Footscray: genesis of a local tramway

The establishment of a tramway system is not associated with reason and logic, but like most human decision making processes is fraught with emotionalism, competing interests and political manoeuvring. Often long-term benefit is sacrificed for short-term gain, resulting in eventual failure as a result. The genesis of the Footscray Tramways Trust in the second decade of the twentieth century is a case in point, when decisions were made through a lengthy and tortuous process that determined the nature and type of tramway that the suburb of Footscray would receive.

The first suggestion that there should be a tramway in Footscray was raised in 1885, concurrent with the development of the Melbourne cable tram system. Charles Lovett, a noted local artist, suggested that there should be a cable tram service serving Footscray. However, the high capital investment required, together with a general lack of interest meant that this proposal was stillborn.

However, the growth of electric tramways in Melbourne through the various tramways trusts sparked interest amongst the public in Footscray and surrounding areas from about 1910. Local councils regretfully showed an almost total lack of concern regarding this matter. This stymied progress for some time.

In 1914, various tramway leagues were established as public pressure groups to promote a variety of tramway schemes in the western suburbs. These groups could be categorised into those wanting a link to the Essendon tramways versus those who were pushing for a purely local developmental system, heading west and south from Footscray railway station. The tramway leagues lobbied Footscray council, which proved reluctant to move due to doubts about the financial viability of any tramway, together with the lack of unity expressed between the various leagues.

The council was more in favour of a private omnibus service, due to the lack of any need to commit capital expenditure on its part. The leagues were virulently against this direction, due to the recent failure of such a service after only a week’s operation. The feeling was that without investment in tramway infrastructure, there was no guarantee of any long-term operation of public transport in the area. The tramway leagues realised the reluctance of the council to commit to a tramway, so pulled together to form the Footscray & District Tramways League. However, divisions within the league still existed between the pro-link and local route groups.

This amount of public pressure was having an effect on thought within the council, so it commissioned a number of studies and surveys during 1915. Much was made of the difficulties caused by the war, in order to delay the making of any decision towards the construction of a tramway. The NMETL also made representations to the council for a link between its tramway and the council’s proposed system across the Maribyrnong River via the Showgrounds, in order to increase its traffic receipts. There was also considerable support from the Royal Agricultural Society for the NMETL proposal. However, the council was not in favour due to the requirement for a new bridge and the amount of vacant land that would be traversed.

The council felt that a link to the Essendon lines would benefit Essendon more than it would Footscray, so it announced that the link would not proceed as part of the Footscray system. However, this was not the last of the matter. The council did instruct its chief engineer to ensure that the bridge over the Maribyrnong River to be used by the proposed link (later the Farnsworth aerial bridge) would be capable of supporting a tramway.

In December 1915, the State Government passed the bill authorising the establishment of the Footscray Tramways Trust. Included in the bill were provisions for the Footscray Council to disband the trust if it did not wish to proceed with construction of a tramway. It was announced that this bill would remain in force until the Government decided to absorb it into a central tramways authority.

There was considerable tension within the council at this time regarding the tramways, particularly between those representing the north ward versus the west and south wards. In February 1916 Essendon Council approached the council on behalf of the NMETL regarding the link route, but the numbers were against them. Indeed, tensions were such that on the council vote to form the Footscray Tramway Trust, a tie was only broken by the casting vote of the Mayor.

Opening of Footscray tramlines by M&MTB. Photograph courtesy Footscray Historical SocietyOpening of the three Footscray tramlines by the M&MTB, 6 September 1921.
Photograph courtesy Footscray Historical Society.

The next several months were consumed arranging finance for construction, which was made more difficult by the conduct of the war and the resultant shortage of capital. However, all activities of the FTT, including the proposed routes, were shrouded from the public by a veil of secrecy. By January 1917 the lack of progress and transparency in reporting led to a significant loss of confidence in both the council and the FTT.

There was significant public sentiment for a link with the Essendon lines. A strong argument was made based on the successful PMTT in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, which was aggressively expanding both its network and its alliances with municipalities beyond its original bounds. The PMTT was financially successful, whereas the NMETL was undergoing significant financial woes due to its restricted traffic base. It was thought that the FTT should ensure that it did not suffer similar financial problems by restricting its growth potential, and rescind its decision not to build the Essendon link.

However, it was felt that opposing the direction of the FTT to build only local lines would result in no tramway being built at all, so a general level of frustration reigned, and no effective concerted action was taken against the council and the FTT to force the building of the link.

Meanwhile, the war was making acquisition of materials difficult. Skyrocketing insurance rates made importation of tramway rails impossible, and there was no capability within Australia to roll grooved tramway rail. BHP Limited expressed interest in producing rail for the tramway, as its newly built Newcastle steel mill was ready for business. It was decided to use standard railway pattern rail modified with a bolt-on check. BHP obtained the contract for the rail, with a local engineering company, G.F. Sewell, not only getting the contract for attaching the bolt-on check but also the contract for building the Brill 21E truck frames for the ten new tramcars (seven one-man and three combination cars). Other contracts were let as follows:

  • wheels and axles – Thompsons of Castlemaine
  • special work (points and crossings) – Hadfields of Great Britain
  • dog spikes – Victorian Rolling Mills
  • tramway construction [1] – Messrs Lock & Raynor Contractors
  • tramway construction [2] – Messrs Fisher & Moran Contractors
  • tramway construction [3] – Albion Contracting Company.

