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Chapter Thirteen


Despite the growing nervousness created by bankruptcies, British capital continued to pour into the colony. A month after Richard Speight’s return at the end of June 1889, Duncan Gillies told an astonished Legislative Assembly that the colony’s accumulated surplus had grown to £1,607,000. He estimated that at the end of the 1889-90 financial year the surplus would further climb to £1,692,000.[1] Gillies was not only Premier, but Treasurer, Minister for Railways and Minister for Mines. The three portfolios were too much to handle and his oversight of the Treasury was poor.[2]

It was soon discovered that some accrued liabilities had not been accounted for, and by the end of 1889 the expected colonial surplus had evaporated. Gillies was unperturbed and in April 1890 successfully negotiated a £4,000,000 loan on very favourable terms. Buoyed by the continuing favour of British capitalists, he introduced a Railway Construction Bill the following June.

Gillies had been overwhelmed with applications to build 6,000 miles of new railways and his Bill proposed 43 country branch lines. These lines totalled only 783 miles because the railway engineers had stipulated well-built lines costing on average £6,965 per mile. In addition, two suburban lines totalling 30 miles would cost an average of £54,387 per mile. The total cost was estimated to be an astounding £7,141,000. [3]

The railway estimates were based on experience building the lines authorised in 1884, which had cost 50 per cent more than expected due to inflated land prices, increased wages and more substantial engineering. [4] Gillies choice of lines was also a barefaced piece of political cynicism. Most electorates were favoured with a proposed new line but many districts remained unsatisfied. Immediately the Bill was introduced there was uproar.

Duncan Gillies, MLA, Premier, Treasurer and Minister of Railways 1886-90. Foster & Martin photograph, courtesy Victorian Parliamentary Library.

James Munro was leader of the Opposition and to the cheers of his supporters, he tore into Gillies. ‘Never has a measure been more universally condemned by the country and the House’ he vehemently declared, blasting the Government for its failure to provide for inexpensive lines and for crowding costly lines in districts represented by members aligned with the Government.[5] He reminded members that the 46 mile Deniliquin line had been made for about £3,000 per mile and for 16 years had paid a dividend of eight to ten percent annually.[6]

It was true. Gillies and Speight had seriously misread the mood of the Parliament, the Press and the people. The Premier adopted the same tactic which had proved so successful in 1884, but some of the lines proposed were laughable. The tiny hamlet of Cressy on the western plains was to have lines radiating north, south and south-west, all for a population of about 90 souls! Furthermore, all were to be made to high standards where in most cases light railways with 50 lb rails would have sufficed. The Legislative Assembly and the Press were quick to see that if light railways were adopted, nearly twice as many lines could be made for the same total expenditure.[7]

Traffic Estimates

Under the terms of Section 79 of the 1883 Railway Commissioner Act, Speight was required to provide estimates of ‘traffic and other returns likely to be derived’ for each line.[8] His failure to do so in 1884 had led to criticism, so this time an effort was made to assess the potential of the country and townships to be served. This was complemented with estimates of population and rateable property along each line provided by the Government Statistician.

Opposition member William Shiels complained that Section 79 had not been complied with. He stopped short of saying that Section 79 required estimates of revenue, (although it was implied), but in reporting his speech next day The Age put that word in his mouth.[9] Two days later the newspaper again criticised the Commissioners for a ‘sham report’ which failed to provide the ‘probable revenue’ and so was not in ‘compliance with the law’.[10] Arguably, the railways had not the resources to make detailed traffic forecasts and had done about all that could be expected: Speight’s role was to manage.

The resources needed to make a detailed evaluation of potential traffic was shown the following year, when a well-staffed Select Committee took six months to thoroughly investigate potential new lines. Henry Hayter, the Government Statist since 1864, had supplied the Railways, railway leagues, Members of Parliament and Ministers with statistics about the districts to be served by the new lines. He had done this ‘for years before Mr. Speight came into office’ in 1884.[11]

Hayter later admitted that he ‘had no personal knowledge of the country or the means of communication existing prior to the construction of the proposed lines…When a map of the line was supplied to me I traced the route on a shire map, then drew a line around it, giving a 20 or 30 miles area at the extremity and 5 or 6 miles on each side.’ [12] An estimate was then made of the portion of each Shire through which the line passed, and that portion was used to allocate the resources in that Shire to the railway.

In 1884 The Age claimed Hayter’s method inflated the 500 people to be served by the Yackandandah line. The difference was composed of the ‘whole population of Beechworth. . . pressed into service to make up the 4,412.’ [13] It is moot that had Hayter made more meaningful estimates of population, some of the more preposterous lines in the Bill might never have been proposed. But by 1890 Hayter had been carried away by the optimism of the Land Boom and was personally enmeshed in dodgy financial speculation.[14]

Victorian Railways mixed train on the Beechworth branch line in 1885. The policeman posing next to the composite brake van 18ABD is probably a gold escort. PROV H3433.

Speight was aware that the costs of the proposed new lines were high, and endeavoured to show that the average cost of railways in Victoria at £11,572 per mile was not extravagant compared to NSW at £12,182. Although lines in America were alleged to be cheaper, he noted they in fact averaged £10,500 per mile. But his table also showed railway building costs in the other colonies, including South Australia where the average costs was £5,541 per mile, half that of Victoria. [15]

While parliament was considering the Railway Construction Bill the railways Annual Report was presented on 25th September 1890. The result for the 1889-90 year was disappointing, revealing a deficit after loan payments of £221,482. This was about the same as the loss on the Centennial International Exhibition. Railway revenue had stagnated due to poor grain harvests and fewer passengers travelling. Patronage was down following the closure of the Exhibition. But working expenses were up by eight percent, reflecting a ten percent rise in train miles run.

The net deficit was calculated after the payment of all interest on borrowings since the mid-1850’s. It was a burden on the accounts that was removed a few years later. The increase in train miles was mostly due to the opening of new lines. Overall, train miles per average mile open increased just 1.3 percent.[16] It was always anticipated that new lines would take time to develop their potential traffic, nevertheless the increased train miles worried some Opposition politicians.

The deficit was not as bad it looked, particularly in view of the ‘dividend’ of £200,000 in fare and rate reductions. No doubt Speight and Gillies hoped the following year would see improved results, given a return to ‘normal’ conditions. No one was prepared for the calamity about to befall Victoria, or could guess that it would be a decade or more before ‘normal’ conditions returned! Speight’s explanations were regarded as excuses for mismanagement by an Opposition increasingly dissatisfied with the Gillies government.

The Maritime Strike

A deficit of a quarter million pounds was enough cause for concern, but its announcement came in the middle of the most prolonged and destructive industrial action Australia had yet experienced. On 18th August 1890 a strike of maritime officers commenced and rapidly gained the support and sympathy of other unions.[17] Coastal shipping was critical for the supply of NSW coal for the manufacturing industries and gasworks in Victoria and other colonies, as only a trickle of intercolonial freight moved by rail.

Within weeks the impact was being felt. By the end of August coal was being railed to Albury from NSW mines, and transhipped to Victorian broad gauge trucks: perishables were sent by train in the other direction.[18] Although this was the first significant use of the intercolonial railway for goods traffic, its capacity was insufficient to satisfy demand. Many years would pass before the railways became a real alternative to coastal shipping.

The strike dragged on into October, throwing about 10,000 men out of work, severely depleting railway business and adding £71,800 to the cost of fuel.[19] The railways were soon denied the full 4,000 tons of coal they used weekly.[20] This led to train cancellations. In a desperate search for alternative fuel, large numbers of railwaymen were sent upcountry to dig up mallee roots[21] and gather other wood. It helped, but wood is an inferior fuel with a lower calorific value than coal. Many trains had to be double headed as their wood-burning locomotives struggled to maintain steam pressure.[22] The Gillies government was struggling too.

Colliers at Stockton Wharf, Newcastle. circa 1900. William F. Hall, Australian National Maritime Museum ANMS 1092[114]

The Fall of Duncan Gillies

Opposition to the Railway Construction Bill quickly grew, both from those claiming more lines should be added and others that the colony could not afford many at all. With no abatement of the clamour for more lines Gillies sought to save face by agreeing to refer the matter to a joint committee of both Parliamentary chambers. Just two months earlier the Penshurst to Hamilton line had opened on the same day as its useless duplication from Penshurst to Dunkeld. As discussed in Chapter Nine, this line was built purely to obtain the agreement of the Legislative Council. It was hoped the new committee would prevent a repeat of that ridiculous and expensive compromise. It was also charged to carefully assess the worth of proposals for another 4,630 miles of line estimated to cost £41,000,000![23]

Accordingly, the Railways Standing Committee Bill received Royal Assent on 9th October 1890, and the committee met for the first time two weeks later during hurricane force winds that were battering Melbourne.[24] An ill political wind was blowing too. The fourteen members unanimously elected Thomas Bent as their Chairman and W.A. Zeal his deputy. John Woods was there too.[25] Opposition misgivings deepened a few days later when it was announced that instead of the projected surplus in the ‘glorious budget’ Gillies had presented for 1889-90, the colony had incurred a deficit of £1,171,520.[26]

The effects of the Maritime strike and increasing numbers of worrying financial failures were sapping confidence in Gillies’ leadership, and with all the lines in his Railway Construction Bill referred to the Committee, the Premier lost a carrot to entice wavering members to support his government. With no railway through their electorates to offer, he was bereft of critical leverage.[27] Within a week James Munro had marshalled support for a no confidence motion, which was carried 55 to 35 at one o’clock in the clear, cold moonlight of 31st October 1890.[28] But Gillies suddenly found himself politically benighted and Speight lost his powerful friend and defender in parliament. Also exposed to further attack by politicians and the radical press was the Acting Locomotive Superintendent, Allison Smith.

