They call it Shank’s Pony

It’s said that if you’re not careful, waving a red flag could get you a visit from the pointy end of a very angry bull. That’s if you’re unlucky enough to find a member of that bovine species with its horns down and tail up, charging past when you happen to be holding one. Yet in the 19th century a red flag could be the herald of something quite different and in practice, rather more sedate.

The extraordinary 1865 Locomotive Act of Great Britain, sometimes known as the “Red Flag Act”, was an old law that required a man to precede at walking pace all steam powered vehicles on the open road and to carry a red flag or lantern as a warning while doing so. It developed in the middle years of the 19th century after intense lobbying from horse-drawn carriage operators and the railway industry in what was seen even then as a cynical attempt to stifle legitimate competition to their services. The Act gave local authorities unprecedented powers over speed limits which were set between 4 and 2 mph and the authority to specify the hours during which steam vehicles might use the roads, the combined effect of which was to limit the rise of steam powered road transport throughout Britain and her Empire for decades. It was enough to take the puff out of what has otherwise been called, “The Steam Age”.

Towards the end of the century, with motoring innovation and the use of the new-fangled internal combustion engine gathering pace, the Red Flag Act was seen for what it was. A patently absurd anachronism. The Act was amended and in 1896 finally repealed, after which time experimental steam transport was finally free to develop and operate unhindered.

By then it was nearly too late for road steam but all the same there were still some who were willing to try. Thomas Clarkson began producing steam buses at his Moulsham Works in Chelmsford, England at about this time with the company’s prospectus declaring that, “The Chelmsford motor omnibuses are steam propelled, and… are entirely free from smell, noise, and vibration.” The Clarkson vehicles had a two-cylinder horizontal engine with a tubular boiler and a working pressure of between 150 and 250psi and averaged almost 4 miles to a gallon of paraffin fuel.

Victorian Railways No.1 steam charabanc at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1905, (Laurie Daniel Collection, Museums Victoria).

At the dawn of the new century A G Webster & Son of Hobart imported a number of these Clarkson omnibuses to Australia and several were adopted by the state railways for use in passenger services on the roads. This photograph of a Clarkson vehicle parked outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel in Lower Plenty opposite Yallambie was taken in 1905, possibly during a proving exercise in that year. Another photograph apparently from the same series shows the same vehicle on a timber covered road, perhaps somewhere in the Upper Yarra or Upper Plenty area, localities the vehicle presumably might have travelled through after leaving the Plenty Bridge. A closer inspection of this photograph appears to show an indigenous member of the party in the middle of the group, looking away from the camera, fourth from the right. Could this photograph have been taken during a visit to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Enterprise near Healesville?

Victorian Railways No.1 steam charabanc stopped beside an up country road, c1905, (Laurie Daniel Collection, Museums Victoria).

In the other picture, the Plenty Bridge picture, Edward Joseph Rigby has been identified seated in the driver’s seat. His son, Edward Jr is standing at the rear of the vehicle along from his mother. Rigby Sr was an engineer and early motoring enthusiast, being a foundation member of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. It is believed that he was responsible for the elegant chassis construction of the Clarkson vehicles used in Melbourne.

Six Clarkson vehicles were ordered by the Victorian Railways but they were used for only a short period after proving unreliable in service. Steam transport in Victoria at this time was largely limited to the tried and true uses employed to such good effect by the railways, to which industry it was ideally suited and well established throughout the world.

The story of the early railways in the Heidelberg district reads as a chequered tale. The lack of regional progress throughout the latter part of the 19th century has been blamed mainly on the lack of an efficient, direct route into the north east, the result of protracted councils’ infighting and disagreement over the form such a railway should take and the route it should follow. Getting a train to Heidelberg in the early days involved a juggling act with timetables and a backwards and forwards movement along spur lines before there was even a chance of getting anywhere. As one wag put it at the time:

“In the old days of buses and coaches, travellers could hope, on starting from Melbourne, to reach the place in about an hour, but with the advancing times and the railway communication they could now do the journey in one hour and a half.”
(The Mercury, May 1888, quoted in Garden)

It seems the visit of a Railways steam omnibus to Lower Plenty might have had its merits.

