The idea that Melbourne might have had the world’s first “skyscraper” seems most unlikely. It turns out that this claim was entertained seriously for a time in respect of the 53-metre high “Australian” or APA Building on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane, as seen above. Completed in 1889 (and, sadly, demolished in 1981), it was certainly one of the world’s tallest buildings – probably third or fourth tallest – for a time.

But once buildings started reaching for the stars, there was a problem: how to get people from the ground to the twelfth floor, safely, without using the stairs. Among all the world’s cities, far-flung Melbourne was one of the first to take full advantage of lifts.

A visit by the Vice President of the American Otis Elevator Company is said to have convinced several developers in Marvellous Melbourne that they would get additional rents for higher floors if they installed passenger lifts. Melbourne had a few lifts by the early 1880s, in buildings of 4 to 6 storeys.

In the days before electricity, the only two realistic options to provide the energy to lift people and goods were steam and hydraulics, i.e. water pressure.  Early hydraulic lifts were powered by “Yan Yean” water, from Melbourne’s first reservoir. Naturally, this was constrained by the maximum pressure at which water was delivered to homes and buildings. On the many occasions when the town water pressure was low, the lifts wouldn’t run, so some had their own steam systems as back-up.

However, a 12-storey skyscraper for the modern age needed a power source that was more reliable. In 1886, recognising a commercial opportunity, a group of Melbourne businessmen including George Swinburne, the founder of the eponymous College (now University), formed the Melbourne Hydraulic Power Company, ostensibly with the goal of providing high pressure water for fighting fires. Duly authorized by Parliament, they then spent thousands of pounds building more than 7 miles of privately-owned hydraulic mains, linked to a pumping station on the Yarra, under city streets as far as Parliament House.

Some architects and building developers opted to use the hydraulic power via a “direct action” mechanism, in which the water-driven piston carries the lift upward. Naturally, for a 12-storey building, this piston had to be 12 storeys long and had to be able to descend as far into the earth as it rose above ground. This meant lift shafts being excavated below the level of the Yarra! Hydraulic lifts were also subject to leaks, broken valves and failures, occasionally with fatal results. When directors of the Australian Provincial Assurance Association, including future Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, inspected the hydraulic lift in their new APA building for the first time, some governing mechanism failed and the lift shot upwards 12 floors, its skyward progress being stopped only by some stout springs at the top.

Up to 300 lifts were connected to the high-pressure hydraulic system at one stage, but eventually the Melbourne City Council began connecting electric power to buildings, breaking the Hydraulic Power Company’s monopoly. By 1903, the Austral Otis Elevator Company was making ten electric elevators for every one hydraulic. Council by-laws restricted the speed of electric lifts to 200 feet per minute, but were amended to accommodate the new-fangled electric elevators installed in the new Equitable Life Insurance building in 1896, which operated at 300 feet per minute. Today, the Eureka Tower in Southbank claims to have the fastest lifts in the southern hemisphere at 9 metres per second (or over 1700 feet per minute).

All of these lifts – whether hydraulic or electric – were initially manually operated, but there’s not a lot recorded about Melbourne’s lift operators. Important commercial buildings had liveried elevator drivers, who were often reputed to know every employee by name and more about what was going on in the company than many senior executives.

In the 1920s and 1930s at the Menzies Hotel, the only place where international visitors stayed in Melbourne in the first half of the twentieth century, Harold the literary liftman impressed visitors including H.G. Wells and Poet Laureate John Masefield with his knowledge of poetry and the classics.

At the Royal Melbourne Hospital in the 1950s, lift attendant Joy Knight had a secret button that allowed her to speed emergency cases direct from Casualty to the 9th Floor operating theatres.

As has been widely reported, Melbourne’s last known lift operators – Dimitri and Joan of the 1926 Nicholas building in Swanston Street – are about to go the way of their thousands of predecessors.

But there are still some remnants of the past in the form of a handful of hydraulic lifts (using town water) still operating in Melbourne. The best known is at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in St Kilda Road and dates from the 1920s.

Some sources for this information:

  • Cannon, Michael. Life in the Cities. Australia in the Victorian Age: 3. Nelson, 1975
  • Latreille, Anne. “The ups and downs in the world of lifts”. The Age, 3 March 1981
  • Lewis, Miles. Melbourne: The City’s History and Development
  • Annear, Robyn. Notes for A City Lost and Found