Winning Friends: Mentone Station Gardens

Mentone Station Gardens and Como Parade with Kilbreda College tower in distance, 2005.

When Mentone station was built, a strip of land on the ‘upside’, adjacent to the station, was left vacant. Eventually, after the new building was erected in 1914, trees, shrubs and other plants were put in place throughout what then became the ‘station gardens’.

This small park was altered in content a few times over the last ninety years or so, the biggest change being the building of several shops at the southern end in the mid-thirties, each having a frontage on Como Parade West. This reduced the size of the station gardens. For many decades the remaining gardens offered a space for passive recreation, and the tall Norfolk Island pine tree with the palm trees alongside became quite a picturesque backdrop to the shopping centre. It came as quite a shock when all this was threatened with extinction in 2002.

The Transport Interchange Proposal

In the early months of 2002, rumours and then definitive statements began to circulate in Mentone that the railway station gardens were to be re-developed into a Transport Interchange facility that would take buses off Como Parade West into a large terminal with covered waiting areas. The justification for this plan concerned making the area in front of shops more open for car parking, and free of noise from the many coaches that stopped there for passengers. It soon became obvious that the Bracks State Government had allocated money for this project as part of its scheme to get people off the roads and on to public transport.

Back in March 2000, Peter Batchelor, as Transport Minister, had issued plans for bus/rail interchanges at several stations including one at Mentone. Kingston Council, in 2001, set up a Transport Interchange Advisory Committee to discuss details of the projected structure. State Government had allocated $200,000 (later raised to $300,000) for the scheme to go ahead with an equal amount to be spent by Kingston Council. The advisory committee included Council officers, Councillors, the Mentone Chamber of Commerce and other shopkeepers directly affected by the new Interchange.

By October 2001, the Mentone Transport Advisory Committee was fully developed and its members included: Trevor Clarke, Brad Garfield, Julian Harding, Mark Pearman, Barry Squire, Richard Atkinson and Geoff Russell (all traders), and Topsey Petchey, Cameron Bragg, Robert Stainforth, Warren Ashdown and Tony Rijs (Councillors and Council staff). Nigel Lawson, a traffic consultant, was co-opted as well.

Discussions went on throughout 2001 and 2002 with six detailed plans for the Interchange being considered. There was no agreement on the best option. One plan had only the southbound buses entering the new facility on what is the station gardens site. Other options involved all of the buses using the Interchange. All of the schemes were complicated by the need to change traffic light operation and allow for pedestrian safety around the terminal. The plans were submitted to bus companies, Ventura and Grenda, for their perusal, as well as being looked at by the bus drivers’ union representatives.

It should be said that many of the Mentone traders supported the proposal. The Mentone Chamber of Commerce fully backed the Interchange construction, its president, Ian Shiell, saying that it would improve pedestrian safety, stop bus exhaust fumes from wafting into the nearby shops, and improve lighting near the station, as well as adding beautification to the area. He said that only one tree would be lost as the palms would be replanted at one end of the facility together with extra trees. However, the Council’s advisory committee had one or two dissenters who opposed the plan. Foremost was Julian Harding, the owner of Alfred Moore Hairdressing, who opposed the whole idea of altering the gardens, saying the trees added character to Mentone with their picturesque backdrop to the shopping centre.

By mid-2002, the plans for the changes at Mentone Station became more widely known and people outside the domain of the shopkeepers and the Council became concerned about what was being planned. Julian Harding was a key part of this and he attracted the support of the Mordialloc and District Historical Society whose members unanimously opposed the terminal construction. One member, Sheila Johnston, a Mentone resident since 1930, rallied other older Mentone people to fight against the destruction of the gardens. As the latter half of 2002 began, in Mentone there was an undercurrent of uncertainty, disappointment and even distrust over the prospect of this huge change to the hub of the town.

