas Bent on March 23, 1885. It was at Bay Street that Bent drove the last spike and declared the tramway open for traffic on the same day as he laid the foundation stone of the new Brighton Town Hall. [8] He took the opportunity in his speech to tell the assembled crowd that he and his fellow councillors wished to see the tramway ultimately stretching from Mordialloc to Melbourne. [9] David Munro and Company had submitted the successful tender to build this section of the tramway at the cost of £2600.

Not all Brighton people were happy with the actions of Bent. Cornelius Lister, a Brighton ratepayer, tea merchant in the City, and a frequent correspondent to the Brighton Southern Cross, expressed his concern at the amount of money being spent on this major thoroughfare to the City when the roads in the Borough were being ‘shamefully neglected’. He questioned the objectivity of Thomas Bent because of the two roles he filled, one as Mayor of the Borough of Brighton and the other as President of the Shire of Moorabbin. Lister believed Bent could not serve two constituencies where the interests were not completely shared, although others were very supportive and appreciative of Bent’s actions. [10] Thomas Bent had previously claimed the road maintenance costs had plunged from £1000 per year to an amount less than £50 as a consequence of the construction of the tramway. [11]

Prior to the completion of the first section of tramway between Elsternwick and Bay Street, the Shire Council of Moorabbin, on the motion of Thomas Bent, had agreed to pay half the costs of extending the tramway from Thomas Road to the Plough and Harrow Hotel at South Road. The Brighton Council was informed of this decision together with the Moorabbin Shire expectation that the cost would not exceed £600. [12] In addition they indicated that the tramway be laid on the right hand side of the road going to Melbourne with the road being reconstructed. [13] Bent reported to the Moorabbin Council in December of 1884 that the Brighton Council had accepted tenders for the tramway. [14]

After the completion of the first section, a few others sectors on Point Nepean Road quickly followed. Bay Street to Mill Street, for example, was constructed but it was almost eight years before Cr Smith as president of the Moorabbin Shire informed Brighton that they would pay their promised contribution towards the construction of the tramway on Centre Road and Cummins Lane. [15] Other extensions involved South, Wickham and Keys roads.

The Wesleyan Church, Wickham Road, Moorabbin with tramway in foreground c1900.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

In 1890 the Shire Council was informed that Arthur Knight and John Slater had collected £12.10s from H Dale, £10 from Wing Chang, and £6 from Knight towards the cost of a tramway on Centre Road. [16] Three years later the President of the Council reported that he, Cr Abbott and the Secretary had interviewed Mr Carr, the night soil contractor for the City of St Kilda, about his promised offer of £100 towards the cost of construction but found that Mr Carr was ‘neither willing nor able to pay’. Mr Carr was a major user of the road as the depot for depositing nightsoil collected in St Kilda was near the corner of Warrigal and Centre roads. [17] The Shire Council then approached the St Kilda Council in December seeking a donation of £300 toward the work. [18]

The Shire Engineer reported to the May 21, 1894 meeting of Council that he, together with Councillors Burgess and Mills, had met with the Mayor of St Kilda and agreed that St Kilda Council be allowed to erect stables on their Depot Land and in return St Kilda would pay 3/7 of the cost of laying 27 ½ chains of plateway.. The plan included using old tram plates offered for sale by the City of Melbourne, rather than using new plates, in an effort to contain the cost. [19] At a subsequent meeting the President reported that he had met with the Mayor of Oakleigh who agreed that his council would pay its proportion of the cost after the close of the present financial year. [20]

Tramway at Centre Road near intersection with Tucker Road. St John’s Anglican Church is to the left. 1891.

By 1899 a correspondent in the Brighton Southern Cross was complaining about the condition of the tramway in St Kilda and Centre roads claiming it was in a deplorable state. Initially he thought the tram was to be “a thing of beauty and a joy forever” but later realised this thought was a little premature as he was currently facing the question as to whether he would get home without a broken axle. Along the sides of the plates huge holes had been worn and ruts sometimes hundreds of yards in length had to be negotiated. He argues that once a gardener’s fully laden truck got off the plates it was “utterly useless and folly attempting to get on them again.” The problem was increased when the gardener had to make way for the heavily laden night soil carts travelling in the opposite direction. With a wheel caught in the ruts at the side of the plates it was impossible to give way without breaking an axle. [21]

Heavily laden market gardener’s wagon. Courtesy Ken Marriott.

