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Chapter Eight


Railways Linked at Albury: the First Step to Federation and First Break-of-Gauge.

Duncan Gillies replaced Thomas Bent as Minister for Railways on 8th March1883. The new coalition government was headed by the liberal James Service and Gillies was destined to last seven years and eight months in his job. Not only was his the longest term yet of any Railway Minister, he was by far the longest serving Minister in the whole history of the Victorian Railways.[1] Gillies had briefly headed the Railway Department in J.B. Patterson’s government, and had maintained his interest in railways during Bent’s incumbency.[2] With a workable majority in Parliament, Gillies was able to implement some far reaching reforms and authorise an enormous building program. One of his early duties was to represent his Department at the greatest official celebration yet held in Australia.

On the Wednesday 13th June, 1883 an imposing procession left Sydney in four trains. The first was the Vice-Regal train carrying the NSW Governor, Lord Augustus Loftus and Lady Loftus, the Premier, the President of the Legislative Council, the Postmaster-General, the Treasurer, the Minister for Mines and their secretaries. With so many dignitaries aboard, the railways Traffic Manager travelled on the train to ensure no untoward delay or disaster occurred! They were followed a block section behind by another special, but while the Governor’s train stabled at Wagga Wagga that evening to give its VIP’s a good night’s rest in local hotels, the following special rattled on to Albury, arriving sometime after midnight.

Back in Sydney, a third special of ordinary carriages departed at 7.50 pm for a long and uncomfortable overnight journey, and lastly at 10 pm the Parliamentary train of four Pullman sleepers and a smoking car steamed away, carrying about 80 politicians and friends in style. Next morning at Junee the Hudson Brothers’ showpiece Palace Dining car was attached to the Parliamentary train and breakfast was served on the move. Australia had never seen such a procession. All the guests were gathered around the imposing station building by late Thursday morning.[3]

One of the special trains at Albury 15 June 1883 with the grandstand to the left of station. Albury & District Historical Society.

But where were the Victorians? The ordinary morning train from Melbourne was augmented by three specials, the last carrying the Victorian Governor, the Marquis of Normanby, the Premier, Chief Secretary, Ministers of Railways, Mines and Trade and Customs, the Attorney General, and Justices Holroyd and Higinbotham (Thomas’s brother), plus other notables and principal railwaymen. This train included the twin State cars designed by Mirls, and two of the new English first class six-wheelers. It was an impressive sight; ‘one of the best equipped that ever left the Spencer street yards’.[4]

Unlike one of the earlier trains in which a carriage caught fire near Seymour, the governor’s special ‘sped along under the charge of Guard Bell without the slightest hitch.’ After the six hour journey, a short stop for speeches was made at Wodonga, then the hungry official party crossed the river on the temporary wooden bridge and arrived at Albury in full Morning Dress to the consternation of the NSW party waiting in full Evening Dress![5]

The sartorial mix-up at the Albury banquet. Melbourne Punch 21 June 1883, p.249.

This sartorial mix-up was a comic expression of the lack of harmony between the two colonies, but the differences in railway gauges now so apparent was tragic. Nevertheless it got the guests talking, and the main topic of conversation among them all was the need for Federation.[6] With the NSW and Victorian Governors, Premiers and a Who’s Who of 1,012 invitees, the event surpassed anything yet held in Australia. The engine shed was transformed into a banqueting hall, specially illuminated for the occasion with the new Edison electric light, as was the path through the railway yard back to the station platform. At a time when electric lighting was still a rare novelty[7] this was no small achievement, requiring the transport of three steam driven generators from Sydney and the erection of all the temporary electrical infrastructure to power about 200 lamps.[8]

The Victorian Governor addressing guests at banquet in the Albury engine shed 15 April 1883. Australasian Sketcher, 2 July 1883, p.125.

A temporary wooden floor was made in the engine shed, its walls being lined with canvas and a false canvas ceiling installed, all ornamentally stencilled. Shields, paintings and flags were hung, and decorations were everywhere. A temporary grandstand was erected outside the station building. And what a building! Albury boasted the largest station building then existing outside a capital city, and grander than anything in Victoria.[9] All the guests were given free travel passes to visit Sydney or Melbourne over the following fortnight, further encouraging the dignitaries to experience the railways. A new cord drawing the colonies together.[10]

From the governors down, the joining of the Intercolonial railway at Albury had the whole gathering talking about Federation,[11] and it was indeed the first great step towards that goal. Albury was widely referred to as the ‘Federal City’: the natural location for Australia’s capital when federation was achieved.[12] When it was finally achieved eighteen years later, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were all joined by railway, and Western Australia came on board with the promise of a line across the Nullarbor.

The temporary grandstand at Albury during the opening of the first Intercolonial railway on 15 June 1883. NSW State Archives.

