Skip to content


Without its railway network it is difficult to imagine how Victoria might have experienced the spectacular growth achieved from the eve of its creation as a self-governing colony in 1851 to the dawn of the next century. And would Melbourne so rapidly have become one of the great cities of the Victorian era and seat of the new Federal Parliament in 1901? Road transport before the age of the automobile and motor truck was painfully slow and ruinously expensive. It was the railways that helped Melbourne become a major commercial and industrial hub and opened a thriving agricultural sector in Victoria’s inland. The railways were the colony’s largest employer and devoured most of its loan capital, but their role in the colony’s history has gone largely unacknowledged, as has the efforts of the men who shaped them.

The Forgotten Men

Although Thomas Higinbotham and Richard Speight were as well-known to Victorians of their day as Harold Clapp and Reg Ansett were to later generations, even the men who symbolised railways and aviation for Victorians in the twentieth century are largely forgotten after two generations. Higinbotham and Speight are the dimmest of memories. The colony’s historian, H. G. Turner, writing less than 25 years after Higinbotham’s death, does not even mention his name, yet he directed an industry that alone accounted for ninety percent of Victoria’s national debt.

The only railwayman Turner mentioned by name is Speight, but he has nothing to say about the great achievements of his leadership. Indeed, he devotes less than four percent of his second volume (1854-1900) to the railway industry.[1] Yet railways were central to the policies of the radical liberal land reformers and protectionists, just as they were to their squatter and free trader opponents.

The profound impact on railway development by politicians such as Francis Longmore, John Woods, Thomas Bent and Duncan Gillies has been largely forgotten.   Potted biographical details of these and many other movers and shakers in politics and the railways have therefore been included.   But it is beyond the scope of this work to delve more thoroughly into their life stories.  

Histories of Victoria written since Turner have added little to our understanding of the railway issues at the heart of the great radical and conservative political divide, or to their influence on the development of the colony. An assessment of why, where and how they were made requires a grasp of technical matters, as engineering is at the heart of the railway industry. With that knowledge comes an awareness that things might have turned out very differently, and with it an appreciation of the politicians and professional men who drove the changes. This book seeks to rectify these deficiencies, and is an outgrowth of a long interest in railways and their history which started as a schoolboy in 1957.

Understanding the Railway Contribution

An initial infatuation with the romance of railways was tempered after 1970 by my experience as a professional railwayman, initially with the Planning section of the Victorian Railways, including secondment to the working group undertaking a cost-benefit study of options for replacing the Alice Springs railway. Later I was seconded to the Australian Railways Research and Development Organisation, which involved my working for all the other Australian railway systems, but mostly the narrow gauge Queensland Railways. As a Rail Business Analyst, I continued with the Public Transport Corporation, working on capital investment appraisals. In 2005 I joined the rail group of consulting engineers WorleyParsons Pty Ltd and found myself in Saudi Arabia evaluating a projected railway. Many other assignments followed until my retirement in 2013.

This working ‘on the inside’ has emphasised the interaction between individual people, technology and politics that was an underlying theme of my 1981 Master of Arts thesis ‘Engineers and Politicians’. This complemented my Preliminary thesis about the Railway Construction Act of 1884 (the so-called ‘Octopus Act’). Together they form the nucleus of this history of Victoria’s railways in the nineteenth century, which might be thought of as its First Age, characterised by network expansion, moderate traffic and small, basically British rolling stock and operational methods.

Since their eighteenth century beginnings on the British coalfields railways have grown behind a fence of jargon. Anyone wishing to closely observe their comings and goings must scale that fence to reach the mysteries of the workshop, locomotive depot, signal box, goods yard, gang shed and office. Scholarly historians seeking to weave railways into the politico-economic tapestry have been content to look over the fence, but there is a vast literature by railway historians who have been climbing these fences for generations! They have focused on technology, operations and infrastructure, but they are largely silent about the men and politics that shaped the railways, or the tussle between competing British and American methods that characterised the period.

