A brief history of the North Melbourne Electric Tramways & Lighting Company

Melbourne’s third electric tramway was not to suffer the fate of the first two [1] – closure. Instead, it was to become a key component of what is now the largest urban electric tramway in the English-speaking world, serving suburbs to the northwest of the CBD. This tramway was built, owned and operated by a private company, the North Melbourne Electric Tramways & Lighting Company.

Despite its name, the tramway run by this company was almost entirely within the municipalities of Essendon and Flemington.

NMETL saloon car in Fletcher Street, Essendon. Photograph Public Record Office Victoria. NMETL saloon car (later M&MTB U class) in Fletcher Street, Essendon.
Photograph courtesy Public Record Office Victoria.


The locality of Essendon first rose to prominence in 1851, as the first night’s camp on the way to the Mt Alexander (Castlemaine) diggings, hence the name of Mt Alexander Road, the major road through the area until the coming of the Tullamarine Freeway.

Growth of Essendon was steady, which boded well for promoters of railways to the area. As a result, the Melbourne & Essendon Railway Company opened with a flourish on 22 October 1860. Unlike the private rail lines operating to the southeast of Melbourne, the company was not soundly based, as it had to lease its equipment from the government-owned Victorian Railways (VR). Furthermore almost half its income went to obtain running rights over VR metals to Spencer Street Station. The company collapsed less than four years later, closing on 1 July 1864.

Some three years later the assets were purchased by VR, but it was not to re-open until 1871, as part of the North Eastern line that ultimately terminated on the NSW border at Albury-Wodonga.

This salutary lesson was to linger in the minds of public transport promoters for many years. The area only had a limited horse omnibus operation between Flemington Bridge and Essendon Town Hall (Moonee Ponds), which connected with horse cab services to the city. Local residents viewed this situation as most unsatisfactory.

In the early 1880s the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company (MTOC) proposed serving the growing metropolis with an extensive cable tramway system. Essendon residents actively lobbied the company to include the area in its plans.

However, the management of MTOC was much more hard-headed than that of the former railway company. MTOC was not about offering a public service, but making substantial profits for its investors. In order to achieve these profits, MTOC extensively analysed the revenue potential of any proposed tram routes, using revenue data on its existing horse bus services as a guide. Where this data was not available, it surveyed local residents and businesses as to their proposed usage.

Unfortunately for Essendon, MTOC determined that a cable tramway to Essendon would not be a paying proposition – so the closest a line came to Essendon was Flemington Bridge, which was opened in 1890.

This was the period of the notorious land boom in Melbourne, and tramway schemes were two-a-penny. All of these schemes were aimed to increase profits of real estate promoters, and Essendon was to see two of these proposals, neither of which got off the ground.

Messrs Booth, Ellison & Company put forward the first effort in June 1888. This was to build an electric tramway from the MTOC terminus at Flemington Bridge to North Essendon along Mt Alexander Road and Buckley Street. Given the primitive state of electric tramway technology, this indeed was a courageous proposal. It should not be a surprise that this initiative disappeared without a trace.

The Essendon Land, Tramway & Investment Company was an altogether different affair. It wanted to build a tramway from Essendon railway station westwards along Buckley Street to the municipal boundary with Keilor, a distance of 1.5 miles. The Essendon Council endorsed the company, but to no avail. Unlike Messrs Booth et al, this proposal did not disappear without a trace, but instead collapsed in a spectacular fashion, taking the savings of many naïve investors with it.

The collapse of the land boom in 1891 and onset of depression put paid to such proposals for the next decade.

The new century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, electric tramways were buoyant in Western Australia. New systems were opened in Perth (1899), Kalgoorlie (1902), and Fremantle (1905). There was even an electric tramway in the mining town of Leonora (1908) with one solitary tramcar. All this activity was boosted by the booming Western Australian economy, fuelled by gold.

