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Chapter Two


When George Darbyshire resigned as Engineer-in-Chief, Thomas Higinbotham was appointed in his place from 17th May 1860. [1] He brought to the position seventeen years’ experience in railway construction. A member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, he was 41 years old, and a confirmed bachelor when he took over as Engineer- in-Chief. Born into an Anglo-Irish family during 1819, and educated in Dublin, he had begun his career at the age of twenty-one, working with Sir William Cubitt’s firm of civil engineers. The firm was then heavily involved in railway construction, as the ‘railway mania’ was at its height in Britain. After some years in the office, he worked as Assistant Engineer on the construction of lines in Kent and Lancashire, and subsequently was appointed Resident Engineer for Construction of the Huntingdon section of the Great Northern Railway. He emigrated to Victoria in 1857 and was soon appointed Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges. His younger brother George had emigrated earlier and became editor of The Argus and was subsequently elected to the Legislative Assembly. George was Attorney General from 1863 to 1868.

The new Engineer-in-Chief investigated the alleged unsound culverts near Castlemaine and exonerated his predecessor’s honesty.[2] Nevertheless he had strong words to say about Darbyshire’s competence, reporting that the ‘specifications for the works on the Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Ballarat lines prove that those who drew them were totally ignorant of railway works, and are so full of errors and inconsistencies, that if they had been drawn with the intention of giving opportunities to contractors to make claims against the government, they could scarcely have been more effectual than they are for that purpose’.[3]

Thomas Higinbotham circa 1860
Thomas Higinbotham C.E., Victorian Railways Engineer-in-Chief circa 1860. PROV H1322

Higinbotham was scathing about the contractors. When he took over, he found that Cornish and Bruce had been paid ‘a sum of upwards of £19,000 for ballast that had never been supplied’. [4] That the contractors were corrupt, he had no doubt and he was also deeply suspicious of the actions of William Austin Zeal, one of the Department’s Resident Engineers. Zeal was born at Westbury, Wiltshire, in 1830 and began his railway career as a 15 year old in 1844, working for Joseph Locke, who was then constructing the London and South Western Railway. With the cooling of the railway mania from 1847, Zeal took various other engineering jobs, and claimed to have been a consulting engineer on one of the Great Western branch lines as a 20 year old. He arrived in Melbourne about the time of his 22nd birthday in late 1852, and after spending time on the goldfields joined the MMA&MRR where he worked for Charles Swyer on the Williamstown line. After the government takeover, he worked as a surveyor and engineer, and was one of the Resident Engineers on the Sandhurst line.[5] It was Zeal’s responsibility to check the quantities of ballast supplied, and authorise payment. Zeal duped a fellow Resident Engineer, Robert Watson, into authorising payment on the basis of a fraudulent assurance that the ballast had been supplied. On 31st March 1859, two weeks before the payments were made, Zeal resigned from the Victorian Railways and joined with the contractors, Cornish and Bruce, to help them exploit loopholes in their contracts. [6]

Zeal was elected to the Legislative Assembly as Member for Castlemaine in November 1864.[7] In May 1865 he and his friends attempted to censure Thomas Higinbotham for his allegations about the Cornish and Bruce affair, but they got more than they bargained for. The Engineer-in-Chief was thoroughly professional and confident of his standing. Higinbotham publicly ridiculed his critics who, he said, ‘have had no other experience than the very narrow one that the colony has hitherto afforded, have never been employed on important works elsewhere, or had an opportunity of learning what are the opinions, and what has been the practice, of the best English engineers’.[8] He knew Zeal had only worked in England at a junior level, but stopped short of accusing him of fraud due to a lack of hard evidence. But when pressed by the Select Committee appointed in May 1865 to inquire into the allegations, he held Zeal responsible at the very least for ‘a most culpable neglect’ in failing to detect the over measurement of ballast supplied by the contractors.[9]

The new Engineer-in-Chief, while more competent and careful than Darbyshire, was still an advocate of solid engineering of the English school. He disclaimed responsibility for the way the Ballarat and Sandhurst lines had been surveyed, the extravagances of the Williamstown branch line, the mistaken design of Spencer Street station, which needed rebuilding, and the loose contracts, all of which added to the cost of the lines he had to complete.

Viaducts Bridges and Culverts

Higinbotham’s main economies were in bridging. When it came to building the main lines, Darbyshire had followed British practice and stipulated that culverts, bridges and viaducts be made of stone, brick, or iron, or a combination of these durable materials, ensuring all structures were built to last. The Sandhurst line, which junctioned from the Williamstown branch at Footscray, was planned to have no less than twelve large viaducts or bridges. When Thomas Higinbotham took over direction of the works in May 1860, some of the viaducts had yet to be commenced, and he was able to eliminate three of the lesser structures, replacing them with embankments and culverts. [10]

The rest were dictated by the approved survey, which it was too late to change. They varied in size from the iron bridges over Forest Creek, Castlemaine, and Kangaroo Gully, Kangaroo Flat, which rested on brick piers, to the massive masonry and iron viaducts across Back Creek, at Taradale, and Jacksons Creek, Sunbury. The five spans of Taradale viaduct took the railway 120 feet above the trickle below, and cost £178,042, almost as much as that at Moorabool.[11] The high relative cost of the Sandhurst line viaducts was due to their use of iron plate girders, which weighed more but were stronger than the latticed type used at Moorabool. To avoid the expensive use of imported iron, five of the viaducts were built entirely of stone. The grandest of these vaulted 260 feet across the Coliban River at Malmsbury, on five imposing arches over 60 feet above the water. Smaller multiple arch masonry viaducts spanned the Harpers and Blind Creeks near Sunbury, the upper Campaspe River near Woodend, and Barkers Creek at Harcourt. The durability of these masonry viaducts is evidenced by their survival, without strengthening, over more than 150 years of ever more punishing loads, including today’s 2,000 ton wheat trains running at 80 kph., and V/Locity passenger trains at 160 kph. But such permanence had its price: these nine bridges and viaducts on the Ballarat and Sandhurst lines cost £775,000, or 11 per cent of the total costs, exclusive of rolling stock.[12]

Tunnels and Cuttings

Of the three mainline railway tunnels made in Victoria, two were on the Sandhurst line: the 1,264 foot bore near Elphinstone, and the 1,276 foot bore at Big Hill, seven miles south of Sandhurst.[13] This was the price of an English mainline profile, which also required some massive cuttings and embankments. The two most remarkable cuttings are those at Rupertswood and Elphinstone. The former is about twenty feet deep, but is cut into volcanic rock and continues for about 1,500 yards; the other, on the approach to Elphinstone tunnel, is 65 feet deep.[14] Both were big jobs in the days before the steam shovel.


To the layman, the most obvious extravagances on the original mainlines were the stations and of all the works, stations continued to be the most frequent cause of political interference. Planning and design was therefore carried out at the highest level.

Harcourt Railway Station
Thomas Higinbotham’s Harcourt Railway Station, circa 1870. PROV H1473.

One of the subordinate engineers claimed Thomas Higinbotham did these things himself ‘as every other Engineer-in-Chief would do, without reference to those who serve under him’.[15] The ultimate decision nevertheless rested even higher; Thomas Higinbotham said the Minister decided questions about stations.[16] If a township was provided with simple wooden station buildings, they would press for improved accommodation and generally get it. In these circumstances, the engineers preferred to erect decent buildings to begin with.

All the stations on the government lines were to Higinbotham’s specifications, with the exception of those on the Williamstown branch and the Melbourne to Sunbury section of the main line. These were opened on 13th January 1859, and were Darbyshire’s work.[17] Most of Higinbotham’s stations on the Sandhurst and Ballarat lines were two storey bluestone or brick structures, with bluestone platform facing, and large bluestone or brick goods sheds; Darbyshire was content with more humble timber structures. An early photograph of the timber station building at Sunbury, on the Sandhurst line, shows a building with three chimneys that by later light lines standards would have seemed palatial. [18]

Sunbury Railway Station circa 1885
George Darbyshire’s modest railway station at Sunbury circa 1885. PROV H1857.

Higinbotham’s terminal stations during the first decade really were palatial. Ballarat, the largest inland city in the colony, was graced with a terminus that shamed the efforts of private enterprise at Geelong. What the G&MR achieved with corrugated iron, Thomas Higinbotham excelled in stone. Its beautiful booking hall, with both platforms and tracks being roofed over, cost £61,458, or sufficient to build ten miles of railway in the 1870’s, stations and all.[19]

Ballarat Railway Station circa 1862
Ballarat station and goods shed (Melbourne end) circa 1862. Alfred Morris & Co. SLV H3985.