However, even the use of non-tramway rail subjected the FTT to attack from the media, as well as continued attacks for its insistence on building only local lines, not to mention that erection of overhead poles would require removal of many trees.

On 3 March 1918 a rather prophetic statement was made in council that the FTT would never run trams in Footscray, as the Government was in the process of forming a central tramways trust for Melbourne. This was looked upon as a godsend, as the general sentiment was that such a body would construct the link to the rest of Melbourne, letting the council and the FTT off the hook. But this was the moment that determined the future of the Footscray tramways, and the failure of nerve would affect the long-term development of the suburb.

On 30 July 1918, rails for construction of the Footscray tramway system began arriving at the docks, which set of a flurry of activity by the council. Realising that the trust did not yet have legal authority to construct the tramway, application was made to the Governor-in-Council for the approval of five lines, for which orders were granted almost immediately.

  1. From Footscray railway station via Irving, Hopkins and Barkly Streets to Ashley Street Tottenham
  2. From Footscray railway station via Irving, Hopkins, Droop Streets & Ballarat Road to Rosamond Road
  3. From Footscray railway station via Irving, Nicholson, Buckley, Victoria, Charles, Gamon Streets and Somerville Road to Williamstown Road
  4. From Nicholson & Irving Streets via Nicholson Street, across Footscray Park and Maribyrnong River Bridge via Farnsworth Avenue, Fisher Parade and Langs Road to link with the NMETL Saltwater River route at Epsom Road
  5. From Hopkins & Nicholson Streets via Nicholson Street to Francis Street.

The FTT was undergoing extreme financial pressure by this stage, with no inwards cashflow and no tramway delivered. So when the HTT was in financial difficulties due to the need to reconstruct its brand-new tramline (as a result of shoddy contractor’s work), the FTT saw a chance to save some money. The HTT had taken delivery of seven California combination car bodies from Duncan & Fraser of Adelaide, but had no money to complete them. The FTT therefore bought these bodies (later M&MTB M class 183-189) from the HTT, and arranged to store them at Hawthorn Depot until it was in a position to take delivery.

Also, routes 4 and 5 above were never commenced, and route 1 was constructed to Russell Street only, about two-thirds of its intended length, due to the same financial pressures. But this was not the only challenge facing the FTT. The war did not cause problems just with raw materials – electrical equipment was also in short supply. As a result there was a lack of generating capacity available at Newport Powerhouse for new enterprises, so even if construction had been rapid, operations could not have commenced under the FTT.

A final attempt was made to derail the local focus of the FTT, when the pro-link forces finally gained a majority on the council. Legal proceedings against Messrs Lock & Raynor were taken out by the council at the end of 1918, for opening up the roadway surface in Victoria, Charles and Gamon Streets without authority from the council, with the objective of terminating the contract without penalty to the council, as well as recovering capital from the contractor. However, when the contractor pointed out that they would be penalised £10 per week for delivery of the works beyond the contracted date (under their contract with an agency of the council), the matter was effectively thrown out of court.

The FTT was dissolved by order of the Governor-in-Council on 2 February 1920, being taken over by the M&MTB. It was not until 6 September 1921 that the long awaited Footscray tramways were opened, running services with the seven M class tramcars it purchased from the HTT – still wearing their original HTT numbers and livery. Two years later, these trams were replaced by former PMTT A class trams – at thirteen years old, they were some of the oldest and slowest in the M&MTB fleet.

This was to be the ongoing pattern for investment in the Footscray area by the M&MTB for the rest of its life, the M&MTB being dominated by management inherited from the PMTT with a strong focus on the eastern suburbs. The hopes of Footscray council for a central authority to take the management burden from them whilst still ensuring development of the area were to remain unfounded.

So what was the result of this exercise? The residents of Footscray had a local tram service of limited utility for just over forty years, for all of which except the final eight years was unconnected to the rest of the Melbourne system. A direct route to the Melbourne system was never built – instead a wandering route via Maribyrnong was gradually patched together between 1941 and 1954. What remains of the Footscray lines is route 82, a cross-suburban route between Ascot Vale and Footscray railway station, which is not of any particularly great utility, especially as the heavy manufacturing and munitions industries that it served and that once drove the economy of the Footscray area have withered.

The key to the closure of the local Footscray routes in February 1962 was the failure by the FTT to build the direct route to connect to the Essendon lines. This limited the prospect of major investment in the Footscray tramways by the M&MTB as a result of the restricted opportunities for traffic growth, particularly when considered against its competing need to invest in the conversion of the cable tramways to electric traction.

As a result, the Footscray local tramways were like the regional tramways of Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, doomed to fail against the challenge of the motor omnibus and private motor vehicle.


[1] Buckley, Victoria, Charles & Gamon Streets, and Barkly Street from Nicholson Street to Russell Street.

[2] Droop Street and Ballarat Road.

[3] Hopkins, Leeds, Irvin, Nicholson and Buckley Streets to car barn.


Footscray Advertiser
Minutes of the Footscray Tramways Trust
Minutes of the Footscray City Council