The Perth and Kalgoorlie companies had both been floated on the London stock exchange to raise the required funds for construction. A Perth-based venture capitalist, Alfred Edward Morgans, had done very well out of these floats, and was looking for profit-making opportunities in the eastern states of the new Commonwealth. Morgans dispatched an associate, a Mr Rodgers, to Melbourne in order to test the waters.

Rodgers’ original proposal was for a tramway from Port Melbourne to Beaumaris, but MTOC blocked this initiative as it refused to release certain unused rights it held to portions of the route. MTOC had no wish for a new-fangled competitor to challenge its monopoly.

However, all was not lost. During the changing of ends at a game of lawn bowls, Rodgers mentioned his frustrations to a resident of Flemington, Mr W. Pridham. Pridham suggested that the Essendon area would be perfect for such a scheme, and arranged for Rodgers to inspect the locality in company with the Mayor (Cr A.E. Young) and the Town Clerk (Mr W. Cattanach).

As a result of this visit, Rodgers produced a favourable report on the business potential of an Essendon tramway. Morgans was suitably impressed by the profit making potential of such an enterprise, and made the proposal to council to build two routes, from Flemington Bridge to North Essendon and Maribyrnong.

However, his business plan was not restricted to tramway operation. An essential part of the proposal was the generation and supply of electricity for lighting, to both business and retail customers, as well as the municipal council for street lighting.

Boarding the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River tram, pre World War I. Photograph State Library of Victoria Boarding the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River tram, pre World War I. NMETL cross-bench car no 13.
Photograph courtesy State Library of Victoria.

This strategy was common in the early days of electric tramways. The major advantage was that it gave a company a ready form of cash receipts through tramway operation, whilst it built up its retail customer base. Furthermore, it also ensured that generator load was present during the day, and when retail demand increased during the evening for lighting, the electricity needs of the tramway were reduced due to less frequent services. This made effective use of the heavy capital investment required for generator plant, and maximised the profit potential of the undertaking.

Other adopters of this basic strategy included the Electricity Supply Company of Victoria tramways in Ballarat (1905) and Bendigo (1903), and the Melbourne Electricity Supply Company tramway in Geelong (1912).

Both Essendon and Flemington councils were strongly behind Morgans’ tramway system, and given that it was proposed to be carried out by private capital, it was thought that State Government approval would be a mere formality.

But they did not reckon with the strenuous opposition of Victorian Railways, which claimed that Morgans’ trams would skim the cream off its traffic. When it was pointed out that the planned routes were designed to feed railway stations at four points, the VR commissioners produced a previously unknown scheme for a motor omnibus service operating on the same routes. This pronouncement was greeted with howls of derision.

The railway commissioners were extremely influential with the Irvine ministry then in State government, which opposed Morgans at every opportunity. At a large protest meeting against the Irvine government, it was accused of ‘pursuing a policy of monopoly, conservatism and stagnation…dog-in-the-manger spirit which sought to strangle private enterprise and aim cowardly blows at municipal activities…incapable of shaping the destinies of a progressive country.’

By this stage the Irvine ministry was under extreme pressure, falling on 16 February 1904. A new government was formed under Thomas Bent as Premier, who gave Morgans a much better hearing.

However, the Metropolitan Gas Company raised objections against the plan, as it was worried that its gas mains would suffer from electrolysis as a result of the introduction of an electric tramway. While this was a natural concern, the Metropolitan Gas Company was probably desperate to retain market share against a company that would be selling ‘clean, safe electric light’.

In the interim, a referendum of ratepayers regarding the tramway proposal was held, resulting in an overwhelming victory for the pro-tram lobby (2,746 to 146). With this strong showing of local support, State Cabinet approval was rapidly obtained, and an Order-in-Council was issued on 4 May 1904 authorising the Councils of Essendon and Flemington to construct a tramway in their districts.

This action was very unusual, as it was normal practice for tramway and railway construction to require the passing of a bill by Parliament before it could proceed, rather than the mere issuing of an Order-in-Council. However, this disregard for due process was very typical of Thomas Bent, who was notorious for corrupt and manipulative behaviour throughout his political career.

