The forgotten station

The skeleton of the Milk Dock roof looms over Platform One. Major Projects Victoria photograph

Platform One at Flinders Street Station is the longest railway platform in Australia and, at 708 metres long, the 4th longest in the world.  This platform stretches the length of two city blocks from Swanston Street to the end of Queen Street.  

The platform’s western end is closed to the public although that doesn’t seem to stop the graffiti artists. Redeveloping this part of the station was a major part of the brief given to architects in the recent competition to renovate Flinders Street Station and the place could certainly do with it. But it would be sad to lose the many clues that remain to indicate its previous busy life…  

The "good old days" of the railways parcel office. Image from PROV

In the old days, the Milk Dock and the Parcels Office kept this part of the station very busy.  Up till 1986, the Parcels Office at Flinders Street Station was the main transfer point for all parcels to the suburban and the Gippsland lines.  Even greyhounds used to travel via the Parcels Office. As a child, watching the parcel vans trundling along the line was a feature of waiting on suburban platforms.  I remember reels of film for nearby Channel Ten being unloaded from the train at Nunawading station, an interesting overlap of old and new technologies.  Now the big roller shutters in that part of the station stay firmly closed.  

Down this end, much of the station is underused. Electrical trolleys used for restocking vending machines park along one wall and piles of red plastic bread trays collect in the corners. Shopping and baggage trolleys that have been abandoned on trains are parked in neat rows until they can be returned to their places of origin.  There’s also an odd little collection of derelict electrical goods – bar fridges, water coolers and stereos - perhaps discarded office equipment, but very possibly dumped on the tracks and collected up by the gangers.  

A machine for grinding rails to reduce wheel friction is parked on the branch line section of Platform One. The station can just be seen in the background. Major Projects Victoria photograph

The end of Platform One is divided in two by a branch line. Milk trains from Gippsland used to unload much of Melbourne’s milk here.  Full milk cans were unloaded and clean empty milk cans were sorted and loaded up to be returned to the dairy farms for the next days milking. A couple of years ago the old asbestos roof tiles were removed from the platform awning above the dock itself leaving only the skeletal remains of the supports which are starting to rust. Heavy track machinery is parked here, but otherwise it is left to the weeds which are colonising it with great vigor.  

Milk and cream cans waiting transport at Tongala Railway station in the Goulburn Valley, c1910. Image Courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Behind the platform is the Milk Dock re-distribution area. Once this impressive blue stone loading bay would have been bustling with trucks and horses and carts as milk was sorted and distributed to the suburban dairies for delivery to suburban front doors.  Nowadays it’s a parking bay for Metro company cars.  

The milk dock and eastern end of the station. Image from PROV.

Cars parked in the milk dock. Major Projects Victoria photograph

Hearn’s Hobbies is another part of the Flinders Street Station story and features in the fond memories of many Melbournians.  

Started after the war by three World War Two fighter pilots with a passion for aeromodelling, Hearn’s has operated out of the basement at the western end of the station for 50 years. The shop, or rather the five shops with walls removed to make one, still have the beautiful orginal pressed metal ceiling.  

The Hearn brothers were pioneers of radio controlled aeroplanes in Melbourne, set a world height record for radio controlled aircraft flight, won the first Wakefield Trophy in Victoria and even re-enacted Kingsford Smith’s flight using radio controlled aircraft!!  

Though the Hearns have retired now, the shop is still a bustling Mecca for model enthusiasts of all ages; a wonderland of model kits from trains and areoplanes to Japanese fighting robots and redolent of the smells of paint and glue.  

Hearn's Hobby Catalogue 1960-1. Image from Hearn's Hobby Website (http://www.hearnshobbies.com/).

If you walk past Hearn’s Hobbies, further west along Flinders Street, things become very quiet.  After you pass the tall bluestone retaining wall and ramp of the old milk distribution area, there is a small garden and then three old shops that were built in the 1920s.  One is still open as a shoe repairer, but other two have been closed for 30 years, though they are still covered in signs advertising the previous tenant, a R-rated Liberated Bookshop.   