The official centenary history, Victorian Railways to ’62 by Leo Harrigan, fits the latter category, but was the only comprehensive history available until Robert Lee’s book of 2006. Professor Lee’s is the first academic work about Victoria’s railways to connect the two streams but its broad scope of 150 years and moderate length limits its exploration of some important themes.[2] The general objective of this work then is to dig deeper for an understanding of the people, politics, and technology that formed the Victorian Railways in their first five decades, from 1854 to 1904, during which the severe handicap of distance was slowly diminished. Hopefully this will help modify the conclusions drawn by previous historians, and dismantle the fence of jargon for future writers.

Missing the Train: The General Histories of Victoria

The general histories of Victoria are necessarily brief concerning specific events, as they cover such an extensive scope, but they do underestimate the prominence of railways in colonial affairs and leave the major players in obscurity. Those histories limited to shorter periods or specific subjects do better, but still suffer from a deficient understanding of railways, with some wrong assertions being made.[3] This is not surprising given the negligible source material available to their authors.

Geoffrey Serle notes the deficits made after 1889 are a ‘crucial feature of Victoria’s history’ but does not investigate their extent or the causes.[4] Elsewhere he briefly mentions the collapse of the decision by the colonies to build railways to a uniform railway gauge, without exploring how this occurred.[5] Geoffrey Blainey discusses the issue, rightly emphasising that as an island continent the need for a uniform gauge was not strongly felt in the nineteenth century, but sesquicentenary historian Don Garden considers this was ‘one of the most misguided and short-sighted blunders in Australian history’.[6] It certainly was, but Garden is silent about its cause. Was it a young Irish engineer, a headstrong Scot, a proud Governor, the chaos of the gold rush, a lax Colonial Secretary, an ignorant Board, pathetically slow communications or something else? And could it have been reversed? Such a blunder deserves unravelling!

Blainey in his history of Victoria says its railways ‘were the arteries and veins’, but does not elaborate on this vital part of the colony’s anatomy.[7] Serle outlines the early attempts by private companies to build and operate railways, but accepts without question the early government takeovers, as does Noel Butlin. Garden quotes the 1856 Select Committee finding that ‘it is impossible for private enterprise to undertake these…major works…’.[8] Serle concludes the government takeover was a ‘business decision entirely justified by the circumstances’ [9] and another sesquicentenary historian, Tony Dingle, agrees that while the takeover was innocent of any ideological commitment, it was due to the failure of private enterprise and was the beginning of ‘colonial socialism’. [10]

Serle ascribes the failure of private railways to the difficulties created by inflated costs during the gold rush and the difficulty of raising capital,[11] but how then did the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company succeed in building the first trunk railway in Australia, and why was it immediately blocked from continuing to Ballarat? Serle mentions the ‘growing penetration of South Australian river-traders’ without reference to the near panic this caused Melbourne merchants. There is little doubt the Melbourne establishment succeeded in both marginalising Geelong and reversing the direction of Murray River trade through the nationalisation of the railways.

The real reason for the failure of early private railways in Melbourne was not speculation, as contended by Serle,[12] although this was true of the Essendon line. Rather it was the adoption of inappropriate British technology that demanded capital expenditures out of proportion to potential earnings. But one company eschewed great iron bridges for its river crossing in favour of modest timber structures. The Hobsons Bay Railway thrived and was soon gobbling up most of the others railway companies at bargain prices. With the exception of Butlin, academic historians have missed the enormous influence of British trained engineers on colonial railway development, and their prejudice against American engineering which was designed for a vast continent like Australia.[13]

The sesquicentenary histories of Victoria document the failures of the early Land Acts, and the eventual success of the 1869 Act. Dingle observes that by that time squatters ‘had already bought up much of the best land.’ He further notes that most ‘good farming land within reasonable reach of the markets had already been sold.’ [14] How then is the ‘astonishingly rapid’ [15] growth in rural population north of the Great Divide explained? Garden likens this rush of selectors to an invasion,[16] and acknowledges that railways ‘had a profound effect on many aspects of rural life’, and that they ‘helped to open many areas for settlement and to make agriculture viable’, but this is an understatement.[17]

Serle does recognise that ‘the great expansion of production coincided with the arrival of the railway tracks’ and Edgars Dunsdorfs documents this in his definitive history of the wheat industry.[18] But neither investigates the titanic struggle to extend railways into the wheatlands. Garden mentions the debate about which districts should be prioritised for railway extension in the early 1870’s,[19] but this pales in comparison to the fight over cheap railways between the Minister of Railways and the Engineer-in-Chief.