James Munro was elected Premier, but unknown to all but a few, his financial empire had expanded into an enormous bubble and was about to burst! He had managed to hide his dishonest land boom deals, some of them undertaken with the connivance of Woods.[29] Munro chose Shiels as his Minister for Railways, who then immediately came under pressure to force the railway commissioners to make serious economies.

Said The Age: ‘We warn Mr. Shiels at once that if he thinks he can satisfy the public demands in this direction by some rose water reforms which will be satisfactory to the Commissioners he is greatly mistaken… Mr. Speight’s colleagues…must be replaced… This colony has had quite enough of Mr. Speight, and the sooner Mr. Shiels tells him so the better.’ [30]

But while the journalists at The Age were fixated on railway extravagance, Maurice Brodzky’s weekly newspaper Table Talk was uncovering the sins of the real rogues. In 1890 he began investigating land companies and dodgy banks. His exposés of Land Boomers led to prosecutions and provided a ‘public service which, it is safe to say, has never been surpassed anywhere in the world.’ [31]

By February 1891 Table Talk had begun to lift the lid of the cesspit of land boom financiers. Its revelations were beyond the ‘power of any living man to suppress’ and were ‘now ripening, and coming with such a rush, that the whole truth must become known.’ [32] In July that year the Imperial Bank suspended payments, and by the following March twenty major financial institutions had gone to the wall with liabilities of nearly £20 million.

Added to those failures were private bankruptcies of about £8 million in 1892 alone.[33] This was more than twice the total capital expenditure on railways since 1884. Railway spending had left Victoria an enduring asset, but the bursting of the speculative bubble left little but ruin. Meanwhile The Age continued to pressure the government into dismissing the Railway Commissioners in a wrong-headed belief that the financial crash was due to their ‘mismanagement’.

The Age and Refrigerator Trucks

With Gillies no longer Premier after losing the no confidence vote on 31st October, David Syme and The Age turned their attention on Speight and Allison Smith. Within a week of the first refrigerated shipments in December 1890, The Age was damning the whole project and the commissioners for ‘saddling the country with such cumbersome and useless trucks.’ But in condemning Speight’s refrigeration initiative Syme was frustrating efforts to open new markets for Victorian meat.

Already by 1890 New Zealand was exporting over 25,000 tons of frozen lamb and mutton to England annually, the rapidly growing trade accounting for 11 per cent of that colony’s exports. [34] By comparison, Victoria was lagging badly. The railway commissioners knew it would take time to develop refrigerated meat, dairy and fish traffic, but The Age set out to derail the initiative before it could mature. On the other hand, the paper was supporting the push by the Select Committee on Railways to build hundreds of miles of light railways that would also take time to realise their traffic potential.

The Age article condemned the trucks on seven counts:-

1. The Age said Speight had delayed their introduction until all 30 were ready. But refrigerated freight required radical change, co-ordinating trains with the new ice works and cool storage rooms and teaching employees new handling procedures. It would take time but The Age article crowed at reported delays that ruined two consignments of butter.

2. The Age said the railways had not consulted the dairy industry on the design. But the Commissioners and officials had been hearing from dairy farmers on their frequent inspections of rural districts over the previous six years.

3. The Age claimed building the trucks did not commence for fully two years after Speight returned from America. In fact, within three months of Speight’s return Allison Smith had his staff working up designs from the imported model. Newport had completed the whole 30 trucks within seventeen months of Speight’s return.

4. The Age said the trucks were ‘slavishly copied’ from the American model, even to being fitted with hooks for carrying carcasses when they were only intended for dairy produce. It was true the trucks were copies of the American model, but in the same article the newspaper mentioned a test consignment of refrigerated mutton then being made from Victoria to Adelaide and return and must have known the trucks were designed for both meat and dairy traffic.[35]

5. The Age accused that the 20 tons capacity trucks were far too big for small butter consignments. They were of course intended for large consignments from butter factories and meat freezing works.[36]

6. The Age thought an enormous quantity of ice would be needed just to refrigerate small consignments. Like all rolling stock they sometimes ran empty or partly loaded, especially while the market geared for refrigerated traffic.

7. Finally, The Age asserted that the opening of doors at stations enroute for loading additional butter consignments would completely destroy the cooling. There were teething problems when used in this manner, but the dairy industry was soon advocating their use.

The article intensified the pressure on Speight, which had begun in October 1889 with an oft repeated and mischievous misquote. Now determined to get the railways returned to political control, the half-truths, misrepresentation and errors about the refrigerator trucks were typical of the carping criticism the railway management would endure throughout the next fifteen months. But over the next ten years the fleet of refrigerator trucks would grow to five times the number built in 1890 and continue in service for over eighty years. [37] So much for cumbersome and useless trucks!

Wickes bogie refrigerated truck TT17 as built, circa 1891. PROV2734.

Mr. Shiels’ Dilemma

In a long and rather equivocal speech to the Legislative Assembly, Shiels outlined the new government’s railway policy, emphasising there was no intention to return the railways to political control, despite faults with Railway Commissioners Act of 1883. He was both critical and appreciative of the railways administration, but complained that ‘in no English constitutionally-governed country or dependency is there a more anomalous or more unique position than that the Minister of Railways of this colony holds. By law he is absolutely powerless. He cannot give a single direction or order…’ [38]

All the Minister could do was advise, reason and make suggestions; he could not even demand information. ‘I wish Parliament and the country to remember that I am not master over the Railway Commissioners. They can securely entrench themselves behind the ramparts of the Act of 1883.[39] And yet Speight had always been willing and ready to provide any information required, and recognised the Minister was the Commissioners representative in Parliament. When Speight arrived in 1884 Gillies gave up his Ministerial office at railway headquarters in Spencer Street, but Shiels had them make a room available for him.

Shiels had told Speight the government was very concerned about the ‘chronic deficit’ and cautioned him not to deplete the Treasury and not to incur expenditure on works that were not absolutely urgent.[40] He wanted the Commissioners to begin retrenchments and reduce train miles, as the reduced services during the Maritime Strike had proved economies could be made by running fewer trains. But Shiels was against wholesale retrenchments and reductions of salaries and wages.

Nor was Shiels convinced that charges of overmanning were warranted. He accepted that reduced train services had caused a loss of revenue on some (but not all) lines, but thought commercial decisions about services were best left with the Commissioners. But he said the Government regarded the reductions in railway rates and fares as a ‘huge mistake’ exacerbating the deficit., but thought it ‘cowardly in the extreme to place the whole of the condemnation upon the heads of the Railway Commissioners. We have been sinners also,’ he told his parliamentary colleagues, ‘because we brought pressure to bear upon them to grant these decreases’.[41]

He obtained Speight’s agreement to the transfer of responsibility for receiving deputations of a political nature to the Minister. Shiels declared that anyone going to the railway offices would ‘see Mr. Speight holding levees there every hour of the day, very much as patricians did in the old days of Rome. Men wait at the door and insist on seeing him on all sorts of subjects, from the loss of an umbrella to the miscarriage of a sewing-machine.’ [42] And yet despite appearances, Shiels did not agree the Commissioners were bowing to political pressure!

But there was one thing about which Shiels was not so fair-minded and was determined to change. He said it was imperative to reduce the colony’s expenditure of loan capital. They must find men who would ‘build on a different model, who will not construct lines with the enduring substantiality which is the English characteristic, and which may do very well for a place teeming with population as England is, but will go to the great Republic across the Atlantic, and take our model from there.’ [43] Fifty years later in the dark days of 1941, Prime Minister Curtin was also to ‘look to America’, but by then there was cause to be grateful for the solid railways laid by Speight and his engineers!

Shiels had to grapple with the contentious matter of Speight’s contract. Gillies had agreed to increase Speight’s salary and with that understanding Speight turned down a lucrative offer from his old employer, the Midland Railway Company. Aware that retrenchments and salary cuts would likely be necessary due to the looming financial crisis, Shiels was unwilling to ‘do anything that will look like sparing the tall poppies and cutting off the short ones.’ Speight was offered reappointment, but on his old salary of £3,000 per annum with guarantee of a future increase.[44]

Speight had virtually been lured back to Victoria on false pretences. In subsequent meetings Shiels acknowledged the Commissioner’s grievance, but explained that granting an increase was ‘absolutely hopeless’ and now The Age was baying for Speight’s removal he was facing ‘great difficultly even to reappoint.’ [45] He apologised to Speight for having to make his reappointment on such terms, but was bound by his undertaking to parliament.

Speight said ‘it went against his grain’, but family reasons were ‘compelling him to accept reappointment’ on the government’s terms. Shiels was sympathetic and gave a guarantee that should the Railway Management Act be altered in a manner that was inimical to Speight’s interest, the Chairman would be allowed to retire with reasonable compensation. Then asking if he was content, Speight replied ‘Yes, I have no help for it’, but worried The Age would enjoy rubbing it in.[46] The Age never understood why the government reappointed Speight,[47] but Shiels knew that at £3,000 per annum they were unlikely to attract another railway manager of Speight’s stature.