Kyneton, Castlemaine, Sandhurst and Echuca were not quite in the same category, but were still very well looked after. These stations were built to rules he had applied when on the Great Northern Railway in England. ‘There is no point on which English engineers are more thoroughly agreed’ he wrote, ‘than on the policy of building railway stations of durable materials, and with full and complete accommodation. If this be good for an English railway company to adopt, I do not understand how it can be bad policy for the government, on lines that will probably carry a very large part of the traffic of the continent of Australia.’[20] Others said that station buildings like those at Sandhurst would only be built for a city ten times the size in England,[21] but in fairness, the Engineer-in-Chief believed he was building portions of the main inter colonial railway lines, thinking the Sandhurst line would continue to Echuca and then into N.S.W. to Sydney.[22]

Spencer Street Railway Station circa 1870
Spencer Street Station with 2-4-0 locomotive No.64 circa 1870. PROV H1827.

Building for the future was a deeply seated colonial mindset, but it was risky. In April 1864 a contract was let for a new single storey station and goods shed on the former G&MR line at Little River. Still standing over 150 years later, these bluestone buildings cost £4,800[23] and served a tiny village that would not grow for over a century. Even at the time the work raised eyebrows. One critic pointed out that a station with similar accommodation in England would be provided for a town of 20,000 inhabitants![24] But for the financial strictures imposed during the constitutional crisis afflicting Victoria in the second half of the 1860’s, other G&MR stations would likely have been similarly treated.

The irony is that Melbourne got an ad hoc collection of wood and corrugated iron clutter that grew throughout the nineteenth century. No one wanted to foot the bill for the masterpiece that would be necessary to put Ballarat in its place! Eventually a grand station was built, but never finished to its original plan, at Flinders Street in 1912, but the country and interstate terminal at Spencer Street was not rebuilt until 1962, one hundred years after construction of the first government trunk lines.

Spencer Street Station with 2-4-0 locomotive No.64
Spencer Street Station with 2-4-0 locomotive No.64 circa 1870.

Higinbotham estimated a sum of £1,000 per mile for stations, which were usually sited every five or six miles.[25] The ordinary two storey stone or brick buildings on the Ballarat and Sandhurst lines averaged about £8,000 each, but could cost nearly three times that sum if extensive goods sheds and buildings on both platforms were provided.[26] On the private M&HBR, and in South Australia, they put them up for £600 each.[27]

There were timber and corrugated iron stations from the beginning in Victoria, but they were usually confined to locations away from towns. About a quarter of the stations on the original lines to Sandhurst, Echuca and Ballarat were located at such places, but nevertheless they were well built. The Middle Gully (Macedon) station, built of timber, cost 7¼d. per cubic foot, against 9½d. per cubic foot for the brick structure at Elphinstone.[28]

The Echuca Extension

The Sandhurst line was opened on 21st October 1862.[29] It was already well under construction when Thomas Higinbotham replaced George Darbyshire, but a start had yet to be made on the extension from Sandhurst to Echuca. That line was completely engineered under Higinbotham’s direction. Apart from the decision to make do with a single line, Higinbotham intended to engineer it to his high standards.

He was able to make a small economy with rails. Cost varied directly with the weight of rail, but lowering the weight also reduced a rail’s tensile strength. The first ten miles of the extension had some moderate gradients against Up trains, but the heaviest and most powerful locomotives would not be necessary on the plains north of Sandhurst. Therefore the rail weight could be safely reduced. Whereas Darbyshire had used 80 lb/yard double-headed iron rails for the Sandhurst and Ballarat lines,[30] Higinbotham specified 72 lb/yard double-headed iron rails on the Echuca extension with no ill effects, and later proposed similar rails for the North Eastern line.[31] (The private suburban railway companies also settled on 75 lb/yard rail for new construction to Brighton, Windsor and Hawthorn.)[32]

Higinbotham also resorted to many more level crossings, with one every 1.6 miles on average, against one every 2.6 miles on Darbyshire’s Sandhurst and Ballarat lines. British engineers preferred their road-rail crossings to be at different levels, so there were many bridges over and under roads on Darbyshire’s lines. But on the Echuca extension Higinbotham made only three or four.[33] The first, at the Down end of Sandhurst station, carried Mitchell Street over the railway, and was strenuously objected to by the local government and property owners because the earthworks to raise the roadway were considered unsightly. The Engineer-in-Chief firmly but courteously won the day, the locals lamenting the ugliness, one wit penning a future epitaph:-

‘If no statue is erected to Mr Higinbotham on his retirement from the service, men will need but to point to the Mitchell street bridge and say – Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice.’[34]

McIvor Road Bridge Bendigo
Thomas Higinbotham’s McIvor Road bridge at Sandhurst. The nearby Mitchell Street and Back Creek bridges were similar. PROV H1318.

As with the McIvor Road and Back Creek bridges a few hundred yards further on, which the same writer described as ‘handsome’, it was made with brick abutments with dressed stone quoins, stringcourses, and copings. That Higinbotham was right has been daily affirmed ever since, as Mitchell Street is a major city thoroughfare, and for many decades carried an electric tram line. Higinbotham later used a similar ratio of 1.6 level crossings per mile on the North Eastern mainline.[35] All these level crossing were protected with gates and manned by a gatekeeper. The gates kept wandering livestock out of the railway reservation when open for road traffic, as all railways then had to be fenced by law.

Beyond the first ten miles the line encountered no engineering difficulties, being built across the plain and only requiring four intermediate stations: Epsom, Goornong, Runnymede (later renamed Elmore) and Rochester. Single storey wooden buildings were provided at these places, but at Echuca Higinbotham provided an imposing two storey building, together with a goods shed and engine shed, all resplendent in bi-chromatic brickwork and costing over £24,000. The line continued three quarters of a mile beyond the station to the south bank of the Murray River where a further £8,000 was spent building an impressive timber wharf.[36] The contractors made rapid progress across the plains, on some days laying 900 yards of track and averaging two miles a week.[37] The head of rail reached Echuca earlier than expected, enabling goods trains to run through to the new wharf from 25th September 1864, in time to secure that year’s wool clip from New South Wales for Melbourne merchants.[38] There was already a fleet of paddle steamers working the Murray-Darling river system and Echuca soon became Victoria’s second port.[39]

Echuca Wharf 1868
The Stern Wheeler ‘Lady Darling’ moored at Echuca Wharf circa 1868. Railway wagons are standing in front of Shackell’s Bond Store. The wharf was extended three times to reach 352 yards. SLSA PRG 1258/1/1775.

Thomas Higinbotham had planned a viaduct of 1,000 feet over the Campaspe River and its floodway, with iron girders resting on bluestone piers,[41] but he was unintentionally thwarted by his brother George, among others. George was a leading radical and Member for Brighton in the popularly elected Legislative Assembly. As Attorney-General in the McCulloch ministry from 1863 to 1868, he advised the tacking of a tariff measure to the Appropriation Bill in order to get it past the hostile Legislative Council, which represented wealthy big business and pastoral interests. The tactic backfired. On the 16th May the Council warned the measure was unconstitutional, but the Legislative Assembly insisted and so on the 25th July the Legislative Council blocked supply. Thus began Victoria’s first constitutional crisis, which dragged on until 1868.[42]

These political manoeuvres took place while the Echuca line was being constructed. The work was divided into two contracts: the first, let in May 1863, was for the most difficult ten miles immediately north of Sandhurst. The second, for the remaining 49 miles to the Murray, was let in August 1863, but did not include a permanent viaduct over the Campaspe. The mercantile interests in Melbourne were keen to tap the Murray River wool trade and opted for a temporary timber bridge, which was erected in four months. Nevertheless in April 1864 piles were being driven for Higinbotham’s permanent viaduct,[43] but the impending constitutional crisis soon stopped that work and the temporary viaduct suddenly achieved a degree of permanence!

The ‘temporary’ crossing of the Campaspe comprised a Warren truss girder of 180 feet resting on four timber piles, which supported it 40 feet above the river. Leading up to the main girders was a timber trestle bridge of 830 feet over the river’s floodway. [44] The Warren truss girders were made of Baltic pine, but the piers and the trestle over the floodway were all of red gum.[45] About eighteen months after its construction Robert Adams, a former resident engineer on the Sandhurst line, unofficially inspected the Campaspe viaduct and wrote a highly critical and alarmist letter to The Argus, claiming that it ‘maybe to-day, or it may be to-morrow, but the fall of the girder can be looked forward to with absolute certainty’. [46] Adams blamed the perceived faults on the viaduct’s design, which was almost certainly the work of Robert Gray Ford, who had charge of the bridging on the line.[47] Timber bridges became somewhat of a specialty of Ford, who was a rising talent in the Engineer-in-Chief’s branch. He was subordinate to Robert Watson, who had charge of overall supervision of the line’s construction.