Politicians Join The Dispute

The Transport Interchange dispute became a hot political issue during the latter half of the year. Sensing community disapproval of the plan, Geoff Leigh, the Shadow Transport Minister, began to make strong condemnations of what the government, and Peter Batchelor in particular, had put forward. In July, a Leader article quoted Leigh using very strong language to condemn the plan, saying that the Bracks Government was committed to the construction come what may. He attacked Batchelor, the Transport Minister, for not considering a terminal on the other side of the station that would leave the gardens untouched. During the next few months the issue was discussed in many forums and formal opposition increased through petitions and letters to local papers. Mentone-Parkdale Village Committee and the historical society were quoted in the Mordialloc-Chelsea Leader voicing strong opposition. Dorothy Booth, as chairperson of the Mentone-Parkdale Village Committee, contacted Topsey Petchey, the Mayor, and the Council administrators asking them to inform the public about what was planned for the Mentone Station development. She was expressing the concern that many others felt, an awareness that planning was going on involving only a few insiders, possibly leading to a fait accompli. The gardens and the stately trees would be bulldozed and no one would have had a chance to do anything about it.

Kingston Council debated the issue throughout this period, trying to produce a solution that would suit those who wanted a new terminal as well as those who wanted the trees kept safe. In September and October the plans were modified, but the Mayor, Topsey Petsey, remained uncertain whether they satisfied those who had objected to the scheme and the council still did not give its approval, despite some councillors being in favour of the development. A complicating factor was the creation by Council at that time of a Significant Trees and Vegetation Register. People argued that the station trees were highly significant and could not be sacrificed when others, less significant, were being protected. It was pointed out that the Canary Island palm and the Norfolk Island pines had been planted at least 80 years ago and were significant to Mentone’s environment.

Up until November, Peter Batchelor’s department seemed determined to go ahead with the terminal despite opposition to the latest plans by a local member of the ALP government, Janice Munt. She wanted a terminal, but not at the expense of the trees, and sought assurances from Peter Batchelor that the Interchange would not be built at the expense of the valuable trees near the station. Murray Thompson, a local Liberal member of State Parliament, expressed disapproval of the scheme, supporting his colleague, Geoff Leigh.

The November Rally

By the end of October, there was still no certainty over the building of the Transport Terminal. There was a feeling abroad that the Government would push the scheme through, regardless of public opinion. Yet there were also rumours that it could be scrapped. Opponents of the proposal wanted a straight-out removal of the scheme from the Government’s works program: they wanted certainty. A group that included Julian Harding, Sheila Johnston, Betty Rodstead and ex-Mayor, Reg Marlow, had worked solidly throughout 2002 to organise the opposition to any destruction of the station gardens. Letters to the press, personal contacts and a petition that ended up containing 1000 signatures all raised the profile of the dispute over the Interchange plan. One of the people brought into the campaign was Garry Spencer, an ex-military man who applied his organising skills to the struggle over the protection of the gardens. During October-November, he organised a large letterbox-drop in the Mentone area to publicise a rally planned for the 23rd November. He contacted a range of people to make them aware of the imminent loss of the station gardens. People were informed that the gardens were still at risk as neither Kingston Council nor the State Government had made a firm decision on the project and were procrastinating, seemingly watching what each other was doing and noting the growing angry community response to the scheme. On the Saturday morning of the rally, Julian Harding and others erected big banners in the station gardens, while the trees were bedecked with yellow ribbons. Garry Spencer arranged for helpers to hand out rally leaflets in Mentone supermarkets and on street corners. A crowd of 300 gathered in the station gardens from 10am onwards. No one from the State Government department that planned the Interchange accepted the invitation to speak in support of it, nor did the leaders of the Mentone Chamber of Commerce or any of its trader members. Janice Munt, local ALP member, stated the project would not go ahead without wide community support, while both Geoff Leigh and Murray Thompson, Opposition members, spoke to condemn the whole project. Elizabeth Larking, for Kingston Council, stated that the council had not committed itself to the development and called for it to be reviewed. Garry Spencer called the proposal an act of vandalism on the station gardens and appealed to people to keep up the opposition to the plan while there was still time.