Even The Age had to agree that once relieved of political pressure, ‘everyone admits’ that Speight was ‘eminently qualified’ as a railway manager. But the newspaper continued to mock the ‘phenomenal’ abilities that Shiels had specifically stated Speight had never claimed. The newspaper also blamed him for the non-paying lines authorised in 1884 by not providing Parliament with estimates of traffic.[48] This was preposterous, as any reading of Hansard for 1884 would show Parliament was in no mood to be guided by traffic estimates, and took upon itself the responsibility of waiving the requirement.

The Standing Committee on Railways and The Age

Parliament went into recess just before Christmas 1890 and did not sit again for six months. In the meantime the Standing Committee on Railways got down to work and over the following eight months held 155 meetings, travelled 7,500 miles and interviewed 836 witnesses![49] One of its first investigations was of the projected line from Deans Marsh to Lorne, through the Otway Ranges. Their attention was drawn to the siting of the station for the very small population at Deans Marsh.

Although comparatively level ground was available at Deans Marsh, a nearby ‘hillside’ had been excavated instead. Next day a colourful article in The Age seized on this as evidence of extravagance, and called for the Committee to make further investigations to ‘sheet home the blame’ and failing that, for the Minister of Railways to do so. Recognising that the Standing Committee’s brief was only to examine proposed railways, The Age pressed for a widening of its inquiries.

Syme was angling to turn the Committee into a Kangaroo Court, for ‘what better guide can it have in making its recommendations for the future than the discovery of the errors of the past which have made our recent railway extension unprofitable?’ [50] Warming to the idea, five days later on 12th February the paper launched the first of a series of articles under the banner ‘How the Money Goes’, drawing on the Birregurra-Deans Marsh-Forrest line as a means of disparaging the railway engineers and condemning the ‘maladministration’ of the Railway Commissioners.[51]

Bent, Zeal and Woods had watched in opposition while the ‘Octopus Act’ lines were built and Speight’s program of ‘New Works’ took shape. Freed of their interference and with adequate finance, the railway engineers were glad to dump the strictures of the light railway model. But they were still limited by the estimates made in 1884, which while not parsimonious were based on economical construction. But once a line was completed further improvements could be authorised by the Engineer for Existing Lines without specific reference to parliament.[52]

Since his appointment as Engineer-in-Chief by Bent in 1882, Robert Watson had no control over the Engineer for Existing Lines, a new position Bent had created to report directly to himself. Watson was not happy and was rumoured to have contemplated resignation, but he stayed and the arrangement persisted under Speight’s regime.[53]

D class 4-4-0 leading a Down Ballarat train over a timber bridge between Bacchus Marsh and Ingliston on the Western main line about 1900. Evidence that civil engineering under Speight was not excessive. SLV BA00139.

Now Bent, Zeal and Woods had a golden opportunity to again delve untrammelled into railway matters and they were quick to extend the scope of the Committee’s inquiries without parliamentary sanction. By seeking evidence of what they considered extravagance they might prove the ‘Octopus Act’ lines could have been more cheaply made. Then by extension, that many of the lines being proposed might be profitable if built to light railway standards. Zeal was confident in his own limited experience as a railway engineer and dominated the Committee.

A fellow Committee member strenuously objected to Zeal using proceedings ‘to advertise himself’. Zeal heatedly retorted ‘It seems to me Mr. Anderson objects to my eliciting the truth’ at which point Bent, the Chairman, cautioned ‘Steady, steady!’ To Anderson, Zeal persisted ‘I am not going to measure my reason by your intellect.’ ‘Steady!’ again warned Bent.[54] This took place in front of William Greene, who had been a senior Victorian Railways engineer for 35 years.

Thomas Bent MLA, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Railways, 1890-92. J.W. Lindt photograph, courtesy Victorian Parliamentary Library.

Zeal continued to belittle the engineering standards adopted by the railway department, and in parliament was critical of the salaries paid to railwaymen, which he claimed were about 20 per cent above the salaries in other departments. ‘There was no parallel to this state of things in any other department in the world… By-and-by, the whole railway revenue would be handed over to the officers of the department…’ [55]

The Committee’s investigations fuelled The Age’s campaign to get rid of the Railway Commissioners and in March 1891 The Age, frustrated by Shiels’s reappointment of the two assistant Commissioners, called for a Royal Commission to investigate railway extravagance. ‘Mr. Shiels may have his defence for this apparently unaccountable action, but it will have to be a good one…It cannot possibly be allowed that one man—because it appears that two of the Commissioners are mere dummies — shall dominate a great public department and manage it at his own sweet will…The question is, how are those contumacious officials to be dislodged?’ [56]

But with parliament in recess and deaf to its call, the newspaper conducted its own pseudo-Inquiry with anonymous and unsworn witnesses, no defence and no cross-examination. The Age articles repeated the charge of ‘mismanagement’ over and over during succeeding months in increasingly intemperate articles, culminating in June that year with their finding that Speight was guilty of ‘criminal extravagance’.[57]

The Great Southern Line

Of all the works singled out by The Age, the Great Southern line provided the most fertile for their muckrakers. The longest line authorised in the ‘Octopus Act’, it ran 117 miles from Dandenong to Port Albert, crossing the extensive Koo Wee Rup swamp and then winding across the western slopes of the Strzelecki Ranges into the sparsely settled hills of South Gippsland. So undeveloped was the district that only half of the line was originally proposed by Gillies in 1884, as farms had yet to be hacked out of the extensive forest that covered the well-watered hills.

The line’s construction was therefore deferred while those serving larger populations were given priority, but this meant it was built at the height of the Land Boom and was dogged by the attendant cost excesses. Nevertheless, it was built through the most difficult country of all main lines at an average cost of £7,433 per mile. This was over £1,000 less per mile than the main Gippsland line to Sale, which ran though easier country.[58]

The commissioners inspected the surveyed South Gippsland route in March 1887, taking a train to Dandenong, thence buggies to Lang Lang. From there they had to resort to horseback, threading through forests with trees towering up to 150 feet above them. It took them six days to reach Port Albert, meeting with settlers and deciding where stations should be made. It was later claimed that groups of locals were swelled by others from further afield to deceive the Commissioners, the station at Whitelaw being an example.[59]

That such a trick should fool Speight is highly doubtful, let alone Greene, who had been engineering new railways in Victoria since 1855. More likely their own experience in traversing the country made them sympathetic to the vicissitudes of travel in one of the highest rainfall and thickly timbered districts in the colony. It is no wonder that in 1884, when confronted with the requirement of estimating future traffic, Speight had told Parliament ‘the preparation of any such information would be unreliable and misleading…although some of the lines may not pay per-se for some time after they are opened…the result will be satisfactory…independent of the numerous advantages the districts…and the country generally, will derive…’ [60]

By 1884 brown and black coal discoveries had been made at multiple places in the colony, but nothing of value had been found in South Gippsland when the Great Southern line had been authorised by parliament. It was not until the line was under construction that commercial deposits were confirmed near Korumburra. Eight years after the line’s opening, a network of short branch lines from Korumburra was serving mines that provided Victoria with half its black coal needs.[61]

The South Gippsland line soon became home to the most powerful locomotives and heaviest trains in Australia, yet it was one of the monuments to extravagance singled out by The Age. On 13th June 1891 in one of the series headed ‘How the Money Goes’, the newspaper indulged in second guessing the decisions of surveyors, engineers and the Railway Commissioners. To their self-appointed expert eye, they charged:-

‘Too much land has been taken both at and between the stations; the stations are made too close together…cattle trucking yards have been built within 4½ miles of each other; the line, instead of being run three-quarters of a mile into the Koo-wee-rup swamp, which necessitated the construction of a succession of bridges, should have been taken a shorter route through the old townships of Cranbourne, Tooradin and Lang Lang, thus saving a large amount of money in bridges, and improving those townships. The passenger platforms and goods sheds at small stations…should have been erected on the same side of the line…and finally, the Whitelaw station blunder could have been avoided if the officers had looked at the matter from a common sense point of view, instead of which it is the laughing stock of every intelligent person who sees it’.[62]

Ten stations were named where the land purchased averaged 22 acres.[63] It was true that excessive amounts of land were sometimes purchased, just as excessive prices were paid for land before compulsory acquisition was introduced many years later. During the later years of the Land Boom local landholders played the system for all it was worth, demanding extraordinary prices. Although advance notice was given of coming land purchases, the actual transactions were pended until the land was wanted, the greater part from 1887 to 1889, but in some cases as late as 1891.

During those years there was a steep rise in the price of land, reaching a climax in 1888. As early as July 1886, the commissioners reported that the estimates for land on country and suburban lines had already been exceeded by 41 percent and 173 percent respectively.[64] Claims could be appealed, but arbitration was slow and generally favoured the landholder, so it was easier to pay the price so construction could proceed.

In one outrageous case, Thomas Haig of Burnley claimed £5,000 while the railways offer stood at £460. At arbitration Haig got £750 with costs paid by the railways. The total amount claimed in all such cases was £91,522. It is likely that the railways final offers totalling £39,915 were generous, but in most cases they were beaten and had to pay over £47,000.[65] Faced with such adverse decisions it is not surprising that when claims were only respectably greedy, the department took the easier course and simply coughed up.

