Melbourne’s “ghost” railway lines: The Outer Circle

At Deepdene Station...

Ever noticed a “Station Street” or “Railway Parade” in a part of Melbourne that’s nowhere near a train line? Or a strange bendy diversion in an otherwise straight road in the Melbourne grid? Or been stuck in traffic on the Chandler Highway in Kew and cursed the idiots responsible for building such a narrow crossing over the Yarra River at such a critical place?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you’ve had a close encounter with the ghost of one of Melbourne’s long-lost railway lines. In the late 19th century, despite having only a fraction of its present population, Melbourne actually had more rail lines than it does today.

OK, so you’re not an anorak-wearing trainspotter who’s excited by this kind of thing. But bear with us, as the bizarre stories of folly and outright greed associated with the construction and the demise of these rail lines say a lot about the kind of place Melbourne was just over a century ago.

The Outer Circle Railway is the most visible and best preserved of these phantoms. You can trace its course as a snaking curve across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, from Fairfield in the north to Oakleigh in the south.

It was first mooted in the 1870s, at a time when Kew, Camberwell, Glen Iris and East Malvern were indeed “outer” – sparsely-settled semi-rural areas – and it wasn’t actually meant to serve the region through which it passed. No, there were far more scheming commercial motivations.

Gippsland was an important source of resources for the growing colony, but a private company – the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay United Railway company – owned the rail line and Yarra River crossing from Flinders Street to South Yarra, and there was no line between Flinders Street and Spencer Street stations.

Individuals and companies with a variety of commercial and civic interests agitated for years for a new railway line as a way to get around this monopoly, crossing the Yarra at Kew, joining up with the line from Heidelberg, and getting cargo and passengers to Spencer Street and the docks from the north.

However, by the time construction began in 1888, the colonial Government had already bought the M&HBUR (for more than £1 million) and built a railway viaduct between Flinders and Spencer Street stations, so the need for the Outer Circle had essentially disappeared.

Why then was it ever built? Well these were the booming 1880s, the era of “Marvellous Melbourne”, and land speculation was rife. An 1884 Act of Parliament – later known colloquially as the “Octopus Act” – authorized a total of 66 new railway lines across Victoria. Two parliamentarians who had approved construction of the Outer Circle, Messrs Beaver and Munro, were said to have set themselves up to profit handsomely from land sales along the route.

Although the Outer Circle opened in 1890 to great fanfare, empty trains ran through empty paddocks. Then came the stock market crash of 1891 followed by an extended period of economic depression (is this sounding familiar?), putting an end to land speculation.

By 1893, parts of the new line were already being closed and the whole line was shut down by 1897. Sections of track were later re-opened: a steam train known as the”“Deepdene Dasher” ran between Deepdene (Balwyn) and Ashburton between 1900 and 1927. And part of the Outer Circle is still in use as the quaint but much-loved Alamein line that runs from Camberwell to the Gardiner’s Creek valley in Ashburton.

But it’s the ghostly remnants that may be of greatest interest to Ham Historian readers. Embankments and cuttings persist along many parts of the line, although strategic landscaping and planting has often been used to disguise them. But it’s pretty hard to hide a bridge or a tunnel.

The Chandler Highway road bridge is, of course, the original Outer Circle rail bridge resurfaced for cars. At the Harp Junction in Kew East, you can see one side of an old bridge that took High Street – re-aligned for the purpose – across the Outer Circle tracks, right next to Dunning’s timber yard which itself harks back to an old goods yard. There’s even a surviving signal box in the corner of the yard.

Canterbury Road bridge as it looks today

And there are deep, steep-sided cuttings in the Deepdene and Canterbury areas and excellent bridges under Mont Albert Road, Canterbury Road and some local streets. Canterbury Road bends to the north just east of Stanhope Grove solely to meet the engineering needs of the bridge-builders.

In other places, you can still make out the locations of level crossings, such as the one at Whitehorse Road where, in August 1923, the last train of the day to Deepdene struck the middle of a tram bound for Mont Albert at 11.30 pm leaving several passengers injured but, thankfully, none dead. It’s astonishing that there weren’t more accidents like this, given that level crossing safety depended on an inherently dodgy system of conductors and drivers stopping and waving red flags and lanterns.