The Councils delegated the authority conferred by the Order-in-Council to Morgans, who subsequently transferred his rights to the North Melbourne Electric Tramways & Lighting Company (NMETL), which was incorporated under the Companies Act of the United Kingdom to carry on business in Victoria. This company was floated on the London Stock Exchange with a capital base of £200,000. Former Victorian Premier and sitting MLA for Clunes and Allandale, Sir Alexander Peacock, was appointed as local Managing Director. It is very likely that Bent rushed through the unorthodox approval in order to obtain Peacock’s continuing support for his government.

The NMETL franchise gave the company the rights to construct and operate electric tramlines on specific routes through the municipalities of Flemington and Essendon, and provide a municipal electricity supply for a period of thirty years. At the end of the franchise the companies assets and operations would revert to the municipalities, with the exception of the property on which the power station and tram depot was located, which was to be purchased from the NMETL by the councils.

In addition to this, the franchise gave the councils the option of buying out the company after ten, twenty or twenty-five years. The ten-year option was specified to coincide with the termination of the MTOC franchise of the cable tram system in 1915 (subsequently extended to 1916) when the cable trams were to be acquired by the Melbourne City Council and other municipalities. Even in 1905, it was forecast that the cable tram system would be converted to electric traction, and the councils wanted to ensure through running by the trams into the CBD was possible. The purchase price was to be cost price plus 4% for each year of operation.


An acre of land on the east side of Mt Alexander Road was purchased for the site of the power station, company offices and tram depot, near the intersection with South Street. This site was chosen as it was approximately midway between the Keilor Road and Saltwater River termini. As a result the potential voltage drop to the outermost termini would be minimised.

The foundation stone for the power station was laid at a lavish ceremony on 24 May 1905, in front of a large and fashionable gathering. The Mayors of Essendon (Cr Showers) and Flemington (Cr Raisbeck) officiated at this event, after which the officials retired to a sumptuous banquet held in two marquees.

A month later, in front of a large crowd, the Premier laid the first rail at the western end of Racecourse Road. In typical Bent style, he remarked that he regretted not having been a party to the venture as he was sure that the trams would pay handsomely.

The tracks were laid on the concrete stringer principle, using 90 lb per yard rails in 30 foot lengths. The rails were laid in trenches, supported to the correct height by temporary packing. Tie bars spaced 7 feet 6 inches apart held the rails to standard gauge, and rail joints were double bonded to ensure good negative return. Concrete was rammed in the trenches up to the height of the foot of the rail, and once it had set, the road surface was reinstated with conventional bluestone macadam.

Special work (points and crossings) was of toughened cast steel, and supplied by Hadfield’s of Sheffield and Lloyd’s of Darlaston.

Both centre poles and span poles, depending on location, supported the overhead. Poles were 30 feet long and were of either ironbark or grey box timber, set 6 feet into the ground. The exception to this was in Puckle Street and around the Essendon Town Hall where steel poles were used in lieu of timber.

The tram depot building was 200 feet long and 68 feet wide, had six roads and could store 28 tramcars under cover. The company offices were located in a modest two-storey building alongside the entry track to the depot fan.

The power station was a large brick building, 90 feet by 63 feet, adjacent to the tram depot. Designed by architects Ussher & Kemp of Melbourne [2], it contained three 360 hp steam engines manufactured by Browett & Lindley of Manchester. Steam was supplied by three Babcock & Wilcox water-tube boilers.

The engines provided direct drive at 350 rpm, powering three General Electric 250kW generators producing electricity at 350 volts. The British Thomson-Houston Company supplied controlling switchgear, consisting of three generator panels, two traction feeder panels, four lighting panels and one ‘Board of Trade’ panel.

A fifty-foot high cooling tower was to the rear of the engine house, being used to condense exhaust steam from the engines and reduce overall water consumption.

NMETL power house and U class tram. Photograph Public Record Office Victoria NMETL power house and U class tram, Mt Alexander Road, Ascot Vale, pre World War I.
Photograph courtesy Public Record Office Victoria.