On the Great Southern line eleven acres were adequate for the railway yard at Korumburra.[66] By comparison, the large yard at Geelong occupied sixteen acres, and at Ballarat some 37 acres were provided to accommodate the East and West stations and the yards between.[67] These were major stations, but from 1886 to 1892 inclusive there were 40 ordinary stations where land purchases averaged 23 acres.[68]

Excessive as this appears, it constituted only 13 percent of the 300 stations opened in that period on Act 821 lines.[69] Furthermore, land purchased by the Railways which was in excess of requirements did not sit idle, but was leased, or sometimes sold. The local Korumburra newspaper noted that at one station where 20 acres had been purchased for £3 per acre, the surplus could be sold for over eight times that sum.[70]

Korumburra 1892 “Destined to be a City in 1900”. Author’s collection.

The Age asserted that stations, including those with cattle loading facilities, were too close together and some were in lonely places unlikely to generate traffic. This claim was made in ignorance of station spacing elsewhere. The Age claimed that station spacing in newly settled districts in other colonies was 20 miles. This was nonsense. A good example was the South Australian narrow gauge line from Kingston to Border Town of 110 miles, with stations averaging nine miles apart though a very sparsely settled district.[71]

The newspaper acknowledged that station spacing would need to be closer in Gippsland ‘owing to the mountainous and boggy country rendering it difficult to construct roads for the cartage of produce’ but nevertheless went on to conclude that stations on the Great Southern line were too close together.[72] It was telling that when the Standing Committee on Railways decided to visit Gippsland, they were anxious to do so before winter, ‘when the roads in some places become almost impassable’.[73]

On the 1,100 miles of line opened in country districts under the ‘Octopus Act’, there were 255 stations, averaging 4⅓ miles apart. On the drier open plains stations were often further apart, but the average was reduced by the 380 miles of lines made in wet, hilly country, where station spacing averaged 3⅓ miles. This was also the average spacing on the Great Southern.

Also a main line with steep gradients benefited from more closely spaced stations which minimised crossing delays to slowly moving up and down trains. A station with meagre traffic might otherwise be useful for railway operating purposes. The Age condemned some stations on their first year’s takings, with no regard to future agricultural development. Ten years later some of the stations nominated as useless were doing good business, while patronage at a few remained meagre.[74]

The Age’s claim that a diversion of the line from Cranbourne to Lang Lang via Tooradin would have been shorter was wrong. The line as built via Koo-wee-rup was 1½ miles shorter. Furthermore, the route selected would service farm land on both sides of the line, whereas taking it via Tooradin would have put the line against the shore of Western Port Bay and further away from productive farms. Building via Koo-wee-rup was also criticised as requiring excessive bridging, whereas their suggested route was on higher ground. They further asserted that less bridging would have been necessary if a drain had been dug along the north side of the railway reservation. This was classic second guessing!

The Koo-wee-rup swamp covered about 150 square miles between the main Gippsland railway and Western Port Bay. The first attempts at drainage were made in the late 1870’s by farmers anxious to work the rich soil. However very wet weather in the spring of 1890 and early 1891 disrupted their efforts, and also hindered construction of the railway.[75] In the days before mechanised earthmoving, the cost of making embankments was similar to that of bridging, especially given nearby forests of suitable timber.[76] Railway engineers were all too aware of the potential of floods to wash away bridges with inadequate openings for water.

Blame had been levelled at railway engineers for embarrassing design faults in bridging and embankments from the earliest days on the G&MR, to the flooding of Carapooee Creek in 1879 and the Barwon River in 1881. (As late as the 1972 flash floods in Melbourne, engineers made an expensive redesign of the entrances to the Underground Loop tunnels by raising them above calculated 100-year floods). Subsequent criticism of the ‘excessive’ bridging over the Koo-wee-rup swamp by John Mann, an engineer engaged by Syme proved to be wrong. He calculated there was 1¼ miles of unnecessary bridging and the embankments were too high, but in fact the bridges were woefully inadequate when big floods came down.[77]

The Age castigated railway engineers for adhering to the ‘cranky notion’ that goods sheds should be erected on the opposite side of a station to the passenger platform.[78] Certainly some saving would have been made by avoiding the need for metalled road approaches to both sides, but operating inconvenience would have imposed costs for decades to come. The ‘cranky notion’ was common practice, as separating passenger and goods operations removed an impediment to efficient train movements, especially on main lines.

Dean’s Marsh station showing the cutting and light lines T class 0-6-0 No. 256, circa 1900. SLV b23668.

The Commissioners were lambasted for locating stations like Deans Marsh in places necessitating cuttings instead of locating them on more level ground. (The Age writer sensationalised this as ‘cutting away hills’).[79] It was said a similar thing had been done at Bena, Whitelaw and Boys on the Great Southern, but no mention was made of the need to balance the earthworks. If earth needed for embankments was in excess of that extracted from cuttings, the additional earth had to be found elsewhere on the railway reservation, such as station sites.

In his subsequent investigation John Mann, although critical, nevertheless agreed the line was well graded and that material excavated had been profitably used on the embankments, except at Boys where ‘the greater part went to waste’ .[80] There is no question that the line could have been more cheaply made, but then it would not have been to main line standards or fit for the volume of traffic it would soon carry.

That the location of a few stations and their facilities proved unnecessary is evidence that engineers made some mistakes, just as Mann’s own calculations for waterways were quite wrong. But overall, railway engineers were mindful of the needs of the Traffic Branch for a line that could be efficiently worked. A decade after the line was opened, 140,000 tons of freight per annum were being received or despatched just from Korumburra and the nearby coalfields at Jumbunna and Outtrim.[81] In the great flood of 1934 the railway was one of the few places above water and was used to evacuate stranded townsfolk and farmers.[82]

The Outer Circle and Other Claimed Excesses

As the Outer Circle line was being driven through cuttings, over embankments and across bridges in Melbourne’s sparsely settled outer east, the scale of its engineering began to amaze and disturb. An exposé by The Age in March 1890 was the first highly critical article about the railway administration. The paper’s comment that it ‘was in the first instance constructed as a job to suit the ulterior designs of land speculators, whose paddocks were subdivided and enhanced enormously in value by this extraordinary train service’ was almost certainly correct. [83]

Politicians had approved the Outer Circle knowing the Flinders Street viaduct nullified its role as a connection of the Gippsland line with Spencer Street. It had also been approved only a year after parliament’s authorisation of the extensive Melbourne tram network, with routes to northern suburbs that would provide a more direct connection to the heart of the city than the circular railway which would take passengers the long way round via Spencer Street.[84] It was purely a suburban railway with stations closely spaced, albeit with rudimentary facilities.

Rudimentary station facilities at Deepdene, on the Outer Circle railway, circa 1920. The down platform is overgrown. Shelter sheds sufficed for some stations on the line. PROV H1237.

The eastern portion of the Outer Circle serviced what was then Melbourne’s very sparsely settled fringe. Watson as Engineer-in-Chief and George Darbyshire as Engineer for Construction proceeded to have it built as a single line, but with extensive provision for duplication. This later occurred between Camberwell and Ashburton. The costs and disruption of duplication once an area became built-up were minimised if preparatory work had been completed at inception.

Given the almost universal transfixion with Marvellous Melbourne’s dazzling future it is hardly surprising the line was engineered for substantial traffic, but perhaps due to the almost overwhelming amount of work in supervising construction of so many lines simultaneously, some of the engineering on the Outer Circle was poorly executed. This was later attested by young John Monash, who had been employed as a Resident Engineer during the line’s construction.[85]

The same overconfidence afflicted the private promotors and builders of two other suburban lines that almost immediately failed. The Rosstown Railway between Elsternwick and Oakleigh was completed but never used,[86] and the 2¼ mile Box Hill to Doncaster electric tramway closed in 1896 having been operated for just over six years.[87]

Box Hill – Doncaster Tram No. 2 circa 1890. This was the first electric tramway in the Australasian colonies. SLV H9790 a14950.

The Forrest and Healesville lines were singled out by The Age as examples of country branch lines with excessive works, both due to deviations from the authorised routes. The Forrest line was diverted via Deans Marsh and the Healesville line via Yarra Glen. Deans Marsh and Yarra Glen were only hamlets at the time, but Gillies authorised the deviations.[88] The first involved several crossings of the Pennyroyal Creek and a large excavation for a station site. The second took the line over the Yarra River flood plain to Yarra Glen on the longest bridge in Victoria.

The Yarra Glen bridge stretched 7,560 feet and was about 14 feet high. It spanned the Yarra Flats on 501 timber trestles at a contract price of £16,900. The line then ran via a hilly route to Healesville which necessitated more bridging and one of Victoria’s rare tunnels. Engineers were criticised for making such an extensive bridge over the Yarra Flats, but it cost £2/5/- per lineal foot, compared with £2/5/6 per lineal foot for an embankment.[89] The Deans Marsh station cost £8,810. Somehow the building of these lines was construed as mismanagement by the Railway Commissioners and engineers.

K150 leading a train of carriages from the 1890’s on the timber trestle bridge at Yarra Glen. Originally this bridge continued for 7,160 ft across the flood plain between Yarra Glen and Yering. 13th March 1961. Michael Venn photograph.