Despite these problems of maintenance other market gardeners in the area pressed Council to construct more tramways. On October 15, 1906 Council received a delegation from ratepayers arguing that a steel tramway be constructed on Centre Dandenong Road. Mr G T Allnutt, one of the delegates, advocated the construction of about a mile of steel track along Centre Dandenong Road from the Creamery towards Dandenong.[22] At the meeting held the following month Council approved the borrowing of £2000 of which £1400 was to be allocated to the Centre Dandenong Road project. [23]

The Allnutt home in Centre Dandenong Road, From Left Jospeh Allnutt, George T Allnutt and friend. Courtesy Len Allnutt.

Early the following year S J Kingston notified the Council that the local ratepayers had accumulated the promised contribution so the Secretary of the Council was directed to make enquiries as to the price of tramway plates. [24]. In July of 1907 a deputation was once again heard by the councillors. On this occasion G T Allnutt argued for the construction of two chains of steel tramway down Centre Dandenong Road as an experiment. His argument was clearly persuasive as the Council agreed with the request and moved that the necessary materials be procured to implement the decision.

The new experimental section of the plateway was generally well received but there were concerns from some people about the width of the plates, the gauge, and the placement of the rails in relation to the road. Seven inch plates were used rather than eleven inch plates used in other places. Although Councillor Le Page thought the eleven inch plates had some advantages he recognised the smaller units had not had a fair trial. His colleague Councillor Mills was of the view that if the track between the rails was laid down properly and the horses kept to the track the smaller rails would be sufficient. He was aware, like others, that gardeners generally had a snooze as the undirected horse drawing the load to market often did not keep to the centre of the track. The solution he thought was to change the distance between the rails. These two councillors together with other elected representatives were aware that ratepayers were anxious to get as much tramway as possible for their money so economic considerations influenced their decisions. [25]

The ‘Heatherton Correspondent’ in the Moorabbin News wrote of the frustration being experienced by gardeners with the state of Centre Dandenong Road, when he claimed, “it is very difficult to understand how such an important road as the Centre Dandenong Road could be at the present time in such a badly kept state.” He pointed out that the road was almost impassable during the wet season and there were times when two horses were needed to traverse sections of the road. [26] In an article published the following week, the reporter pointed out that there was £200 in a bank account contributed by the residents, the Council had agreed to borrow the money necessary to complete the task, and a trial had thoroughly and successfully tested the plateways with heavy loads. In addition the Premier had promised £100. Given these circumstances, the correspondent wondered when people would have the satisfaction of seeing the promised tramline laid from the Moorabbin Road towards Boundary Road. [27]

At the November meeting of Council the tender of Lohmann & Co for the supply of 1 ¼ miles of steel rails for the Centre Dandenong Road Tramway at £860 per mile was accepted. [28] and at the following meeting Council agreed that the Engineer should put on all the necessary and available day labour on the task of laying the rails. [29]

The steel rails supplied by Lohmann & Co for Centre Dandenong Road, Heatherton.

The tramway or plateway in Centre Dandenong Road differed from those constructed earlier. Red gum sleepers were not used. Sections of the plates of rolled steel were joined together using fishplates and bolts, then inverted and filled with concrete before being placed on a bed of concrete where it was held firmly in place permitting heavily loaded wagons to proceed safely. The raised lip on the outside of plate was sufficient to hold firmly the wheels of the wagon in place as the horse hauled the load often without direction by the driver. A Moorabbin News reporter recalled that hammocks would be slung beneath the load so hard worked gardeners could sleep while the horses plodded all through the night to arrive at the market by dawn. [30]