Formation of the Friends Group

Shortly after this November rally the Kingston Council informed Dorothy Booth, Chairperson of the Mentone/Parkdale Village Committee, that in view of the shortage of open space in Mentone, and the opposition to possible removal of parts of the century-old station gardens, the Council had abandoned plans for the Transport Interchange and would be informing the State Government of this decision. This effectively killed the Interchange plan, despite some vague statements early in 2003 that the Government was still intent on upgrading the station facilities. The group led by Garry Spencer had won its fight to save the open garden space. Loosely, it had been known as the ‘Committee for the preservation of the trees and gardens at Mentone Station’, a rather unwieldy title. Already at the rally someone had called the group the ‘Friends of Mentone Station Gardens’ and this title caught on. Key members of the group continued to meet informally and to do clean-up work at the station, particularly the removal of litter and the weeding of garden sections. After the holiday break, in the early months of 2003, several of the ‘Friends’ met for meals at Mentone RSL to discuss action that could help maintain the station’s profile. Out of these discussions came the decision to create an official incorporated entity that would seek new members and design a coherent plan for the protection and upkeep of the Mentone Station and its garden surroundings.

On April 29th 2003, a meeting took place at the Old Bakery Museum to officially form ‘The Friends of Mentone Station and Gardens’. At that meeting, aims and possible procedures were discussed and the committee officially formed. It consisted of: Garry Spencer (Chairman), Dorothy Booth (Vice Chairman), Penny McGuire-White (Secretary), Reg Marlow (Treasurer) and committee members, Shirley Straker, Betty Rodstead, Sheila Johnston and Jeff Pickerd.

This foundation meeting was attended by two Kingston councillors, Bill Nixon and Rosemary West. Two other council officers came, as did a representative from Keep Australia Beautiful, Brian Klemm. That organisation showed great interest in the Mentone project, because at that very time they were campaigning to have local groups adopt railway stations and beautify them in any way they could. The ‘Friends’ joined this Stationeers campaign.

The ‘Friends’ group attracted many others who joined in support of the objectives that were announced at that first meeting and later printed in the local Leader newspaper. The meeting proclaimed six major objectives. These concerned the following matters:

  • Arresting the deterioration of the station and park resulting from inadequate maintenance
  • Taking action to curtail vandalism
  • Direct maintenance work to improve the appearance of the station and gardens
  • Listing of trees at the station on Kingston’s Significant Trees Register
  • Taking action to achieve the listing of the station and gardens on the State Heritage Register
  • Developing a master plan with the cooperation of the Victorian Government and Kingston Council for ongoing maintenance and improvement of the station and gardens.

As if to underline the importance of a ‘Friends’ group being formed, just prior to Christmas in 2002, several gum trees on the down side of the station had been cut down by the state government authority that ran railway infrastructure. Dorothy Booth’s letter of complaint over this was answered with the information that the trees had been damaged by storms several weeks earlier and could not be preserved. People disputed whether the trees really were dangerous or not viable; the need for a group to protect the station environs seemed more vital.

A Busy Foundation Year

Once the Friends of Mentone Station and Gardens became a group with a committee and an agenda, several other actions followed. The ‘Friends’ became incorporated, a bank account was established, and new stakeholders were brought into the membership that grew to over fifty. Led by Garry Spencer, and with Dorothy Booth pushing the ‘Friends’ cause at every opportunity, progress was fast and very effective. Monthly working bees began whereby group members cleaned up litter, pruned plants, weeded garden beds and treated the station and its gardens as a special public asset. There were contacts with the Kingston Council’s garden staff in relation to the care of the lawns, trees and garden beds that had been saved. Dorothy Booth also talked to many people in authority to gain support. M Train, the station owners, provided a small room on the upside for tools and other items to be stored. She procured $850 from a Federal Government Grants program that allowed many tools to be purchased for the Friends to use in their maintenance work. This allowed the working bee activity to include painting and other minor repair work. Graffiti was effaced as quickly as possible to discourage the sprayers, while taped classical music began to be broadcast over the station speakers on a continuous basis. Apart from its calming effect on commuters, it was thought that the loutish element might not appreciate it and go elsewhere for whatever questionable activities they had in mind. (Somewhere in the USA, owners of a shopping complex had discovered that playing Bing Crosby records over the PA had reduced the number of young troublemakers in the malls.) A local business provided afternoon tea for the working bee volunteers and this was just one example of how Dorothy Booth and Garry Spencer sought to gain the interest and support of local businesses and citizens.

