Photograph taken at end of a Saturday working day, 12:20 pm in 1927.

Flinders Street Station: Melbourne's most popular iconic landmark

Flinders Street Station occupies the equivalent of two city blocks, occupying the site bordered by Flinders Street to the north and the Yarra River to the south. The site extends from Swanston Street on its eastern ground level border all the way to Queen Street in the west.

The first train station on the current Flinders Street Station site was called Melbourne Terminus. The original station was comprised of a collection of weatherboard sheds. Melbourne Terminus opened on the 12 of September 1854 and was the first steam railway station in Australia. Thousands of people attended the opening day to see not only Victoria’s, but also Australia’s, first public steam train, which travelled from Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) to the Melbourne Terminus station at Flinders Street.

In 1889 a worldwide design competition was held for a new railway station to be built. The new building, planned to replace the old sheds, was to be a grand edifice befitting marvelous Melbourne, which was then the largest city in Australia. Two Victorian Railway Officials, JW Fawcett and HPC Ashworth who entered under the syndicate name ‘Green Light’, were awarded the first prize of £500 in 1900. Their French renaissance style station included a large domed entrance and a clock tower.

Construction commenced in 1900, while the final design of station building was still in development. The foundations of the main building were completed in 1903. In 1904 the Railway Commissioners made changes to the original design, leading to the construction of individual roofs over each platform instead of a series of arched roofs over the concourse as originally planned. Additionally to increase office space, a fourth storey was added to the main building.

In 1905 work began on the massive station building itself, starting at the west end and progressing towards the grand entrance and dome at the south-west corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets. The grand edifice was designed to have a stone facade, however cost cutting led to use of red brick with cement render details (blood and bandage). Grey granite from Harcourt, Victoria was used on the Flinders Street side at ground level "in view of the importance of this great public work". Design changes that omitted the concourse roof as previously described, saw the southern facade of the main building above ground level constructed of a lightweight timber frame, clad with zinc sheets scored into large blocks and painted red, giving the appearance of large bricks to replace what would have been open balconies under the roof.

Work on the dome started in 1906. Eleven platforms were completed in 1907 with another two added (Platforms 12 and 13) east of Swanston Street in 1909. Completion and the official opening of the station took place in 1910.

The building is three storeys high at the higher concourse/Swanston Street end, and four at the lower Elizabeth Street/platform end.

A number of ticket windows were located at each entry point, with services such as a restaurant, a country booking office, lost luggage and a visitors help booth at concourse or platform level.

A number of shops and leasable spaces were provided. Some of these shops were on the concourse, and many were along the Flinders Street frontage, some were lower than street level and were accessible by stairs, creating a fifth/basement level. The basement store beside the main entrance has been occupied by a hat store since 1910, known as 'City Hatters', since 1933.

The top three storeys of the main building contain a large number of rooms, particularly along the Flinders Street frontage, with the majority designated for use by the railway, although some were leasable spaces. Most of the top floor of the station was purpose built and occupied by the Victorian Railway Institute. This area included a library, a gym and a lecture hall, which was later used as a ballroom. In recent times, these rooms have been abandoned and have been slowly decaying for decades.

Electric trains were introduced in 1919. By 1926 Flinders Street Station was the world's busiest suburban railway station and it still is in the southern hemisphere. Infrastructure such as the Degraves Street subway, which is part of Flinders Street Station, was extended to the north side of Flinders Street in 1954. In March 1966 platform one was extended to reach a length of 708 metres, making it the fourth longest railway station platform in the world.

Flinders Street Station has over time become Melbourne’s most recognizable landmark and perhaps Melbourne’s most definitive icon. Not surprisingly, it has been listed on the Victorian Heritage Act and by the National Trust.

In 2011 the former Victorian Liberal Government launched an international design competition to rejuvenate and restore this grand edifice. In 2013 architects HASSELL + Herzog & de Meuron were chosen as the winners.

Let’s hope that the Melbourne catchphrase, ‘meet me under the clocks’ under the grand entrance at the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets, continues for many more years, and that the station restoration and rejuvenation starts sooner rather than later.

The current situation (government assesses redevelopment).

Peter Maltezos operates The Collector's Marvellous Melbourne, a website dedicated to Melbourne's built environment which maintains a vast image collection of Melbourne, both past and present.

Melbourne Terminus, the first station at Flinders and Swanston Streets.


Riccardo's picture

Spare a thought for the rail passenger, the forgotten stakeholder in this orgy of architectural self congratulation.

The station has little rail function now except as a roadside station. It is old, poorly maintained and dirty. It does not cope with the crowds using the pedestrian subways. It is not navigable or legible. Its track pattern is inefficient and does not reflect the current balance of traffic flow.

Wouldn't it be nice to imagine the talked about billions being available to make it into a useful rail station, rather than this constant self stimulation about icons and such garbage?

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Rohan Storey's picture

Yes certainly the facilities for passengers should be improved as a priority - the subway is crowded and the tiles cracked and dirty, the main swanston st concourse is crowded with too many retail outlets, its a mess ! A basic upgrade should be part of any works, or even a swish upgrade, with a nice soaring roof over the platforms, and an elevated concourse at the elizabeth st end, along with restoration of the ballroom and offices for some public uses seems the obvious way to go. Its such an odd thing that no government has committed to anything like this, or even to clean it up a bit !

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Riccardo's picture

Definitely I support Andrews' approach. Sufficient funding for a good clean and repair, without prejudging the future use (which would require the clean and repair in any event).

I think the notion, not just of Mothballs but also his supporters, that a archi-prize would lead to a project, and then to a private sector org volunteering to do the clean and repair gratis to the government, was a complete fantasy.

Even if the private org took control of the non-heritage land, built structures etc on that, but then acted to preserve the heritage section, the cost of doing so would have been built into their bid ie the taxpayer would pay in some way, even if only in revenue foregone.

As I said before, the heritage section is of little or no railway use, so government should pay. Then the question is finding suitable reuse, which could be about leasing the ballroom to dance schools etc, or letting the lot to a hotel chain who might use the ballroom for functions.

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Aussie Steve's picture

Like everyone else,I agree that we need to restore the building, even if it is a mix or not of public and private use. The station building could be great office space, not sure about hotel with the noise factor, but it will need lifts installed.

As Rohan says, the concourse needs to be cleaned up with ALL the retail outlets removed and only a Myki or transport info hub erected, maybe replacing that gambling outlet "The Clocks".

And of course the subways cleaned and restored and a new upper level Elizabeth Street concourse.

And in an ideal world, you would build the proposed roof over the platforms, but if not now, then allow it to happen in the future.

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