Adam’s letter produced consternation, with local newspapers calling for an immediate investigation.[48] He was one of the original group of engineers appointed to the Victorian Railways in May 1856,[49] but had been laid off after the Echuca line was finished and subsequently joined with Zeal, Woods and some others critical of the Engineer-in-Chief.[50] But Thomas Higinbotham was quick to respond, and personally conducted a series of deflection tests in which six trains of varying composition and speed were run across the viaduct, one with three of the heaviest goods locomotives coupled. Detailed results were released, with the Engineer-in-Chief’s assurance that they were

‘almost identical with those obtained from experiments made on the 11th July, 1864, before the line was opened for traffic; not differing in any instance more than the one hundredth part of an inch.’ [51]

At the time the only other wooden bridge on the government lines was the 1,150 feet approach trestle over the floodways of the Saltwater River near Footscray, built while Darbyshire was Engineer-in-Chief. Both bridges were intended as temporary structures,[52] but the Campaspe viaduct served nearly twelve years until replaced by the permanent bridge, which was opened on 15th September 1875. It was 534 feet long, the deck being supported by wrought iron girders: three of these were of 42 feet and spanned the river, supported by two wrought iron cylinder piers.   There were also seventeen of 24 feet spanning the floodway, supported on brick piers made with 201,000 bricks.[53]

While lacking the durability of stone, brick and iron, timber bridges were much cheaper and could be built for a quarter of the capital outlay. They did, of course, incur higher maintenance charges later on as the timber deteriorated, and they were built against the professional scruples of the railway department’s engineers.[54] Robert Watson, the Echuca extension’s Resident Engineer, conservatively estimated the life of timber bridges as twelve years when giving evidence to the Legislative Council in 1871. Thomas a’Beckett MLC, the Chairman of the M&HBR, reminded Watson that the timber bridge across a swamp on the St. Kilda line had stood twelve years and was in good condition. Watson then admitted that timber bridges might last up to 25 years, but the department’s engineers had no experience to go on. [55] He said that after seven years, the Campaspe viaduct’s repairs had ‘been very slight’, but nevertheless he went on to state that he would ‘rather not have anything to do with timber bridges’.[56] Thomas Higinbotham was similarly set against timber bridges. In June 1869 he said ‘All experience in railways, both in America and here, and in England, shows that it is a bad economy to adopt perishable material.’ [57] He spoke from personal experience, having built some cheap lines in England for the South Eastern and the London and Dover railways. As an example of cheap lines that ‘proved, in the end, the most expensive works the companies have constructed’ he quoted the single track Ashford to Canterbury line (on which he was Assistant Engineer), where all the under bridges were of wood.[58] The M&HBR had no such scruples, Elsdon’s timber bow-string truss serving throughout the company’s existence. It stood for thirty years before it was replaced,[59] and by the end of Thomas Higinbotham’s term as Engineer-in-Chief, timber bridges were the rule on the new light railways.

With the opening of the Sandhurst to Echuca line in 1864, for an average cost of £12,000 per mile, all government railway building in Victoria stopped for six years. The young colony had over-extended itself, laying down main lines comparable with the best in England, and was also embroiled in a constitutional crisis, with the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament at loggerheads. The 160 miles of double track lines from Melbourne to Williamstown, Footscray to Sandhurst and Geelong to Ballarat, opened progressively from January 1859 to October 1862, had cost approximately £44,000 per mile, including rolling stock.[60] With the single track sections from Greenwich (Newport) to North Geelong, and Sandhurst to Echuca added, the 255 route miles of the Victorian Railways made it bigger, in 1864, than all the other railways in Australia combined.[61] But the N.S.W. railways were more frugal, having been made for an average of £19,000 per mile.[62]

The impact of railway spending on the colonial economy was highlighted by the Chief Secretary and Treasurer in 1868. The total colonial debt was then £9,663,000. Of this, £8,618,000 or 89%, was in connection with railways. (Water projects amounted to £700,000, defence £100,000, and corporation loans £245,000). Nevertheless, most of the colony was left clamoring for railways, with the common consensus in favour of making the next trunk line to the Ovens and Murray goldfields in the colony’s North East. But could such a line be more economically constructed? This the politicians were determined to investigate.

The 1865 Select Committee on Railway Extension

With a population of about 105,000, the Murray District of Victoria and Albury combined was roughly three times as populous in 1868 as that around Portland and Hamilton, and five times those of Gippsland or Colac, the other contenders for railway extension.[63] Furthermore, it was recognised that a line to Albury would eventually form part of a through Melbourne to Sydney line, although at that time the New South Wales railway came no closer than Goulburn. Higinbotham estimated the cost of the North East trunk line as £10,650 per mile, including rolling stock. He based this on the cost of the Echuca extension and put his full professional weight behind arguments as to why this was as ‘cheap’ as prudence would allow.[64] Against this, the claims of railway schemers that substantial lines could be built for £6,000 per mile, including rolling stock, appeared radical indeed.[65]

With the excessive cost and under-utilisation of the Sandhurst line in mind, parliamentarians and railwaymen alike baulked at the prospect of another crossing of the Great Dividing Range. The Legislative Assembly appointed a Select Committee on Railway Extension in March 1865, which recommended a line to Albury surveyed by the Engineer-in-Chief’s staff, branching off the main line at Goornong, eight miles north of Sandhurst. However, they went against Thomas Higinbotham’s advice, and recommended a limit of £6,000 on construction.[66] In so doing, they were swayed by the contrary evidence presented by one of their members, W.A. Zeal, and the Chief Engineer of the Melbourne and Hobsons Bay United Railway Company, William Elsdon.

Zeal’s tenure as Member for Castlemaine was very short, but his thirteen months in the Legislative Assembly was long enough for him to lead the opposition to Thomas Higinbotham’s extravagant plans for the next trunk railway.[67] He was a principal witness before the Select Committee, which sat between March and June 1865 and was also its principal inquisitor! He advocated that the North Eastern line be built for an all up cost of £4,500 to £5,000 per mile, including rolling stock.[68]

William Elsdon was more cautious, telling the Committee that they ‘could make, of course, railways or tramways for any sum, by reducing the weight of the rails, etc., and making other works less permanent’. The Engineer-in-Chief’s estimate was £10,648 per mile, but Elsdon said he had ‘no doubt it could be done for half that sum, but £7,000 or £8,000 per mile would make it permanent’.[69] The Committee more or less split the difference between Zeal’s lowest, and Elsdon’s highest estimate, in recommending a maximum of £6,000 per mile.

In the event, the Select Committee’s deliberations were a waste of time. With the colony embroiled in a constitutional tussle there was no hope of passing a new railway construction Act. Zeal lost his seat in the elections of December 1865. In 1867, the railway surveyors mapped out a less circuitous route for the proposed North Eastern railway, this time leaving the main line at Woodend, immediately after cresting the Divide. This would reduce the overall Melbourne – Albury journey by 41 miles, but involve 27 extra miles of new line, compared with the Goornong – Albury route. The cost estimates per mile were similar to those made in 1865; the Select Committee’s recommendation was ignored.[70] However, it was not until 1868 that the government saw its way clear to make another attempt at railway building. By this time, the surveyors had found a saddle in the Divide near Kilmore, and proposed a direct line from Essendon to Albury.[71]

Victorian Railways 1973 showing the final and proposed routes to Wodonga
Victorian Railways 1873 showing the final and proposed routes to Wodonga

On 7th September 1868, the Engineer-in-Chief advised the Commissioner that the new North Eastern railway would cost an average of £9,300 per mile,[72] or half as much again as that recommended by the 1865 Select Committee. Confronted with this difficulty, the Chief Secretary, James McCulloch, opted to let Thomas Higinbotham have his way, and devised a strategy to divert attention from the specifics of the railway construction scheme, by first seeking a general loan for a range of railway purposes totalling £2,107,000. The money for the North Eastern line was part of this sum, a total of £1,720,000. The Bill was introduced on 8th September 1868. That night Mr. MacPherson complained that no information had been submitted to justify the proposed new route of the line,[73] but as the Assembly was not being asked to approve its construction, there seemed little point in pursuing the matter. With Zeal temporarily out of politics, grazing sheep in the Riverina,[74] there was no voice of authority in Parliament to protest that the 1865 Select Committee’s recommendation of a £6,000 per mile limit had been ignored.