The Railway Management Act

In the wake of the Hawthorn accident a large public meeting was held in the Melbourne Town Hall, chaired by the Mayor. Five hundred people unanimously resolved that ‘the management of the Victorian Railways should be placed in the hands of qualified and efficient men, whose independence and freedom should be secured as in the case of the Audit Commissioners…’ [13]In other words’ said The Age, ‘the leading citizens of Melbourne believe Mr. Bent to be neither qualified nor efficient’. [14] A few days later there was another public meeting in St. Kilda which resolved ‘…that the management of the Victorian Railways be vested in a head or board, free from political influence and control.’ [15]

Both The Argus and The Age had been insistently urging that railway management be taken out of the hands of parliamentarians. Their calls for reform became a crescendo after the Hawthorn accident. The Age blamed the Hawthorn crash on Woods and Bent.[16] The Argus absolved them of personal responsibility, but nevertheless accused Bent of clinging to a ‘worn out and dangerous political system’. [17] It warned that the community was ‘thoroughly in earnest and in no humour for half measures’.[18] Faced with this storm of criticism the O’Loghlen government introduced its railway management bill but resigned before it could be seriously considered.[19]

The ensuing election returned a coalition with a strong mandate to transfer management of the railways to an independent board. It was the biggest issue facing Gillies when he took the reins from Bent. Some favoured the option of leasing the railways to a private company, but most colonists wanted their railways to open up the country and assist settlement. So with leasing the lines for profit unacceptable,[20] the management would have to be given to independent Commissioners. But how could parliament then ensure that the railways would serve the public good? There were no precedents.

A government owned and administered enterprise had never been separated from Ministerial control: anywhere. In Britain the established model by the mid-Nineteenth century was the ministerial department with an expert non-political permanent head who did not change every time the government changed. All branches of the department reported to the permanent head, but he alone reported to the Minister. Not so in Australasia.

The government railways of each colony had an Engineer-in-Chief, but as traffic grew other branches were created which reported direct to the Minister. The Traffic, Locomotives and Workshops, Secretariat, Accountancy and Telegraph departments all reported direct to the Minister (also called the Commissioner),[21] who almost always had a most inadequate knowledge of railway working. Furthermore, the Ministers changed so often that any depth of understanding of their departments was impossible. In the 27 year history of the Victorian Railways they had had 32 Ministers![22]

No one remotely resembled a permanent head or general manager, although Jack Woods had come close to unofficially adopting that role when he was Commissioner. The trouble was that Woods lacked integrity, as did Bent. People had had enough and were clamouring for non-political and honest management. Although both public and politicians had more or less accepted this state of affairs, the spate of railway accidents had unnerved the electorate.

The colonies had long been accepting of political patronage. During debate on the Bill one member claimed he received thirty or forty letters a day seeking employment, while another claimed such applications for jobs made up three quarters of parliamentary correspondence. This together with nitpicking interference in the minutiae of railway operations occupied half the time of Members of Parliament.[23] But the meddling of politicians in railway management had been exposed as not only inefficient, but dangerous.

In its first twenty years the Victorian Railways had suffered accidents which injured 109 passengers. Train crashes in the next five years saw 335 passengers injured and five killed.[24] Even this may not have compelled parliament to reform the management of the railways; after all, there had been weak efforts to do something since 1876.[25] But when mixed with the detested doings of Woods and Bent it became a poisonous brew that threatened the whole parliament. The Melbourne Punch may have been exaggerating a little when they described the Act as ‘The only way to provide for the public safety’, but their cartoon showing Woods, his brake and Bent being kicked out of the railways was not far from the truth.[26]

The only way to provide for public safety’. Punch gives Woods and Bent the boot! Melbourne Punch, 14 December 1882. p.235.

But parliament did not want to relinquish total control over railway affairs. Gillies’ Railway Management Bill aimed to empower a Commissioner and two deputy Commissioners, but make them accountable to parliament, which would vet and approve all by-laws, fares and freight rates, and retain control over expenditure. The Commissioner’s reports would be subject to scrutiny by the Audit Commissioners, a body parliament had earlier established and which dimly lit the path to independent management of the railways.

But nothing like the administrative and executive rule by businessmen over such a huge state owned undertaking had ever been contemplated, and during the debates some disquiet led to amendments which retained government oversight of decisions affecting decentralisation, the protection of local manufacturing and the running of Sunday trains.[27] When the Bill finally received Royal Assent on 1st November 1883, no one realised what an extraordinary thing had been created. The Act merely referred to the Commissioners as managing the ‘Railway Department’, but the Victorian Railways was now a statutory corporation and it quickly became the model for the administrative revolution which followed throughout Australasia.[28]

Richard Speight: Chairman of Commissioners

No time was lost in seeking a suitable Chairman of Commissioners: applications were being received weeks before the Act was passed. Robert Murray Smith, Victoria’s Agent-General in London, had been given unfettered authority to find a suitable man and had put the word around the British railway companies that the colony was willing to pay well.[29] Ten days before the Governor assented to the Act, Murray Smith recommended four names to James Service, as his cabinet had reserved the right to make the final choice. [30] They picked Richard Speight, the Assistant General Manager of the Midland Railway Company, then the premier company in the British railway industry.