Without Francis Longmore’s insistence on cheap railways, the take up of land by selectors would have been severely inhibited. His advocacy of cheap narrow gauge and the dramatic eleventh hour intervention by Thomas Higinbotham to at least preserve a uniform railway gauge is a story worth telling. Longmore’s Railway Construction Act of 1871 was a triumph for the radical liberals, not just for enabling the rapid extension of railways into wheat growing areas, but for the nurture of Victoria’s heavy industry in the two decades after the strengthening of tariff protection in 1871.[20]

The transfer of the railways from direct Ministerial control to that of a largely independent Commission in 1883 receives a passing mention by some historians, but only Lee grapples with the corruption, fatal accidents and public outcry that precipitated it.[21] The creation of the world’s first Statutory Corporation is recognised by Blainey and Lee, and Serle calls it a ‘landmark’ which ‘made the statutory corporation so important a feature of Australian government…’ [22] but other general histories pay scant attention.

The Chairman of the new Railway Commissioners was Richard Speight, remembered only for his long and bitter stoush with David Syme of The Age. The miniscule damages awarded Speight for Syme’s undoubted libels are accepted as evidence that the Commissioners ‘succumbed to a mixture of political pressure and boom madness’. Speight is blamed for acquiescing to the construction of ‘several rural spurs which could never have been viable and…the greatest urban white elephant, the Outer Circle’. Also with saddling the Victorian taxpayer ‘ever since with the dual costs of paying the capital debts and operating deficiencies’.[23]

Although Butlin recognises that Speight was a ‘scapegoat’, Blainey amusingly likens him to a ‘stout, bald, bearded little man who was as generous as Father Christmas’ and whose sack ‘was full of toys for the politicians’. [24] On the contrary, Speight was arguably Australasia’s greatest railway administrator of the colonial era. Syme was no white knight either, but the muckraking articles by The Age have lured historians into denigrating Speight without understanding the enormous contribution he made to the development of Victoria.

Speight arrived shortly after the first linking of colonial railways at Albury. The significance of this event on the federation debate seems to have been lost on all but Lee. Garden points to the perceived external military threat in 1882 as fostering the desire for federation, and Blainey to the significance of the 1890’s Victorian depression in making it possible.[25] But the glittering gathering in the engine shed at Albury under specially installed electric lights was the greatest meeting of colonial dignitaries to that date. Why was the new Albury station grander than those of all colonial capital cities except Sydney, and what was the main topic of conversation?

One of the Speight administrations greatest achievements was the building of Newport Workshops. Blainey mentions that Victoria ‘pinned its hopes on factories’ [26] but he is not alone in missing the significance of the great railway workshop. Victorians still enjoy their own ‘National Gallery’ in St Kilda Road: Serle and Garden each mention it three or four times.[27] But who remembers Victoria also had its ‘National Workshops’, which by 1904 was the throbbing heart of the new state’s heavy industry?

At the close of the period the ruthless treatment of the railway enginemen who stuck in May 1903 has not been ignored by historians[28] but the ten years of privations they endured before it needs more attention. The shameful goading by Minister of Railways Tommy Bent precipitated the strike. The Press and public were almost universally against the men, but the heartening response of some of the clergy has been missed.

By 1904 the Victorian Railways was returning to profitability under the direction of the Canadian, Thomas Tait. The railway network reached Mildura that year, but thereafter its extent and basic infrastructure would not change much until well after World War Two, although it would be strengthened to carry the heavier and faster trains made almost exclusively in its own workshops. The Victorian Railways was embarking on its Second Age as a vertically integrated industrial powerhouse. This is a story by an insider of how it all happened.

