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Why the Glen Iris Tram does not go to Ashburton

It was too expensive. The End.

End of the Line for the #6 Tram

I could start and end there of course but why write four words when 3,000 would suffice? In truth, finding an answer to this question filled a gap in the narrative I’m putting together for a book on Ashburton’s history. But when I started digging through Trove – wonderful, rescued Trove – to make sure that ‘too expensive’ really was the answer to the question, I discovered that it was not as straightforward as just that.

The new Ashburton and Glen Iris homeowners of over a century ago tried for 35 years to get that tram up the hill. So in honour of the tenacity of our long ago neighbours, it is worth telling the story of just how hard they tried to provide our community with the public services that would make it the convenient and desirable place it is today.

The Ashburton and Waverley Tramway League

It all began on a pleasant Friday evening in November 1911. Cr Joshua Jordan welcomed a group of gentlemen from Ashburton, Glen Iris, and Waverley (the area between High Street Road and Stephensons Road today) into his home. He had called them together to discuss the idea of building an extension to the soon-to-be-built tramway from Glen Iris, up along High Street and to Boundary Road (as Warrigal Road was called at the time). As the president of the Shire of Mulgrave, Cr Jordan hoped the tram would go even further through the northern end of his district; down High Street Road to Mt Waverley and perhaps even to Scoresby.

By the end of the evening, the men had formed into the Ashburton and Waverley Tramway League. Their goal was to ‘secure the advancement of the district by tramway extension and better facilities for travelling’.[1]

Early 20th century Public Transport in Ashburton

Cable tram, courtesy Melbourne Tram Museum

Of course, cars were still several years away. At the time of the meeting, private companies were busily building Melbourne’s already burgeoning tram network. Although the first trams were cable lines, by 1911, electric trams were gradually being rolled out. The major investors in the tram lines were the local councils. Camberwell Council had already agreed to help fund the tram line from Camberwell to Burwood along Toorak Road.[2] Malvern Council provided funds for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust to work on extending the tram to Glen Iris Railway Station.

Theoretically, the objective of the Ashburton and Waverley Tramway League (I’m just going to call it AWTL now) fit with the pace of development in the area around them. Since the tram was already due to arrive at Glen Iris, it was timely to advocate for extending it the mere three kilometres up the hill to Boundary/Warrigal Road.

There were practical reasons for the extension too. Ashburton had a railway station but it was a remnant of the old Outer Circle Line. The train, known ironically as the 'Ashy Dasher' ran quite regularly on Sundays to bring day-trippers to the Ashburton Forest.

But during the week, ‘it was an odd, funny, old-fashioned line,’ wrote a reporter for the Prahran Telegraph in 1915. ‘Properly managed, it would have opened up a splendid residential district.’[3]

The only public transport option for Ashburton residents travelling to and from the City on a weekday was one single carriage train in the morning and one in the evening. Heaven forbid anyone should miss it. Not only that, it was slow (taking over an hour), crowded and highly infrequent the rest of the day.

The "Ashy Dasher" at Ashburton Station c.1900

The Glen Iris train (it had yet to extend further at this point) was not much better. According to one correspondent in 1914, it took fifty minutes for the train to travel from Melbourne to Glen Iris and it only left once an hour. It was so slow locals had dubbed it the ‘Darktown Express.’[4]

Conversely, the privately operated tram network at this time was far faster than the Government-operated trains. The trams left every 10 minutes and only took 35 minutes to travel from Glen Iris to St Kilda Road.[5] An Ashburton tram would merely need to roll down the hill before joining up with the High Street line to Prahran that whisked commuters into the City. Well, whisking by early 20th century standards that is.

Before the meeting closed, the new League had promised a collective £1,000 towards creating a trust to offset any losses building the new tramway would incur. They would also survey local residents and canvass for further funds. By the time the men left Cr Jordan’s house, they were all but convinced that a tram was on its way.

If only it was that easy.

Persuading the Powers that Be

Everything started out very smoothly. The AWTL pitched the idea of the tram as a way to connect Ashburton to the Malvern electric tramway system at Tooronga. This, they told the Herald, ‘would open up one of the most picturesque patches of suburban land now remaining untapped by modern means of communication. The land between Ashburton and Glen Iris is slotted with orchards amid forested country. The main slopes afforded fine views and the valleys are sheltered from high winds.’[6]

The proposed tram line extension with Burwood tram line to the north and the intersecting Outer Circle Line

The men of AWTL were not newly upwardly mobile aspiring middle class homeowners that could be easily brushed aside either. They were distinguished men of consequence with money, influence and political connections. They got the local press onboard then quickly persuaded the mayors of Malvern and Camberwell, the president of Mulgrave Shire Council, the chairman and engineer of the Malvern-Prahran Tramway Trust, and a number of councillors from Prahran to Mulgrave to inspect the proposed route.[7]

Everybody gathered at the Malvern Town Hall to make the journey down High Street, across Gardiner’s Creek, up the hill to Ashburton and on the way to Mount Waverley Hall for a generous and free lunch. Even the weather cooperated, showcasing the picturesque Ashburton and Waverley countryside in all its glory.

