Wattle Park: a tramway tradition

A feature of many American trolley lines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the trolley park, a tourist attraction owned and operated by the trolley company, usually located at a semi-rural or beachside terminus. The idea of the trolley park was to encourage usage of the trolley line on weekends and public holidays.

Trolley parks usually took one of two forms. The most celebrated type was what would today be called an amusement park. A typical example was Luna Park in Melbourne’s beachside suburb of St Kilda – located adjacent to the MTOC St Kilda cable tramway and the terminus of the PMTT’s electric tramway. However, unlike American trolley parks, it was not owned or operated by either the PMTT or the MTOC.

The other type of trolley park was what we today recognise as a park – an open green space. The objective was to give the urban working class access to a ‘natural’ environment, as it was thought that this was important for their physical and moral health – a tenet of muscular Christianity as well as the temperance movement [1], which was very influential in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

So when the Hawthorn Tramways Trust planned to build an electric tramline eastwards along Riversdale Road to the Warrigal Road intersection through what were then largely open paddocks, it was decided that a trolley park was required at the terminus to generate weekend and public holiday traffic. The answer was to be Wattle Park.

In 1915 the HTT purchased 137 acres of rural land from Mrs Eliza Welch (widow of the founder of the Ball & Welch department store) for 9,000 on the condition that it was to be used as a public park [2]. The park opened along on 31 March 1917, when the Governor of Victoria, Sir Arthur Stanley planted a Golden Wattle and gave the park its name.

Initially development of the park was quite slow as the HTT was in financial trouble as the result of shoddy construction work on its tramlines. After the M&MTB was amalgamated from the municipal tramways trusts, its main focus was on conversion of the cable tram network to electric traction. It was not until the late 1920s and early 1930s that extensive planning and development of Wattle Park commenced.

As part of this development, the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and the Wattle League were influential in the planting of 12,000 wattles, natives and ornamental trees between 1926 and 1928 to improve the relatively degraded landscape.

Wattle Park chalet, newly constructed. M&MTB official photograph. Wattle Park chalet, newly constructed.
M&MTB official photograph.

The Chalet was built in 1928, utilising second hand materials – the bricks and timber beams came from demolished cable tram engine houses and depots, and the roof slates from the Yarra Bend Asylum. The design was the work of A.G. Monsborough, the architect for the M&MTB. The curator’s cottage followed in 1932. A noted feature of the park is the use of worn cable tram traction cables for ornamental fencing along the drive from Riversdale Road to the Chalet.

As for the rest of Australia during this period, the Great War cast a long shadow over Wattle Park. A seedling of the Lone Pine [3] was planted overlooking the oval in 1933, by an ex-soldier [4] of the 24th Battalion who had collected the seeds from Gallipoli, and the clock tower near the Chalet was built in memory of a soldier [5] who did not return from the war.

However, the M&MTB was justly proud of the development of Wattle Park, always mentioning it in Annual Reports, often with photographs of new or improved facilities, such as children’s playground equipment. It had become a popular pastime for inner-suburban families to spend a day of leisure there, so was a complete success. The Chalet had even become a popular venue for wedding receptions.

The M&MTB was committed to developing the park as a recreational centre, so undertook to develop a variety of sporting facilities. One of the best short 9-hole golf courses in Melbourne was built in the southwest corner of the park and opened on 6 October 1937 [6], adding to the cricket pitches, tennis courts and a sports oval already present. Later, a hockey pitch was also added to the list of sporting facilities. The objective here was again to increase patronage on the Wattle Park tramway, as well as defraying the maintenance costs of the park through sporting revenues.

In addition to these activities, the Tramways Band performed at the Park on Sunday afternoons to appreciative audiences.

However, the advent of World War II was to have its effect on Wattle Park, as it did the rest of civilian life. Planting of flowers ceased, and the nursery was planted with vegetables for the production of seed. In addition to this, a quarter of an acre was planted in a variety of vegetables (including cabbages) for consumption by public hospitals and other charitable institutions.

One of the key features of Wattle Park marking its association with the tramways was the use of tram bodies as shelters in the picnic ground. Initially, scrapped cable tram bodies were used for this purpose, but as the wooden bodies suffered in the open, withdrawn W2 tram bodies [7] later replaced them.

However, with the growth in usage of private motor vehicles in the 1960s and 1970s, the M&MTB had other priorities on its mind. It was also becoming passé as a leisure destination, with more distant attractions now being accessible for day trips. Wattle Park started to get a shabby and uncared-for look. With the passing of the M&MTB in 1983, it no longer attracted the importance that it had in the minds of Melbourne’s public transport management, so its funding was steadily squeezed in favour of other priorities.

Local residents complained about the state of Wattle Park to the State Government, and eventually common sense won out. Ownership of Wattle Park was transferred from the PTC to the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works in 1991 [8], which undertook an extensive program of rehabilitation and replanting which continues to this day.

Still, there is one connection maintained with the tramways – the Melbourne Tramways Band (successor to the M&MTB Band) continues its tradition of playing in Wattle Park once a month during spring and autumn.

Bibliography

M&MTB Annual Reports
Dennis, P., Grey, J., Morris, E., and Prior, R. (1995) Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Oxford University Press
Cross, N., Budd, D., and Wilson, R. (1993) Destination City (Fifth Edition), Transit Australia Publishing

Footnotes

[1] The surrounding Municipalities of Camberwell and Box Hill were soon to become ‘dry’ areas, in which the sale of alcohol from hotels and restaurants was to become forbidden. This was to last until the Kennett municipal amalgamations in the 1990s – and even now there are stringent planning restrictions on licensed premises within the borders of the former municipalities that do not apply in the rest of Melbourne.

[2] The Melbourne to Burwood Tramways Act 1915 (No. 2) authorised the Hawthorn Tramways Trust to purchase land at Box Hill known as Wattle Park and required the Trust to keep and use the land for the purposes of a park.

[3] The Lone Pine was a pine tree that grew on a ridge above Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, around which some of the fiercest fighting of the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign occurred, as well as some of the heaviest casualties among the Australian and New Zealand troops. It also marked the furthest point from the landing beach achieved by the Anzacs against tenacious opposition by Turkish troops under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk.

[4] Later Sir Frank Selleck, Lord Mayor of Melbourne during the 1956 Olympic Games, whose ashes were scattered at the base of the tree.

[5] In proud remembrance of Royden Louis Charles Bennett, 7th Battalion AIF killed in action at Pozières, France, 18 August 1916. Donated by his mother, Mrs Zilpah Bennett in 1948. Dedicated 7 May 1995.

[6] The Chairman of the M&MTB, H.H. Bell, played the first round.

[7] The bodies of W2 trams 318 and 339 replaced the cable tram bodies in 1963, to be replaced again by the bodies of 229 and 383 in 1979. The W2 bodies were burnt out by vandals. In 2007 Parks Victoria arranged with VicTrack to install the bodies of SW6 class trams 885 and 936 in their place.

[8] Wattle Park Land Act 1991 – Act No. 26/1991, assented to on 12 June 1991, coming into operation on 14 August 1991.