The Flinders Street Station Ballroom was built to provide leisure activities to railway workers. It is now used as an exhibition space.
Opening in 1854, the train station on Flinders Street was the first in Australia.
At the time Melbourne was expanding rapidly: gold had recently been discovered, adventurous types were flooding into Victoria, hoping to strike it rich. Railway lines and stations were among the infrastructure rapidly built to cope with the sudden population increase.
Flinders Street Station was originally modest; a single, thirty metre platform, alongside a weatherboard shed. The first line ran to Port Melbourne, then known as ‘Sandridge’, via a bridge over the Yarra.
This was also the first steam powered train to operate in Australia.
The station continued to grow alongside Melbourne.
A second platform was built in 1877, and a third in 1890. A sister station, Princes Bridge, had opened across the road in 1859, the terminus points of Melbourne’s rail network were divided between the two (you can learn more about Princes Bridge station: here).
The city enjoyed a sustained economic boom in the 1880s, as the tail end of the gold rush and sky high agricultural prices combined to fill the city with the newly wealthy. Many grand new buildings were erected, a period often referred to as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.
The state government, flush with revenue, decided it was time for a wholesale refurbishment of Flinders Street Station.
A competition was held in 1883, seeking ideas for the station’s redesign.
The winner was William Salway, whose proposal imagined Flinders Street and Princes Bridge as twin buildings, linked by a pedestrian underpass. But the government decided not to proceed with his design, considering it expensive and impractical.
A second competition was held in 1899.
The winners this time were two railway employees, James Fawcett and H.P.C Ashwerth.
Their design, in the French Renaissance style, featured a large main building along Flinders Street, decorated with a dome over the main entrance, and a clock tower adjacent to Elizabeth Street.
A revised layout for the train lines had already been settled on, which Fawcett and Ashwerth were able to incorporate in their plans. While their design remained striking, it was also more practical than Salway’s.
Work began on the new station in 1900.
It would take a decade to complete, and there was some controversy over the slow progress. Private contractors were originally used, before the project was taken over by the Victorian Railway’s works department.
A Royal Commission would eventually investigate the cost and delays.
The revamped station was finally completed in 1910.
New platforms had been added, and pedestrian ramps to improve access. The main station building, three stories high from the dome to the clock tower, was decorated in a striking pattern of red and cream dressed brick.
The new building would be a hive of activity.
On the ground floor were ticket booths, the lost property office, an information counter and a public cafeteria. On the street facing side were new retail shops, some down one flight of stairs, below ground (the last of these, now called ‘City Hatters’, is still in operation).
In the floor above were the railway’s administrative offices.
The top floor, level three, had been a late addition to the plans. This was reserved for the Victorian Railways Institute (VRI).
The VRI was established in 1909, and commenced operation alongside the remodelled station. Its stated objective was to provide recreation and cultural opportunities, to allow for the ‘betterment’ of railway employees.
There was a less public objective as well.
In 1903, railway workers had gone on strike, causing major disruption across Melbourne. Afterwards, the Railways Commission had sought strategies to try and prevent future strikes; they also wanted to curb the influence of the local trade unions.
The VRI was intended to achieve both. By providing cheap leisure activities and other benefits, the Commission hoped to increase job satisfaction; happier workers would mean fewer strikes.
The VRI ‘s founding President, T.H. Woodroffe, would oversee a sprawling organisation, that had 3 300 members at its inception.
An annual membership fee was required to join, the VRI also raised revenue with a system of fines. Each railway division had its own disciplinary body, workers caught infringing the rules had to pay a penalty.
These ranged from trivial sums, up to five pounds: equivalent to six weeks pay, for an average worker. The VRI used these funds for a remarkably diverse range of activities.
The top floor at Flinders Street featured a long main corridor, running the length of the building.
At one end, inside the dome, was a circular shaped room that was used as a gymnasium; at the other end was a large, open space with a stage at one end, intended as a lecture and concert hall.
The gymnasium was stocked with exercise equipment, and had male and female change rooms. The hall featured talks on a variety of subjects, including health and fitness, the natural world, and developments in engineering.
Music concerts and recitals were held. The VRI also owned a ‘Magic Lantern’: a basic image projection device, one of the forerunners to cinema, that was used to display photographs from around the world.
A caretaker was employed to look after the VRI’s new facilities. This was a ‘live-in’ position: the caretaker, and their family, lived in a residence on the roof of the station.
Branching off the main corridor at irregular intervals were a series of different sized rooms, that had other options for members:
‘There is a billiard room with three of the best tables, a games room, a reference and lending library, reading and smoking rooms, and classrooms.
The rooms are furnished in an ornate and substantial manner, and the walls are decorated with tastefully framed and artistic pictures.’
– ‘Table Talk’ magazine, 1910
The library grew to contain 10 000 volumes. Members who were not able to attend Flinders Street in person, could have books sent to them via the rail network, and collect them from their local train station.
Clubs were established for railway employees to pursue different interests. These included boxing, amateur dramatics, photography, and fencing.
A regular newsletter was sent, outlining the events for the coming month.