‘The whole area enjoys good soil, a plentiful water supply, climate and healthy natural surroundings,’ The AWTL Chair Mr Cattanach pitched to the assembled men. ‘The only drawback is the lack of proper communication with the City.’[8]

Although the Councillors enjoyed their free lunch, not everyone was onboard. Cr Wilks, the mayor of Malvern, questioned the financial viability of the extension. Cr Bowley, the mayor of Camberwell, worried that his Council had already committed to funding the extension of the Camberwell to Burwood tramway and he ‘had the northern end’ of his jurisdiction to consider. But both men would, they assured the men of AWTL, give the matter due consideration at their respective Councils. And they did.

Cr Frederick Vear

A few days later, with the support of South Ward Councillor and Ashburton resident Frederick Vear, the AWTL easily persuaded Camberwell Council to hold a special meeting to consider their request for Council support of their plan.[9] Cr Wilks also arranged for Malvern Council to ask Mr Dix of the Prahran Tramway Trust to provide an estimate on the proposal from the Glen Iris end too.

The Tram is Stonewalled

The first snag in the AWTL’s plans came in May 1912. Mr Dix advised that Council funds would be better spent duplicating the Tooronga-Glen Iris section of track and providing a single track between Burke Road and Glen Iris bridge.[10] Of course, he managed the tramway company building these services but no-one seemed to question any bias in his opinion. Camberwell Council preferred this idea too. To them, the centre of sub-division development was more towards Burwood and South Camberwell, not Glen Iris and Ashburton.[11]

Frustrated, the AWTL argued that perhaps if there was a tramway from Glen Iris to Ashburton, there would be more development in the area? But this argument went nowhere.

It soon became clear to the AWTL that the barrier to the High Street tramway was Ashburton train station. The Council believed that since Ashburton had access to a railway, it did not need any other public transportation. But that showed a significant disconnection of understanding between the fact there was as train station and the reality of actually using the old Outer Circle Line train every day.

With no support for the High Street tram the AWTL went dormant. Then World War I disrupted everything for years. The train situation did not improve. By 1922, no train departed during the week from Ashburton between 8.12 am and 9.40 am. In the evening there were no trains between 3.45 pm and 5.20 pm.[12]

‘For some remarkable reason,’ wrote G H Wright to The Age, ‘A train from East Camberwell did leave between 3.45 pm and 5.20 but it runs only to Riversdale, three-quarters of a mile from East Camberwell and then turns back.’ [13]

I expect that train coincided with tee-off time on the Riversdale Golf Course.

Glen Iris and Ashburton Tramway League

By 1923, sufficient post-War recovery had occurred for a renewed local push to get that tram up High Street. More people were moving to the area and it was growing at a rapid pace. The new advocates became the Glen Iris and Ashburton Tramway League.

A stretch of the proposed tram route today

By this time, the Victorian Government had taken over the privately owned and operated tram network and created the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board to operate it. Although Council support still helped, it was now the Tramways Board that the residents needed to persuade to cough up the money.

According to Russell Jones at the Hawthorn Tram Museum, the takeover of the various tramways companies had created a financial shortfall for the Victorian Government of £60,817. Not only that, but the Government also had a loan of £4 million from the London financial markets to re-pay. If it could pay off 25 per cent of it, it could find more favourable repayment terms. So to shore up the Government’s debts, the MMTB created the Loan Redemption Fund. This was designed to seize the profits from the City’s cable tramway operations. These profits actually belonged to the 12 municipal councils that had funded the tramways’ construction in the first place. This underhanded action by the Government absolutely infuriated them.

In short, the MMTB prioritised operating the existing cable tramways and electrify them over establishing new lines because that’s how they could make money to pay back the rich bankers in London. Unbeknown to the local residents, with relations between Councils and the MMTB at a very low ebb, it was not a good time to try and get funding for a tram up High Street. Nevertheless, the residents were determined to push the idea forward again. By 1924, with the backing of Camberwell Council, they were ready to present their proposal to Mr Cameron, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Tramway Board.

High Street on the hill, Glen Iris

‘The tram from Glen Iris to Boundary Road is necessary,’ explained Cr Hocking, the Camberwell Mayor. ‘Between Gardiner’s Creek and Ashburton railway station there were 230 new houses erected in the past two years, adding to the existing 500 homes.’ Cr Vear pointed out that ‘there was no district developing more rapidly than that round the hill at Glen Iris. The council was spending between £7 - £8,000 on works in the area.’[14] They argued that a tramway would make the land further up the hill in Ashburton far more desirable. The Chairman agreed to consider the proposal.