Nevertheless, passage of the measure, while quick, was not straightforward. The colony’s finances were strained to the point of forced redundancies in the Public Service, which included many railway employees.[75] Relations between the Upper and Lower Chambers were still frosty, and the Council asserted its rights by making some minor amendments and sending the Bill back. McCulloch’s government preserved the honour of the Legislative Assembly by scrapping the Bill, then introducing a new one: in reality, the original Bill with all but one of the Council’s amendments. With face saved on both sides, the railway loan was agreed to on 24th September 1868, just over two weeks after its introduction. The question of the North Eastern line’s cost was not a live one, the government expecting that it could be made as a substantial single line for no more than £9,000 per mile.[76] Members were more concerned that construction of the Albury line would deprive Gippsland and the Western District of their lines for a few more years.[77]

But news of cheap narrow gauge railways, together with a system for carrying lines over very steep gradients, began to reach the antipodes in the late 1860’s. Just prior to the introduction of the Railway Loan Bill, the Commissioner (C.E. Jones, not to be confused with Joseph Jones, who later became Commissioner) had asked the Engineer-in-Chief to obtain information from overseas experts on these recent developments.[78] Thomas Higinbotham appears to have been miffed by this request, and did not reply until the loan Bill had been passed.

‘I am in constant communication on matters relating to engineering with men in London who hold a very high place in their profession’ he protested, but to enable ‘the public to obtain independent information on several matters that have been discussed lately’

He provided Jones with a list of 13 questions to be put to experts through the Agent General in London. Jones despatched these to George Verdon the next day, 13th October 1868. Seven of the questions dealt with the Fairlie and Fell systems of light railways.[79]

Verdon predictably passed the letter to the Victorian Railways’ consulting engineers in London, Brereton and Lewis. They damned the Fairlie locomotive, as did Archibald Sturrock, Locomotive Superintendent of the Great Northern Railways, and an old colleague of Thomas Higinbotham’s. Sturrock considered that Fairlie’s engine would require much modification, and advised that it ‘would be very unwise for a distant colony to yet embark in such engines…’ [80] These and other reports vindicating the Engineer-in-Chief’s views were forwarded to the Commissioner, who avoided further acrimony by resigning, on 9th March 1869.[81] It was left to Jones’ replacement, J. F. Sullivan, to introduce the Railway Construction Bill, meekly accepting the Engineer-in-Chief’s estimate of £9,300 per mile.[82]

Neath & Brecon Fairlie Locomotive
The first Double Fairlie was built in 1866 for the Neath & Brecon Railway in Wales. It was a failure. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, The Neath and Brecon Railway – a history. p.166.

The first part of McCulloch’s strategy worked well, Parliament pliantly agreeing to borrow a large sum for construction of the North Eastern line. The second stage of the plan failed. Sullivan introduced the Essendon and Upper Murray Railway Construction Bill on 18th May 1869, but immediately encountered resistance on the issue of the line’s cost. A week later on 26th May, MacPherson successfully moved the creation of another Select Committee to inquire into the most economical mode of construction.[83] Pending the findings of this Committee, the government was forced to defer the second reading of the Bill. Thomas Higinbotham’s first reaction was to stand on his reputation. He drew Sullivan’s attention to the correspondence that had followed Jones’ letter to London, reminding the new Commissioner that ‘there are no new modes of railway construction where ordinary circumstances have to be dealt with’.[84] When called as first witness before the Select Committee a few days later, on 1st June, the Engineer-in-Chief complained of the short notice. He also acquainted the Committee with his own experience with light railways in England during 1846, notably the single line railway from Ashford to Canterbury in Kent, which used timber for all its bridges. Lines like that, he told members, ‘proved, in the end, the most expensive works the companies have constructed’.[85] But when he came under attack for the excessive estimate of £1,000 per mile for stations, he became indignant, at one point telling a Committee member not to put words in his mouth.[86]

The Committee was impressed by the lucid and unbiased evidence of the Engineer-in-Chief of the South Australian Railways, Henry C. Mais. He convinced them that light railways were practicable. His association with railways in Australia was second to none, having been appointed Chief Engineer of the Sydney Railway Company in January 1851 upon the resignation of Francis Shields (the man who had prevailed upon the N.S. W. government, and through them the other colonies, to make 5’3” the uniform Australian railway gauge). Mais held that position until 30th June 1852, when James Wallace arrived from Britain (and changed the N.S. W. gauge back to 4’ 8½”).[87] Mais later worked with the contractors for the construction of the Sunbury to Kyneton section of the Sandhurst line from 1859 to 1861, and then became the Engineer and General Manager of the Melbourne Railway Company for three years. In 1867 he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the S.A.R., a position he was to hold for 21 years.[88]

Henry Coathupe Mais C.E.
Henry Coathupe Mais C.E., Engineer-in-Chief of the South Australian Railways 1867-1888. SLSA B 6682.

The S.A.R. was a light railway system, built to the same gauge as that used in Victoria. Mais explained that the Gawler to Kapunda line was laid with 40 lb/yard iron rails, and cost less than £5,000 per mile. Although it was restricted to 20 mph, he told members that during the busy four months following the wheat harvest, it carried as much traffic as any Victorian line. As far as he was aware, lines of that standard satisfied the South Australian colonists, and he was personally ‘pledged’ to make them a success.[89] While he made do with 40 lb/yard rails, he preferred something heavier, although he thought the 72 lb/yard rails required by Thomas Higinbotham were unnecessary. Victoria would be advised to lay the North Eastern line with 60 to 65 lb/yard rails, and build the stations for £600 or £700 each.[90] He rather liked American carriages, which were cheaper to build, but was worried about their excessive dead weight when only part loaded.[91] The Select Committee used Mais’ authority to justify their final recommendation, but they were also encouraged by Zeal. He argued forcefully for a maximum expenditure of £6,000 per mile, as had been recommended by the 1865 Select Committee, when he was in Parliament. He saw no need for Fairlie engines or narrow gauge in order to accomplish this. The Select Committee agreed, and virtually adopted the findings of their predecessors in 1865.[92] Their report was tabled on 8th July 1869, and it is a matter of speculation whether the Ministry which passed J.M. Grant’s radical land settlement reforms would have been encouraged by the Select Committee’s findings to follow through with an equally radical railway construction Bill.

It was not to be. Shortly after the Select Committee tabled its findings, its Chairman, J.A. MacPherson, was called upon to form a new government in place of James McCulloch’s. One might have expected MacPherson to stick to the findings of his own Committee, but such was the persuasiveness of the Engineer-in-Chief that the new government was content with a token compromise. Francis Longmore, the new Minister of Railways, introduced the second reading of the previous government’s Bill on 20th October 1869, explaining that the government would not give a guarantee that the line would be built for £6,000 per mile, and because ‘the money is lying idle in the banks, it is necessary for prudential reasons to proceed with the measure without delay’.[93] He meant what he said. The Bill had passed all remaining stages of debate by the following day, and was with the Legislative Council the following week. In that House, the government indicated that the Engineer-in-Chief had revised his estimate downwards to £7,225 per mile, but still retained 72 lb /yard rails.[94] No limit on expenditure per mile was specified, and the Bill passed all stages in only one day. Thomas Higinbotham had won. He had authorization to build a 181 mile line to Wodonga, and £1,720,000 to do it. If the Parliament for a minute thought the Engineer-in-Chief would hold expenditure to £7,225 per mile, and return them £412,275 change, they were deluding themselves.

Contrasting Engineering Standards

Throughout the decade following the completion of the Echuca line the debate about engineering standards continued with very little reference to the private suburban railways which took many of the protagonists to work every day. And yet the private lines were engineered and operated to quite frugal standards. The M&HBR always had an eye on dividends for shareholders, and was reluctant to commit capital unless really needed. A road crossing at Elsternwick had no gates or gatekeeper, wandering livestock being kept out of the railway reservation by pits dug under the track.[95] Some stations had no Stationmaster and at others one man combined duties of Ticket Seller, Ticket Checker, Signalman, Gatekeeper, Pointsman, Stationmaster and Porter. The company was stingy with wages too.[96] It initially made do with the simplest wooden bridge over the Yarra just above the Falls, and only as revenue swelled over its first four years of operations did it have the bridge replaced, but not in iron. Elsdon’s new timber bridge proved itself able to cope with the worst flood ever recorded when the Yarra inundated huge areas of Melbourne and suburbs in December 1863.[97] Most of the M&HBR lines were under water, and Elsdon spent much of a week making inspections by boat, hardly having time to change his clothes.[98] But the bridge held, as it did again in 1878 and 1880.[99]

Single track lines were adopted by several new private railways. Elsdon engineered a single line extension from St. Kilda to Brighton for the St.K&BR, which opened on 19th December 1859.[100] The line was well built, with 75 lb/yard chaired rails, but the company owned no rolling stock. Instead, they made an agreement with the M&HBR for the older company’s trains to run through from Elizabeth Street to Brighton via the ‘Loop’ between St. Kilda and Chapel Street (later renamed Windsor).

