July 28, 2021

Underground History: The Degraves Street Subway

The Degraves Street Subway is a thirty metre underpass, providing an underground entrance to Flinders Street Station. It has a long, and varied, history.

Flinders St Station under construction
Flinders St Station under construction

When it was built in 1854, Flinders Street Station was not only Melbourne’s first train station, but Australia’s.

Elaborately designed and sitting at the middle of a heavily used public transport network, the station was both an important piece of infrastructure and an architectural ornament to the city. From the first, it was one of Melbourne’s most iconic buildings, and one of its most utilised.

By the 1920’s, an average of 250 000 passengers used the station each day, making it one of the busiest railway stations in the world.

Flinders Street Station, circa 1930
Bustling: Flinders Street Station, circa 1930

In 1927, Melbourne City Council began a review of pedestrian access to the station, and traffic flow along Flinders Street.

As the station had become busier, congestion had begun to cause problems. Queues were common during busy periods, causing delays to services. Flinders Street had also become a notorious traffic danger spot, with a high number of accidents occurring near the station.

To alleviate these problems, the council considered several plans, including a pedestrian bridge over Flinders Street.

Finally they settled on an underpass. Degraves Street, a busy thoroughfare in its own right, was directly opposite the Western entrance to the station, the council planned to connect the two with a pedestrian tunnel. Retail shops were included in the design, the revenue from renting these spaces intended to offset some of the cost.

But almost immediately, the council ran into difficulties.

Flinders Street Station entrance opposite Degraves Street, 1920s
Station entrance opposite Degraves Street, 1920s

Reaching agreement between everyone involved with the project – State Rail, the State Government, private owners of the land – proved difficult.

One issue was cost. An underpass was a comparatively expensive option, there was disagreement over who should provide the funds. Planning work continued sporadically through the 1920s, although little progress was made.

Meanwhile, the installation of automated traffic signals on Flinders Street, the city’s first, helped to reduce some of the problems that the subway was meant to solve.

Finally, the Great Depression, and then World War II, ensured focus was on other issues.

Robert Burns Campbell
Robert Burns Campbell

After the war, the Council returned to the plan.

This was part of a wider program designed to modernise the look of Melbourne ahead of the 1956 Olympics, championed by the head of the Public Works department, Robert Burns Campbell.

Campbell was a Collins Street dentist who had been elected to the City Council in 1944. He then devoted an increasing amount of his time to public office, eventually leaving his practice altogether to run the Public Works department.

From this position he helped drive an aggressive agenda that would transform the city. Campbell’s program was controversial: the changes were significant, rushed, and largely ignored heritage considerations. Many iconic old heritage buildings were demolished (you can read more about this, here).

One of the projects championed by Campbell was the Degraves Street Subway.

Construction of the Degraves Street Subway, 1953
Construction of the Degraves Street Subway, 1953

While the issues facing the project were much the same as before, Campbell’s forceful personality now ensured progress.

Construction on the subway started in 1952, and was completed early in 1954. Campbell himself only just lived to see its completion, as he died suddenly in June 1954, aged 65.

The new subway was named in his honour: The Campbell Arcade.

Melbourne's Mutual Store, original design
Melbourne’s Mutual Store, original design
Degraves Street Subway: a trace of the Mutual Store entrance remains
A trace of the Mutual Store entrance remains

Finally completed after decades of delay, the subway initially received a positive response.

The interior featured a highly stylised, art deco design; black granite columns and soft pink, mosaic tiles. The shops that lined the subway were striking, with curved windows and handmade, wooden fixtures. They were also highly sought after; Melbourne City Council received more than a thousand applications for the six available spaces.

At the base of the stairway down from Degraves Street, was an underground entrance to The Mutual Store, then one of Melbourne’s largest department stores. The idea seemed foolproof; funnel the store’s customers directly into the subway.

But there was a problem: the subway was not as popular as expected.

The Degraves Street Subway, shortly after opening
The Degraves Street Subway, shortly after opening

During its planning, the Council had estimated that 20 000 pedestrians would use the subway each day.

This was based on measured commuter usage of Flinders Street Station, and studies that had been conducted of foot traffic along Flinders and Degraves Streets. This expected high volume was what finally allowed all of the planning issues to be overcome, and also explained business enthusiasm for the commercial spaces.

But after some initial excitement when the subway opened, nothing like these numbers materialised.

Analysis conducted during the Olympic year of 1956, when usage was expected to be highest, showed a tenth of the expected numbers: only 2 000 people per day were using the subway. A further study conducted by the council revealed that 2 out of 3 people were unaware that the subway even existed.

Degraves Street Subway: the failed fashion parade
The failed fashion parade

Businesses that had signed up for the shops, who had paid a hefty premium for the privilege, suddenly found themselves in an awkward position. Without the high volume of passers-by that had been expected, the shops were unprofitable.

One proprietor, selling women’s clothing, even tried holding a fashion parade in the subway to drum up some publicity. The state rail authorities forced him to stop, citing disruption to pedestrian traffic.

While lower rents were eventually negotiated, most businesses found the subway too difficult to turn a profit. Adding to the gloomy outlook, The Mutual Store closed in 1965 and the nifty underground entrance was bricked up.

The Degraves Street Subway in a flood
Rail workers help pedestrians during a flood

Another difficulty was that the subway was prone to flooding.

Before significant work was undertaken to address the problem, the Yarra River used to regularly overflow in heavy rain. Flinders Street, and all of the city alongside the river, would regularly flood.

Serious floods like the one in 1972 (read more about this, here) saw the subway completely underwater. But even heavy rain would cause water to accumulate on the floor.

At times, rail workers were even enlisted to help shuttle pedestrians shuttle back and forth, using wooden hand carts.

Degraves Street Subway milkbar
A subway milkbar, long gone

Many of the shops in the subway soon stood vacant. Pedestrian numbers never increased.

Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, the Degraves Street Subway became a neglected white elephant. Homeless people camped in front of the abandoned stores, blokes used it as a place for a discreet slash.

It was not until the 1990’s that the City Council decided to take an interest again, and funds were allocated for a clean up. Some creative re-imaging of the space was required.

Degraves Street Subway tenant, The Sticky Institute
Long term tenants: The Sticky Institute

Taking advantage of decreased rents and other financial incentives, new tenants were found for the retail spaces.

These tenants reflected the changing nature of the city. Second hand clothing. deluxe coffee and hand made ‘zines were among the new offerings, from shops with names like Corky St Clair, The Sticky Institute and The Cat’s Meow.

Art on display in the Degraves Street Subway
Art on display in the Degraves Street Subway

The Platform Artists Group, with funding from both the council and the State Government, took over the old display cases that lined one wall of the subway. Previously used by the retailers, they were now employed as a small gallery space, showcasing a rotating array of modern art.

Other art exhibitors have followed suit.

These ideas proved popular, and the subway found a second life. Melbourne is a restless city, ever changing.

Graphic for the Metro Rail Project
Graphic for the Metro Tunnel project

In February 2015, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the government would begin work on the Metro Tunnel rail project.

First proposed in 2008, this ambitious plan required an overhaul of the inner city’s rail network, and would create new subway lines and stations. Parts of the CBD would be closed, as extensive underground tunnelling and construction would be required.

The Degraves Street Subway is scheduled to be overhauled, as part of the project. A new station is to be built near Town Hall on Swanston Street, a new pedestrian underpass connecting this to Flinders Street Station is set to pass through the existing Degraves Street subway.

Discussion over this part of the project is ongoing. It remains to be seen what the next incarnation of the old subway will look like.

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