It went nowhere.

Three years later, after more pressure from the Glen Iris and Ashburton Tramway League, Cr Rocks, the new mayor of Camberwell Council, tried again. By this time, Glen Iris and Ashburton comprised of 2,993 houses and a population of 10,479. Perhaps, Cr Rocks pointed out, if the Board could cease converting perfectly satisfactory cable tramways to electricity it would have sufficient funds for extensions in new districts?

Little did Rocks know that aside from the massive debt it had to repay, the legislation underpinning the Board placed considerable financial obligations on it in return for allowing it to monopolise the development of Melbourne’s tram network. The Board had to provide street lighting along its existing routes, maintain the road surface, and contribute to road widening, removal of railway level crossings and rounding of street corners along tram routes. They were only being kept afloat by the profits they were stealing from Councils for running the cable tram network.

In the meantime, the 1924 electrification had not improved conditions on the Ashburton railway line all that much.

Wrote disgruntled commuter ‘Sardine’ in 1928, ‘it takes 25 minutes to travel from Ashburton to Camberwell in peak periods in a single overcrowded train carriage.’[15]

Meanwhile, getting to the city was still considerably faster by tram. ‘A tram [along High Street] would pay handsomely and would also serve as a feeder for the Railway,' wrote ‘Disgruntled’ to the Argus in January 1927.[16] ‘Burwood residents have had a tram along Norwood [Toorak Road] for years [even though] the development there today does not equal the development along High Street. Yet the Tramways Board persists in refusing residents an extension of the High Street tram.’

Once again, the Tramways Board said they would think about it.

Mr Meek to the Rescue: the first Ashburton Bus

Fortunately, the residents had the entrepreneurship of Glen Iris resident William J Meek in their favour. He had started the first bus service up and down High Street to the Glen Iris terminus. It was a small eight-seater vehicle that bumped and jostled along a road that was in even worse condition than it had been when it was built in the 1890s. ‘There was so much wear and tear on the tyres they had to be replaced every year for £130 a set,’ his son-in-law Edward Taubman remembered.[17] Although the bus was appreciated by residents, its capacity did not come close to meeting the local demand.

The first Ashburton bus: courtesy of Burwood Bulletin. Members of the Meek family still live in the area.

In August 1928, the Tramways Board finally responded. The Board estimated that a double track tram to Ashburton station and a single track to Boundary Road would cost at least £50,000, not including the widening of the bridge over Gardiner’s Creek and the approaches to it.[18] It would make an immediate loss of £9,000 in its first year.

Camberwell Council considered this an excessively gloomy view. ‘The tone of the letter gives little doubt that the Board is trying to dissuade us from wanting the line,’ said Cr Watt.

As far as the Tramways Board were concerned, this was the end of the discussion. But the Glen Iris and Ashburton Tramway League were not going to take no for an answer.

They responded with a new proposal that I will paraphrase and call ‘Give us a Bus Instead’.

The Bus up High Street

Poor Mr Meeks’ bus service struggled under very adverse conditions. By the end of 1929, he had decided he could not renew his license and meet the extensive maintenance costs for his bus. The census that year showed there were now 4,000 residents in Ashburton (more than half its current population) and now without a bus, public transport was the worst it had been since 1890.[19]

‘Are we to be left isolated?’ pondered ‘Ashburton’ to the Argus in January 1930. ‘Why do not the authorities call tenders as any businessman would have done last November and get a bus running at the earliest moment?’

But the community had begun to split: some still wanted the tram, others wanted a bus, others thought the train was sufficient. Granted, the train was now speeding up and starting to move faster than the tram. It was now taking 18 minutes to get from Glen Iris to the city instead of 35. The line had also extended to Glen Waverley, providing an additional station at Darling.[20] The service from Ashburton to Camberwell was now taking around 10 minutes and departing every half hour (give or take).[21] But it was still very crowded.

In May 1930, the Tramway Board gave what it thought was its final word on the tram. ‘Even if the municipality were willing to make up to the Tramways Board any estimated loss… the tram would largely be a transfer of patronage from the railway. The major portion of the population in the area to be served would be within ten minutes’ walking distance of a railway station. While the extension would be convenient for residents, it was certainly not a necessity.[22]

The Tramway Board offered to run a bus service but only if Camberwell Council were willing to guarantee the financial viability of the service. To the chagrin of the local rate-payers, Camberwell Council accepted the proposal. Three months later, the Tramway Board reneged on the offer, citing it as financially unfeasible. ‘The Tramways Board was an unduly pessimistic body,’ lamented Cr Read of Camberwell Council. ‘They are withholding services to which the people in the outer suburbs are entitled.’[23]

Public Transport in the 1930s

The 734 bus to Glen Iris today

From then on, private operators stepped in to connect Ashburton to Glen Iris Station. There is little information about this time available except for the tragic death of local resident Elizabeth Fisher.

