“Under the Clocks” at Flinders Street Station

It was the 1960s and I was meeting a friend in town. We lived in Coburg, so it wasn’t a long journey. 

All I had to do was get on a Number 19 tram, travel straight down Sydney Rd until it became Elizabeth St and get off at Flinders Street Station, at the end of the tram’s run.
It was school holidays, I was in my early teens and hadn’t been into the city on my own before, so I was a bit worried I’d get lost. I’d organised to meet my friend “under the clocks at Flinders Street” at Mum’s suggestion. 

So, there I was, “under the clocks”, waiting patiently at first, but as time went by and no friend appeared, I was beginning to worry that Mum might have been wrong. Maybe these clocks weren’t as well-known as she’d claimed. Maybe there were other clocks and I’d missed them. After a time (quite a long time), I walked back to my Elizabeth St tram and came home, disappointed to have missed my friend. 

My first “meet you under the clocks” had been a non-event. But my mother was right: those clocks are very well known and I grew to know them pretty well, too, as I joined the crowds rushing down Swanston S at the end of the work day, hoping against hope that the Lilydale line train was not about to depart from platforms two and three without me. A quick glance up at the clocks as I scurried up the steps, and I knew my fate. By then we lived in Croydon, and more often than not, I knew I’d be getting home in the dark yet again. What I didn’t know was that it was the task of one railway employee to change the times on the clocks manually – more than 900 changes in the course of an eight-hour day! 

There’d been a railway station in Flinders Street since the 1850s. The present-day station replaced an earlier fish market in 1865, but it was not until the early 20th century that it became the building we know today. With its dome, its arched entry and those clocks, Flinders Street (you didn’t need to add the "Station" for people to know what you meant) quickly became a Melbourne icon from the time it opened in 1909. In the days before the Loop (1960s and earlier), it was the central departure and arrival point of train commuters. This is where journeys started and finished. It was busy place, and for a time in the 1920s, it was the busiest railway station in the world.

Looking at this image, taken from the St Paul’s Cathedral corner, you can feel the energy of the lunchtime crowds. The clock tells us it’s 12.30, right in the middle of the lunch hour. Or perhaps it’s 12.30 on a Saturday and trading has finished for the week. So, is everyone getting out of the city as fast as possible to enjoy the weekend ahead? I’m sure you all remember how quickly the city became an empty shell soon after midday on a Saturday. To me, as a child and teenager of the 1960s, it always felt a rather sinister, disembodied presence on a Saturday afternoon. Definitely not somewhere I wanted to be. I wonder what the Flinders Street scene would have looked like at two o’clock that day, for example. And if you moved north a few blocks to Bourke Street would you see anyone at all by two o’clock? 

Flinders Street was, and still is, the city’s busiest station. And that wasn’t always just because it was a train station. Its buildings once housed an impressive range of public facilities. As well as meeting rooms, there was a children’s nursery, a library, a thriving gymnasium and even a ballroom. The nursery opened in 1933 and did well until 1937 when it was closed due to a serious polio outbreak. It closed for good in 1942. The gym featured a boxing ring and billiards room. There was even a running track on the station’s roof. The ruin of the ballroom, abandoned since September 1983, is now closed off to the public, but once it was one of the most popular dance halls in Melbourne. All just a memory now.

If you are interested in reading more about Flinders Street Station and about Melbourne’s early development, why not buy a copy of the RHSV’s publication Remembering Melbourne 1850-1960, available from the RHSV Bookshop for only $35 plus postage and packaging. With more than 700 photographs and accompanying essays and detailed captions, you will be transported back to a Melbourne that you won’t necessarily recognise as you walk its streets today. To find out more, visit the RHSV Bookshop (historyvictoria.org.au/bookshop) or email [email protected] or phone (03) 9326 9288.

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