While this line was under construction, the Melbourne and Suburban Railways Company had commenced building a direct line to Chapel Street from Princes Bridge, a station adjacent to Flinders Street, just east of Swanston Street. But financial strictures forced them to lay only a single line as far as Punt Road (Richmond). Due to delays importing rails and rolling stock from England, they purchased some Barlow rail and the locomotive ‘Hercules’ from the G&MR, and were able to commence operation over this short section on 8th February 1859.[101] An influx of capital later enabled them to adopt British standards and complete the line from Punt Road to Chapel Street as double track, including an imposing wrought iron lattice girder bridge over the Yarra River at Cremorne. Trains began running from Princes Bridge to Chapel Street on 22nd December 1860, and a single line branch was opened to Hawthorn on 13th April 1861, this requiring a bridge across the Yarra similar to the one built at Cremorne. The Hawthorn line junctioned at Swan Street (Richmond), where a new station replaced the one at Punt Road. However, the company was bankrupted by its borrowing for their expensive wrought iron bridges and it was soon sold and renamed the Melbourne Railway Company (MR). In an effort to generate more traffic, the inexperienced MR made an agreement with the St.K&BR for Brighton trains to run through to Princes Bridge on their railway, rather than to Elizabeth Street over the M&HBR via the ‘Loop’ to St. Kilda.[102] A rather miffed M&HBR was given short notice of this fateful decision.[103]

The risk inherent with single lines in the days before telegraph was the inability of a station at one end of a single line section to be certain that the station at the other end had despatched a train. It all depended on the timetable, accurate clocks, a well-trained and disciplined staff, and nothing unexpected occurring. But the inexperience of the two new private railway companies quickly became apparent.

While the lines to Brighton and Hawthorn were being made, the Melbourne and Essendon Railway (M&ER) was busy building into the northern suburbs. Their three mile single line junctioned with the government line at North Melbourne and presented no substantial engineering challenges, but neither did their line serve a very populated area. The promoters were thought to be more interested in using the line to promote land sales. Services to Essendon commenced on 1st November 1860 using locomotives and rolling stock hired from the Victorian Railways, but patronage was meagre. Their most profitable business came from the 1½ mile branch from Newmarket to Flemington Racecourse which opened three months later on 28th February 1861, for a three day Victorian Jockey Club meeting. The first of many racecourse lines to be made in Victoria, it was laid as a single line with light rails, but was adequate for the intermittent race traffic. On 7th November 1861 Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in front of a crowd that had mostly arrived on M&ER trains. But by early 1864, while the government railways were in the midst of building the Echuca line, the M&ER directors were seeking a government buy-out. Thomas Higinbotham inspected the private company’s line and was not impressed! He found it in bad order, requiring the immediate expenditure of £3,300 to make it safe, and much more would be needed to satisfy his standards. Therefore the government was only prepared to offer £25,000 for the property, despite its directors being personally liable to the company’s bankers for £54,500. They had no option but to close the lines from 1st July 1864, no doubt hoping for a change of government with a more generous disposition. But three years later they accepted the government’s £25,000 and the racecourse line was re-opened for the November 1867 Melbourne Cup. The Newmarket to Essendon line section remained closed until 9th January 1871, when it was re-opened as the first section of the North Eastern mainline. [104]

In contrast to the M&ER’s woes, the M&HBR thrived, its success being largely due to three factors: its tapping of goods traffic from ships berthing at Sandridge; a prudent investment policy; and its lines serving the populous suburbs of South Melbourne and St Kilda. By mid-1865 they were able to amalgamate with the weaker MR and St.K&BR to form the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay United Railway Company (M&HBUR).[105]

South Yarra Railway Station 1874
The M&HBUR South Yarra station showing chaired rail and 4-4-0WT No.20 circa 1874. PROV H1123.

Elsdon then engineered the linking of the Princes Bridge and Elizabeth Street stations by tunnelling under St Kilda Road and using the earth removed to raise the Princes Bridge yards above flood level. After a false start, trains commenced running through from Brighton to Sandridge and from Hawthorn to St. Kilda on 1st October 1866.[106] But the private company avoided unnecessary expenditure on stations, making do with the humble wooden building at the bottom of Elizabeth Street, excusing their parsimony while consistently paying dividends of ten percent.[107] Twenty years after the first train ran, the Elizabeth Street station was still a single storey, timber building (almost certainly the original), and even the friendly ‘Argus’ complained that the M&HBUR

‘…stations are mean, inconvenient, and dirty, their carriages ‘stuffy, uncomfortable, and too often unclean’, while their ‘numerous bridges…require replacing, and a wilderness of wood and iron-work…has not had an interview with a paint-brush for years.’ [108]

Newspapers and politicians might complain, but the M&HBUR was a very profitable private company, its Chairman being a respected Member of the Legislative Council, Thomas Turner àBeckett, MLC.[109] The daily visits of politicians and reporters that became a feature of the VR Spencer Street railway offices were not encouraged at the Flinders Street offices of the M&HBUR! In 1873 the government sought to purchase the company, but the asking price was exorbitant. Furthermore, Thomas Higinbotham estimated an additional £128,112 would be needed to put the company’s lines ‘in proper order’. But what was ‘proper’ to the Engineer-in-Chief was excessive to William Elsdon, who estimated £50,000 would be ample, but no sale resulted.[110] Neither did the company follow through on their own engineer’s estimate; they spent a mere £3,550 on maintenance of their assets in the second half of 1873, preferring to pay dividends to shareholders instead.[111] The Hobson’s Bay company ran many more trains than the government railway but only incurred one collision in their 24 year history, and that with only minor injuries to half a dozen passengers.[112] Ironically the huge expenditure on improving the Geelong line after the buyout of the G&MR did not prevent the worst head-on train wreck in the VR’s first fifty years.

Early Single Line Woes

Single line railways were risky in the days before telegraph and continuous train brakes. The new private companies were the first to discover just how risky. The MR had been running trains to Brighton via Richmond for one week when a head-on collision occurred. On 8th May 1862 the seven carriage 9.05am Up Brighton express with about 200 passengers aboard was being hauled by the 2-4-0 tank engine ‘Melbourne’, travelling bunker first (i.e. backwards). As it neared the end of the double line near Punt Road, its crew saw a Down Hawthorn train of three carriages steaming towards them on the single line hauled by the large 0-6-0 tank ‘Hercules’, also bunker first. It was a misty morning, the rails were wet and the hand brakes were unable to stop the Up train before it entered the single line. With both engines thrown in reverse and frantically whistling, they had no hope of avoiding collision, so both crews jumped clear and escaped with their lives. The impact was at low speed, but resulted in a number of the wooden carriages being wrecked and some serious injuries to passengers. The signalman on the bridge over Punt Road was showing a red flag to the Up Brighton train, but in the misty conditions its driver saw it too late to stop his train. There was no Home signal, and no rule that Up trains must stop before entering the single line section to Princes Bridge, and no train staff to ensure only one train was in that section at any time.[113]

The ‘Hercules’, which had been purchased from the G&MR, was not much damaged, and repairs were made to the ‘Melbourne’ over the next few weeks. (The ‘Melbourne’ was the first of the locomotives sent out from England with William Elsdon, but had since been sold to the St.K&BR).[114] On its first trip back in service, it ran a morning train to Brighton on 23rd May 1862, where it uncoupled in order to run round its train for the return journey. During this manoeuvre it derailed. This meant it was not ready to run the 12.45 pm Up service back to Princes Bridge, but the corresponding 12.45 pm Down train from Princes Bridge left on time. There was no telegraph and the Brighton Beach Stationmaster could not get a horse, so Guard Billinge of the stranded train ran the two miles from Brighton Beach to Bay Street (North Brighton) to warn the Stationmaster there and get help for re-railing the ‘Melbourne’. In his haste Billinge had hurt his foot, so a Porter named Roche was told to take a message further Up the line to Elsternwick and Chapel Street. He didn’t hurry, taking an hour to walk the 3½ miles, but he arrived at Chapel Street before the Down train and delivered the message. Under no circumstances should the Down train have proceeded further, as no one at Chapel Street knew if the Up train might have been got underway. But Sacre, the company’s Traffic Manager, was on the train and thinking the derailed engine at Brighton Beach would take a long time to be re-railed, ordered the crew to proceed. In the meantime, the engine ‘Melbourne’ had indeed been re-railed and the Brighton Beach Stationmaster, assuming the Down train would be held at Chapel Street, where they were time-tabled to cross, despatched the Up train. Its very nervous crew took it out under protest, whistling frequently as they steamed into the cutting which curved under the Williams Street bridge (now Hotham Street). Too late they saw the 2-4-0 tank engine ‘Hawthorn’ steaming towards them with the oncoming Down train! Neither crew had time to stop their trains before colliding head-on under the bridge. Both engines were running backwards, with only a small coal bunker in front of the crews standing on the footplates. They hit bunker to bunker and Driver Mattinson on the ‘Melbourne’ was seriously injured, as were a number of passengers in the carriages that telescoped under the bridge, the still smoking chimney of the ‘Melbourne’ protruding into the wreckage and adding to the misery of the traumatised passengers.

