Steam, sand and surf: the Sorrento Tramway Company

The resort town of Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula was the favoured beachside resort of the well-to-do of Melbourne during the late Victorian period from 1870 until the First World War, mostly due to the promotion of the town by the remarkable entrepreneur George Selth Coppin [1], who was also a noted actor, theatrical impresario, philanthropist, banker, developer and politician. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the Ocean Amphitheatre Company in 1870, which built Sorrento’s Continental Hotel and several guesthouses in the Sorrento area, as well as development of paths, roads and bathing enclosures.

George Selth Coppin. Photograph courtesy National Library of AustraliaGeorge Selth Coppin, 1819-1906.
Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia.

In 1874 Coppin entered the Bay steamer business, founding the Sorrento-Queenscliff Steam Navigation Company, which operated the Golden Crown between Sandridge (Port Melbourne) Railway Pier, Sorrento and Queenscliff, cutting the return fare from one pound to seven shillings and sixpence. This had an immediate impact on the popularity of the excursion trade to Sorrento, and the commercial success of this venture lead to the founding of other Bay steamer companies, which operated such well-remembered ships as the Ozone, Hygeia, Awaroa, Reliance and Weeroona.

The success of his tourism enterprises in Sorrento led him to form the Sorrento Tramway Company on 18 May 1889, building and operating a one mile 12 chain long tramway from the Front Beach (Port Phillip Bay) to the Back Beach (Bass Strait), together with a road from Old Melbourne Road to the Back Beach. The company contracted with the local council to construct, manage and operate the tramway and to maintain the roadway around the tracks for a lease period of 30 years. At the end of the lease the company was obliged to sell the company assets to the council on a first refusal basis, should the council wish to acquire those assets.

Coppin held 2000 of the company’s 6000 shares, with various family members holding another 300 shares. Initial construction estimates were in the order of 6000, although the actual cost ended up being closer to 11,000, which provided the company with a financial challenge at the very start of its existence.

The line was built to 3'6" (1067mm) narrow gauge and was double track throughout, opening during 1890. The Front Beach terminus was situated on a hillside above Sorrento pier, which became known as Tramway Hill. The tramway offices and depot buildings, including both a locomotive depot and carriage shed, were also located here. The line was constructed along a private right-of-way to the corner of Portsea Road (now Point Nepean Road) and Ocean Amphitheatre Road (now Ocean Beach Road) and proceeded along the latter through the township to the Back Beach terminus, which was on a curve high above the ocean beach. Shelters were constructed for intending passengers at both termini.

Steam tram, Sorrento Back Beach. Photograph courtesy Public Record Office Victoria.Steam tram, Sorrento Back Beach, 1890-1918.
Photograph courtesy Public Record Office Victoria.

The main contractor for the construction of the tramway was local identity Harry Watts [2], who was subsequently appointed as an engine driver and manager of the tramway, a position he held for the entire duration of the Sorrento Tramway Company’s existence. By 1903, most of the staff of the tramway company were members of the Watts family, including his brother Ned, his sons Clem and George, and son-in-law Billy Williams (all drivers). Three other sons – Cyril, Clive and George – worked as horse tram drivers and conductors.

Rolling stock

Through most of its life the company operated two 0-4-0ST steam locomotives built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia USA, fitted with large steam and sand domes, and outside cylinders of 8 inch diameter and 12 inch stroke. The original locomotive was acquired in 1890 from Newell & Co, the Melbourne agents for Baldwin, and is thought to be builder’s number 9086 of 1888. Additionally, a third locomotive of the same type was hired from James McEwan & Co [3] between 1895 and 1897.

The other locomotive – builder’s number 12007 of 1891 – was involved in an accident prior to 1910 which resulted in the driver’s cab sagging to the rear. The financial situation of the tramway did not allow the damage to be repaired, and the locomotive operated in this less than pristine condition until the cessation of the tramway operations. This locomotive was acquired by the company in 1891.

The company also had a four-wheeled horse tram with open sides and four crossbench seats, able to seat 20 passengers and requiring haulage by a team of two horses. Full length running boards were fitted and the words ‘Special Car’ appeared along the roof line. One end of the car was painted with the words ‘To The Back Bench’ while the other was painted ‘To The Front Beach’, and the car was not otherwise painted, instead being natural varnished timber. The car was equipped with a roof mounted gong and kerosene lamps at each end. After 1905, kerosene was rarely used in these fittings, candles being substituted instead.

Sorrento horse tram. Photograph courtesy State Library of VictoriaSorrento horse tram.
Photograph courtesy State Library of Victoria.

The steam-hauled stock consisted of six four-wheeled open cars with cross-bench seating. Each car was nominally capable of carrying 50 passengers and carried signs to that effect, although there was only seating for 40. The remaining 10 passengers per car were expected to ride on the end platforms.

No continuous braking was fitted, the only brakes being applied by ‘goose-neck’ hand levers on the car platform ends and the brake fitted on the locomotive. The couplings used were of the standard link and pin type. Each car was finished in a different colour, the colours being bright red, dark red, yellow, brown green and dark green.


