Northcote: the on again, off again cable tramway

On the northeast corner of the intersection of Martin Street and High Street Northcote, there is an interesting relic of the Victorian land boom. A foundation stone on an otherwise unremarkable brick building occupied by an automotive repair shop carries the following inscription:

This stone was laid by
Sir W.J. Clarke Bart.[1]
On 16th May 1889
G.C. Clauscen Esq.[2] Chairman
I. Barnet Esq. JP D. Clifton Esq.[3]
B.J. Fink Esq.[4] Ronald Robb Esq.
Verso & Knott[5] W.S. Forbes
Builders Secretary

This was the former engine house, office and depot of the Clifton Hill to Northcote & Preston Tramway Company, one of the last physical reminders of an attempt to emulate the success of the MTOC cable tramway system, and generate large profits for a group of prominent land boomers. The Northcote line was to close and re-open twice in its early days, until it ended as part of the last cable tram route in Australia.

Clifton Hill & Preston tramway, laying the foundation stone. Photograph City of Darebin Clifton Hill & Preston tramway – laying the foundation stone, 16 May 1889.
Photograph courtesy City of Darebin.

The company’s consulting engineer, Mr James Duncan [6], supervised the construction of the line, which followed High Street from the northern terminus at Dundas Street to the southern terminus at the Merri Creek Bridge, adjacent to the terminus of the MTOC Clifton Hill line. The 2.25 mile line was mostly straight, with only a couple of minor kinks along High Street, and a substantial curve at the southern end – lending itself to the construction of the cable powered tramline.

At Beaver Street a siding from Northcote station crossed the line on its way to the Northcote Brickworks. Steam locomotives were never seen on this section of railway, all haulage of goods wagons being performed by horses.

The company skimped to some degree on the construction of the line, as the cable tunnels were shallower than those of the MTOC network. This precluded the connection of the two companies’ lines. The rolling stock for the line was constructed at the MTOC workshops. Total construction cost was about 90,000.

The line opened on 18 February 1890, all passengers being carried free until nightfall, avoiding the tuppence through fare. The tramway was welcomed in fine style by Northcote residents – celebrating (no doubt) their soaring land values. But this was not to last – by 1892 the land boom in Marvellous Melbourne had collapsed. Unlike the MTOC, which had undertaken extensive traffic studies, the company had not done its homework. Many local businesses closed, including the Northcote Brickworks (for a period until the economy improved), cutting into traffic receipts.

Prior to the closure of the brickworks, it was recorded that one of the company’s gripmen, Dinny Hayes, seemed to be more interested in collecting bricks spilled from the horse-drawn brick wagons than his passengers. Apparently he collected enough bricks to build himself an outhouse.

In 1891 the company suffered a loss of 4,238, to be followed a year later by a loss of 6,176. The company ceased trading on 7 July 1893. All company assets were seized by the E.S. & A. Bank [7]. A sympathetic correspondent noted in Table Talk that the Northcote council gave no encouragement to the company, instead using them as a source of funds for improvement of the locality at no expense to itself. These works included the widening of Rucker’s Hill and the Merri Creek Bridge, as well as wood-block paving the entire length of the route.

With the closure of the line, drivers of horse drawn vehicles seized upon the chance to use the wood-blocked central section of the roadway, the rest of the roadway being unpaved. This cental section rapidly deteriorated, due to lack of maintenance. It was not until the bank found a lessee for the line, Patrick Pierce Kelly, that the Northcote council agreed to fund track maintenance at the rate of 200 per year. Trams began running again on 7 April 1894.

Kelly operated the line profitably, but he cut maintenance to the bone. He purchased second-hand ropes from MTOC to replace totally worn ropes. This practice resulted in frequent stoppages and delays. The rolling stock took on a shabby appearance, unlike the immaculate tram-sets of the MTOC. At times Kelly ran dummies without trailer cars, keeping bad weather out with roughly fitted canvas sides.

The fabric of the tramway rapidly wore out under Kelly’s regime, the line closing again on 27 November 1897 when he abandoned his lease.

Whilst the line lay idle, the road surface between the tracks decayed into a dangerous state. In 1898 a British-based electric company [8] proposed to electrify the Northcote line, even paying a deposit for the option. But after a look at the financials, it allowed the option to lapse.