Brighton trains reverted to the ‘Loop’ and ran via St. Kilda for the next four months and the accident was investigated by Thomas Higinbotham, the Engineer-in-Chief of the government railways.[115] Sacre was dismissed and later, when the Hobson’s Bay company merged with the MR and St.K&BR, Elsdon had all its stations linked by a telegraph wire by mid-1866.[116] This enabled the single lines to Brighton and Hawthorn to be worked by telegraphic block, a significant safety advance over the total dependence on timetables that had led to the head-on wreck near Elsternwick. It not only enhanced safety, but also enabled more trains to be scheduled without the need for expensive track duplications. When the Victorian Railways opened the single line to Echuca its stations were equipped with telegraph, but unlike the M&HBUR, the instruments belonged to the Post and Telegraph Department and were not for the exclusive railway use. The Victorian Railways did not install its first dedicated railway telegraph until July 1878.[117]

Higinbotham made no recommendation calling for a safe means of working trains on the Brighton line.[118] The ‘Train Staff and Ticket’ system of safeworking was the simplest and safest method for working single lines and was already in use in the United Kingdom[119] but many busy single lines there considered it too restrictive. A system known as ‘Telegraph and Crossing Orders’ relied on telegraphed messages between stations to regulate train movement, with drivers given verbal or written instructions to proceed, and it was not until two serious accidents in Cornwall and Norwich during 1873 and 1874 that the shortcomings of this method became apparent.[120] The Victorian Railways were operating the single track Geelong line safely without Staff and Ticket, but it was only because the line was not intensively used that no accidents happened. It was to be many years and several serious accidents before this simple means of ensuring the safe operation of single lines was adopted. But in 1862 the colonial railways were still in their infancy. Cobb & Co coaches were still ascendant, their drivers accorded ‘King of the Road’ status.[121] Locomotive drivers were accorded similar status, and carried a great weight of responsibility for the safety of their trains. The preference of engineers for double lines to Sandhurst and Ballarat was as much about mitigating the risk of trains in opposing directions colliding as it was about building for the future. Double lines were the safest arrangement then available, but they remained prone to rear-end accidents, where one train caught up to and collided with a preceding train.

Rudimentary Signalling and the North Melbourne Accident

The colony’s early railways, whether double or single line, private or government owned, were equipped with the most rudimentary signals. Entrance to a station or junction might have no semaphore signal, as was the case at the MR’s Punt Road junction. Other stations often had just one semaphore signal governing the whole yard. In the early decades a safe distance between trains was achieved by a time interval; the rule was that no train could follow another within five minutes. The semaphore was set at ‘danger’ when a train was required to stop for passengers or other business. The signal remained at Danger while a train was stopped, and for five minutes after it was despatched. It was also placed at Danger for five minutes after a non-stopping train had passed. It was then lowered 45 degrees to Caution, where it had to remain for another five minutes. It dropped out of sight, into a slot in the signal post, to signify All Right. (At night, the equivalent signals were red, green and white.) There were a few places where steep gradients posed the risk of one train catching up to the one in front; in those cases the time interval was set at 15 minutes.[122]

There was a semaphore at North Melbourne, but things got out of hand on 25th November 1862, only a month after the opening of the final section of the Sandhurst railway. That morning the Sandhurst train was delayed at Spencer Street, so a Williamstown train was despatched first. The semaphore signal at North Melbourne was at Clear for the Sandhurst train, but the Williamstown train slowed and stopped to set down passengers. Just after it got underway again the Stationmaster was alarmed to see the Sandhurst train bearing down ‘at a tremendous pace’, the driver thrashing his engine in an attempt to make up lost time. Too late to cross to the opposite platform and set the signal to Danger, the Stationmaster and some others hand-signalled the speeding train, but no notice was taken, and a few hundred yards further on its driver found himself overhauling the slow moving Williamstown train. Speed was reduced by the action of hand brakes and reversing the engine, but the collision was inevitable. The brake van and some carriages of the Williamstown train were damaged, but everyone escaped with a severe jolting. The Stationmaster was blamed but no change in safeworking procedures resulted. It is no surprise that this was not to be the last rear-end collision on double lines.[123]

Rafferty’s Rules on the M&HBUR

There were safeworking rules on both the private and government railways, but much depended on Drivers, Guards and Stationmasters. Rules were often ignored or forgotten to suit local circumstances. On the M&HBUR the rules may as well have been written by Rafferty! Things had become so lax by 1870 that the company was not even using the double line between Sandridge and Melbourne to separate Up and Down trains. They were running the double line as adjacent single lines, one for passenger and one for goods trains. The telegraph was largely ignored, trains being despatched by the time-table. But it all came undone at dusk on 25th May 1870.

The 5.48pm Down Sandridge passenger left Elizabeth Street three minutes late after its faulty engine had been replaced by the 2-4-0 tank engine ‘Hawthorn’, which had been taken off a ballast train. Driver William Decey on the ‘Hawthorn’ admitted that in his five years with the company he had never read all the rules. In the bustle of swapping engines, Guard Michael Whelan forgot to put a tail light on the rear of the passenger train. Driver Edward King was instructed to drive the faulty locomotive ‘light engine’ to Sandridge, and was given the All Clear semaphore to follow the passenger just four minutes after Decey had departed. But King had only one lamp and left it on the rear of his engine. Setting off without a head lamp in the gloomy and ‘greasy’ conditions – a heavy dew was settling on the rails – King could not see the passenger train ahead, as it had no tail light, and neither could his unlighted approach be seen. Furthermore, King was exceeding the 20 mph speed limit, as he was keen to reach Sandridge before the 6pm Up passenger train departed. King’s ‘light engine’ movement was not in the timetable and he feared the driver of the Up train would depart before he cleared the line!

John Headbury, the Gatekeeper at Ingles Street might have saved the day, but could not make out if the passenger had left North Sandridge station, about 190 yards away, as it had no tail light. In fact Driver Decey on the ‘Hawthorn’ was having trouble with his engine and was still stationary at North Sandridge, which had no Home signal to protect his train. Guard Whelan was still unaware his train had no tail light and so made no effort to protect his train with a red hand lamp. Headbury had not been advised of the light engine movement and could not see King’s locomotive approaching until it was quite close as it had no head light. But he heard King’s whistle and opened the gates in time. As King sped past, Headbury threw up both hands in warning he was going too fast. He said he had no time to display a Caution signal with his hand lamp, but both King and his fireman said they saw him signal a green light. A green light signified Caution, but could also be taken to mean All Clear, a dangerous ambiguity that would not have helped King whether or not it had been displayed! There was no semaphore signal at the crossing but Headbury was aware that the rules required him to show a red light from his hand lamp for three minutes after a train passed. He said he had never had occasion to do this, as there was never anything in the way, and in any case he could not hold up a red light for three minutes, as his arm would drop down! But King sensed something was wrong and began braking. Too late! Guard Whelan heard King’s engine whistling and quickly signalled Driver Decey to start, but he had difficulty getting the ‘Hawthorn’ moving as it was slipping on the greasy rails. When King’s engine collided with the brakevan it had slowed to about 10 mph, but the impact shifted the carriage body 4½ inches off its underframe and injured six passengers, one sustaining a broken collarbone.