During 2003, the committee arranged for insurance for all of its members, especially those on working bee activity, and also applied for the status of an incorporated body. The Certificate of Incorporation was issued on 4th December of the foundation year.

Station groups from other suburbs contacted the ‘Friends’ to be informed about what was happening at Mentone and how to implement changes. Dorothy Booth visited other groups to give advice on what actions could help make their stations better. The ‘Friends’ committee also secured an agreement with the railway authorities to staff Mentone station from 5am until 5pm on all weekdays. It should be remembered that during the 1990s the State Government had removed staff from many stations, and reduced hours of staffing on others.

In September 2003, a gathering in the Mentone Station gardens heard the mayor, Arthur Athanasopoulos, introduce State Minister, Mary Delahunty, who announced a Pride of Place grant of $30,000 for a major upgrade of the station and its surrounds. This was to be supplemented with $40,000 from Kingston Council. A wide range of community leaders heard speeches praising the work of the ‘Friends’ as a fine example of community involvement for the benefit of a local environment. Councillors, traders, police, railway executives and many others were solidly behind what the ‘Friends’ had worked for. The Transport Interchange was forgotten, seemingly by some of its erstwhile strongest supporters.

At the end of 2003, the Friends of MSG published its list of objectives for 2004. There were over thirty aims. Many of them were the normal care and maintenance items, but some were ambitious, and though a few have been forgotten, many imaginative improvements have been implemented since then. Some examples of the aspirations of that first committee include the following:

  • Murals on walls around the station
  • A sculpture to complement the Garryowen horse trough
  • To furnish the storeroom where working bee tools were held
  • To involve schools in working bees and other activities
  • To lobby the State Government for station refurbishment
  • To suggest removing station advertising and replacing it with artwork done by schools
  • To work for improved camera surveillance at the station
  • To seek funding from the Chamber of Commerce
  • A Butts Out program at the station
  • More funding for consumables from Kingston Council
  • To apply for heritage listing of the Mentone Station and Gardens.

Some of these objectives have been achieved in the last decade, but some, notably the regular involvement of the schools, have not. The ‘Friends’ moved on to 2004 very confident that they had brought welcome changes to the way citizens regarded the town’s transport hub. There was an optimistic view for future improvements.

The ‘Friends’ Develop a Permanent Role

Very early in 2004, ‘Friends’ adopted a distinctive logo for use in all notices and correspondence. There had been a debate for some time over this issue, but the logo that was chosen looked so appropriate and appealing that it soon became an asset for the work of the group. Dorothy Booth had enlisted help from an ex-colleague, Pam Barrett, a Graphics teacher at Aquinas College. She produced several designs, but the one chosen, featuring a train and a tree, was a winning one in all respects.

As the ‘Friends’ moved into their second year of activity, their work began to be noticed in the appearance of the green space at Mentone’s station hub. Gardens on the upside looked great, a result of liaison with the Kingston parks and gardens staff. Graffiti was removed very quickly and litter as well. During 2004, the Pride of Place funding allowed new paving, seating and steps up to the walkway entrance. Paths were improved and more vegetation was planted. The ‘Friends’ had input with the planners of this whole upgrade. By the end of the year the work was almost done, and despite some disagreements on minor parts of the renovation, the upside gardens and amenities looked better than ever. The Garryowen horse trough was planted with annual flowers that added a splash of colour, while working bees each month continued to achieve a neat and tidy appearance around the station environs.