The Age strategy was to highlight particular cases of perceived extravagance, extrapolate these into unsubstantiated generalisations of mismanagement and waste, and then repeat the process over and over until their hyperbole carried them away. In June 1891 they claimed the refrigerated trucks were carrying only ‘half a-dozen cases of butter and a similar number of cases of eggs’ and that the ‘cumbersome and unwieldy’ new sleeping cars on the Portland line were ‘never used’ and that the new composite cars built at Newport were extravagantly ‘upholstered in a most sumptuous fashion’. Yet a month later the railways were ‘so lacking in progressive spirit’ that they were ‘not likely to adopt a better style of carriage’ !

Somehow in the imagination of the editorialist, the cost of the ‘one pattern of line’ favoured by the Commissioners had inflated to between £12,000 and £20,000 per mile.[90] This was a breathtaking exaggeration! An hour or two’s analysis of the publicly available Railway Annual Report for 1890 would have shown some ‘Octopus Act’ branch lines costing less than £5,000 per mile, and some main lines less than £7,500 per mile.

Perhaps the most difficult line was that from Lilydale to Healesville, with its extensive bridging and tunnel, which cost £13,600 per mile, but of the country lines it was an exception. Even so, the station buildings on the Healesville line were frugal indeed, just the typical portable huts so commonly provided on new railways. As traffic developed, many of these were replaced with more substantial buildings. In other words, the railway engineers were often doing exactly what the light lines party was advocating: building simply and making improvements as traffic warranted.

Healesville Station in 1898 still with its original portable buildings. Old R class 0-6-0 No. 305 is at the head of a mixed train. PROV H2386.

The Age articles might have been regarded as using amusing exaggeration to score points, but they became quite ugly. Railwaymen were accused of ‘astounding incompetency’, ‘imbecility’, ‘wilful extravagance’ and finally ‘criminal extravagance’.[91] The Age was cherry picking examples of well-built facilities that were certainly in excess of initial traffic, but it might as well have found very many more examples of frugal construction. The capital upon which interest was payable had increased from £20,664,266 in 1883 to £32,949,606 in 1891: a total of £12,285,340.[92] It was drawing a long bow to claim anything like a significant part of that sum was wasted on premature over-building.

The cost of ‘Octopus Act’ railways was overwhelmingly due to the gradients and curvature adopted, not the location of stations and their facilities. Simple portable timber buildings were invariably provided to begin with, and many remained, never being replaced. Previously, when light lines had been built in difficult country, 50 lb rails had been specified and engineers had been willing to use 1 in 30 gradients and 15 chains radius curves in order to follow the lie of the land. This minimised the need for cuttings, embankments and bridges.

Despite the fact that the ‘Octopus Act’ authorised many railways in quite difficult country, curves less than 20 chains radius were rare, 1 in 40 gradients were the steepest adopted (with one exception) and 60 lb steel rails were laid. Although this increased the capital cost in some cases, the easier profile and heavier rail facilitated savings in ongoing working expenses, as bigger engines could haul heavier loads and running times were reduced. A few light lines built subsequently reverted to 1 in 30 gradients as standard for mountainous country, with curves as sharp as eight chains radius.[93]

Wooden portable buildings provided at Yarra Glen when the line opened in 1889 were typical of the basic facilities initially provided on new lines. Yarra Glen & District History Group.

Another Attack on Allison Smith

The change of Government refuelled the hopes of Allison Smith’s enemies that the Acting Locomotive Superintendent might be sacked rather than made substantive in his position. Numbers of disgruntled workers and all the Labor members of the Legislative Assembly had it in for him, but Shiels quickly realised that the right to hire, promote or fire rested solely with the Commissioners. They were satisfied Smith had proved himself. [86]

After Shiels’ speech on 9th December 1890 outlining the Munro Government’s decision to retain Speight, he was immediately followed by W.T. Carter, the MLA for Williamstown, with an attack on Allison Smith. Clearly briefed by disgruntled workmen at Newport, Carter dragged up the matter of the failed engine balancing experiment, and displayed his ignorance of progress in railway engineering and operations by criticising the design and building of larger trucks and scrapping obsolete ones, the fitting of Westinghouse brakes to goods trucks and cow catchers to locomotives.[95]

The criticism intensified, with Mr. Graves next day reading the detailed notes of Allison Smith’s interview with Speight nearly six years earlier, prior to his engagement in 1885. Graves endeavoured to show that Allison Smith had not fulfilled the conditions of the position as advertised.[96] No less than eight members of the Legislative Assembly spoke disparagingly of Allison Smith over three days, and called for an Inquiry into his management.

Among the critics was Colonel W.C Smith, MLA for Ballarat West, who was crooked on Allison Smith for favouring Newport Workshops for work that might have been done at Ballarat. But unlike the others, he made no personal aspersions, for as Chairman of Phoenix Foundry he had to admit that while he had initially been hostile, after ‘making inquiries among engineers of considerable ability he had modified his objection to Mr. Allison Smith.’ [97]

Bent did not take sides but reflected unease by suggesting an inquiry was needed to either clear Allison Smith, or substantiate the criticisms.[98] Shiels spoke to Allison Smith, who then wrote expressing his willingness to be subjected to a Royal Commission, Select Committee or other inquiry. To silence critics as to his qualifications, he signed himself ‘Allison D. Smith, M.I.M.E. (London), Member of the American Railroad Master Mechanics’ Association, Acting Locomotive Superintendent Victorian Railways.’ [99] But Shiels did nothing and a few days later the parliament was prorogued, not to meet again for six months.

Shiels Versus Speight

At the conclusion of his contract renegotiations in 1890, Speight had expressed his anxiety about the censure of his administration. Shiels had made a genuine effort to do the right thing by the Chairman, and soon afterwards also reappointed Commissioners Greene and Ford.[100] But by early 1891 the probing of the Standing Committee and the campaign by The Age put Speight and other senior railway officers on the defensive. Shiels too was under pressure to reduce railway expenditure, but his insistence only aggravated the situation.

Shiels wrote to Speight on 26th February 1891 requesting, among other economies, an annual reduction of one million train miles. This would have made an eight percent reduction on the 1889-90 total of 11,773,153 train miles.[101] But Speight resisted, noting that reduced freight rates which had been introduced to stimulate business and the costs of operating newly opened lines were depressing the accounts. The relations between the two men became frosty.

Shiels was critical of the tardy response to his requests for information, Speight replying that the large amount of analysis required meant answers could not be quickly provided. In particular the government’s insistence that train miles be reduced as an economy measure was resisted.[102] The government’s ultimatum had put the Commissioners in a quandary, as the pressure for reductions on one hand was countered by constant pressure from delegations for increased services on the other.[103]

The Railway Management Act of 1883 made the commissioners accountable directly to parliament to avoid a Minister of Railways functioning as a commissioner: often a corrupt and inept one. Speight was resisting a return to the former political control which the Act was specially designed to prevent. But the Act was vague about the government’s right or means of imposing financial discipline.

The commissioners regarded the railways users as their ‘shareholders’, the State being the owner. Therefore they had reduced freight rates in lieu of a dividend. But private companies also had Directors to whom their General Manager was accountable. Who functioned in the place of Directors for the Victorian Railways? While the economy flourished it was not an issue, but the oncoming depression was making the Act’s shortcomings painful for both sides.[104]

In late March 1891 an altercation erupted when a frustrated Shiels went directly to the railway Heads of Branches for information without informing Speight.[105] About a week later Watson died at the Melbourne Club. The Engineer-in-Chief was a widower with his only son living in England, and the Club had been his home for some years. He suffered from Bright’s disease and its flare-up caused his unexpectedly rapid decline: he had been working up to Easter, just ten days previous.

Watson’s funeral cortege was half a mile long, but pointedly no government Minister took part, the only politician present being Zeal. Decades before he had worked together with Watson under the famous railway engineer Joseph Locke in England. Both Watson and Zeal were gazetted as original Victorian Railways employees in 1856.[106] A few days after Watson’s death Speight appointed Darbyshire as Engineer-in-Chief, much to the chagrin of the government and The Age.[107] The Public Service Act requirement that officers retire at age 60 had been waived in 1887 due to the almost overwhelming volume of work.[108] Now Darbyshire was 71 years old and after 31 years had been reinstated in his old job! [109]

Darbyshire’s career had been a checkered one. After resigning as Engineer-in-Chief in 1860, he worked elsewhere until re-joining the Victorian Railways in 1872, only to become a casualty of the ‘Black Wednesday’ purge in January 1878. When R.G. Ford was removed as Engineer for Construction in 1882, Darbyshire was re-employed in that capacity, working again in his old MMR&MRR office at the Spencer Street Station, opposite Collins Street.[110] From there he controlled a staff of just over 100 officers.[111] He therefore had a direct responsibility for the making of all the ‘Octopus Act’ lines, with Watson finally accountable. Table Talk observed that ‘Darbyshire for some years past has been virtually Engineer-in-Chief’,[112] so perhaps Watson’s health had been deteriorating for some time.

