Inside the Collection

Australia and the Industrial Revolution – Impact of the first railways

Sepia photograph of a man dressed in a top hat and frock coat standing before a steam engine on train tracks. There are sheds and buildings in the background and some age or water damage to the photograph.
Locomotive No. 1 shown in Sydney yard with a frock-coated railway official, possibly a station master. Detail a stereoview published by William Hetzer, Sydney, 1858-1860. Powerhouse Museum collection P.3145-7. Gift of Royal Australian Historical Society, 1981.

It’s 160 years ago this year (2014) since the first railway was opened in Australia in 1854. The railways were a vast improvement on the Cobb and Co. coaches, which carried people, and the drays and wagons, which carried goods, over the rough bush tracks. Pulled by horses or bullocks, wagons were slow and expensive, while the threat of being held up by bushrangers was a real possibility for coach travellers.

The construction and development of railways in Australia from the mid. 1850s completed what the inland pioneering transport systems had begun – the opening up of Australia and linking the colonies. Considering the vast distances to be travelled, the railways spread remarkably quickly. Wherever the railways went, towns prospered. They were the lifeblood between the country and the cities and transported wool, coal, grain and milk very cheaply. They fostered the development of primary industries, especially wheat growing and dairying, made possible by quickly and efficiently transporting products to markets that was never possible before.

Victoria has the honour of opening Australia’s first railway, which began on 12 September 1854, only 24 years after the Stephensons’ “Rocket” began the first scheduled steam train operation between Liverpool and Manchester in England. Back in Australia, the Victorian service began when the Hobson’s Bay Railway Company’s train chugged out of Melbourne’s Flinders Street station hauling three carriages on the 4.5 km run to Sandridge (Port Melbourne). The small locally-built engine refused to move off for the return journey and twenty policemen had to give it a push. The line was the first in a network of Melbourne suburban railways developed by a number of companies over the next few years. None of them prospered and the lines were all taken over by the Victorian Government in 1878.

The first railway in New South Wales was much more ambitious. It was devised by wealthy squatters keen to transport their wool more cheaply and quickly from inland properties to Sydney so that it could be taken by ship to the English textile mills. Work on the railway began in 1846 when the Sydney Railway Company was formed to build a line from Sydney to Parramatta. Construction commenced in 1851, but internal debates and labour shortages, due to all the workers racing off to goldfields, made progress slow. The high cost of constructing the railway saw the New South Wales Government take over its operation just before the line was officially opened on 26 September 1855. It was a major engineering feat in the colony at the time, with 20 km of track with four intermediate stations at Newtown, Ashfield, Burwood and Homebush, a tunnel at Redfern, a viaduct over Long Cove Creek, twenty-seven bridges and fifty culverts. The first four locomotives which ran the service were built in England by Robert Stephenson and Co. of Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the very same workshop as the “Rocket”. They travelled to Australia dismantled on the decks of sailing ships. After arriving at Circular Quay they were unloaded onto wagons and pulled by horses to the railway site for rebuilding.

The Museum has Locomotive No. 1, which pulled the first passenger train in New South Wales on a special trip for the Governor before the line was officially opened. It’s on display with a first, second and third class carriage of the day. Incidentally, travelling third class wasn’t very comfortable, with hard bench seats and not even glass in the large window openings, but it was the most popular because it was the cheapest.
South Australia’s first trains operated between North Terrace, Adelaide and Port Adelaide in 1856. Completely built, owned and operated by the South Australian Government, it was the first railway in the British Empire to be publicly undertaken. Queensland began steam trains on a narrow gauge line from Ipswich to Bigges Camp (now Grandchester) in 1865. Tasmania opened the Launceston to Deloraine line, a distance of 72 km, in 1871. Also in that year Western Australia began its first railway operated by a timber company from the coast at Lockville, about 200 km south of Fremantle, into a karri forest for 20 km to Yoganup. The first public railway in Western Australia ran from Geraldton to Northampton and opened in 1879.

Black and white photograph of three men standing in a factory yard beside a long line of train wagons loaded with ploughs. The wagons have signs which read Clyde Ploughs for WACCA.
Ploughs made by Clyde Engineering of Granville, in Sydney, leave the factory loaded into wagons ready to be sent to Wagga Wagga, NSW, for farmers in the wheat belt c. 1890. Photo in Powerhouse Museum collection, 88/289-1152. Gift of Clyde Engineering Pty Ltd, 1988.

It’s hard to appreciate now just how important the coming of the railways were to communities. Though the major role of railways was the transport of goods, they also linked towns with the world outside and virtually guaranteed their prosperity and growth. They began fifty years before the first cars arrived and transformed people’s lives. For the first time people could easily visit family and friends in other towns, and go to the city or beach for a holiday. It also meant manufactured goods, like fuel stoves for homes or agricultural implements for farms, could be purchased much more cheaply and quickly.

The railways also brought mail, books, and up-to-date newspapers, with the latest news, while goods from the town or produce from the farm could be railed to the city or a port. Perhaps the most interesting side effect was that they brought time to the country before clocks, watches and radios were in common use. This was because trains had to run to timetables whereas people could usually rely on the sun.

Locomotive No. 1“, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2005.
“On the move: a history of transport in Australia”, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004.
“Rail Tales: Emily’s big train ride”, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2013.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, June 2014

16 responses to “Australia and the Industrial Revolution – Impact of the first railways

  • Thanks for this interesting resource and the great photos.

    I would love to know more about the impact of the railways. Are there more general information or personal accounts you could share? My daughter and I find it hard to imagine just what life must have been like in Australia before effective cheap transport.

    • I’m pleased you and your daughter liked the post Richard. Railways certainly made an amazing difference to people’s lives in the nineteenth century. I’m not sure how old your daughter is but my book “Rail Tales: Emily’s big train ride” provides more information about the impact of the railways, how they were built and operated and why they were so important. Although it was written for Primary School children it has lots of interesting information for all ages.

  • what were the impact of the developments on living and working conditions in Australia, and what are the lasting significance of the railways on Australian life

    • Hello Bronte,
      Thanks for your interest in the blog. Some impacts of the first railway on the living and working conditions in Australia can be found in this wonderful piece by Margaret Simpson. Good luck with your assignment.
      All the best,
      Tilly Boleyn, Curator

  • the steam engine was good…… was cool. i like it alot when it goes past the back of our house……………………………….

  • Ummmmmm i think that more pictures that show how the industrial revolution impacted Australia….. but other than that… great post and great pictures….. 🙂

  • For each Australian state/territory mentioned in the chapter, what are the changes in transportation that occurred after settlement

  • This is a really cool website at really helps me with my School assignments ,but maybe add a option where you can listen to it. My friend is blind so that will help her and others with eye sight loss

    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog and finding it useful for your school work. That’s a really good point about accessibility for people with vision impairments. We are working on this as part of a much broader plan to improve the accessibility of the Museum and website at the moment. Stay tuned!

  • this was such a good website I have been looking for a good website so I can get some information about the industrial revolution that’s not boring and that everyone would like to hear it so thank you to who ever made this website you really helped me get some good info. for my assessment

  • Greetings,
    I am interested in what contribution railway expansion made to Australia’s frontier wars. Can you suggest any literature dealing with this topic?

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