The actual generating plant was already obsolete, as in 1904 a comparative trial in Newcastle (UK) between the best technology in reciprocating steam engine generating sets and turbine generating sets had shown the turbines to be more than 25% more fuel efficient than the four cylinder triple expansion compound engines used as comparison. However, Australia did not have the technical base to support and maintain the latest in steam turbine technology, so in retrospect use of reciprocating engines for the generating plant was a sound choice.


The NMETL tramway system was officially opened on 11 October 1906 with a series of ceremonies, finishing with a banquet in a large marquee, where the official guests enjoyed many toasts and endured the many speeches expected of such an occasion. The following day, local schoolchildren were treated to a free service, before normal services began on Saturday 13 October 1906 with all twenty-five tramcars [3]. Huge crowds turned out on the first Sunday to enjoy the new form of transport, testing the lightly built trailer cars to the limit. The cars had to be withdrawn for strengthening before they could be used in traffic again.

NMETL V class tram in Racecourse Road, Newmarket. Photograph Moonee Valley Council NMETL V class tram in Racecourse Road, Newmarket, pre World War I.
Photograph courtesy Moonee Valley Council.

Initially tram crews worked 60-hour weeks. There was no provision for meal breaks, and crews had to eat their meals on the cars. Remuneration for drivers was £2/6/6 per week, conductors receiving one shilling less. Furthermore, there was no protection for drivers on the open driving platforms at the end of the cars.

These oppressive working conditions were a recipe for industrial unrest. The NMETL suffered significant amounts of strike action over the years, until a more reasonable working environment was obtained. These struggles were key in the establishment of the Australian Tramways Employees Association (later the ATMOEA), and also led to a number of key decisions in Australia's industrial legal framework.

Despite this, the crews had a reputation for friendly service. Passengers could (quite illegally) travel on the end platform and chat to the driver. The schedules were not demanding, and trams would often wait for late passengers as they ran through the paddocks that made up much of the area. However, crews had to work hard at the terminus when hauling a trailer car, as shunting facilities were limited, and the trailer had to be moved by hand when changing ends.

M&MTB takeover

The councils did not exercise their option to purchase the NMETL undertaking in 1915, due to a combination of factors, including the extension of the MTOC cable tram franchise by twelve months to 1916, and the difficulty in obtaining wartime finance to fund the purchase. Furthermore, there were substantial government proposals to create a single tramway operator for Melbourne as a result of the 1911 Royal Commission on the Railway and Tramway System of Melbourne and Suburbs. In this climate, the councils were not inclined to take a risk on purchasing the NMETL.

State Parliament passed two key bills in 1918. The first bill, the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board Act 1918 (No 2995), provided for the creation of the M&MTB. It also empowered the M&MTB to acquire the tramway from the Essendon and Flemington Councils, but specifically excluded electricity generation from the Board’s activities, so the M&MTB could not acquire the entire operation of the NMETL.

The second bill created the framework for the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV), which was to be the state monopoly electricity generator, distributor and retailer. It was authorised to acquire private electricity companies and incorporate them into its own operations.

The NMETL could see the writing on the wall, so it did not make any significant investment into the tramway infrastructure – which in any case was only a small contributor to its revenue stream. However, it added a fourth engine and generator set into the engine house to cater for increased commercial load.

The only substantial investment in the tramway after the initial opening was the extension of the terminus at Flemington Bridge to be adjacent to the cable tram terminus. This work was authorised by the Flemington Road Tramways Act 1911 (No 2333), and the extension was opened on 27 August 1913. This was the only part of the tramway outside the municipalities of Flemington and Essendon, being in the Borough of Kensington. The objective of the extension was to remove a walk of around a hundred yards for passengers transferring between the cable trams and the NMETL electric trams.

After 1918 protracted negotiations were held between the NMETL, the Essendon and Flemington Councils, and the State Government, in an attempt to come to an agreement agreeable to all parties, as there was some contention over reaching an acceptable purchase price. What finally drove the purchase of NMETL through was Sir John Monash’s [4] actions to cement the position of the SECV as the prime power generator, distributor & retailer in Victoria.