As construction of the last ‘Octopus Act’ lines was still under way and with Watson gone, Speight’s decision was sensible, but The Age berated Darbyshire’s first term at Engineer-in-Chief as a ‘disastrous failure’. It claimed he had achieved promotion ‘by accident more than by design’, further asserting that the cost blow-outs were ‘not in large measure due to him.’ [113] But far from being apologetic for his engineering of the Sandhurst and Ballarat railways in the 1850’s, Darbyshire was proud of them, even to his belief they were economically made, given the decision by parliament to build on the English main line pattern.[114]

Darbyshire had a ‘very crude manner’ which offended some people and he was also a strict disciplinarian. He was not cowed by the likes of Zeal, but was noted for his impartiality, kindliness and honesty.[115] ‘Honest George’ was a good engineer in the British tradition, albeit like many in those days without formal qualification. He enjoyed Speight’s confidence, the Chairman of Commissioners later remarking that while he might be critical of the way an engineer ‘conducts the business of his branch…If you have an engineer in a position, you must have confidence in him…I never interfered with the plan of an engineer.’ He further acknowledged it was a ‘popular idea’ that engineers seldom considered economy, but he did not think it was true.[116] Regardless of Shiels’ disapproval at his reappointment, once the government had the power to order his retirement they were in no hurry to do so, keeping him on for a further six months until all the ‘Octopus Act’ lines were complete.[117]

George Darbyshire in 1892. After thirty two years he was restored as Engineer-in-Chief again at age 71! PROV H1308.

Allison Smith Finally Appointed Locomotive Superintendent

Not only did Speight earn the ire of Shiels and The Age by appointing Darbyshire, but in the same month, with parliament in recess, the commissioners finally appointed the embattled Allison Smith as Locomotive Superintendent, but on his existing salary of £1,000 per annum.[118] The local Williamstown newspaper, probably read by most of the men employed at Newport, commented that he had a ‘great future before him.’ They observed there was ‘no necessity to do the slave-driving business’ but that he should ‘blend in more with the views of the employees’. But to the men they suggested, ‘Respect Mr Smith, and we are greatly mistaken if Mr Allison Smith will not respect you.’ [119]

The officers of his Branch certainly did respect him, and a few weeks later hosted a banquet at Straker’s Café in Swanston Street. The entire office staff of the Branch attended, including men from many country depots. Noting the ‘utmost harmony’ of the occasion, The Herald commented it was ‘an indication that the appointment …is viewed with feelings of the greatest satisfaction by the executive members of such a large and important branch of …nearly 4,000 employes, and notwithstanding assertions that have been made to the contrary, it is believed that the major portion of the men are prepared to reiterate the expressions of loyalty to the new chief that were heard on all sides from the officers on Wednesday evening.’ [120]

They had good cause to be satisfied, as the influence of the Locomotive Carriage and Waggon Branch was waxing and their career prospects were bright. Two weeks after the banquet a new bogie carriage to Allison Smith’s design was shown off at Spencer Street. Built at the National Workshops at Newport, it provided accommodation for 1st and 2nd class passengers and a guard in a single carriage. By using cars like this in place of the brake van on goods trains, extra passenger services could be economically provided.

The composite car had two leather upholstered compartments for 1st class (one for ladies having access to a lavatory, the other for smokers), and three canvas upholstered 2nd class compartments, including one for smokers (but none for ladies). A guard’s compartment in the middle divided the classes and included a gent’s lavatory. A central gangway provided access from end to end, with doors to platforms providing access to adjacent carriages. It was said to be a pattern for more to follow.[121] Mixed trains were nothing new, but the slow ‘car goods’ was to become an infamous feature of upcountry branch lines!

A few months after being confirmed Locomotive Superintendent, Allison Smith travelled to Sydney to observe trials of various continuous brakes on the Blue Mountains with Thomas Roberts, his opposite number from South Australia. Roberts had taken over from William Thow who had been recruited as Locomotive Superintendent of the NSW Railways and took his dislike of the Westinghouse brake to Sydney in April 1889.[122] But after Thow left Adelaide, Allison Smith had been appointed to a Brake Board which confirmed the South Australian adoption of Westinghouse.[123] Not surprisingly, Thow wanted neither Roberts or Allison Smith on the NSW Brake Board! After Allison Smith’s return from Sydney he joined the colony’s elite as an eligible bachelor at a dinner party provided by Lord and Lady Hopetoun.[124]

But none of this won him many favours with the government. He appeared before the Standing Committee on Railways on the day Zeal insisted on quizzing railway officers on their dislike of light lines. Undeterred, Allison Smith made a well-reasoned case for building to substantial engineering standards, citing the higher annual maintenance on light lines and the inefficient use of rolling stock. He argued that lines could certainly be built cheaply on the American system and operated safely at low speeds. But he noted that regardless of parliament’s dictates, once a line was made nothing could prevent people agitating for improvements. And under a State owned system they generally got what they wanted.[125]

At years’ end when parliament discovered Speight had increased his Locomotive Superintendent’s salary to £1,200 per annum Zeal protested, complaining that although he was ‘an efficient officer… he was only comparatively young in the service’. [126] He was then nearly 37 years old and had been a senior rolling stock engineer in New Zealand and Victoria for fourteen years! In the Legislative Assembly there was an attempt to stop the £200 increase in Allison Smith’s salary, the debate dragging over seven pages of Hansard.[127]

Finally the Premier put a stop to it, saying ‘if the amendment were carried it would only reduce the total sum voted to the Railway department by £200 – it would not reduce Mr. Allison Smith’s salary by that amount, because the £200 would have to come off the whole lot… they had already expressed their opinions in a very forcible manner, and he only wished they had been expressed in a much shorter space of time… This matter of £200 a year was not worth talking about’.

During the debate the local member for Williamstown criticised the new design of sheep trucks and the fitting of Westinghouse brakes to goods vehicles generally. He exhibited an ignorance of progress in railway affairs that would soon dramatically change the industry. Steel was replacing wood in goods rolling stock, carriages and trucks were being built with higher carrying capacity and were consequently heavier and more robust, and bigger and more powerful locomotives were being introduced to haul the heavier trains.

The fitting of Westinghouse brakes to both passenger and goods vehicles was necessary for the safe operation of mixed trains, which combined passenger carriages and goods trucks in the same consist. In consequence older stock dating back thirty years were being scrapped. To amateurs it just looked like waste, but their motives in attacking the Locomotive Superintendent were well known. One member commented that ‘Certain honorable members had an antipathy to Mr. Allison Smith…An antipathy had been loudly expressed…whenever the name of Mr. Allison Smith had been mentioned.’ [128] The critics were sensibly refuted by a letter published in the local Williamstown Chronicle, almost certainly written by one of the Newport workers.[129]

Old R class No. 327 leaving Trentham circa 1900 with a mixed passenger and goods train for Daylesford. The fitting of goods trucks with Westinghouse brakes was a safety measure necessitated by the large number of mixed trains scheduled. Drivers had better control of their train if all vehicles were braked.

Shiels’ End Game

Shiels’ frustration and the impending collapse of the colony’s economy highlighted the need to restore a degree of parliamentary control over railway affairs, and to this end he introduced the Railways Act Amendment Bill on 23rd July1891.[130] He was aided in this by the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Railways, that urged new construction be separated from the control of the commissioners, who should be restricted to management and maintenance of existing lines.

The Committee’s careful examination of all proposed lines, their likely traffic and their calculation of costs based on frugal construction were in stark contrast to Speight’s contention that it was immaterial what lines were built, provided annual expenditure was less than £2,000,000. Neither would Speight budge from the substantially higher standard of construction proposed for new lines in 1890.[131] Even the more temperate journalists could not swallow this, Table Talk holding that not only was administrative reform needed in the railway department, but that it was imperative that parliamentary control over expenditure be reasserted.

Table Talk observed that Shiels was using the Railways Act Amendment Bill as ‘a peg for a personal attack upon Mr, Speight.’ [132] It added ‘Mr. Shiels lost the sympathy of a large number of members of the Assembly as well as of the public by his bitter invective against Mr. Speight. Anyone who recollects the Victorian Railway service seven years ago must acknowledge that with all its defects the present service is immeasurably superior, both as to effectiveness and civility of employés.’

That Speight was a scapegoat for the financial troubles was clear enough,[133] but he still enjoyed the goodwill of railwaymen. At the annual banquet of the Locomotive Engine Drivers’ and Fireman’s Association (LEDFA) in Bendigo, the Secretary ‘expressed a hope that the dispute between the Minister and Mr. Speight would be settled shortly, and that Mr. Speight would come out on the top, as he had the respect of all the railway men.’ [134] The previous year’s banquet had been attended by all three commissioners, and Lord Hopetoun. This was the first time in the colony’s history a Governor had attended a workingmen’s function, and was most likely due to Speight’s recommendation.

Lord and Lady Hopetoun – Speight and Allison Smith enjoyed their hospitality and the Governor’s attendance at the Enginemen’s banquet was unprecedented. Left: Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co, SLV 1706356. Right: NLA an23333078.

