The Mentone Station Story

Steam engine with carriages, c1910.

The Early Years

The railway created Mentone. When the Victorian Colonial Government built a single track spur line from Caulfield to Mordialloc in 1881 it decided to put a platform next to Balcombe Road, at that time a track leading off the main road that had been used by Alexander Balcombe to access his cattle pastures. Suddenly there was another, and better, access to this area, the steel rails that brought the steam trains. A clever land dealer and also a member of parliament, Matthew Davies, saw the potential of this area around ‘Balcombe Road’, Mentone Station’s first name. In the early 1880s Balcombe’s estate was on the market and Davies bought a whole section of the present Mentone suburb and planned a new town, a seaside resort where land could be sold to affluent Melbourne residents and greedy investors, who tried to convince people that this town, named after Menton on the Cote d’Azur, was a new Riviera. The new town grew quickly during the 1880s with many impressive buildings appearing, not the least being the Mentone Coffee Palace (now Kilbreda) right next to the railway. The dreams of Davies and other land developers were shattered by the depression of the 1890s and Mentone’s boom days gave way to the much slower development of a pleasant bayside town. But the railway remained. The ‘Balcombe Road’ name for the station had been changed to ‘Mentone’ in 1884 and it assumed a central position in the town’s life, geographically and commercially.

For the first twenty years Mentone Station was a very rudimentary, functional structure. Initially it had one platform for the single track and a ticket office that was little more than a spartan shed. After six or so years the line was duplicated, so another platform for the ‘down’ side was added. This 1888 addition did not stop many people complaining about the station and the Victorian Railways in general. There was little shelter on the platforms and at times during the 1890s the public felt they were being treated like cattle. This description was actually applied to the manner in which those attending big functions in the city were made to travel. Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897 and the celebrations of Australia’s Federation saw people crammed into carriages called ‘dog boxes’, so the local paper reported. The latter occasion, in 1901, saw the Duke and Duchess of York come to Melbourne for the opening of the first Australian Parliament at the Exhibition Buildings and thousands went to the city, many of them from Mentone and nearby suburbs.

New Station Buildings and a Subway

By 1901 the rolling stock might still have been of the ‘dog box’ type, but Mentone had its new station buildings, erected the year before. The old sheds had been replaced by spacious timber structures on both the ‘up’ and the ‘down’ sides of the railway. By then the railway station had become the fulcrum of the town’s life. Horse-drawn vehicles were slow, and often gave an uncomfortable ride over the rough roads that existed then. All classes of people used the trains, even those who could afford the biggest and best carriages. The wealthy gentlemen of Mentone, solicitors and businessmen, commuted to their city offices by steam train for the first decades of the town’s life. Of course they travelled first class, away from the second class carriages where the working class people sat. There were also smoking and non-smoking compartments on these trains.

Another complaint of the early rail travellers in Mentone concerned the surroundings of the station. For the first three decades, footpaths near the railway were unpaved and people walked over muddy tracks after rain, and uneven surfaces at all times. When a ‘down’ line train arrived the passengers alighted and walked up to the Balcombe Road crossing and then through the area now occupied by the gardens to reach the main shopping area. This caused much annoyance, as well as dirty footwear. In 1910, after much lobbying by the wealthy Mentone residents, this problem disappeared when a subway, or underpass, was built to allow a short walk to Mentone Parade under the station itself.

A Fire and a Tragedy

In 1913, the large ‘upside’ station buildings were destroyed by fire. By early 1914, the new timber structure was in place and this pleasant example of early twentieth design remains today, albeit after many renovations and cosmetic changes. In 1914, a tragedy was associated with the early days of the new station and cast a pall of gloom over Mentone. It was caused by a simple mistake, but one with fatal consequences.

At this time, the Balcombe Road level crossing had timber gates that had to be opened and shut by hand. Since 1890, Mrs Robinson had been the gatekeeper. She shut the gates a few minutes before every train and the few vehicles that used the crossing in those days had to wait until the four large gates were opened again. Mrs Robinson was well known in the town and very obliging to everyone. The north end of the station had become known as ‘Robinson’s Crossing’ to locals. On Saturday, March 14th 1914, a large picnic party from a city firm had come to Mentone for a day at the beach. There were so many of them two special trains had been hired. Late in the afternoon the first train took half the visitors back to Melbourne and the second train arrived at the ‘down’ side platform. The locomotive then left the carriages and transferred to the ‘upside’ line before returning to the carriages in order to shunt them to the ‘upside’ line for the trip to the city. Loops between the lines and sets of points operated by a signalman in the new signal box allowed this to be done. The last part of the process caused the tragedy. When the train had been transferred to the ‘upside’ line just north of Mentone Station, Mrs Robinson, always trying to be helpful, let a waiting car and a cart through by opening the gates on one side of the crossing. The engine driver, unaware of this, was already reversing the train into the station. Mrs Robinson could not get the gates or herself out of the way of the reversing train and was thrown on to the track and decapitated. Mentone people were horrified at what happened. Many contributed to a fund that allowed a large gravestone to be erected over her tomb in Williamstown cemetery. At the inquest, the Coroner found her death was accidental, but criticised the train’s guard and the signalman for lack of vigilance. He also put some blame on Victorian Railways for employing a woman to handle heavy gates, and for the paltry sum of four shillings and sixpence per day. Adding to the sadness of this event was the fact that Mrs Robinson was about to be transferred to the Mitchell Street gates just south of the station because the Balcombe Road crossing was being mechanised. This would allow the gates to be operated from the new signal box that had been erected at the north end of the station.

Electric Trains Arrive

For forty years after its establishment Mentone Station hosted steam locomotives that hauled all the trains of that period. There had been moves to electrify the suburban rail network well before World War 1 began in 1914. It was a highly technical and expensive process. Some work had been done to implement German technology, but the war put an end to that. By the early 1920s, VR was ready for electric trains and built large sub-stations at key points along the lines, Mentone being one of these. Its sub-station, just north of Balcombe Road, was ready for the 1922 electrification of the Frankston line. (That sub-station is still there but it has been converted into apartments because developers, noting its extraordinarily solid structure, decided not to demolish it.) Throughout 1922 the large steel poles that carried the wires were put in place along the line and eventually the new trains arrived, at first being towed by steam trains to allow adjustments to the wiring that ultimately powered them. This work was done at night under the glare of floodlights. The red Tait trains, with their self-adjusting pantographs skimming along the overhead wires, began to replace the black steam locomotives, though for many years both types occupied the rails. In the twenties it was fashionable to use proximity to the electric trains as a selling point in real estate advertisements, or in other promotions of a district. It was a long time before the derogatory ‘red rattler’ tag was applied to the new wonders of that era.

Leo Gamble
23 November 2018
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