June 21, 2024

The Flinders Street Station Ballroom

The Flinders Street Station Ballroom was built to provide leisure activities to railway workers. It is now used as an exhibition space.

Flinders Street Station, 1854
Flinders Street Station, 1854

Opening in 1854, Melbourne’s Flinders Street train station was Australia’s first.

The city was expanding rapidly: the goldrush had just begun and 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.

Princes Bridge Station, bottom right
Princes Bridge Station, bottom right

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 to refurbish Flinders Street Station.

William Salway's design for Flinders Street Station
William Salway’s design for 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 impractical.

A second competition was held in 1899.

Fawcett and Ashwerth's design for Flinders Street Station
Fawcett and Ashwerth’s design

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.

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.

Flinders Street Station, 1910
Flinders Street Station, 1910

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, 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 below ground level (the last of these, now called ‘City Hatters’, is still in operation).

In the floor above were the railway’s administrative offices.

The railway strike of 1903, headline in the Melbourne 'Herald'
The railway strike of 1903, headline in the Melbourne ‘Herald’

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 less industrial action.

The VRI ‘s founding President, T.H. Woodroffe, would oversee a sprawling organisation: there were 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. The VRI used these funds for a diverse range of activities.

Gymnasium at Flinders Street Station
Gymnasium at Flinders Street Station

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.

The Flinders Street Station ballroom, shortly after opening
The VRI lecture and concert hall
The Flinders Street Station ballroom
And with a full house in attendance

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.

The VRI library
The VRI library

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.

Dancing in the Flinders Street Ballroom
Dancing in the Flinders Street Ballroom

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 space was renamed 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.

Poster for boxing and wrerestling matches at the VRI
Poster for boxing and wrestling matches at the VRI

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 social scene.

Physical recreation class in the Flinders Street Ballroom
Physical recreation class in the ballroom

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 reduced as well.

The organisation then rented out its smaller rooms 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, and 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.

Flinders Street Station ballroom during the neglected years
The ballroom during the neglected years

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 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.

Flinders Street station ballroom under refurbishment
Under refurbishment

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 for the first time.

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.

Patricia Piccinini
Patricia Piccinini

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 return to the city.

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 examine the boundary between the natural and artificial worlds.

This would be the first major exhibition held in the refurbished VRI rooms.

A Miracle Constantly Repeating
From, ‘A Miracle Constantly Repeating’

Access to the third floor is via a small door on Flinders Street, plain green and nondescript. Beyond is two flights of gloomy stairs, then a long corridor, stretching in both directions.

It is cold, and not initially inviting. But you can feel the history.

For the art exhibit, each former VRI room featured a sculpture, or an installation, the artworks colourful and strange. You could also see fragments of the building’s former existence: old furniture and fixtures, information posters and bric-a-brac.

Flinders Street Station ballroom: 2021 style
The Flinders Street Station ballroom: 2021 style

The ballroom was a purple toned neon space, at the entrance to which was a small, rodent like animal. The room still looked pretty shaggy; paint was peeling off the walls, the windows were dirty.

This is life in Melbourne, where the past and present collide, and something new is constantly made from the old.

After the post covid exhibition, the Flinders Street station ballroom continued as an art and event space. A new chapter, in a long history.

It will be exciting to see what its future holds.


2 thoughts on “The Flinders Street Station Ballroom

  1. The line “This was also the first train to operate in Australia” should be changed to first steam hauled train. In South Australia a railway existed before 1854, it was horse operated but was regarded as a railway. It provided transport from around Currency Creek to Port Goolwa and later Port Victor (Victor Harbor)

    The following is from the Steam Ranger website. —

    “The first railway station serving the township of Goolwa was opened in December 1853 as one terminus of a line linking the River Murray to the sea at Port Elliot. “

    1. That’s very interesting, thank you for sharing! I have not heard about horse drawn trains previously. I have adjusted the line as suggested.

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