Despite the perception of politicians and the press that Speight was refusing to implement economies, railwaymen knew otherwise. Maintenance on railways was suspended in early 1891 and some train services were suspended soon after. The new Administrative Offices were filled with old furniture. [135] Most of the train services removed during the maritime strike were on branch lines, and when things returned to normal only a quarter of the cancelled services were restored.[136] Services on the Penshurst-Dunkeld line were suspended, but not without local protests.[137]

Robert Kent, the Accountant, in addressing the annual picnic of the Victorian Railways Mutual Benefit Society in March 1891 joked that ‘he was in the unenviable position of not being able to make both ends meet’ and told the gathering of employees and their families who had travelled up to Lal Lal in three special trains that they ‘should not expect special trains to be placed at their disposal next year, the present financial position of the railways requiring every economy to be exercised.’ [138] But the toxic criticism was slowly poisoning the Chairman. An inciteful comment was made by Table Talk:-

‘[Mr. Speight is in]the unenviable position of being the best abused man in Victoria. The situation is the harder for Mr. Speight to bear, as until the last year or so he was the most praised man in Australia… Yet the change is not due to any fault of Mr. Speight. He is the same now as he was when he assumed the charge of the Victorian Railways in February, 1884… Knowing that he has done nothing to deserve such an attack as that made by Mr. Shiels, he imagines that the whole outcry against his administration is due to personal spite. If an article against the department appears in a newspaper Mr. Speight at once tries to find out the author, so as to discover a personal enemy. This is not Speight’s usual frame of mind. Naturally he is good and fond of cheerful company.’ [139]

The upshot was a feud between the Minister and the commissioners at the very time when close cooperation was desperately needed. Resources were wasted in an increasingly acrimonious correspondence between Shiels and Speight over five months from February 1891.[140] That further significant economies could have been made is clear from subsequent years, but instead there was a stand-off, with liberal interests tending to support Shiels, and conservative interests Speight.

To further discredit the commissioners, the government supported the creation of a Select Committee to inquire into the granting of free passes. Speight had refused to supply lists of free passes given unless directed by parliament. It was now time to ‘thrust in the knife’.[141] The investigation would later reveal how Speight’s family were an accepted part of colonial society, but an average of 28 passes a year spread over his large family of ten grown children was hardly excessive. They attended Vice-Regal garden parties, dinners and balls and society weddings.[142] They were among one hundred invited guests at a gallery opening in 1888,[143] and the talented artist Florence Fuller later painted Speight’s portrait.[144]

The Speight’s were frequent visitors to Werribee, probably as guests of the Chirnside family at their Werribee Park mansion,[145] and in late 1890 his daughter Sarah married Launcelot Conway-Gordon, son of a former Director-General of the Indian Railways.[146] The reception was at the Speight home ‘Glenroy Park’ in Middle Brighton, where Sarah no doubt displayed her gifts as a pianiste and one of the colony’s most accomplished amateur singers.[147] The following year her adventurous sister Alice married a banker in Yokohama, Japan.[148] Speight was respected in the adjoining colonies, his work on behalf of the Tasmanian Government Railways in the takeover of the Tasmanian Main Line Railway netting him a fee of £6,000.[149]

The Chirnside mansion ‘Werribee Park’ circa 1890. The Speight’s were frequent visitors. SLV b23002.

With the economy crumbling the government encountered resistance to its Railway Management Bill, its passage being hindered by nearly five months. Whereas the government had support in the Legislative Assembly, Speight was favoured in the Legislative Council, which called him to give evidence before the bar on 18th December 1891. Following that, a midnight meeting of some members of the Council and the Assembly was held on Christmas Eve, a compromise being reached at 1.50 am! [150] The Bill was then passed a few days later just before parliament was prorogued on 29th December.[151]

The legislation placed the construction of all new railway lines under the Board of Land and Works and included a clause enabling the commissioners to be suspended on grounds of ‘inability, inefficiency, mismanagement, or misbehaviour, or refusal or neglect or failure to carry out any of the provisions of the Railways Acts’. It was clearly intended to pave the way for Speight’s dismissal. Premier Munro said as much a month before; ‘…next session …if it should be found that there were men in the Railway department who were unsuited for the offices they held, the Government would be able to deal with them.’ [152]

Early in the January 1892 Syme heard that Munro was in financial difficulties and made it clear he no longer enjoyed his confidence, privately urging his resignation. In a deal it was agreed The Age would support Shiels as Premier in return for promoting Munro as the new Agent General in London.[153] This it did in its editorial of 8th January 1892.[154] The Cabinet duly approved Munro as the next Agent-General, and Shiels as the new Premier, to take effect from 16th February when the position became vacant.[155] Soon afterwards, Munro bolted for London, his Federal Building Society and his Real Estate Bank having suspended payments. The latter was in process of liquidation, with losses of £1,027,000.[156]

So with one of the real Land Boom rogues sailing away, Shiels turned on a man innocent of defrauding anyone. Armed with the new Amendment to the Railways Act and the full support of The Age, and after only a month as Premier, he suspended Speight, Greene and Ford on Thursday 17th March 1892.[157] Speight saw what was coming and was preparing to sue The Age, urged on by his ill-advised friends at the Athenaeum Club.[158] The Melbourne Punch was prophetic when eight years before they cast the Chairman of Commissioners as entering a Shakespearean tragedy that would end in his exclaiming:-

‘The lines are out of joint – oh! Cursed Speight
That ever I was born to set them right.’ [159]

Fifteen months later Allison Smith met the same fate.

High resolution versions of some of the photographs in this chapter may be found on Smugmug