Finally, under severe public pressure the council was forced to act. It purchased the tramway from the bank for the sum of 3,500, spending an additional 12,285 on repairs and renovations. It then leased the operation to Messrs Dynan and Goldsworthy between March and September 1901. This short-term lease was not renewed by the council. Instead, it decided to grant the lease to S.L. Dorum for a period of seven years at the rate of £250 per year. Dorum was one of the experts that F.B. Clapp brought out from America in 1885 to assist in the operation of the MTOC cable tramways.

Dorum’s management expertise showed in both the financial and operational success of the tramway during the period of his lease. However his success was also his undoing. The council saw the tramway as a money-spinner, and in 1908 let the operation to Messrs Meakin and Thomas for five years at an increased rental of 1,560 per year. The new lessees were also efficient, increasing both patronage and profits. This success led the council to extend the lease until 30 June 1916 at a further 1,825 per annum.

The council, having observed the profitable operation of the tramway by its lessees, decided at the end of the lease to take over the operation itself. It did so with creditable success for three and a half years, until the tramway was taken over by the M&MTB in February 1920. In the last full year of operations, Northcote council earned revenue of 23,605 and showed a clear profit of 4,454 on the tramway.

Cable tram passing Northcote Town Hall. Photograph TG Beckett (Museum of Victoria) Cable tram passing Northcote Town Hall.
Photograph TG Beckett (Museum of Victoria).

Five years later, the bearings in the Northcote cable tunnels were modified to allow the line to be linked with the city line at Clifton Hill. On 8 March 1925 the first Northcote trams ran through to terminate in Bourke Street in the city. The joined lines now formed the longest cable tram route in Melbourne, displacing the Brighton Road route, the former record holder. It was also the final Melbourne cable tramline to close, on 26 October 1940.

The replacement double deck Leyland buses of the M&MTB jolted over the abandoned tracks of the Northcote line until 1955, when they were torn up to be replaced by the tracks of the new electric tramway which followed the old cable route to Clifton Hill and the city, now route 86.

Operations prior to 1925

The tramline was divided into two overlapping fare sections, one penny entitling a rider to travel from Clifton Hill to Separation Street, or from the Town Hall to the terminus at Dundas Street. A strip of seven pre-paid tickets was also available for sixpence, and school tickets could be used for unlimited travel by schoolchildren between the hours of 8am to 5pm. The latter tickets cost 2/6d for a calendar month of travel.

A conductor recorded the collected fares by using a bell-punch on a green trip ticket pinned to his jacket. The bell punch was not like those used on the MTOC system (which were of a ‘pistol’ type), instead being operated by a downward movement of the thumb. These bell punches were later used on the Williamstown ferry at Newport.

Services commenced at 6:30am except for Sundays, when they began after morning church services finished. Normal practice when running out was for the crew to push out the dummy onto the down track. It then was driven to the Dundas Street terminus by itself. On its return to the depot it was stopped in line with Martin Street. The trailer car was then pushed out of the depot and coupled to the rear of the dummy, and the car set then proceeded to Clifton Hill.

Just before the Merri Creek Bridge, cars rattled over a crossover that was the temporary terminus of the line before completion of the widening of the bridge. Trams then rounded a curve and travelled over the double track railway level crossing, protected by gates operated from the adjacent signal box, before arriving at the Clifton Hill terminus. A railway overbridge later replaced the level crossing.

Passengers transferring from the city cars at Clifton Hill had to walk a couple of hundred yards to join the Northcote tram. There was no fixed timetable, instead the main consideration was to maintain a regular headway between cars, usually seven to eight minutes during weekdays, although with all cars in traffic this could be reduced to a five minute headway.

The location of the Clifton Hill terminus is now notable for a tram/bus interchange, as well as the width of Queens Parade at this point.

Thornbury - Clifton Hill & Preston cable trams, pre World War I. Photograph City of Darebin Thornbury – Clifton Hill & Preston cable trams, High Street Thornbury, pre World War I.
Photograph courtesy City of Darebin.