Richard was born at Selby, Yorkshire on 1st December 1839[31] the son of a the ‘much respected’ Head Clerk of the Midland Railway Goods Department, who died suddenly in 1850 leaving his wife bereft with a family to support. [32] So eleven year old Richard presented himself to a senior railway official and said, ‘If you will give me something to do I should like to help my mother.’ [33] He displayed remarkable talent, and by the time he was twenty was attached to the General Manager’s office. By 1877 he was Assistant General Manager[34] of the company, which by 1883 had grown to employ 47,000 people.[35]

The Midland gave him a lavish send-off, attended by 300 gentlemen, including the Earl of Derby, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. [36] James Allport, a Midland director, gave Speight a purse of 2,000 gold sovereigns and some other ‘minor gifts’ which constituted a silver dining service worth £800, and a gold watch and chain.[37] This magnificent golden handshake amounted to nearly twice his annual Midland Railway salary of £1,500.[38]

Richard Speight, Chairman of the Victorian Railways Commissioners. 1884. SLV, IAN20/02/84.28

Speight’s elder brother Thomas was an accomplished novelist.[39] Richard married Sarah Knight in 1860 and they had ten children: five sons and five daughters. But by 1883 his wife had been committed to an asylum in Nottingham, leaving his mother Ann with the care of his family.[40] With his mother and ten children[41] he left England at the end of December 1883 and travelled by train to Italy, avoiding foul weather in the Bay of Biscay. At Naples they boarded the 3,900 gross ton Orient Liner RMS ‘Lusitania’ for Melbourne. The voyage via Suez, Aden, Diego Garcia and Adelaide was a good one, taking 36 days.[42]

The ship was twelve years old and a pioneer of the new mail route via the Suez Canal, her double expansion steam engine supplemented by sails rigged on three masts which helped her make 12 knots. The voyage was mainly smooth but having left St. Vincent’s Gulf on the last leg it was frustratingly slow, fog and the dangerous Victorian coastline delaying their arrival, but nearing Hobson’s Bay on Sunday afternoon, 10th February the tugs ‘Rescue’ and ‘Kangaroo’ drew alongside with a welcome party of W.B. Reynolds, the Commissioner’s minute secretary, Gillies, the two assistant Commissioners and Paul Labertouche, the Secretary for Railways.

The welcome party came aboard and talked with Speight for two hours while the ship was anchored for the discharge of the mail. Only when all 328 bags were offloaded to barges was the Lusitania permitted to tie up at the Railway Pier, Williamstown. It was 5.30 pm and a special train awaited to escort the family to Spencer Street.[43] The following year Tom Roberts returned to Australia aboard the same ship and immortalised the voyage in his painting ‘Coming South’.

Life aboard the RMS Lusitania; Tom Roberts painted ‘Coming South’ following his journey aboard this ship a year after the Speight family emigrated. National Gallery of Victoria.

Speight might have been pleasantly surprised as he boarded the special train waiting for him and his family on the Railway Pier at Williamstown, but misgivings were literally around the corner. His train was probably comprised of Mirl’s twin Ministerial cars and hauled by William Meikle’s No. 100, the Commissioner’s engine and Williamstown Workshops’ first locomotive. But as No. 100 steamed past the jumble of corrugated iron sheds, sidings, scattered rolling stock and equipment that was its birthplace, it made a miserable comparison with the Midland’s fine workshops at Derby. It was a hot, overcast afternoon,[44] and a little further on they steamed past the vast 32 acre paddock at Newport. [45] Across dry grass, basalt rocks and a few scrappy gum trees was the lone Exhibition Annex, now serving as the new carriage workshop.

Speight was entering Melbourne through its sparsely settled backyard, skirting the dry lagoon of the West Melbourne Swamp near North Melbourne and as the Woods brake jerked his train to a stand at Spencer Street Station, he was at its back door. It was about as far removed in grandeur and style from the Midland’s masterpiece at St. Pancras as this antipodean colony was from its motherland. What had he brought his family to? But his first impressions could not have been better arranged; this was the mess he had come to fix.

Midland Railway’s St Pancras Station, London, contrasted with the Victorian Railways Spencer St Station, circa 1884. Getty Images & PROV H2892.

The Victorian government had employed Speight for seven years at £3,000 per annum, a remuneration not excessive compared with the salaries paid to senior railway managers in Britain, which ranged from £3,000 to £5,000 per annum.[46] The other commissioners were paid just half Speight’s salary, and were selected from local applicants.

Alfred Agg and Richard Ford: Commissioners

First chosen was Alfred John Agg, who had been an Audit Commissioner for the previous 26 years.[47] A grammar school educated Worcester boy, in his youth he spent about five years as a clerk with the Great Western Railway at Reading, but news of gold discoveries lured him to Victoria. Sailing on the barque ‘Ballengeich’, the 21 year old Agg arrived in Victoria after an 86 day voyage in August1851. Following a brief experience upcountry at the height of the gold rush, he returned to Melbourne.

Agg entered government service, where his career was meteoric, being appointed at age 27 the Acting Secretary for Railways. But his time with the infant Railway Department was short, as he was soon afterwards promoted to Under-Treasurer of the colony. A man of integrity, he was a gifted mathematician and part-time astronomer. Despite his meagre railway experience, his thorough understanding of the Victorian public service and government made him an excellent choice as Richard Speight’s lieutenant.[48]

Alfred John Agg, Victorian Railways Commissioner 1884. wikitree.comwikiAgg-21

The other commissioner was Richard Ford, a well-respected and trusted man with a sound understanding of government finance and administration. Born in Lancashire, he arrived in the colony as a teenager in 1852 but returned two years later and worked as a clerk on the Liverpool docks. At age 21 he again migrated to Victoria, taking up work with a Ballarat solicitor. A few years later he was a share broker in Daylesford, then returning to Ballarat as an accountant he was elected Town Clerk in 1871. Though still a young man, he worked tirelessly with the mayor to rescue the City of Ballaarat from near insolvency. The mayor was none other than Major W.C. Smith MLA, a director of the Phoenix Foundry and advocate of light railways.