end notes

  1. H.G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, Volume II, 1854-1900, London, 1904, p. 258.
  2. Margot Beevor, Duncan Gillies, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 4, MUP, 1972.
  3. Age, 18 June 1890, p. 6. A map of the proposed lines is provided.
  4. Age, 15 July 1890, p. 5.
  5. Age, 23 July 1890, p. 4.
  6. Victorian Parliamentary Debates (VPD),1890, Vol. 63, p. 811. 22 July.
  7. Age, 12 July 1890, p. 10.
  8. VPD, 1890, Vol. 63, p. 799. 22 July.
  9. Age, 23 July 1890, p. 4.
  10. Age, 25 July 1890, p. 4.
  11. Age, 8 September 1893, p. 6.
  12. Age, 8 September 1893, p. 5.
  13. Age, 16 October 1884, p. 4.
  14. Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers, MUP, 1966, pp. 100-104. In 1894 Hayter was allowed a secret composition (bankruptcy) of 3d in the £.
  15. Age, 15 July 1890, p. 5.
  16. Report of the Victorian Railways Commissioners for the year ended 30th June 1890, VPP 1890, No. 151, pp. ix, xiv-xvi.
    Age, 26 September 1890, pp. 4-5.
  17. Argus, 18 August 1890, p. 4.
    Age, 19 August 1890, p. 5.
    Turner, pp. 286-287.
  18. Age, 27 August 1890, p. 6.
  19. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1891, VPP 1891, No. 124, p. v.
  20. Age, 12 September 1890, p. 5.
  21. Age, 8 October 1890, p. 6.
  22. ibid. For further effects of the strike on the railways, see: Age, 30 August 1890, p. 10; 3 September 1890, p. 6; 5 September 1890, p. 5; 8 September 1890, p. 5; 12 September 1890, p. 5.
  23. Turner, pp. 275-276.
  24. Argus, 25 October 1890, p. 10.
  25. Argus, 24 October 1890, p. 5.
  26. VPD, 1890, Vol. 65, pp. 2229, 2235. 29 October 29.
    Age, 30 October 1890, p. 5.
  27. Argus, 29 October 1890, p. 5.
  28. Herald, 31 October 1890, p. 4.
    Turner, pp. 288-289.
  29. Cannon, pp. 121, 123.
  30. Age, 6 November 1890, p. 4.
  31. Cannon, pp. 57-58.
  32. Table Talk, 20 February 1891, p. 5.
  33. Cannon, pp. 17, 19.
  34. Age, 11 December 1890, p. 6.
    See Encyclopaedia of New Zealand:- ‘Historical Evolution and Trade Patterns’ explains that by 1884, two years from the inauguration of the trade, frozen meat reached 5 per cent of the value of total exports and by 1890 it was 11 per cent and growing rapidly.
    See Policy Tensor:- The British refrigerated meat trade 1880-1930, The graph shows approximately 25,000 tons of frozen lamb and mutton exported in 1890.
  35. Geelong Advertiser, 13 October 1890, p. 2.
    Age, 24 January 1893, p. 5. The trial was made using a truck fitted with Taylor’s patent refrigerating equipment. The system worked and further experiments followed, but the costs outweighed the benefits and the project was abandoned.
    Norm Bray, Peter J. Vincent & Daryl M. Gregory, Fixed Wheel Freight Wagons of Victoria K to Z, Sunbury, 2009, p. 190.
  36. Ballarat Star, 3 September 1889, p. 4.
  37. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1900, VPP 1900, No. 47, Appendix 19, p. 74. There were then 149 refrigerated trucks in service.
    Bray et al, p. 189.
  38. VPD. Vol.65, 9 December 1890, p. 2462.
  39. ibid.
  40. ibid, p. 2465.
  41. ibid, p. 2467.
  42. ibid, p. 2468.
  43. ibid. Shield momentarily forgot that from Victoria, America was across the Pacific, not the Atlantic.
  44. ibid, p. 2473.
  45. Argus, 22 December 1891, p. 9.
  46. ibid.
  47. Age, 22 July 1891, p. 4.
  48. Age, 10 December 1890, p. 4.
  49. Argus, 17 June 1891, p. 9.
  50. Age, 7 February 1891, p. 9.
  51. Age, 12 February 1891, p. 5.
  52. Age, 28 November 1890, p. 5. Robert Watson’s evidence before the Railways Standing Committee.
  53. Argus, 3 December 1890, p. 11.
    Age, 31 January 1884, p. 4.
  54. Age, 28 May 1891, p. 6.
  55. VPD, 1891, Vol. 68, p. 3197.
  56. Age, 20 March 1891, p. 4.
  57. Age, 19 June 1891, p. 6.
  58. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1895, VPP 1895-96, No. 68, Map p. 59 showing stations.
    Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1901, VPP 1901, No. 41, Appendix 16 listing lines and distances.
  59. K.M. Bowden, The Great Southern Railway, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 22-24.
    Argus, 6 September 1893, p. 10.
  60. VPD, 1884, Vol. 47, p. 1749. 14 October.
  61. Jack Vines, Coal Mining Heritage Study in Victoria, Heritage Council of Victoria, 2008, pp. 7-8.
  62. Age, 13 June 1891, p. 9.
  63. Cranbourne 19, Tooradin 33, Koo-wee-rup 22, Monomeith 28, Caldermeade 26, Lang Lang 19, Loch 20, Jeetho 16, Bena 15, Whitelaw 22 acres.
  64. Age, 8 September 1893, p. 6.
  65. Age, 8 September 1893, p. 5.
  66. Age, 2 December 1893, p. 13.
  67. Age, 8 June 1893, p. 6.
  68. ibid, The stations named were opened between 1886 and 1892.
  69. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1893, VPP 1893, No. 43.
  70. Great Southern Advocate (Korumburra), 26 June 1891, p. 2.
  71. Border Watch (Mount Gambier), Wednesday 5 May 1886, p. 4; 30 October 1886, p. 4.
  72. Age, 13 June 1891, p. 9.
  73. Argus, 10 April 1891, p. 5.
  74. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1901, VPP 1901, No. 41, Appendix 20, p. 57. Whitelaw £160, Boys £116, Lyndhurst £602, Hoddle Range £2,084.
  75. Weekly Times, 17 January 1891, p. 28.
    See Victorian Places:- kooweerup swamp
  76. Age, 5 December 1893, p5.
  77. Age, 6 September 1893, p. 6.
    David Roberts, From Swampland to Farmland, Rural Water Commission Victoria, 1985, pp. 30-31.
  78. Age, 13 June 1891, p. 9.
  79. Age, 16 June 1891, p. 5.
  80. Herald, 5 September 1893, p. 2.
  81. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1901, VPP 1901, No. 41, Appendix 20, p. 57.
  82. Roberts, p. 31.
  83. Age, 1 March 1890, p. 14.
  84. John D. Keating, Mind the Curve! A History of the Cable Trams, MUP, 1970, pp. 38, 44, 57, 113-114. The Rathdown St, Nicholson St, Brunswick St-St Georges Rd, and the Smith St-Heidelberg Rd lines served the same neighbourhoods as the Outer Circle stations at Carlton, North Carlton and Clifton Hill. The door to door journey time by cable tram was very competitive with the train. Trams were more frequent, served many more stops, and could reach the heart of the city in 20 minutes.
  85. Argus, 7 September 1893, p. 10.
    Roland Perry, Monash: The Outsider who Won a War, Random House, 2007. pp. 38-43, 65-66.
  86. See Wikipedia: – Rosstown Railway
  87. See Melbourne Tram Museum:- Australia’s First Electric Tram
    Age, 15 October 1889, p. 4.
  88. Age, 24 June 1893, p. 13.
  89. Age, 5 December 1893, p. 5.
  90. Age, 22 July 1891, p. 4.
  91. Age, 16 June 1891, p. 5; 19 June 1891, p. 6; 20 June 1891, p. 14.
  92. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1891, VPP 1891, No. 124, p. iv.
  93. Victorian Railways, Diagram of Gradients and Curves 1927. The Beechworth line, opened in 1876, had 1 in 30 gradients and when extended under the Octopus Act to Yackandandah these were again adopted.
  94. Argus, 5 December 1890, p. 4.
  95. VPD, 1890, Vol. 65, pp. 2476-77.
  96. ibid, pp. 2515-16.
  97. ibid, p. 2503 10 December. Those who spoke against Allison Smith over the three days 9-11 December were Messrs. Carter, Clark (twice), T. Smith, Col. Smith, Graves, Malony, Dunn and Kirton. Two spoke in his defence – Messrs Zox and Tuthill.
  98. VPD, 1890, Vol. 65, p. 2621.
  99. Australasian, 20 December 1890, p. 27.
  100. Argus, 6 January 1891, p. 5.
  101. R.L. Wettenhall, Railway Management and Politics in Victoria 1856 -1906, Canberra, 1961, p. 43.
  102. VPD, 1890, Vol. 65, p. 2466, 9 December 1890.
    Argus, 11 March 1891, p. 5; 4 May 1891, p. 4.
  103. Age, 21 May 1891, p. 4; 28 May 1891, p. 4.
  104. Correspondence between the Minister of Railways and the Railways Commissioners, VPP 1891. No. C16. December 1891.
  105. Table Talk, 3 April 1891, p. 1.
  106. Argus, 8 April 1891, p. 6; 9 April 1891, p. 4.
    Age, 8 April 1891, p. 6.
    Herald, 7 April 1891, p. 2.
  107. Correspondence etc, VPP 1891. No. C16, p. 8.
    Argus, 31 July 1891, p. 5.,
    Age, 25 April 1891, p. 15.
  108. Australasian, 22 January 1887, p. 27.
  109. See Wikipedia:- George Christian Darbyshire
  110. Argus, 2 February 1891, p. 8.
  111. Age, 1 December 1893, p. 5.
    Argus, 19 July 1882, p. 10.
  112. Table Talk, 17 April 1891, p. 1.
  113. Age, 25 April 1891, p. 15.
  114. Age, 1 December 1893, p. 6.
  115. Argus, 28 April 1891, p. 9.
    Weekly Times, 12 March 1898, p. 14.
  116. Age, 24 November 1893, p. 6.
  117. Age, 30 December 1891, p. 5.
    Argus, 5 July 1892, p. 4.
    Robert Lee, The Railways of Victoria 1854-2004, Melbourne, 2007, p. 97. Darbyshire’s appointment was far from being ‘extraordinary and desperate’. See: Argus, 28 April 1891, p. 9. An engineering contemporary of Darbyshire held him in high regard.
  118. Argus, 3 March 1891, p. 7.
  119. Williamstown Chronicle, 7 March 1891, p. 2.
  120. Herald, 13 March 1891, p. 4.
  121. Age, 25 March 1891, p. 5.
    Williamstown Chronicle, 28 March 1891, p. 2.
  122. South Australian Register, 19 April 1889, p. 4.
    Advertiser, 12 April 1889, p. 4.
  123. Ballarat Star, 1 June 1891, p. 2.
    Argus, 27 February 1890, p. 7.
  124. Australasian, 22 August 1891, p. 38.
  125. Age, 28 May 1891, p. 6.
    Ballarat Star, 1 June 1891, p. 2.
  126. VPD, 1891, Vol. 68, p. 3197. 18 December 1891.
  127. ibid, pp. 2714-2721. 26 November 1891.
  128. ibid, p. 2714. 26 November 1891. L. L. Smith.
  129. Williamstown Chronicle, 5 December 1891, p. 2.
  130. VPD, 1891, Vol. 66, p. 504.
  131. Argus, 17 June 1891, p. 9.
  132. Table Talk, 31 July 1891, p. 8.
  133. Table Talk, 17 April 1891, p. 1.
  134. Argus, 17 August 1891, p. 5.
  135. Table Talk, 19 February 1892, p. 1.
    Argus, 2 February 1891, p. 8.
  136. Argus, 19 December 1891, p. 11.
  137. Argus, 10 April 1891, p. 5.
  138. Williamstown Chronicle, 21 March 1891, p. 3.
  139. Table Talk, 2 October 1891, p. 4.
  140. Correspondence etc, VPP 1891. No. C16.
  141. Age, 13 August 1891, p. 6.
  142. Table Talk, 3 April 1890, pp. 16-17; 15 November 1889, pp. 9-10; 25 July 1890, pp. 15, 17; 7 November 1890, pp. 14, 16.; 18 April 1890, pp. 9-10.
  143. Table Talk, 21 December 1888, p. 3.
  144. Table Talk, 15 August 1890, p. 5.
    See Wikipedia:- Florence Fuller
  145. Age, 29 September 1893, p. 5.
  146. Argus, 29 November 1890, p. 1.
  147. Melbourne Punch, 14 February 1889, p. 13. Her name is given as Sallie in error.
    Table Talk, 21 November 1890, p. 15.
  148. Table Talk, 9 October 1891, p. 10.
  149. Table Talk, 24 October 1890, p. 4.
  150. Age, 24 December 1891, p. 5.
  151. VPD, 1891, Vol. 68, p. 3430.
  152. ibid, p. 2720. 26 November 1891.
  153. C.E. Sayers, David Syme: a Life, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 162-3.
  154. Age, 8 January 1892, p. 4.
  155. Age, 13 January 1892, p. 5. Graham Berry was the incumbent Agent General until that date.
    Argus, 17 February 1892, p. 4.
  156. Argus, 29 February 1892, p. 4.
    Cannon, pp. 121-123.
  157. Argus, 18 March 1892, p. 5.
  158. Table Talk, 18 March 1892, p. 1.
  159. Melbourne Punch, 14 February 1884, p. 4.