Detail from early rail map of the north east showing the meandering route the Hurstbridge line takes through the Plenty and Diamond Valleys. Yallambie is roughly about where the “d” is on the name of Macleod Station on this map.
Train at Montmorency Station in the early years of the 20th century. (Source: Madden albums of Australian railways photographs, State Library of Victoria picture).
Greensborough Station, c1910. (Source: Greensborough Historical Society)
Steam engine and train at Eltham Station in the early years of the 20th Century. (Source: Eltham Historical Society picture).

A direct steam engine rail route to Heidelberg was finally established in 1901, extended to Eltham in June, 1902 and reached the end of the line at Hurstbridge in 1926. The route as built performs a vast arc around the Yallambie area with the stations at Rosanna, Watsonia and Montmorency all about an equidistance from the main body of the Yallambie housing estate which is centred on the western banks of the Plenty River. A modern regular bus service from St Helena, the 517, connects Yallambie today to train services at Rosanna and Greensborough Stations, although the route it takes through the back streets can add up to half an hour to a trip. This however is about the same time that it takes to walk to Montmorency Station along the Plenty River Shared Trail from Yallambie, so it’s really a case of whether or not you fancy the exercise when you’re commuting. Other bus routes connect Yallambie to all points of the compass with the 513 along Lower Plenty Rd to Eltham and the 293 from Para Rd in Montmorency to Doncaster and Box Hill being particularly useful.

The State Government’s commitment to public transport is clear with the recent removal of the Lower Plenty Rd level crossing and redevelopment of the Rosanna Station being just one local example of this policy. At the same time though, the Government’s decision to build a North East Link freeway down the western boundary of Yallambie and underground through Heidelberg is evidence of another commitment entirely.

“Sleepy Hollow”, Heidelberg, c1890 as Thomas Wragge would have known it before the building of the rail bridge across Burgundy Street. Village development at this stage was concentrated further down the hill in front of the spire of St John’s Church in the park. (Source: photograph by W H Ferguson, State Library of Victoria picture).

With the use of hybrid cars and Peak Oil giving the roads of the future an unknown prospect, it remains to be seen what shape the future transport needs of Melbourne might take. As Melbourne bursts at its seams and with new development across the city outpacing existing infrastructure, perhaps we need to look back at what happened in Heidelberg in the 19th century to get an idea of where we are going. “Sleepy Hollow” they called the Heidelberg area due to the poor roads and lack of rail access but when the railway finally arrived, in the face of all the infighting that came with it, the route was not necessarily the best that might have been chosen. As for steam transport on the roads, well that one clearly never moved much beyond a walking pace.

A Bills Horse Trough: originally located in Lower Plenty Rd, now outside the Heidelberg Historical Society headquarters in Jika St, Heidelberg, August, 2019.

Outside the old Court House in Jika Street, Heidelberg, now the home of the Heidelberg Historical Society, there stands an old water trough, a local example of what was known in its day as a “Bills Horse Trough”. Bills Horse Troughs, so named after the public benefactor whose financial legacy created them (but not incidentally the same Bill whose poster activities I’ve seen prosecuted so relentlessly around town), were a necessary device in an era when so much was relied upon from horse travel. The Jika Street trough was originally located on the corner of Martins Lane and Lower Plenty Rd near Yallambie, opposite a place now marked by the glowing golden arches of the Yallambie franchise of a certain hamburger restaurant chain. The trough was moved to Heidelberg in the early 1980s after the widening of Lower Plenty Rd in an earlier period and restored with funding from the Australian Bicentennial Authority in1988.

Commemorative plaque on the HHS Bills Horse Trough.
Probably Will Wragge outside the old Bakewell era stables at Yallambie, c1900, (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge’s love of horses has been well documented and horses were clearly an integral part of life at Yallambie throughout the farming era. Eventually though, horse transport on the roads was to disappear to be replaced by the erstwhile horseless carriages that are so much a part of our lives today. Every one of us relies on our vehicles, whether they be motorised, horse drawn or steam powered but for mine I’ve always liked to think there is an alternative.

It’s ever there and doesn’t need costly road tunnels, rail crossings or even watering troughs.

You’ll find it down below your knees if you stop long enough to take a look.

They call it Shanks’ Pony.

Source: Victoria & Albert Museum
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