Ford volunteered his assistance to Major Smith and other parliamentarians during the passage of the Local Government Act. He left Ballarat in 1876 to become Secretary of the new Melbourne Harbour Trust on £750 per annum. Highly esteemed at the Trust, his salary was increased to £1,000 by 1883 when he joined Murray Smith, the new Agent General, on a mission to London to negotiate a large loan. While having no direct experience of railways management, Ford’s connections with men like Major Smith and Murray Smith would have provided valuable insight into railway affairs. As Secretary of the Harbour Trust, he would also have worked with his namesake, Robert Gray Ford, the railway’s troubled ex-Engineer for Construction, forcibly transferred by Bent to the Harbour Trust in mid-1882.[49]

Richard Ford, Victorian Railways Commissioner 1884. Australasian Sketcher, 13 February 1884, p.17.

Agg and Ford started work on 1st February 1884, when the Victorian Railway Commissioners Act became operative. The government could hardly have chosen better men to assist Speight, the three men bringing a wealth of professional expertise and experience to bear on the leadership of Australasia’s largest business enterprise, government or private. Most of the press welcomed them warmly and with great expectation, but the editorial in Syme’s Leader complained of the panegyric. It disparaged Agg as merely a ‘time serving official’ and Ford for ‘securing for himself’ a high salary and seeking ‘substantial remuneration’ for his subordinates. No evidence for these views was given and the article bordered on libel.[50] But it was evidence of a disgruntled rear-guard of radical liberal meddlers who would bide their time.

Speight Gets the Measure of Williamstown Workshops

Five days before Speight’s arrival in the colony Mirls had shown Agg and Ford over the Williamstown workshops, explaining the pressing need for a better maintenance facility. It was his greatest concern and soon Speight was sharing it. Mirls showed him around on 21st March. Speight was happy with the quality of the work being done by the 550 strong workforce at Williamstown and the 220 hands at Newport,[51] but he shared Mirls’ worries about the cramped conditions.[52] The workshops were already inadequate for the greatly increased workload, and with a massive system expansion contemplated by parliament, the need for a large modern facility was urgent.

During 1883 Williamstown had overhauled 80 locomotives, 111 carriages and 251 wagons. Much of this was very heavy work as the locomotive and rolling stock fleet was aging. Mirls worried that they were only able to re-boiler 19 locomotives and replace nine cylinders and eight crank axles. Steam brakes were fitted to 24 locomotives and fifteen imported locomotives were assembled and made fit for running. The new A class 4-4-0 express locomotives ordered from Beyer Peacock arrived about six months after Speight and also had to be made serviceable at Williamstown.

The Sydney Express shunting at Spencer Street with a Beyer Peacock A class 4-4-0 fitted with Smith’s vacuum brake and four Brown & Marshall six-wheelers. All imported. Protectionists not happy! PROV H1121.

Added to all this work at Williamstown was a flood of smaller repairs and renewals to the wagon fleet, which had grown to 4,258 by the end of 1883, with a further 970 soon to be added under existing contracts. There were also another 48 locomotives and 240 carriages and vans about to be added to the rolling stock fleet. No wonder Mirls was worried! Over and over he had warned the Minister in the Annual Reports, and now with Speight to back him up he wrote:-

‘I regret to have to repeat what I have so often called attention to, that, whilst the train and line mileage is annually increasing, there is no provision for efficient maintenance of the engines and rolling stock in the shape of repairing shops…” It “cannot be pressed upon your notice too strongly as absolute urgent necessities that must be provided for without further delay; otherwise I am convinced the Department will be liable to serious risks, and probably disastrous consequences.’ [53]

The Exhibition Annex buildings relocated to Newport and Sandridge in mid-1882 and fitted out as workshops had not relieved the pressure as they merely replaced the Yarra Bank works and one of the large sheds at Williamstown which had been converted to a grain storage.[54] The annex at Newport was the initial development on the 32 acre wedge between the Williamstown and Geelong lines. In 1883 it was devoted to carriages and 247 were repaired there, together with the assembly of the 70 Stroudley six-wheelers imported from Brown and Marshall of Birmingham.

Twenty three new carriages and vans, and 13 ballast wagons were also built at Newport that year, while the Sandridge workshops repaired 32 locomotives, 38 carriages and 36 wagons.[55] The temporary expedient of moving the annexes and equipping them with machine tools had cost upwards of £20,000 but to do the job properly would cost more than ten times that sum. It was Speight’s first big challenge to convince a parliament that would not listen to Mirls.

The Little River and Jackson’s Creek Disasters

Just 52 days after coming ashore in Melbourne and not long after moving his family into their new home at St Kilda, Speight was woken at 2 am with the grim news of a disaster. As a senior railway manager it would not have been his first call-out to attend to an emergency, but this one sounded bad. Four hours earlier, at 10.30 pm on 2nd April, the up Dimboola Mail had collided head-on in the darkness with a down goods near Little River. The dim oil lamps on the engines gave scant warning to their drivers peering through rain and neither train was fitted with continuous brakes. Had they been fitted the damage would have been lessened, but in those conditions the drivers would have little warning of an oncoming train.