The M&HBUR management had King and Whelan charged, but at the trial it became evident the company was negligent on many scores. A pointsman gave evidence that he had known trains to run without tail lamps after sunset, which was partly due to the parsimony of the company. In previous years lamps had never been displayed on the 5.48pm train, and an employee at St. Kilda had been fined 5 shillings for lighting a gas lamp a few minutes too soon, while porters and others were cautioned to save the candle ends and be very careful not to waste kerosene! Engines were frequently put into service with only one lamp, and King was held to be right in leaving his only lamp on the rear of the engine. King explained that he had frequently seen an express carrying engineer Elsdon, company Secretary Finlayson and inspector Bennett steaming through level crossings at 30 mph, well in excess of the speed limit, which was 4 mph over level crossings! When asked if King’s light engine movement had been advised by telegraph, the company explained that while the running of a special train was always notified by telegraph, the movement of a light engine may not be! The Elizabeth Street stationmaster was meant to be on the platform supervising departures, ensuring trains had tail lights in place and recording all arrivals and departures in the train register book, but his duties elsewhere often made this impossible! The judge acquitted King but fined Whelan £5 with a month to pay. The company received some very bad press to boot.[124] Just over a month later, on 4th June, a double length Saturday morning train for Brighton was delayed at the Swan Street Junction, Richmond. The points were changed before the last carriage was clear, causing it to tip over. Nobody was hurt and not much damage resulted, but the incident was unsettling, one journalist hypothesising that passengers on the Hobson’s Bay trains would soon have to take out life insurance![125]

The expansion of the private suburban and government trunk lines had been a feature of the first half of the 1860’s, with both private and public investment stalling in the second half. But English engineering standards and imported English equipment still held, albeit more frugally on the M&HBUR, which had grown by amalgamation. The private company’s parsimony had made it unpopular with its passengers and may have been the factor which stymied any further expansion. But both the private and government railways were still running trains in much the same haphazard manner throughout the 1860’s. The wonder is there were not more accidents, but railwaymen from the Engineer-in-Chief to humble station porters knew no other way of working, and with light traffic and well-spaced trains the system functioned tolerably well. But expansion of the network and increased business would soon begin to force more disciplined operations, initially on Higinbotham’s single track North Eastern line. The Engineer-in-Chief had given way a little yet had largely deflected calls for cheap railways like those being made in South Australia. Nevertheless, a great debate was brewing and was soon to come to the boil.