Engine house

Unlike most of the MTOC engine houses, the Northcote engine house also contained the car depot and offices for the company. The engines, boilers, smoke stack and winding gear took up just over half of the building. The drive to the winding gear was by geared wheels as in the MTOC Richmond engine house. Unlike the rope drive in the rest of the MTOC engine houses, geared drive was noisy, producing a continuous deep rumble like thunder in the distance.

There was only one rope powered by the engine house, being about 25,000 feet long, unlike all the MTOC engine houses, each of which powered at least two ropes.

The office was at the southwest corner of the building, being entered from the car shed over a well-worn stone step. The car shed contained three parallel storage tracks, the central track lining up with the access track from High Street. The other two tracks were accessed by a traverser. Unlike MTOC depots, there were no turntables for turning the cars. The maintenance pit and tools were at the front of the shed on the northern storage road.

When the engine house in Wellington Street, St Kilda, closed (29 August 1925) the engines were transferred to the Northcote engine house and gave a further fifteen years faultless service. Just prior to closure, one of the engineers stated that the engines were still as good as new, and ran as smooth as silk.

Rolling stock

The line opened with six dummies and trailer cars (1-6) constructed by MTOC, identical to its cars built at the same time for the North, South, West and Port Melbourne lines. Northcote grips were the same as the original MTOC grips with 14" jaws. However, MTOC modified its grips over the years, fitting them with adjustment wheels (to cope with variation in rope diameters and wear) and 18" jaws in 1892, and increasing the jaws again to 19" in 1903. These modifications were not applied to the Northcote cars.

After the acquisition of the line by Northcote council, another two car sets were acquired in the first couple of years of the twentieth century. Dummy 7 was formerly MTOC 176, while the matching trailer car was a standard twelve-foot horse car from the MTOC horse tramway. Dummy 8 was similar to the first six dummies, whilst its trailer car was formerly MTOC 456, a little shorter than the standard twelve-foot horse car, being a car originally imported from England for display to politicians in the grounds of Parliament House. These eight cars maintained the service for a number of years.

In 1908 dummy and trailer 9 appeared, being ex-Sydney cars [9] made redundant by the closure of the last cable route in Sydney. However, the trailer car was never used in traffic, and was later scrapped by the company. The next acquisitions were four redundant horse cars from the Caulfield Tramway Company; they first appeared in Northcote on a late shopping night running in pairs behind a Northcote dummy, still in their cream and buff Caulfield colours with matching signs. Some time later they reappeared in red Northcote colours as numbers 9-12.

In 1916 Northcote council ordered three new dummies from MTOC (numbers 10-12) and also purchased four more standard MTOC horse cars (numbers 13-16). Trailers 14 and 16 were soon modified by extending the hoods and end-platforms, and fitting an extra cross seat on the platforms so seated passengers could look out over the aprons.

The council and its lessees continued to spend the minimum on rolling stock maintenance. Towards the end of council ownership, the original six car sets ran with the creaks and groans of wood rubbing against wood. Window sashes and shutters rattled in their frames and the sliding doors were difficult to open and close, unlike the immaculate MTOC cars. Recurrent costs were cut by replacing the original coir floor mats in the trailer cars with wooden slats. The Melbourne Tramways Board [10] later copied this initiative, which was also extended to many of the W class electric tramcars of the M&MTB in the 1920s.

When the M&MTB took over in February 1920, it inherited 12 dummies and 13 trailer cars, trailers 5, 8 and 11 having already been scrapped. The M&MTB retired all the small and non-standard cars, retaining car sets 1-6 and 8. In addition the following car sets were transferred to replace the scrapped Northcote cars:

  • South Melbourne: 125, 129, 145
  • Fitzroy: 137
  • Spare Fleet: 390, 405, 433, 510, 538

All of these cars sets except 390 were rapidly displaced from Northcote by new construction, namely dummies 552-565 and trailers 575-587, to be joined by car set 527 ex-Brunswick. Number 585 was fitted with track scraping equipment.

After a short period, four of the remaining Northcote dummies were renumbered 572-575 for use on the Richmond line. Three of the trailer cars were renumbered 590-592, the first being allocated to Brighton Road and the last two to the Victoria Street line. All the remaining Northcote rolling stock was then scrapped.

The fifteen car sets allocated to Northcote were transferred to Clifton Hill depot after connection of the line to the main system on 8 March 1925.