Basically, the Essendon and Flemington Councils were unhappy with the electricity supply service provided by NMETL, and had been trying to replace it by the electricity supply business of the Melbourne City Council (MCC), but the MCC was not interested as it believed that significant profits would not be generated. Monash was facing resistance from the MCC over the SECV taking over state-wide generation & retailing, as the MCC was enjoying good profits from its own electricity supply business. Therefore Monash drove the acquisition of the NMETL by the SECV, but as he did not want the tramway part of the business it was spun off to the M&MTB, which then had to provide £31,250 of the total £110,000 purchase price as compensation. The government passed the North Melbourne Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Act (No 3247) authorizing the acquisition of the NMETL in its entirety from its British parent, taking effect as from 1 August 1922.

Monash’s objective was to use the NMETL acquisition as a weapon against the MCC, by supplying cheap power to Essendon ratepayers at substantially less than the MCC. This action was to strengthen his assertion that the MCC was overcharging its customers, and that the SECV would undercut these prices, expand the market and benefit a broader range of voters. Naturally, he received support from both the Essendon and Flemington Councils. The MCC tried to run a vilification campaign on Sir John in order to try to derail this initiative, but he was well known and respected for his impeccable business ethics. In any case, Sir John Monash was a bona fide Gallipoli veteran, and victorious commander of the Australian Imperial Force in the Great War, so his reputation was unassailable. Therefore, by using the threat of the NMETL electricity supply business to move into MCC supply areas as leverage, and by demonstrating the unjustified cost overheads in the MCC electricity business in great detail, Monash imposed a deal favourable to the SECV regarding municipal power retailing businesses. The result was a significant expansion of the powers of the SECV in another five Acts of Parliament. This arrangement in relation to municipal electricity supply businesses stood basically unchanged until the breakup and privatization of the SECV seven and a half decades later.

So the NMETL tramway acquisition by the M&MTB was just a footnote in the struggle to control the electricity industry in Victoria.


The NMETL tramcars were renumbered into the M&MTB sequence by adding 201 to the original number. The trailer cars were not renumbered, as the Board planned to replace them. However the M&MTB immediately banned the use of trailers after a serious accident when a crowded tramcar and trailer went out of control in Mount Alexander Road on 10 September 1923, injuring many of the passengers.

In the aftermath of the accident, the M&MTB fitted all the former NMETL tramcars with airbrakes and eighteen of the new W class tramcars (Nos 219-235 and 262) were rushed to Essendon Depot (which is actually in Ascot Vale) to supplement services as a result.

The Puckle Street line was closed on 12 January 1924, whilst the original Victoria Street connection between Mt Alexander Road and Racecourse Road was closed on 4 August 1929, being replaced by the current direct Racecourse Road line to Flemington Road. The long sort-after direct city connection opened in 1925, to William Street.

Despite this, the Essendon lines were still isolated from the rest of the M&MTB electric network, so a third track was laid parallel to the Elizabeth Street tramway as far as Victoria Street, where it diverged to connect with the main system in Swanston Street. This enabled the easy transfer of tramcars to and from Essendon Depot.

Over the years, the former NMETL lines underwent many improvements and extensions, but they remain a core part of the Melbourne network. The original depot building survives as roads 13-18 of the current Essendon Depot, whilst the company offices and power station are long gone.

Against all the odds, three NMETL tramcars survive today. NMETL cross-bench car 13 is owned by VicTrack and is in the care of the Friends of Hawthorn Tram Depot. The Tramway Museum Society of Victoria owns NMETL saloon car 4 and ballast trailer 24.