The rain added further misery to the ensuing wreck and hampered rescue efforts. Drivers Tom Kitchen and Jim Craik both died. (Kitchen had survived the head-on collision when driving the up Box Hill special at Burnley on 2nd December 1882). Fireman Walker and guard McMurtrie were seriously hurt, and one passenger, Ellen Johnson, died. A dozen or so others were seriously hurt and several dozen sustained lesser injuries. Many more deaths would have occurred had not the guards van been behind the engine

The Little River Collision 2nd April 1884. Illustrated Australian News, 16 April 1884, p.56.

The guards van of the passenger train was marshalled behind locomotive No. 92 and crumpled with the impact, as did a new second class carriage behind it. The guards van was the lead vehicle because the train had come from Dimboola and had reversed direction at Geelong. The 2-4-0 B class locomotives on each train were wrecked beyond repair. [56] The goods train consist was 35 empty sheep trucks and a guards van. Seven of the trucks were wrecked.

The Chairman of Commissioners reached Spencer Street Station about 3 am, but there was no response to his telegraphed messages for information. The Geelong telegraph operator had gone home to bed. It was a tense wait for over an hour, only a little relieved by turning on the newly installed electric lights. The rescue train arrived at ten minutes past four with the casualties and the dreadful news that the goods train had been sent to destruction by seventeen year old Annie Biddle, daughter of the Werribee stationmaster. She had been left in charge while he attended a choir practice.

Scene of Annie Biddle’s fatal mistake – Werribee Station circa 1900. PROV H5141.

Thomas Biddle had an unblemished ten years of service with the railways, but as was common at the time, he worked excessively long hours, starting at 6.45 am and remaining on duty until 10.15 pm. Stationmasters were meant to remain at their post throughout their shift, but senior officers looked the other way when they took a break nearby, and also winked at them enlisting family members to help run the station, although it was forbidden.

Biddle had trained his daughter to learn Morse code and work the telegraph when she was fourteen years old. Werribee station was also a public telegraph office with up to 50 telegrams per day. Annie sent many of these, both railway and public. She was not an employee, but knew more about running trains than the lad porter. He had been on the railway six months, with only six days at Werribee. He admitted to not having read the regulations, although he had seen the book! Stationmaster Biddle had little confidence in him, and thought it better to leave the station in the care of his daughter.

The crew of No. 82 goods collected the Staff for Little River from the porter as they passed through Werribee without stopping. Some minutes later poor Annie became confused, and telegraphed a ‘line clear’ message to Little River, despite knowing the goods was in the section! Perhaps she meant to send ‘line clear’ back to Geelong Junction (near Newport), as the goods had cleared that section and it would have been correct procedure to acknowledge its arrival.

Annie Biddle’s fatal telegram as sent from Werribee (red) and received at Little River (blue). Criminal Trial Brief VPRS 30/P Unit 622.

By 1884 Train Staff and Ticket had been introduced on the Geelong line, but stationmasters were permitted to override it by telegraph in an emergency. Such was the importance of passengers and mail that a late running passenger train was considered an emergency! It was therefore common for stationmasters to issue a telegram to a driver authorising him to proceed into a block section before the preceding train had arrived at the other end. It was this practice that led the Little River stationmaster to despatch the up Dimboola Mail on receiving the ‘line clear’ message from Annie Biddle.

Clear rules governing the departure and arrival of all trains had yet to be implemented, so the provision of telegraph had actually made things more dangerous. As driver Kitchen was nearing Little River at line speed with the goods he and his fireman saw the light of Craik’s train, but as Kitchen had the Staff he rightly supposed the passenger train was waiting at Little River. There was a huge turnout of railwaymen at Kitchen and Craik’s funerals, and the tragedy reached right into the colony’s parliament. One of the passengers was Major W.C. Smith, MLA and Commissioner Richard Ford’s former colleague on the Ballaarat City Council.

Smith was unhurt and assisted in the rescue, but his experience of the ordeal brought first hand into the halls of government the implications of lax management, and must have strengthened the new commissioners’ efforts to reform the service in the years that followed.[57] Thomas Biddle was charged with manslaughter, but through the clever advocacy of James Purves he was acquitted.[58]

Only 29 hours after the Little River collision the servants at Sir William Clarke’s mansion were awakened by what sounded like a bomb. At 3.25 am on another night dark with threatening rain clouds, locomotive No. 49 was taking a run at Sunbury Bank with a goods train of 24 trucks. Steaming hard the big O class engine had almost crossed Jackson’s Creek Viaduct when its boiler exploded, launching a half-ton piece of the firebox crown-sheet 300 yards into Sir William’s garden, where it fell ‘like a meteor’.

The engine derailed, its whole cab blown away, the fireman killed and the driver grievously injured. The force of the blast broke the iron rails under the engine and most of the trucks then piled up on the viaduct behind it. After helping the driver and alerting men coming from the Clarke mansion, the guard had the presence of mind to run back to Sunbury in time to stop a following ballast train, thereby preventing what might have been a worse disaster.[59]

Jackson’s Creek viaduct, scene of O 49’s boiler explosion in 1884. John Thompson Postcard Collection.