Northcote depot was never used as a running shed again, but was used for storage of redundant cars during the cable to electric traction conversion program. After closure of the North Fitzroy line in 1930, many of the released cars were housed there until disposal. Similarly a number of ex-Brunswick dummies were stored there after closure of the Elizabeth Street routes.

Finally, about a month after the closure of the last cable route in 1940, in the early hours over two mornings, the Nicholson Street cars were driven in to the shunt opposite the Princess Theatre, and then out towards Northcote. On the first morning, the cars were driven to be stored in the former Northcote car shed. The following morning saw the remaining cars go to the Clifton Hill depot to be packed in for subsequent disposal.

This was the last time cable trams ran on the streets of Melbourne.

Northcote engine house, 2002. Photograph Mal Rowe Northcote engine house, High Street Northcote, 2002.
Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe.


[1] Sir William J. Clarke, the first Australian baronet, died of a heart attack on a Bourke Street cable tram in 1896. His wife Janet, Lady Clarke, was notable as the creator of the Ashes cricket trophy after a social cricket match at their Sunbury country seat ‘Rupertswood’ with the touring England team in 1883.

The Clarkes were one of the richest families in the colony, deriving their wealth from a huge pastoral empire established by William ‘Big’ Clarke, Sir William’s father. Their wealth and social position was such that they dominated Victorian affairs for many years, effectively being at the summit of the colonial aristocracy, or more correctly the ‘squattocracy’.

In 1889 Clarke established and funded a battery of the Victorian Horse Artillery, headquartered at Rupertswood. Rupertswood also had its own railway station on the Bendigo line. The Clarke dynasty owned one of Melbourne’s great mansions, ‘Cliveden’, in Wellington Parade, on the site currently occupied by the Melbourne Hilton, and was a major patron of Trinity College, University of Melbourne.

[2] Clauscen was originally from Denmark, and was a manufacturer of furniture in Melbourne and mayor of Fitzroy in 1886.

[3] David Clifton was the founder of the Clifton Brickworks, otherwise known as the Northcote Brickworks, and lived in one of the first three houses built on High Street, Northcote. The brickworks site is now occupied by the Ray Bramham Gardens.

[4] Benjamin Josman Fink was a former Member of Parliament and one of the most notorious speculators of the land boom era. An associate of Thomas Bent in relation to land deals in Cheltenham, he also commissioned one of the landmark buildings of the land boom era in Melbourne, the heritage-listed Block Arcade in Collins Street. Fink was originally a native of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and was a follower of Judaism.

[5] Verso & Knott were the prime contractors for the construction of the tramway.

[6] James Duncan was the brother of George Smith Duncan, one of the shareholders of the Clifton Hill to Northcote & Preston Tramway Company.

[7] Merged with the Australia and New Zealand Bank (ANZ) in 1970.

[8] The British Insulated Wire Company was planning to install electric tramways in Bendigo (in addition to Northcote), and established the subsidiary Electric Supply Company of Victoria to undertake this initiative, which bore fruit in 1903.

[9] Apart from the ex-Sydney electric tramcars acquired by VR as a result of the Elwood fire in 1907, this was the only use of a former Sydney tram in passenger service in Melbourne — excluding heritage tram operations. It is not known if these two cars were former North Sydney or King Street cable trams – although the latter is more likely. Three ex-Sydney works trams were used by the M&MTB: scrubbers 10W and 11W and grinder number 3.

[10] The Melbourne Tramways Board existed as a temporary State Government body to manage the former MTOC cable tram system from the end of the MTOC lease in 1916 until the foundation of the M&MTB in 1919. The logo of the Melbourne Tramways Board can still be seen on the gable ends and travertine mosaic floor of the heritage-listed tram passenger shelter in Macarthur Street, East Melbourne.


Cannon, M. (1986) The Land Boomers, Lloyd O’Neil
Keating, J. D. (1970) Mind the Curve! Melbourne University Press
Twentyman, A. E. (1971) ‘The Northcote and Preston Cable Tramway’, Running Journal October 1971, Tramway Museum Society of Victoria
Ward, A. (2000) City of Darebin Heritage Review, City of Darebin