Brimson, S. (1983) The Tramways of Australia, Dreamweaver Books
Cross, N., Budd, D., and Wilson, R. (1993) Destination City (Fifth Edition), Transit Australia Publishing
Keating, J. D. (1970) Mind the Curve!, Melbourne University Press
M&MTB (1930) Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board - Its Progress and Development 1919-1929
Perry, R. (2004) Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War, Random House Australia
Richardson, J. (1963) The Essendon Tramways, Traction Publications
Richardson, J. (1967) Destination Subiaco, Traction Publications
Richardson, J. and Kings, K.S. (1960) Destination City (Second Edition), Traction Publications
Sheard, H. (1972) ‘The Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company Limited’ Running Journal June 1972, Tramway Museum Society of Victoria
Van Riemsdijk, J.T. and Brown, K. (1980) The Pictorial History of Steam Power, Octopus Books

Other sources

Public Records Office Victoria Series VA 2974 North Melbourne Electric Tramways & Lighting Company


[1] The first two electric tramways in Melbourne were the Box Hill to Doncaster (1889-1896) and the St Kilda to Brighton Beach (1906-1959) lines.

[2] The Melbourne-based partnership of Ussher & Kemp had a major influence in development of the ‘Federation’ style of domestic architecture, sometimes known as the ‘domestic Queen Anne’ style. The firm was notable for designing a number of buildings across Victoria, besides their work on Essendon Depot, and several of these buildings have been placed on the Victorian Heritage Register. Some examples of their work are:

  • Professional Chambers, 110-118 Collins Street, Melbourne
  • Dalswraith, 99 Studley Park Road, Kew
  • Napier Club, 34 Thompson Street, Hamilton
  • Kawarau, 405 Tooronga Road, Hawthorn
  • Murndal, Murndal Road, Hamilton

[3] All the twenty-five tramcars of the NMETL were manufactured by J.G. Brill of Philadelphia, and imported in complete knock-down condition. The Adelaide firm of Duncan & Fraser assembled the single truck cars, which were of three types.

NMETL No 1-10 11-15 16-25
Type Saloon Crossbench Crossbench trailer
M&MTB class U V -
M&MTB No 202-211 212-216 -
Truck type Brill 21E Brill 21E Brill 74T
Motors 2 x 45 hp (GE67) 2 x 45 hp (GE67) -
Controllers GE K10 GE K10 -
Weight 12.65 tons 10.32 tons n.a.
Length 31 feet 11 inches 31 feet 10 inches 28 feet 6 inches
Seated passengers 32 50 50

The first of these to be withdrawn from passenger service were the trailer cars, in 1923. One of these was sold to the Geelong system, motorised and rebuilt into a scrubber car. Five were cut down into ballast trailers, and the remaining cars were scrapped. Airbrakes were fitted to the fifteen motorised cars over 1924-5.

The V class crossbench cars were withdrawn from passenger service in 1925 and used as locomotives by the M&MTB permanent way branch. In 1927 two of these cars were converted for other purposes – 214 as a freight car (2A – renumbered as 17 in 1934) and 216 as a ballast car (4A – renumbered as 11 in 1934). The latter car was withdrawn and scrapped in 1948, whilst the freight car survived in service until 1977. The other cars were scrapped in 1928.

The saloon cars were fitted with windscreens prior to the M&MTB takeover, in order to give the drivers some scant protection in wet weather. Numbers 202, 208 and 211 were modified with a full length ‘railroad’ clerestory roof. Some cars were fitted with ‘Malvern’ type destination boxes, but all were converted to the standard M&MTB type, as well as being fitted with end platform doors. Five cars were withdrawn in 1929 (cars 203, 204, 207, 208, 210) but several of them lingered in the boneyard at Preston Workshops until 1945.

U class 202 was converted into service stock as a breakdown/freight car 19 in 1934 and scrapped four years later after an accident. In 1930 cars 205, 209 and 211 were fitted with bow collectors in place of trolley poles for use on the Holden Street shuttle, until they were withdrawn from passenger service in 1938 along with number 206. Numbers 209 and 211 saw no further service but joined the scrapped cars in the boneyard. Number 205 was converted to advertising car 19 the same year, whilst 206 replaced the former 202 as freight car until it was withdrawn in 1947 and scrapped in 1950. Number 19 then continued as freight car until its withdrawal in 1978.

[4] Chairman of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria from 1921 to his death in 1931.