Sorting Out the Mess

Forty five year old Speight[60] had ploughed right into a mess, the two accidents dramatically highlighting the parlous condition of the Victorian Railways. Its staff, its regulations, its safeworking, communications and rolling stock were deficient, the result of fifteen years of inept penny pinching political direction and cronyism. It was a dispirited army but at last it had a competent general. Within hours of the Little River wreck Speight had arranged inquiries. In his first month he had inspected a substantial part of the network by special train, including the lines where these accidents had occurred. Travelling with his Heads of Branches and the other Commissioners, he rapidly got the measure of his staff and the system’s strengths and weaknesses.

Following the Little River collision Speight immediately withdrew permission to augment the Staff and Ticket system with telegraph, and insisted that if needs be a train could be held all day waiting for the Staff before proceeding.[61] This was the practice in Great Britain, where by 1883 all the railway companies had agreed on very strict safeworking rules. But Speight’s General Traffic Manager still thought the overriding of the Staff system was permissible ‘in emergencies’. It was to take some years before the installation of improved safeworking technology and the implementation of entrance exams for new employees led to the general adherence to strict safeworking rules.

The Changing Mix of Traffic

Wool continued to be an important traffic, but nearly a quarter of the total wool clip carried – nearly 81,000 bales – originated on the first trunk lines from Melbourne to Ballarat via Geelong and to Echuca via Sandhurst. Echuca itself accounted for 57,604 bales, most brought to the railhead by paddle steamer, or on-carried from the Deniliquin & Moama Railway.[62] But by 1884 the extension of new lines had opened up more traffic. The western trunk line had been extended from Ballarat to Ararat and Portland, and new trunk lines opened from Melbourne north-east to Albury and east to Sale in Gippsland.

A further trunk line was extending north-west from Ararat towards South Australia, through the newly opened up Wimmera wheat lands. It had reached Dimboola, and eight other lines were extending into the Wimmera, lower Mallee, North Central and North Eastern farming districts. These lines had created new railheads at Donald, Wycheproof, Boort, Mitiamo, Tatura, Numurkah, St. James and Wahgunyah and were transforming farming!

In little over a decade these light railways so forcefully promoted by Longmore had precipitated a trebling of acreage under wheat, nine out of every ten bags in the colony being delivered from new farms where only sheep had grazed in 1870.[63] Graziers up country could send a whole year’s clip to market on a single lumbering bullock wagon: wool was so valuable! Not so wheat, which was bulky and could not fetch a high price. Unless it could be got to market cheaply there was no chance of a profit for the farmer.

Wheat farming had been restricted to lands close to the cities and towns south of the Great Divide before the early 1870’s. Teamsters would only carry wheat short distances for a reasonable price, so wheat farmers had to stay close to towns to sell their produce and access supplies economically. But the country south of the Great Divide was not ideal for wheat growing and much of it was tied up in large estates owned by squatters. The laying of track north of the Great Divide changed all that. By the time of Speight’s arrival the railway network had expanded a staggering six times its length in 1870.[64]

Bagged Wheat stacked at Minyip. SLV vr001905.

But how different the new lines were from the old! The Victorian Railways of 1870 was the equal of the best British main lines: well-engineered, mainly double tracked with chaired rail, masonry viaducts, wrought iron bridges and stations mostly of stone or brick. The locomotive fleet then included some of the heaviest engines in the Empire, designed by leading English engineers and built by well-respected English companies. The whole operation was under the care of a competent Engineer-in-Chief.

By the end of 1883 the network covered 1,562 route miles, over a thousand miles being laid with light, flat-bottomed rail, with bridges predominantly in timber and station buildings sometimes of brick but increasingly of wood. The city stations at Spencer Street, Flinders Street and Princes Bridge were rudimentary, with ad-hoc additions to cope with rapidly increasing traffic. The railway workshops were totally inadequate. The 259 strong locomotive fleet had fragmented, with 22 different designs.

Speight found an average of one new locomotive design a year had been introduced since 1872 in a desperate effort to find a suitable light lines engine. But the quest was hobbled by protectionism and a bias against American engineering. Trains were being fitted with two incompatible continuous braking systems, with a third about to be introduced. Most of the locomotives built over the previous decade were locally manufactured and sometimes locally designed, and all were small to suit the new light lines. But the greatly increased traffic feeding onto the trunk lines was still committed to locomotives designed in the early 1860’s and increasingly showing their age.

Old and new in 1885: an S class ‘Colonial Yankee’ locomotive built locally to American standards for light lines photographed at Ballarat Station, made to solid British standards in 1862. PROV H3434.

The suburban system extended from Spencer Street to Williamstown and Essendon in the west and north, and trains on the South Suburban system ran from Flinders Street or Princes Bridge stations to Port Melbourne, St. Kilda, Brighton, Caulfield and Box Hill, the average length of journey being four miles. The ex-M&HBUR ‘South Suburban’ lines were functional but rather flimsy, trains mainly consisting of small four wheeled carriages drawn by little C class 4-4-0’s or the still smaller N class 2-4-0 well tanks. Much of the track laid by the private company needed renewal, as did the twenty year old iron rails laid down on the first government main lines.