Things pick up again when you pass the end of Queens Street and reach Banana Alley, a collection of shops under the railway viaduct here. Back when there was a river wharf on this part of the Yarra, fruit was warehoused in these cool curving vaults, hence the name.  The vaults survived a long period of neglect in the 60s and 70s.  They now house a nightclub, several gyms, a secure bike park and a small café with outside tables where office workers sit and drink their preferred brew on sunny days.  The vaults have even starred in a TV series, Canal Road.   Despite these signs of life, it’s still worrying to look up and see the self-seeded palm and ash trees growing out of the vaults roofs.  

A busy industrial view of Banana Alley in the early c1920 with the bridges and river behind. Image from PROV.

If you walk down to the end of Banana Alley, turn left under the railway bridge and climb up to the north bank of the Yarra, the atmosphere changes completely.  

When I visited one midday recently, the bluestone alleyway was busy with people and after climbing up the ramp at the end, I found myself in a fresh new area called Les Erdi Plaza.  Here, with the help of funds from businessman and philanthropist Les Erdi, the old Sandridge Railway Bridge has been turned into a pedestrian and cycle bridge and a memorial to the immigrants who used to cross it by train on their way from Station Pier. The burned down signal box near the Sandridge Bridge has been very successfully refurbished in glass and steel and become  Signal – a youth arts space, where experienced artists offer workshops and mentoring for young people between 13-20.  

Youth arts centre Signal in the refurbished signal box at Flinders Street Station. From the Signal Website.

I peeked inside Signal and admired the tall bright space and the artworks on display.  During January,  Signal ran the Signal 37 Arts Program in a series of big white domed tents decorated in Alice in Wonderland themes, culminating with a showcase event on the 26th.  

The signal box. The weatherboard upper level was destroyed by fire in 2002. If I remember correctly, during the 1990s the iron verandas were festooned with an extensive and presumably well tended grape vine. Image from PROV.

The working signal box, now replaced with offices and art works. Image from PROV

It was great to see the north bank of the Yarra turned into something that combined old and new so sucessfully.  It was as if refurbishment had spread the over the Sandridge bridge from Southbank. I can only hope it continues to spread over the tracks and onto Flinders Street.  

Flinders Street in art – Movies  

When I started this blog I tracked down and watched On the Beach, the Hollywood movie about the end of the world, set and filmed in Melbourne in 1959. For those interested, ACMI has a copy to lend.  

Aside from enjoying the movie, it was great to see scenes of the Melbourne of the late fifties – Elizabeth Street, the State Library and of course my favourite railway station. In one scene, people ride bicycles, horses and trams down Elizabeth Street with the station and its clock tower in the background.  

Ava Gardner runs towards the station in this still from the MGM film On The Beach.

In another pivotal scene, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner stroll down Swanston Street past the old Classic Cafe (now changed into a Maccas) and pause outside Young and Jacksons Hotel. Here Ava urges Greg to seize the day, before rushing away into the station to the sound of swelling violins. Check the film out, it’s a great story even if the sound track is hard going. Don’t be put off by the old story that Ava Gardener was rude about Melbourne. In fact, Sydney journalist Neil Jillett confessed later that he’d misquoted her when he had her saying that Melbourne was the perfect place to film the end of the world. (This interesting essay from ACMI includes more information about that story and the significance of the film).  

As well as On the Beach, scenes from the movie Squizzy Taylor and the TV series The Pacific were filmed here, while the Hollywood film Killer Elite and the Australian film maker Oscar Redding’s version of Hamlet included scenes filmed in the Campbell Street underpass.  

I’m sure there must be others. The image of the facade pops up all over the place.  Anytime a filmaker wants to tell the audience the action is taking place in Melbourne, he or she pops in a couple of frames of the Flinders Street station facade even if the action is taking place in another part of the city. Or, as in the case of a recent documentary about female suffrage, even if the station wasn’t built when the events took place.  

Flinders Street Station Facade is visual shorthand for Melbourne.

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One Response to The forgotten station

  1. Liz Downes says:

    Correction: Grape vines on the signal box – the signal box with the grape vines growing on it was actually Signal Box C in the Jolimont Yards. See this picture http://www.westonlangford.com/images/photo/114586/. My memory was playing tricks on me!!!
    Liz Downes

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