At 11.10 pm on 6 March 1933, Mrs Fisher and five other female passengers were travelling at 15 miles (24 km) per hour along High Street when they noticed a strong smell of burning rubber. This was not uncommon on these buses but all of a sudden, smoke began to pour into the cabin through the floor. The passengers panicked, including Mrs Fisher, and jumped from the now burning vehicle. Mrs Fisher died from a head injury received in the fall. At the inquest, the driver was found culpable for her death.[24]

Mrs Fisher's death did not seem to move the Tramways Board to provide some kind of regulated and reliable bus service for the local residents. But it they thought the residents had given up on the tram, they were wrong.

Once again, in 1937, Camberwell Council approached the Tramways Board about providing a tram or bus service from Glen Iris to Ashburton.

Nothing came of that either.

Public Transport in the 1940s

The first ticket for the Alamein extension

It was not until the late 1940s that Ashburton finally became a priority for the public transport authorities. The building of the Housing Commission on the south side of High Street proved the impetus for extending the Ashburton Railway Line to Alamein. Alamein Station opened in 1948. ‘The development of the Ashburton district, where a vast housing commission estate was now more than half completed, had been much more rapid than expected,’ railway officials said. ‘Traffic on the single line from Camberwell to Ashburton is in a desperate state.’[25] Duplication of the line began a year later.

Bus services now came under the remit of the Motor Omnibus Advisory Board who established and operated a bus service between Ashburton and Darling Stations via Dent Street.[26] The bus service between Glen Waverley and Glen Iris began in 1951.[27]

The last word on the tram… this time they mean it

In 1945, residents made the final attempt to extend the Glen Iris tram to Warrigal Road. The Tramways Board once again rejected the proposal because ‘it would take five years to build’ and ‘there were far more urgent works.’[28]

After 34 years of trying, Ashburton and Glen Iris residents finally admitted defeat. The Glen Iris tram would never be extended up the hill to Ashburton.

But if you think this episode killed their fighting spirit, then you would be mistaken. Forty years later, the Government decided to connect the South Eastern Freeway to the Mulgrave Freeway, effectively cutting Glen Iris in half and destroying the delicate environs of Kooyong Koot.

The fight was back on with a vengeance.


[1] "Tramway for Ashburton and Waverley," Box Hill Reporter, 17 November 1911. [2] "Burwood Tramway Project," Box Hill Reporter, 8 December 1911. [3] "Gardiner, Glen Iris and Ashburton," Prahran Telegraph, 10 April 1915. [4] "Glen Iris," Prahran Telegraph, 25 April 1914. [5] Ibid. [6] "Tramway Extension," The Herald, 25 January 1912. [7] "Electric Tram to Ashburton," Box Hill Reporter, 2 February 1912. [8] Ibid. [9] "Glen Iris Tramway," Box Hill Reporter, 16 February 1912. [10] "Extension to Glen Iris," The Prahran Telegraph, 11 May 1912. [11] "Spring Subdivisions," The Herald, 12 September 1912. [12] Wright, G H, "To the Editor of the Age," The Age, 19 September 1922. [13] Ibid. [14] "Tramway Matters," Box Hill Reporter, 2 May 1924. [15] "To the Editor of the Age," The Age, 17 July 1928. [16] "Tramway to Ashburton," The Argus, 20 January 1927. [17] Webster, Susan, "Ashburton's First Bus," Burwood Bulletin, The roads were still diabolical in 1930, see "Greater Melbourne Advocated: Discontent at Glen Iris," The Age, 13 January 1930. [18] "Ashburton Tram," The Age, 23 August 1928. [19] "Transport at Ashburton," The Argus, 13 January 1930. [20] "Glen Iris Tramway," The Age, 16 May 1930. [21] "Ashburton and East Kew Transport," The Age, 27 March 1936. [22] "Glen Iris Tramway." [23] "Ashburton Bus Service," Age, 28 October 1930. [24] "Leapt from Burning Bus," Herald, 11 April 1933. [25] "Ashburton Line First," Age, 26 September 1949. [26] "Deviation of Bus Route," The Age, 11 April 1947. [27] "New Bus Service Applied for between Glen Waverley and Ashburton," Dandenong Journal, 1 November 1950. [28] "Bars to Glen Iris Tram Extension," Herald, 15 June 1945.

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