Rail relaying had already commenced on the Williamstown, Sandhurst, Geelong and Ballarat main lines. The false economy of laying 50 lb per yard iron rails on the lines authorised in the early 1870’s from Castlemaine to Dunolly, Ballarat to Maryborough, Ballarat to Horsham and Ararat to Portland had become evident. After only a decade of wear renewals were necessary. The light rails were also causing premature wear on locomotive tyres.[65]

In total, 141 miles of track had been relaid in new steel rail during 1883, which was three times the renewals made in 1882 and in 1881. The cost of renewals and maintenance of the network ballooned from £244,600 in 1882 to £376,200 in 1883, an increase of 54 percent in a single year.[66] The significance of this was not lost on W.H. Greene, the Engineer for Existing Lines and an old colleague of Thomas Higinbotham. Nor did it escape Robert Watson, now the Engineer-in-Chief. They would do all they could to avoid flimsy construction on the next batch of new railways.

The intercolonial railway between Melbourne and Sydney had been connected in June 1883, igniting a passion for Federation, and the Victorian Railway network had reached Dimboola. This was just 60 miles from the South Australian border but the broad gauge railhead in the neighbouring colony was still stuck in the Adelaide Hills. The ceremony marking the extension to Aldgate occurred a month after Speight’s arrival, and he must have been bemused to read of the debacle of the opening train. As mentioned in Chapter Seven, the train carrying dignitaries was hauled by a Baldwin 4-6-0 with William Thow and others on the footplate. The American engine became a total failure at Blackwood, not half way up the mountain.[67] Rightly or wrongly, it was yet another strike against Yankee light railways at the very beginning of Speight’s incumbency.

In the twelve years since 1871, gross revenue had increased threefold, goods and livestock traffic had increased nearly fourfold, and train miles nearly fivefold. Yet the trains themselves were still small, limited by low powered locomotives. So as more and more traffic funnelled onto main lines they became busier and busier. Given the dodgy safeworking of the day, the solution was duplication, which both increased the capacity of a line and kept opposing trains on separate tracks.

In 1883 the Eastern line was duplicated between Caulfield and Oakleigh, and a start was made in duplicating the North Eastern main line, with the Donnybrook to Beveridge, and Broadford to Tallarook sections completed. An extra track was laid between Spencer Street and Essendon Junction (just beyond North Melbourne) to cope with traffic on race days at Flemington, such was the importance of the Melbourne Cup carnival![68] The safeworking of trains throughout the colony was by a mixture of time-tabled block augmented by telegraph and Staff and Ticket working on the now mainly single tracked network. The interlocking of points with signals had only begun after Higinbotham’s return from overseas in 1876. Rules were inadequate and discipline lax, and many of the 8,800 strong staff[69] were inefficient and held down jobs through political influence.

All this Speight took in quickly. A consummate railwayman of 35 years’ experience on one of England’s premier railways, on railway matters he was a ‘walking encyclopaedia’. [70] Unlike modern short-term Chief Executives, Speight was a career ‘Captain of Industry’ who had an intimate understanding and interest born of progress through the ranks from boyhood. It is hard indeed to pull the wool over the eyes of such a boss. Every officer, every practice, every facility, every piece of rolling stock is measured against a wealth of experience and expertise. The Midland Railway Company had over five times as many employees as the Victorian Railways in 1883,[71] so Victoria’s complexities were well within Speight’s grasp, and by the time of the Little River and Jacksons Creek Viaduct accidents he would have had the measure of the task before him and a plan of action to set the property right.