These tramways or plateways continued to serve the market gardener community and night soil contractors for many years, but with the improvement in road construction and the increasing prevalence of motor vehicles they became redundant. In addition, over time, there were an increasing number of people complaining about their poor maintenance and the danger they constituted to normal traffic on the roads. A report in the Moorabbin News of 1913 referred to the poor condition of Point Nepean Road and the fact that few vehicles used the tramway. [31] Gradually the network of plateways was removed. In 1918 the Brighton Council called for tenders to purchase metal tram plates that they had removed from Point Nepean Road and stored and stacked at their Council depot. [32] This was followed by agitation from some residents for the removal of other sections of the plateway believing it was a factor in the deteriorating condition of the road. [33] By December 1925 the Moorabbin News was able to report that the last of the strips of metal on Point Nepean Road had been lifted. [34]

A remnant of the steel tramway track in Centre Dandenong Road, Heatherton, opposite the Moorabbin Airport in the 1970s.

It was in 1934 that the Country Roads Board wrote to the Moorabbin Council requesting that the existing tram plates in Centre Dandenong Road be removed. [35] The Council noted this request but it was not until the following year when the road was being reconstructed that this was done, saving a section as a border strip. This saved strip became the focus of attention in the early 1990s when the National Trust nominated the remnant for addition to the Register of Historic Buildings, arguing that this piece was “the only known surviving evidence of a once important network.” [36] The Moorabbin Council supported the preservation of the strip but wanted it relocated to the northern nature strip and the creation of a static display within the Kingston Heath Reserve. [37]

The section of plateway was integrated into the nature strip and is seen today outside the Capital Golf Course. Pieces are on display at Box Cottage, the home of the Moorabbin Historical Society and pieces discovered at the Cheltenham Golf Course can be viewed at the museums of the Chelsea and Mordialloc historical societies.

Ken Smith (right) and colleagues retrieve a piece of tram plate from the Cheltenham Golf Course 1998.


  1. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 4, August 28, 1882.
  2. Brighton Southern Cross, June 29, 1900.
  3. With the proclamation of the Local Government Amending Acte 1884 local councils were able to borrow money to undertake construction of pavements of iron steel wood or stone on any street or road.
  4. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 4, October 9, 1882, page 388.
  5. Brighton Southern Cross, June 29, 1900.
  6. Brighton Southern Cross, June, 1884.
  7. Brighton Southern Cross, November 21, 1885.
  8. This spike, chrome plated and presented to Thomas Bent, is now held in the City of Kingston historical collection.
  9. Brighton Southern Cross, March 28, 1885.
  10. Brighton Southern Cross, June 12, 1886.
  11. Brighton Southern Cross, April 24, 1886.
  12. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 5, June 31, 1884.
  13. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 5, June July 28, 1884.
  14. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 5, December 22, 1884.
  15. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 8, October 3, 1892.
  16. Brighton Southern Cross, July 12, 1890.
  17. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 8, 1893.
  18. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 8, June 4, 1894.
  19. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 8, December 4, 1893.
  20. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 8, July 2, 1894.
  21. Brighton Southern Cross, July 15, 1899.
  22. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book, October 15, 1906.
  23. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 12, November 19, 1906, page 473.
  24. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book 13, January 21, 1907, page 4.
  25. Moorabbin News, February 15, 1908.
  26. Moorabbin News, July 4, 1908.
  27. Moorabbin News, July 11, 1908 – Members of the Committee raising the money were: Messrs Allnutt, Stooke, Kingston, Dyer, Kelly, Harris, Gartside, Shields and Brownfield.
  28. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book, November 2, 1908.
  29. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book, February 15, 1909.
  30. Moorabbin Standard, October 6, 1992.
  31. Moorabbin News, May 17, 1913.
  32. Brighton Southern Cross, July 13, 1918.
  33. Brighton Southern Cross, July 20, 1918.
  34. Moorabbin News, December 19, 1925.
  35. Shire of Moorabbin, Minute Book, June 5, 1934, page 198.
  36. Former Tram Plateway Centre Dandenong Road, Cheltenham East/Heatherton, City of Moorabbin – 20/5/1992.
  37. Dack, P., Market Gardeners Wagon Rail – Centre Dandenong Road, Heatherton, 1992, City of Moorabbin.
27 June 2018
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