Australia’s First Electric Tram

Transport shenanigans in the 1890s

IN October 1889, Australia’s first electric tram began running between Box Hill Post Office on the Whitehorse Road and Station Street corner and the terminus near Elgar and Doncaster roads, Doncaster. It was the first in the southern hemisphere.

At Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition at the Exhibition Buildings in August 1888 nearly 17 000 Melbournians marvelled at being transported by an American electric tramway along a 300-yard (274-metre) track for threepence a ride.

Although ahead of its time and a modern metropolis by 1888, Melbourne preferred to stay with its new cable trams. [Melbourne’s cable trams, the fourth-largest system in the world, operated until 1942 when they were replaced with electric ones.]

However, two months after the Exhibition, a syndicate of landowners and investors in Nunawading and Bulleen banded together raising £15,000 to construct a tramline Transport shenanigans in the 1890s between the large fruit-growing areas of Box Hill and Doncaster, forming the Box Hill and Doncaster Tramway Company Limited. Counting on a boom in land sales and tourism, they secured a 30-year lease from the Nunawading Shire, purchased the electric tram and accompanying equipment from the Exhibition, let a contract for construction of 2.25 miles (3.6 kilometres) of track and secured second-hand rails from Tasmania for the standard-gauge line.

Despite opposition from some locals that trams would negate the need for a railway to Doncaster, the ‘undulating and picturesque’ tramline route, which was actually very difficult, steep and winding, particularly between Koonung Creek and Doncaster, opened on 14 October 1889.

The opening ceremony was said to be a very grand affair well-attended by leading men of the day, many of whom were passengers on the inaugural trip. In 1950 The Argus reported that those who had tried “the new means of propulsion had a very pleasant experience. … When the brake was removed the vehicle glided down the track with a smooth and easy motion. … The average speed throughout was good, the whole distance of 2¼ miles taking twenty minutes.”

The event was marked by extraordinary press coverage, not only locally in The Argus, but also overseas – it was seen as a major coup for Melbourne. An article appearing in the local newspaper The Reporter on 17 October 1889 exhibited an overwhelming exuberance and pride for the venture and much purple prose.

“Every resident in the district should be proud of the action which has prompted the promoters to rise and make the tramway which connects Doncaster with the leading metropolis of the southern hemisphere.

“… All over the Australian colonies, too, Box Hill will be known as the place which had the capital, the wisdom and the enterprise to inaugurate an undertaking which will place her in the foremost van of progress. In the course of a few months hundreds of tourists and sightseers will specially visit Box Hill to see for themselves what was hitherto believed The Box Hill–Doncaster electric tram circa 1896 December 2014 – February 2015 Burwood Bulletin 5 to be a physical impossibility – a tram car run by electric motive power. …Why, had Galileo prophesied such an occurrence as that he would have been court-marshalled and crucified head downwards.”

With ten round trips on weekdays and additional ones on weekends, the tramway was an initial success and a second tram was ordered from America. Speeds of around nine miles (14 kilometres) per hour were reached and sixpence afforded a one-way trip.

But by November 1890 the steep gradients were causing continual breakdowns and when Tramway management refused to guarantee that the line would operate on a regular basis, the landowners removed 50 yards (46 metres) of track.

Adding to the volatile situation was the interruption to locals’ quietude brought about by Melbourne ‘larrikins’ journeying by tram to their sleepy village. Gangs raided orchards, stealing fruit and verbally and physically challenging any residents who upbraided them. This resulted in locals also venting their anger upon the tramway.

In June 1891 The Argus reported that rails on the line had been “… pulled up, the line fenced across and a deep gutter cut from one side of the road to the other.” During the following weekend, though: “… the fence was removed, only one post being left in the ground to mark where it had once stood, and the deep drain had been filled up so effectively that the tram road was safe for traffic on Monday.”

The same Argus article advised that it was unknown who carted the fence away or who filled in the drain, and that: “During Sunday and Monday an effigy, which has been carefully made, was suspended on the crosswire at the terminus of the tram line in Doncaster. The effigy has been provided with a black belltopper, to which is securely fastened a large card, bearing the following inscription:- ‘A. E. Tankard. Sad, sad. The sad effects of rail lifting. The above will be burnt in effigy on Saturday evening next at 8 p.m. All are cordially invited.”

Although the line eventually ran again, the economic depression of the 1890s resulted in its final closure on 6 January 1896, just over six years after its first journey, when local councils were left with the substantial cost of making the roads fit for normal traffic.

The glowing words from The Reporter article were far from prophetic and the venture sadly ended in obscurity:

“They have carried out an undertaking which will tend to immortalise their names in the bright and sunny land of Australia. … when the directors of this company shall have joined the great majority they will leave behind them footprints in the sands of time.”

Check out Melbourne Museum’s precise miniature replica of the first tram at Museum Victoria. A full-size replica of the first tram is on permanent display at Doncaster– Templestowe Historical Society’s museum at Schramm’s Cottage, Doncaster.

References: Green, R. (1989) The First Electric Road, J. Mason Press,
Box Hill Reporter – Its banner boasted: “The Reporter Circulating in Box Hill, Surrey Hills, Canterbury, Balwyn, Camberwell, Doncaster, Burwood, Blackburn, Mitcham and Ringwood.”
The Argus newspaper online at Trove

Raine Biancalt
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