After World War I, the lecture hall began hosting dance nights. These were popular with returned soldiers, and dance halls had sprung up across Melbourne.
Through the 1920s the dances at the VRI continued to grow, until it was one of the most popular venues in the city. Dances were often held there six nights a week.
In 1934 the VRI converted the lecture hall, and rebadged the space the ‘VRI Ballroom’. The stage was removed to accommodate larger crowds, and it was rented out to external organisations for their own dances.
‘The 1930s and 40s were the height of social dancing in Melbourne, and the VRI Ballroom was one of the largest dance venues in the city.
The two main styles of dance were modern and old time, and the VRI Ballroom ran 50/50 dances, featuring a mix of both styles.
Compared to other Melbourne venues, the ballroom attracted a lot of people from the country and had a reputation for hosting real ‘old time’ dances.’
– Blair Gatehouse, State Library Victoria blog
The venue was not licensed, and only sold soft drinks. Some attendees would slip out for a beer at one of the nearby pubs, before returning to dance on.
Festivities usually wrapped up by midnight, to allow everyone to catch the last train home.
The expanded space allowed other types of events to be held; the ballroom was also used for boxing and wrestling bouts, and for physical fitness classes.
World War II boosted its popularity again. A large number of military personnel were stationed in Melbourne, and dance halls remained a popular recreation among the services.
The VRI Ballroom was an important hub on the Melbourne entertainment and social scenes.
Eventually, the popularity of dance halls began to wane.
By the 1970s, the Flinders Street ballroom was being used less frequently. The number of clubs the VRI supported had declined as well.
The organisation then rented out its smaller rooms on the fourth floor to private clubs. This provided an eccentric group of tenants, including the Victorian Chihuahua Club, the Cat Protection Society, the Australian Matchbox Collectors, and the cheer squads of the Melbourne and Collingwood football clubs.
The building itself was in decline.
The enormous space had always required a large amount of upkeep, the expense for which had been born by the VRI. But with the facilities less used by their members, the organisation was less inclined towards maintenance.
The paintwork began to peel, the roof began to leak. The long main corridor took on a shabby appearance.
The last dance was held in the VRI ballroom in September 1983. In 1985, the VRI moved from the building to new, modern offices in nearby Flinders Lane.
The rooms on the third floor of Flinders Street station fell into disuse.
In 1996, Premier Jeff Kennett floated the idea of converting the ballroom into a live music venue, aimed at young people. The proposal was well received, but did not proceed.
There was no shortage of other ideas for the space.
Private vendors came forward, wanting to turn it into a nightclub or restaurant. Other suggestions included using it as a gallery, or an event space; the Salvation army proposed turning it into a crisis shelter for homeless people.
All of these suggestions were rejected.
By the 21st century, a new problem had arisen: the third floor’s condition had become so poor that it was no longer considered safe. Major renovations would be required before it could be used for anything.
In this period, the only public access came via ‘Open House Melbourne’. This annual event allows the public into normally off-limits buildings and spaces: the organisers would occasionally be given permission to allow tours of the ballroom and the third floor.
Numbers were limited for safety reasons. Tickets for these events were so popular a ballot was required, and sold out within a few minutes.
The inaccessibility of the ballroom increased the public’s fascination with it.
In 2015, the state Labor government announced a major refurbishment program for Flinders Street Station.
Budgeted at $100 million, the works would include overdue repairs and maintenance, and improvements to passenger access. The outside of the building, comprising 4 000 individual bricks, would be cleaned and repointed.
The work was completed in 2018.
As part of the program, the ballroom roof was repaired, and the floor stabilised. New uses for the third floor would again be possible.
As Covid restrictions eased, in 2021, the state government organised a series of public events. Held across Melbourne, these would be part celebration, part encouragement to venture out in public again.
Among the program was ‘A Miracle Constantly Repeating’, an art exhibition by Patricia Piccinini. Born in Sierra Leone, Piccinini is an Australian artist whose sculptures tackle the boundary between the natural and the artificial.
For this show she would take over the top floor of Flinders Street station, turning it into a large scale gallery.
The door on Flinders Street is set into the wall of the station. It’s plain, green and nondescript. There’s a small blue sign alongside that says ‘Rising’, and a couple of people waiting.
We get our tickets scanned and then head up two flights of gloomy stairs. At the top: a long corridor stretching in both directions.
It’s cold, and not very inviting. It’s even a little eerie.
We go into the old rooms of the VRI, and here is an amazing transformation. Each one features a sculpture, or an installation; the artwork is strange, but arresting.
There are two humanoid creatures lying in a bed. A mutated marsupial runs through a stand of forest. One large room is full of metal flowers, in the middle of which two motorcycle-animal hybrids share a caress.
The old ballroom is a purple toned neon space, at the entrance to which is a small, rodent like animal, apparently singing. The room still looks pretty shaggy; paint is peeling off the walls, the windows are dirty.
But it is exciting to be there. You can feel the history.
The art on display seems to come from some liminal space, not one thing or the other, suggestive of both. It reminds you of the past, while it points to the future.
This is life in Melbourne, where our short, lively history is always present, even as the city is transforming.
In a new form, the Flinders Street Ballroom is back.