In recent years, local councils have developed excellent walking and bike paths along almost the entire length of the Outer Circle route, with some informative signs highlighting the line’s history. You can get more details here.

Melbourne Recycled

Most Melburnians are very familiar with historic buildings that have been re-purposed over the years, for example, the former Customs House in Melbourne’s original port area (west end of Flinders Street) that now houses the Immigration Museum, or the original Melbourne Trunk Sewer pumping station at Spotswood which was very successfully transformed into the ScienceWorks museum.

And we also see numerous examples where the facade or shell of an old building has been propped in place while something new is built inside or behind it… or, in the case of the Melbourne Central shot tower, around it.

But many people probably aren’t aware that bits and pieces of many historic buildings and structures have been “recycled” – removed, packed up and transported to do duty in a new location or context. Indeed, in some cases, entire facades were taken down, the stones numbered and re-assembled on different buildings.

For years I drove past the large and imposing gates to the Victoria Park sporting fields in High Street, Kew East every day, unaware that these were the original gates of the Kew Lunatic Asylum, moved to their new location when Princess Street was widened. Learning this piqued my interest… what other recycled parts could I find around town?

Robyn Annear’s book A City Lost and Found tells the 100-year story of Melbourne’s first family of demolition and salvage, the Whelans, famous for their signs proclaiming “Whelan the Wrecker is here”. Being responsible for wrecking many of Melbourne’s earliest grand buildings meant the Whelans were often involved in disposing of the parts. Indeed, sometimes they relied on the sale of materials to make a profit from the demolition work.

The Colonial Bank of Australasia, built in 1880 of Malmsbury bluestone on the corner of Little Collins and Elizabeth Streets, was said to have had “the most architecturally handsome doorway in Melbourne”. Figures of Britannia and Neptune reclined above an arched lintel, supported by “a pair of muscular lackeys whose torsos dwindled to vague, leafy scrollwork”, as beautifully described by Robyn Annear. When the building faced demolition in 1932, the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects called for the doorway to be spared. But what to do with such a massive portal? The whole thing was dismantled, the pieces numbered and presented to the University of Melbourne. Somehow Britannia and Neptune missed the boat and just the lackeys and the archway became the entry to the School of Physiology that was then under construction. But when the Physiology School itself was demolished in the 1970s, the lackeys – minus the columns they used to sit atop – were relocated to the rather obscure southwest entrance to the South Lawn underground car park, just behind the Brownless Medical Library.

The 1858 Bank of NSW facade on the 1940 Old Commerce building

Next, the University took on an entire facade: the original Melbourne branch of the Bank of New South Wales built in 1858 was “stuck onto” an otherwise plain cream brick Commerce building constructed in 1940. This rather unsatisfactory approach was widely criticised and dubbed “facadism”… but it at least saved some of Melbourne’s past.

The Equitable Life insurance company building, on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets, built in 1896, was described as “the best proportioned building in the city”. But its grandiose style had become sufficiently unpopular by the 1950s (they called it “Americanised Renaissance”) that the National Trust did not object to its demolition (by this time it had become the Colonial Mutual Life building). A bronze statue of an Amazon-type woman – based on one on the Equitable building in New York – which had towered over the massive front entrance was saved and went to the University of Melbourne, first to its Mount Martha campus and later to its main Parkville campus, where it still sits in the gardens opposite the Baillieu Library.

But the “recycling” of these architectural scraps didn’t always lead to results that were incongruous or downright ugly. Beautiful Gothic stonework windows from the Royal Insurance Building at 414 Collins Street were salvaged by the Whelans when the building was knocked down in the 1930s and sold to Justus Jorgensen who was busy building the Montsalvat artists’ community at the time. Some of the huge windows and doorways now grace Montsalvat’s Great Hall, where they look right at home and contribute very appropriately to the feel of the place.

And then, of course, there’s smaller-scale recycling – no doubt hundreds of doors, windows, beams and timbers from long-lost buildings from Melbourne’s past have been re-used in new buildings or fashioned into furniture. Consequently, many of us may have “touched our history” without being aware of it.