The steam trams were normally operated only during the season, starting from Derby Day and stopping on the first Sunday after Easter Sunday, being tied in with operations of the Bay excursion steamers. Note there was normally an almost daily service provided all-year round by the trading steamers Awaroa (pre-1918) and Reliance (post-1916). Normal season traffic was in excess of 20,000 passengers, although peak tramway loadings in the nineteenth century were reported as high as 60,000 passengers.

Passengers disembarking from steamers would approach the Front Beach terminus by an iron footbridge that ran from the base of Sorrento pier up to the station on Tramway Hill, and board the waiting tram. Formal timetables were not used, instead operating according to steamer arrival and departure times. The locomotive used its whistle to indicate imminent departure from the terminus. Similarly, at the Back Beach terminus, the locomotive would blow its whistle to alert intending passengers, leaving just enough time to connect with the waiting steamer at Sorrento Pier. The tramway followed normal Australian railway practice for double track operation when running the steam trams, always running on the left hand track.

The ruling gradients of the line meant that locomotives always ran smokebox (or funnel) first to the Back Beach. The reason for this practice is that it reduced the chance of boiler explosions caused by falling boiler water levels uncovering the crown of the locomotive firebox, and consequent catastrophic failure of the boiler shell through excess heating. The gradient from Old Melbourne Road up the dunes before the descent to the Back Beach was challenging for the steam locomotives, especially on misty days. The steam sanders on the locomotives were not always effective, the conductors being required to shovel sand on to the rails from the surrounding dunes.

During the season, services between 9:30 am and 12:30 pm and between 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm were provided by the horse tram, which always used the track on the Portsea (western) side of the line, as this track was nearer the centre of the road, providing the horses with a better surface than the rough road near the pavement. All services outside the season were operated by the horse tram.

The horse tram operated from the Continental Hotel to the Back Beach, as the gradient down to the Front Beach and return was considered too difficult for the horses. It also had to be clear of the line before the first steam-hauled service, which left Front Beach terminus on arrival of the first steamer. Horses were well aware of this practice, and on hearing the ship’s arrival siren would hurry to return so that they did not come face to face with a steam locomotive.

Horse tram operations catered more for locals than the steam trams, picking up and dropping off passengers as required.

Ticket prices over the entire company lifetime were 3 pence for a single journey and 6 pence for the return trip. Conductors used a bell punch similar to those used on Melbourne cable trams to clip tickets.

Sorrento Tramway Company employees, 1900. Photograph courtesy National Library of AustraliaSorrento Tramway Company employees, 1900.
Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia.


Right from opening there was significant competition for the tramway with road vehicles. Additionally, the depression of the 1890s affected holiday traffic, so tramway revenues were always precarious, and several attempts were made to sell the company as a going concern.

In October 1903 Coppin sold his interest in the tramway company to a local syndicate headed by Isaac Bensilum [4], and greater operating economies were implemented. However, the tramway continued to struggle to make a profit, and the coming of the motor car also made inroads into tramway traffic. The end of the original thirty-year lease and imposition of new lease arrangements by the local council increased overheads substantially, making continued operation uneconomic.

The final day of operations was 20 March 1921, the normal end of the 1920-21 tourist season, and the last tram was driven by Harry and George Watts with Clive Watts as the conductor. Only one shareholder retained his shares throughout the entire existence of the company: Frederick Coppin, the son of George Coppin.

The liquidator, Isaac Bensilum, succeeded in reaping approximately 3500 for the shareholders through the sale of assets, winding up the company on 21 September 1921. Both locomotives were sold to the Loch Valley Timber Company, which operated a timber tramway near Noojee, while the tramcars were sold to locals for use as sheds and sleepouts. Geelong Cement works bought the sleepers for its Fyansford railway.

Little is left of the Sorrento tram today; the only remnant being a portion of the platform formation at the Front Beach terminus, its significance marked by a commemorative plaque.


[1] George Coppin was responsible for the development of the St James estate in Hawthorn, and is remembered by the street name of Coppin Grove, not far from Hawthorn Depot, and by Coppin Road in Sorrento. He resided at ‘Pine Grove’ in Lennox Street Richmond, and maintained a villa called ‘The Anchorage’ overlooking the Sorrento foreshore.

[2] Harry Watts is remembered by the name of Watts Road in Sorrento, which follows part of the former private right-of-way of the Sorrento Tramway Company near the Front Beach terminus. He purchased part of the company’s land as well as materials from the demolished carriage shed, which he used to construct a house on this property.

[3] James McEwan & Company was a hardware supplier and ironmonger operating in Melbourne that was acquired in 1910 by Thomas Luxton, who was a Prahran councillor and a representative on the Prahran & Malvern Tramways Trust until his death in 1911. The company identity survived until 1993 when it was acquired by Bunnings Limited, which is now a subsidiary of Wesfarmers.

[4] Isaac Bensilum was the second licensee of the Continental Hotel, and under his management it became one of the most respected and luxurious hostelries in the colony of Victoria.


Hone, J.A. (1974) ‘Luxton, Thomas (1850 - 1911)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press

O’Neill, S. (1969) ‘Coppin, George Selth (1819 - 1906)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press

Winzenried, A.P. (1984) Tram to Sorrento, APW Productions