  1. The Age, Friday 18 May 1860, p.5.
  2. Leo J. Harrigan, Op.Cit. p.80.
  3. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.1, A22. ‘Papers Relating to the Chewton Station, Railway Breaks, etc.’ p.3.
  4. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.1, A22. Op.Cit., p.4.
  5. Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly upon Railways 1857, p.40.
    Geoff Browne “William Austin Zeal”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.12, M.U.P., 1990. Sir William Austin
    The Age, Saturday 25 November 1893, p.13. Zeal’s evidence in the Speight v. Syme case. Over forty years since leaving England, this account is unreliable. The Great Western Railway did not run through Westbury at the time, and he was only one of several engineers supervising construction of the Sandhurst line. His evidence to the 1857 Select Committee is almost certainly more accurate.
  6. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.1, A22. Op.Cit., p.3-4. Also: V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.2, D20. ‘Report from the Select Committee on Railway Contracts’ p.3-9.
  7. K. Thompson and G. Serle, Op. Cit.
  8. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.1, A22. Op.Cit., p.2.
  9. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.2, D20. Op.Cit., Q.38, p.4.
  10. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.1, A22. ‘Papers Relating to the Chewton Station…’ Op.Cit, p.2-4.
  11. Leo Harrigan. Op.Cit, p.82.
  12. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 31 December 1865. Appendices B and D., p.21-22. Total cost of viaducts £684,000, plus £90,000 for the Saltwater River (see Leo Harrigan, Op. Cit., p.18). Total cost of construction, both lines, £7,051,626.
  13. Leo Harrigan. Op.Cit, p.82. Also:Matthew J. Murray, Op. Cit, p.23. Mentions that Elphinstone alone cost £37,000.
  14. Leo Harrigan. Op.Cit, p.82.
  15. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Q.160. Pollard’s evidence.
  16. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Q.299.
  17. Leo J. Harrigan, Op.Cit. p.25-27. Public services began some days later.
    The Age, Friday, 1 December 1893. p.6.
  18. V.P.P., 1864-65, Vol. 2, C.21. ‘Railway Stations’. Op. Cit. Sunbury station actually cost £24,126. The cost was not so much in the building, but in the station yard, for it served as a terminus for three years.
    The Age, Friday 1 December 1893, p.6. Darbyshire was criticised for extravagance like the tooled margins on the bluestone platform coping.
  19. V.P.D., 1871, Vol. 13, p.1515. Figure quoted by W.A.C. A’Beckett.
  20. V.P.P. 1864-65, Vol.1, A22. Op.Cit., p.2.
  21. Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1965’, Q.140. W.A. Zeal in a question to Pollard.
  22. The Argus, Thursday, 24 March 1853, p.9.
  23. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 31 December 1864. Appendices 2, p.20.
  24. Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1965’, Q.140. W.A. Zeal in a question to Pollard.
  25. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1965’, Q.138, 167. Pollard’s evidence. The basis of this estimate was the single storey bluestone station and goods shed at Little River, which cost £4,790.
  26. V.P.P., 1864-65, Vol. 2, C.21. ‘Railway Stations’.
    The gross cost of fourteen stations is given in this return. All but four of them (Diggers rest, Sunbury, Lancefield Road {Clarkfield} and Riddles Creek) are two storey buildings, with an average of £8,000 each. Ballarat East cost £22,519. Every station in the return, except Sunbury, was designed while Thomas Higinbotham was Engineer-in-Chief.
    The Age. Friday 1 December 1893,p.6. Cross examination of George Christian Darbyshire.
  27. Ibid. Q.227. William Elsdon gave evidence that the Raglan Street station, built in brick and including the Station Masters quarters, cost £600.
    ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1969’, Op. Cit, Q.690. Henry Mais’ evidence on the South Australian Railways.
  28. V.P.P., 1867, Vol. 2, D.11. ‘Report from the Select Committee on the Colac Railway’, Q.256. Evidence of Robert Watson.
  29. Leo J. Harrigan. Op.Cit. p.283.
  30. V.P.D., 1870, Vol. 10, ‘Report of the English engineers consulting by direction of the late government on the subject of rails, etc., and the rolling stock of the North Eastern Railway’ p.1.
  31. V.P.P., 1869, Vol. 2, D10. ‘Report of the Select Committee on Railway Extension’, p.81. 8 July 1869. Evidence of Thomas Higinbotham, Q.23, p.1.
  32. Leo Harrigan. Op.Cit, p.47.
    Matthew J. Murray. Op. Cit., p.9. Shows double headed rail at Richmond laid by the M&SR.
  33. Other rail over road bridges were made at Huntley and Benson Road, Echuca.
    The Herald, Thursday 7 April 1864, p.2. Quoting the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral “If you are looking for a monument, look around you”.
  34. Victorian Railways. Diagram of Gradients and Curves. (Melbourne, 1927).
    The Melbourne – Bendigo and Geelong – Ballarat lines compared with the Bendigo- Echuca and Essendon – Seymour lines.
  35. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 31 December 1865. Appendices 2, p.14-15.
  36. The Herald, Friday 8 April 1864, p.2.
  37. The Argus, Friday 26 August 1864, p.6.
    Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 31 December 1864. p.11.
  38. MDBA archives Inland Shipping Navigation Murray-Darling Basin
  39. The Stern-Wheeler S.W. ‘Lady Darling’ was registered at Port Adelaide in 1865 and Melbourne in 1867.
    State Library of South Australia B 25969 and B 25970 merged.
    The warehouse was built in 1859 to store goods imported from South Australia, and in 1867 was purchased by Shackell White and Co. and converted to a bond store.[Heritage council report]
    Construction of Echuca wharf commenced in 1864 and was completed in 1867. It was extended in 1877, 1879 and 1884, ultimately reaching 352 yards in length. Echuca became Australia’s largest inland port and Victoria’s second largest port until the 1880s.[Heritage council report]
  40. The Herald, Friday 8 April 1864, p.2.
  41. Charles Parkinson, “George Higinbotham And Responsible Government In Colonial Victoria” 2001, Melbourne University Law Review 181
    Gwyneth Dow, “George Higinbotham”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.4, M.U.P., 1972. Biography of Higinbotham.
    H.G. Turner. A History of the Colony of Victoria, Volume II, 1854-1900 (London, 1904), p.123.
  42. The Herald, Friday 8 April 1864, p.2.
  43. The Argus, Friday 26 August 1864, p.6.
  44. Victoria; Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Council. 1871. Evidence taken at the Bar of the Legislative Council on the Railway Bill., 7 November 1871. Q.821-822, p.30.
  45. The Argus, Wednesday 11 April 1866, p.7
  46. The Argus, Wednesday 14 December 1881, p.10.
  47. The Bendigo Advertiser, Monday 16 April 1866, p.3., quoting the Riverine Herald, published in Echuca.
  48. The Age, Wednesday 7 May 1856, p.2.
  49. Victoria. Parliament. Legislative Assembly. Select Committee upon Victorian Water Supply, 11 May 1869. p.xiii, finding 5.
  50. The Age, Tuesday 1 May 1866, p.7.
  51. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Q.151-155, p.14.
    Leo Harrigan. Op.Cit, p.16.
  52. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 30 June 1875. Appendix 3, p.19-20.
  53. V.P.P., 1871, Vol.1., D5., Select Committee on Railways, Q.1406.
  54. Victoria; Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Council. 1871. Evidence taken at the Bar of the Legislative Council on the Railway Bill., 18 October 1871. Q.776-778, p.28.
  55. V.P.P., 1871, Vol.1., D5., Select Committee on Railways, Q.1409.
  56. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Q.89.
  57. Ibid, Q.290-293.
    E.E. Morris, Op.Cit, p.40.
  58. The Age, Friday 1 December 1893, p.6. Cross examination of Charles Wm. Lawson in the Speight vs. Syme case.
  59. Queensland Parliamentary Papers (Q.P.P.) 1866, Vol. 9, No. 38.
    ‘Report of the Select Committee on the Railways of the Colony’, 4 October 1866.
    Appendix M. This is a letter from Thomas Higinbotham to the Select Committee of the Queensland Parliament (before which he gave evidence on 20 August 1866). Average cost per mile, including stations, pier, goods sheds, workshops and all other works, but exclusive of rolling stock was put at £32,893. Average cost of the 56 mile Sandhurst to Echuca line was put at £9,670, excluding rolling stock. Rolling stock was valued at £605,500, or, £2,384 per mile.From this data the following is established:Total cost of Victorian Railways lines £8,354,822 for 254 miles at £32,892Less Sandhurst to Echuca £ 541,520 for 56 miles at £9,670Other lines £7,813,302 for 198 miles at £39,461Less Geelong and Melbourne purchase £1,050,000 for 38miles, including rolling stock at £27,272Cost of Melbourne – Williamstown}Footscray – Sandhurst } £6,763,302 for 159½ miles at £42,403Geelong – Ballarat }Cost of rolling stock £605,500 for 254 miles at £2,384 per mile.
  60. N.S.W. railways 143 miles, S.A. railways 56 miles. Other colonies nil.
  61. Department of Railways, N.S.W. Op.Cit. p.37.
  62. V.P.D., 1868, Vol. 6, p.883. Stated by Mr. Jones.
  63. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Op. Cit., Evidence of Thomas Higinbotham, p.2-4.
  64. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Op. Cit., p.12-15 and Recommendations. The Committee was strongly influenced by W.A.Zeal.
  65. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Op. Cit., Report Findings, p.1.
  66. Kathleen Thompson and Geoffrey Serle. A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament 1859-1900. (Canberra, 1972). p.234-5. Zeal later re-entered Parliament and had a distinguished career.
  67. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Op. Cit., Q.411, p.27.
  68. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1865’, Op. Cit., Q.210, p17.
  69. V.P.P., 1867, Vol.2, C.39. ‘Report of the Survey of the Woodend portions of the proposed North Eastern line of Railway’. Copy of a letter from the Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioner of Railways 21 May 1867).
  70. V.P.P., 1868, Vol.1, A.13. ‘Memoranda on Railway Extension in Victoria’. Copy of a letter from the Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioner of Railways, 2 September 1868, p. 1-2.
  71. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., Q.2538.
  72. V.P.D., 1868, Vol. 6, pp.850, 866.
  73. K. Thompson and G. Serle, Op.Cit.
  74. The Argus, Saturday 12 December 1868, p.5., Thursday 17 December 1868, p.5.
  75. V.P.D., 1868, Vol.4. p.850. Speech by Hon. James McCulloch.
  76. V.P.D., 1868, Vol. 4, p.884.
  77. V.P.P., 1869, Vol.4, No.41. ‘Correspondence in Relation to the Recent Construction and Working of Railways in England and Elsewhere’ Letter from Jones to Thomas Higinbotham, 3 September 1868. The positions of the Commissioner of Railways and the Minister of Railways were synonymous throughout this period and were used interchangeably.
  78. V.P.P., 1869, Vol.4, No.41. Thomas Higinbotham’s letter of 12 October 1868, and Jones’ letter of 13 October 1868.
  79. V.P.P., 1869, Vol.4, No.41. Archibald Sturrock’s letter.
  80. V.P.D., 1869, Vol. 7. The Cabinet is listed at the front of the volume.
  81. V.P.D., 1869, Vol. 7, p.755.
  82. V.P.D., 1869, Vol. 7, p.870.
  83. ‘Correspondence in Relation to Recent Construction…’ Op.Cit. Higinbotham’s letter 28 May 1869.
  84. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., Q.240-293.
  85. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., Q.62.
  86. ARHS Bulletin, No.159 (January 1951), p.13, and No.160 (February, 1951), p.25.
  87. The Age, Saturday 2 December 1893, p.13. Mais’ evidence in the Speight v. Syme case.
    Sally O’Neill “Henry Coathupe Mais”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.5, M.U.P., 1974. [Henry Coathupe Mais]
  88. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., Q.591-607, 711, 725, 727.
  89. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., Q.672-689.
  90. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., Q.696 -704.
  91. ‘Select Committee on Railway Extension, 1869’, Op. Cit., p. v (findings) and p.28-34 (Zeal’s evidence).
  92. V.P.D., 1869, Vol. 9, p.1990. Francis Longmore, Minister for railways and Roads, when introducing the Second Reading of the Essendon and Upper Murray Construction Bill on 20 October 1869.
  93. V.P.D., 1869, Vol. 9, p.2057. Speech by Mr. Jenner when introducing the Second Reading of the Bill to the Legislative Council on 27 October. He said ‘…it is the wish of the Government …not to exceed £7,000 per mile…The Engineer-in-Chief has recommended that the cost should be £9,050 per mile…but he admits now that (savings) will reduce the cost to about £7, 225 per mile altogether…’
  94. Victoria; Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Council. 1871. Evidence taken at the Bar of the Legislative Council on the Railway Bill., 18 October 1871. Q.897, p.33.
  95. The Age, Saturday 7 May 1870, p.2.
  96. The Argus, Thursday 17 December 1863, p.5.
  97. The Argus, Friday 11 March 1904, p.6.
  98. The Argus, Tuesday 14 September 1880, p.6.
  99. The Argus, Friday 11 November 1859, p.5.
  100. Matthew J. Murray. Memories: Notes of a lecture to the Historical Society of Victoria 25th June 1917. Melbourne, 1973. p.8.
  101. Leo J. Harrigan. Op.Cit. p.46-48.
  102. The Age, Wednesday 26 November 1862, p.5.
  103. Leo J. Harrigan, Op.Cit. p.65-67.
    The Argus, Thursday 28 February 1861, p.1., Thursday 30 June 1864, p.6.
    The Age, Saturday 3 September 1864, p.4.
  104. Leo J. Harrigan, Op.Cit. p.58.
  105. The Argus, Tuesday 2 October 1866, p.5.
  106. The Argus, Wednesday 3 June 1863, p.5., Thursday 25 January 1866, p.4.
  107. The Argus, Thursday 5 February hb1874, p.6. A photograph of the Flinders Street frontage of the station in the 1880’s shows the same arched window frames which S.T. Gill drew in his 1854 painting.
  108. Betty Malone “Thomas Turner à Beckett” Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.3, M.U.P., 1969. . Thomas Turner à Beckett.
  109. The Argus, Friday 17 October 1873, p.4.
  110. The Argus, Thursday 5 February 1874, p.6.
  111. The Age, Saturday 7 May 1870, p.2.
  112. The Herald, Friday 9 May 1862, p.5.
    Leo J. Harrigan, Op.Cit. p.52.
  113. Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell, Op. Cit. p.11, 14.
  114. The Herald, Friday 23 May 1862, p.5.
  115. The Ballarat Star, Wednesday 8 August 1866, p.2.
  116. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the Year Ended 31 December 1878, Appendix 2, p.26.
  117. The Herald, Tuesday 27 May 1862, p.5.
    The Argus, Saturday 14 June 1862, p.5.
    Leo J. Harrigan, Op.Cit. p.48.
  118. The Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 25 April 1865, p.3.
  119. L.T.C. Rolt, Red for Danger, London, 1955, p118-123.
  120. K.A. Austin, Op. Cit, p.139-143.
  121. C.D. Gavan Duffy, ‘The Block System in Victoria’, ARHS Bulletin, No.281, (March, 1961), p.43.
  122. The Herald, Thursday 27 November 1862, p.5., Wednesday 24 December 1862, p.6.
  123. The Argus, Friday 6 May 1870, p.6., Saturday 7 May 1870, p.6.
    The Age, Saturday 7 May 1870, p.2.
  124. The Age, Monday 6 June 1870, p.2.