end notes

  1. Leo Harrigan, Victorian Railways to ’62, Victorian Railways, 1962, p. 274.
  2. Margot Beever, ‘Duncan Gillies’, Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), Vol. 4, MUP, 1972.
  3. Sydney Morning Herald, 14 June 1883, p. 7.
  4. Argus, 15 June 1883, p.6.
  5. ibid.
    Argus, 16 June 1883, p. 10.,
    Melbourne Punch, 21 June 1883, p. 249.
  6. ibid.
  7. Frank Brady for the Australian National Committee of the CIGRA, A Dictionary of Electricity, 1996. Accessed June 2017.
  8. Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 June 1883, p. 1132.
  9. Sydney Morning Herald, 15 June 1883, p. 5.
    Australian Town and Country Journal, 16 June 1883, p. 13.
  10. Age, 15 June 1883, p. 2.
  11. Argus, 16 June 1883, p. 10.
  12. Argus, 15 June 1883, p. 4.
  13. Age, 9 December 1882, p. 1.
  14. Age, 9 December 1882, p. 4.
  15. Argus, 16 December 1882, p. 11.
  16. Age, 11 December 1882, p. 2.
  17. Argus, 6 December 1882, p. 6.
  18. Argus, 11 December 1882, p. 4.
  19. R.L. Wettenhall, Railway Management and Politics in Victoria 1856 -1906, Canberra, 1961, p. 17.
  20. Wettenhall, p. 20.
  21. Wettenhall, pp. 10-12.
  22. Harrigan, pp. 273-74.
  23. Wettenhall, p. 22.
  24. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the Year Ended 31 December 1983, Victorian Parliamentary Papers (VPP), 1884, No.62, Appendix 22, p. 39.
  25. Wettenhall, p. 13.
  26. Melbourne Punch, 14 December 1882, p. 235.
  27. Wettenhall, pp. 21, 24-25.
  28. Wettenhall, pp. 12, 23, 27.
  29. Argus, 22 October 1883, p. 5.
  30. Argus, 20 October 1883, p. 9.
  31. Table Talk, 29 November 1889, p. 3.
    West Australian, 20 September 1901, p. 6.
  32. Derby Mercury, 9 October 1850, single broadsheet. Speight Snr. Died suddenly, Derby 2 October 1850.
  33. Argus, 6 February 1884, p. 9.
  34. Michael Venn, ‘Richard Speight’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, Vol. 6, 1976.
  35. Williamstown Chronicle, 26 September 1885, p. 3. Speech made by Richard Speight.
  36. Argus, 24 December 1883, p. 5.
  37. Argus, 6 February 1884, p. 9.
  38. West Australian, 20 September 1901, p. 6.
  39. Leader, 16 February 1884, p. 37.
    See Dickens Journals Online:- Thomas Wilkinson-Speight
  40. Robert Lee, The Railways of Victoria 1854-2004, Melbourne, 2007, p. 84. Lee quotes Speight’s great-grandson David Speight as informant that Richard’s wife Sarah was left behind in an asylum.
    Family research by Trevor Till, Derby resident and descendant of a brother of Sarah Speight (nee Knight). She was committed at Nottingham. Mental illness could be like a death for the patient’s loved ones, even well into the 20th century. The movie ‘Rainman’ is an example.
    See WA Parliament:- MP Historical Data
    Table Talk, 6 May 1892, p. 3. This claims Speight was Sir James Allport’s son-in-law, but is almost certainly incorrect.
  41. Argus, 11 February 1884, p.4.
    See Public Records Office Victoria:- Inwards Overseas Passenger List
    They are listed with the Cabin Passengers. Ages given are:- Richard 43, Ann 63, Richard 22, Nellie 20, Sarah 19, Alice 18, John 16, Tom 15, Harry 14, Howard 13, May 12, Essie 11. (Essie is described as ‘niece’ in the 1881 census).
  42. Leader, 16 February 1884, pp. 30, 37.
    See wikitree : S.S. Lusitania
  43. Leader, 16 February 1884, p. 30.
    Argus, 11 February 1884, p. 4.
    Argus, 21 August 1851, p. 2.
  44. Argus, 11 February 1884, p.4.
  45. Williamstown Chronicle, 29 August 1885, p.2.
  46. Leader, 17 November 1883, p. 27.
  47. Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 13 February 1884, p. 17.
  48. Argus, 18 October 1886, p. 6.
    Record (Emerald Hill), 22 October 1886, p. 2.
    Leader, 23 October 1886, p. 16.
    See wikitree : Agg-21
  49. Ballarat Courier, 1 May 1877, p. 2.
    Argus, 4 May 1877, p. 6; 9 May 1877, p. 7.
    Leader, 19 January 1884, p. 25; 16 February 1884, p. 30.
    Argus, 4 April 1884, p. 5.
    Argus, 26 September 1898, p. 6.
    Carole Woods, ‘Richard Ford‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, Vol. 4, 1972.
  50. Leader, 19 January 1884, p. 25.
  51. Williamstown Chronicle, 11 October 1884, p. 3.
  52. Argus, 22 March 1884, p. 9.
  53. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1883, (VPP 1884), No.62, p. 18 and Appendix 17, p. 32.
  54. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1882, (VPP 1883) No. 35, p. 25.
  55. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1883, (VPP 1884), No.62, p. 18.
  56. H.W. Clark and J.C.M. Rolland, History of the Locomotives of the Victorian Railways, 1860-1904, Privately reproduced MS, Melbourne, 1934, Sheet 3.
  57. Argus, 4 April 1884, p. 5; 21 April 1884, p. 7; 3 May 1884, p. 7.
    Leader, 5 April 1884, p. 28.
    Weekly Times, 5 April 1884, p. 12.
    Geelong Advertiser, 19 July 1884, p. 4. Annie explained that she had been working the telegraph two or three years, so given she was trained by her father as a fourteen year old, she would have been sixteen or seventeen at the time of the accident.
  58. Argus, 19 July 1884, p. 6.
    Marian Aveling ‘James Liddell Purves’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, Vol. 5, 1974.
  59. Argus, 4 April 1884, p. 6.
    Weekly Times, 5 April 1884, p. 12.
  60. Venn, ‘Richard Speight’ ADB.
  61. Swan Express (Midland Junction, WA), 19 April 1902, p. 3.
  62. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1883, (VPP 1884), No.62, Appendix 16, p. 31. Return of Wool from Stations for the Year Ended 31 December 1883.
  63. Geoffrey Blainey, A History of Victoria, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 62-63.
  64. Harrigan, pp. 67, 283-285. Not including the suburban line to Essendon, upon which services were suspended, the system in 1870 totalled 255¾ miles.
    Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1883, (VPP 1884), No.62, Appendix 19, p. 34. Total 1,562 miles open.
  65. Argus, 5 July 1895, p. 6.
  66. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1883, (VPP 1884), No.62, Appendix 16, p. 18 and Appendix 19, p. 34.
  67. South Australian Register, 15 March 1883, p. 4.
  68. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1883, (VPP 1884), No.62, Appendix 19, p. 34.
  69. Argus, 14 March 1892, p. 7.
  70. Table Talk, 2 October 1891, p. 4.
  71. Argus, 14 March 1892, p. 7.