During 2004, thanks to the ability of Dorothy Booth and Garry Spencer to persuade other people and organisations to join the ‘Friends’ campaign, there was an established coterie of willing supporters. Bunnings had supplied many tools for working bee activity, Safeway donated afternoon teas, Connex staff were cooperative, Kingston Council Outdoor staff helped, Cheltenham Police appreciated the ‘Friends’ fight against graffiti and vandalism, while local politicians of both major parties were eager to be seen as supporters of this community effort. Murray Thompson, Janice Munt, Ann Corcoran and Mitch Fifield together represented State and Federal government levels, and all praised the ‘Friends’. With all these people onside, the ‘Friends’ gained confidence and great work went on. The bags of litter, after working bee activity, were taken away promptly, Council provided mulch for garden beds, Connex staff alerted Dorothy Booth quickly about graffiti which was removed that same day, and police increased their surveillance of the station.

On Australia Day of 2004, Shirley Straker, an enthusiastic member of ‘Friends’, was named as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year. The Mordialloc-Chelsea Leader, announcing this, pictured her weeding garden beds with Pat Mutimer in the foreground of a working bee group. Just after this, in March, the ‘Friends’ and the Mordialloc Historical Society hosted a function, held next to the horse trough, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragic fire that killed Violet and Bill Murrell who were trying to save their horse, Garryowen, from the flames. Then, in October, the Mayor, a Connex executive and Garry Spencer introduced students from four local colleges who had agreed to paint murals that would decorate the shop wall in the station subway entrance. Kilbreda, Mentone Grammar, Mentone Girls’ Secondary College and St Bede’s student artists would later devise artistic local illustrative panels that gave tasteful colour to the station entrance. Depicting local features such as the pier and the hotel, the artwork was in place before October ended. The four panels are still there, having largely resisted graffiti disfigurement.

The ‘Friends’ Brighten the Whole Station Precinct

The third year of the ‘Friends’ work began with plans for enhancing the appearance of the downside areas, mostly carparks in the old railway siding site. With advice from Jill Orr-Young, Kingston’s landscape architect, the working bees in mid-year planted hardy tussock grass in the dividing spaces between the car parking bays, and two peppercorn trees were placed in larger end spots. Thorough weeding and litter removal, plus lashings of mulch, smartened up the strip along the platform fence.

Towards the end of 2005, Dorothy Booth was able to achieve a creative solution to a distasteful problem that had gone on sporadically for years. Visible from the downside platforms, a line of back fences belonging to the residences in Station Street had often been covered in ugly graffiti, mainly senseless ‘tagging’. It often remained for long periods. Dorothy, with the approval and support of Kingston Council, approached the owners of adjacent properties with a plan. What if a tasteful series of ‘artistic’ panels could be sprayed on the fences? The sprayers would then be enlisted on the side of those who wanted a pleasant station precinct. After much negotiation, four ‘aerosol artists’ came on board and agreed to paint the long brick fence near the car park after the owner gave the approval. The result has been a series of colourful paintings showing old and new trains, the old signal box and other station scenes. It remains today and has been defaced only once, showing the respect that less reputable taggers have for it.

Early in 2005, the ‘Friends’ contacted Metlink, the controllers of railway signage, and asked that a special signboard be installed at Mentone Station. It was very soon a reality. The prominent sign above the main entrance informed people of the station and gardens’ foundation date and the fact that the whole facility had been placed on Kingston’s heritage register. For a while the wrong date was shown, but the ‘1882’ was soon changed to ‘1881’, signifying the arrival of the railway in the town just prior to Christmas that year.

Other matters that came under notice during the latter half of 2005 were repairs to some sections of the station buildings, the continual littering by people who ditched the free MX newspapers all over the station area, and the vast ugly graffiti on the back walls of shops that were adjacent to the upside platform. ‘Friends’ volunteers painted the shop walls late in the year so that travellers now had a brighter vista as they waited for the train. Mainco, station owners, also provided bins for the MX papers around this time and allowed ‘Friends’ members to fix small items of damage around the station. Two enthusiastic recruits to the committee, Neil Blacklaw and his wife, were examples of working bee members who wanted to become permanently involved.