End Notes

  1. H.G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, Vol. 2, 1854-1900, London, 1904.
  2. Leo Harrigan, Victorian Railways to ’62, Victorian Railways, 1962.
    Also: Robert Lee, The Railways of Victoria 1854-2004, Melbourne University Press, 2006, p.vii-viii. Lee’s book is restricted to approximately 90,000 words and is an abridgement of his original manuscript which has been lodged with the State Library of Victoria and the National Library of Australia.
  3. Some examples are:- Geoffrey Serle, The Rush to be Rich, Melbourne University Press, 1971, p. 102. The contention that John Woods was a ‘veteran engineer and inventor of a successful railway brake’ is wide of the mark.
    Also: N.G. Butlin, Investment in Australian Economic Development 1861 – 1900, Cambridge University press, 1964, p. 352-7. The chapter Transition from Foreign Technical to Local Political Control correctly notes the overwhelming influence of British trained engineers prior to the 1870’s, but overemphasises the influence of politicians after that time. By 1884 railway management had got beyond politicians, and after a brief attempt to reassert control after 1892, professional management was reinstated in 1897. No narrow gauge railways or ‘tramroads’ were built in the Eighties.
    Also: Don Garden, ‘Victoria: A History’, Nelson, 1984, p. 221. Comment about the Outer Circle is wrong.
  4. Serle, Rush to be Rich, p. 81.
  5. Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, MUP, 1963, p. 207.
  6. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, Sun Books, 1966, p. 245-9.
    Also: Garden, p. 170.
  7. Blainey, A History of Victoria, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 159. Blainey makes an excellent overview of Australian railway development in The Tyranny of Distance, p. 244-65, but it does not have a specific focus on Victoria.
  8. Serle, Golden Age, p. 238.
    Also: Butlin, p. 302-3.


    Garden, p. 89.
  9. Serle Golden Age, p. 238.
  10. Tony Dingle, The Victorians: Settling, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, 1984, p. 79.
  11. Serle, Golden Age, p. 236.
  12. Geoffrey Serle and James Grant, The Melbourne Scene 1803-1956, Hale & Iremonger, 1978, p. 77.
  13. Butlin, p. 354.
  14. Dingle, p. 63.
  15. Dingle, p. 74.
  16. Garden, p. 159.
  17. Garden, p. 222.
  18. Serle, Rush to be Rich, p. 5, 52.
    Also: Edgars Dunsdorfs, The Australian Wheat Growing Industry 1788-1948, MUP, 1957, pp. 161-4, 212-13, 351-5, 531-3.
  19. Garden, p. 169.
  20. Lee p. 82-3, 68-9, 73-4 only briefly touches the issue.
    Also: Serle p. 72-3 briefly outlines the significance of locomotive building at the Phoenix Foundry.
  21. Lee, p. 82-3.
    Also: Serle, Rush to be Rich, p. 33-4. Serle mentions ‘inexperienced tinkering’ by ministers, and a ‘succession of accidents’ that roused public feeling. But he does not elaborate.
  22. Blainey, Tyranny of Distance, p. 254-5.
    Also: Lee, p. 83.
    Also: Serle, Rush to be Rich, p. 43.
  23. Garden, p. 221-2.
  24. Butlin, p. 357.
    Also: Blainey, Tyranny of Distance, p. 255-6.
  25. Lee, p. 67.
    Also: Garden, p. 219, 222
    Also: Blainey, History of Victoria, p. 147-8.
    Also: Blainey, Tyranny of Distance, p. 250-1. Blainey does not connect the Albury celebrations with federation.
  26. Blainey, History of Victoria, p. 173.
  27. Serle & Grant, p. 83, 145, 151 and 162.
    Also: Garden p. 174, 247, 300.
    Also: Serle Rush to be Rich, p. 80. The Railways, including Newport Workshops, had grown by 1890 to ‘became a huge industry’
  28. Serle & Grant, p. 204.
    Also: Garden, p. 274-6.