The year ended with a pleasant Saturday morning session of singing by a select group of songstresses from Mentone Girls’ Secondary College, just before Christmas.

State Heritage Prestige

After the New Year festivities and holidays of summer 2006, the ‘Friends’ had another reason for celebration. The notification arrived that Mentone Station and Gardens had been given State Heritage listing. Several months earlier a deputation that included Dorothy Booth, Sheila Johnston, Pat Mutimer and Leo Gamble had presented the case for heritage recognition to a panel appointed by Heritage Victoria. Dorothy Booth and Leo Gamble spoke in detail about the station’s historical significance from the 1880s till the present time. Its role in Mentone’s creation, as well as its focal function in the town’s beach resort attractiveness, horseracing past, and ongoing educational community, place it at the centre of life in this district. These points were forcibly stated. The panel eventually agreed and now a plaque is displayed to inform station users of this status.

Dorothy Booth, who provided the main energy source for ‘Friends’ activity, was re-invigorated by the heritage news and work went on with eagerness as the year elapsed. Dorothy began appearing on Southern FM 88.3 to spread news of work at the station. In March, Dorothy organised entertainment in the gardens. The Mordialloc Jazz Orchestra played on a Saturday morning, providing a free concert with big band era music and vocals for the shoppers and others who wished to linger around the pleasant garden setting. Many attended and enjoyed the show. Dorothy had two things in mind with this program: to publicise the ‘Friends’ work and to establish in the public mind that the gardens were for community activities and were being used that way.

Mordialloc Historical Society at this time began to provide posters that illustrated stories from Mentone’s past and these went up in the waiting room for train patrons to read. This began a series of beautiful productions created by Tara Proussard at Parkdale Library, the number of editions, changed regularly, now over thirty. It seems that many people can be observed reading these stories, so the idea to create them was sound.

There was much more going on in 2006 as a result of ‘Friends’ work. The Garryowen Horse Trough was re-surfaced and painted, the ugly waste skip at the end of the car park was removed because it attracted dumped litter of all types, and the station received a welcome coat of paint. The Annual General Meeting for the ‘Friends’ was held in the Oakleigh Room, high up in the Council’s Cheltenham office building, the result of negotiations with the mayor, Cr Bill Nixon, who was a strong supporter of the group. Graham Whitehead, the City Historian, was guest speaker. The Oakleigh Room was also venue for the AGM in 2007 when a police officer, experienced in the control of graffiti vandals, spoke on many aspects of this problem.

Mentone becomes a Premium Station

As the ‘Friends’ worked through their fifth year, many more improvements to the station facilities occurred. The downside platform’s southern extremity, where disabled people had to board trains with driver assistance, was narrow and difficult for wheelchair users. After lobbying by ‘Friends’ members, the platform, which earlier had given a narrow extension for the longer new trains, was widened so that wheelchairs could be put on the trains more safely.

It became known during 2007 that Mentone was to be upgraded to ‘Premium Station’ status. This meant that there would be staff on duty from first to last trains each day and facilities put in place for extended booking of country and interstate train services. Illuminated signs on both platforms, with train times and destinations shown and updated as the day elapsed, informed travellers more satisfactorily. This ‘Premium’ upgrade was in place by Christmas 2007. So also was the bud lighting that went into the Norfolk Island pine and this has given a festive appearance to the gardens every night since.

The year ended with a disappointment; the customary free sausage sizzle had to be cancelled because of rain. Nevertheless, despite this minor hiccup, the ‘Friends’ looked back on a very productive twelve months of valuable activity.

Leo Gamble
20 February 2019
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City of Kingston acknowledges the Kulin Nation as the custodians of the land on which the municipality is a part and pays respect to their Elders, past and present. Council is a member of the Inter Council Aboriginal Consultative Committee (ICACC).