I’ll meet you under the clocks is a phrase used by generations of people from Melbourne to organise where to meet someone at Flinders street train station, one of the busiest in the country. These nine clocks under the main entrance dome have witnessed when this station was reported to be busiest in the world in the 1920s with over 200,000 passengers per day passing through its doors.
However, it was not only train travellers who arranged to meet here. Located at the corners of Flinders and Swanston with the Yarra river to its rear the station is right in the city centre. This central location and the fact that everyone knows where the clocks are means it has become a meeting place for everyone from businessmen to young couples and holds an iconic place in the culture of Melbourne.
Dating from the 1860s the clocks are some fifty years older than the current station which was opened in 1909 after redevelopment. They were imported from England and show the departure times for the next trains and well as the departure platform. Originally the hands were changed manually with a long pole and its is estimated in a nine hour shift the operator may have had to change them 900 times. They have become such a part of Melbourne life that when they were removed in 1983 to make way for digital timekeepers there was an outpouring from the public that saw the decision to remove them reversed in a single day and the clocks remained where they were. Now updated automatically to keep pace with modern times the manual operator has gone but the clocks won’t be going anywhere soon.
I spent Christmas in Melbourne a number of years ago and am proud to say that that John the friend I was visiting in Melbourne did ask me to meet him under the clocks. He was living just off Batman street in the city and it is possible to walk to Flinders from there. It is fair to say that I liked Melbourne right from the start. Oozing with culture and with a more relaxed feel than Sydney this city of magnificent old buildings merges with street art and great coffee to make it likeable from the first minute.
The clocks make up one part of the interesting history of Flinders station and facts mix with fables to add to the mystery around one of the oldest buildings in the city.
Opened in 1854 it the first railway station built in an Australian city, with stream trains running between there and what is now the modern day Port Melbourne. The station became progressively busier until it reached its peak in the 1920s. Redevelopment of the city in the twentieth century meant things became less centralised with passenger numbers now running at under 80,000 daily, less than half of the 1920s peak.
The original station was demolished in 1904 and reopened five years later having been rebuilt in French Renaissance style. Made up of yellow stone and red brick this building dominates Flinders street and is one of the focal points of the city. The clocks survived the rebuild and are the one of the only parts, if not the only, that remain from the previous building.
This brings me to one of my favourite fables about Flinders street station. In 1899 a competition was held for the redesign of the building. The winners James Fawcett and HPC Ashworth won with their French Renaissance style design. However, there is a story which says the plans were switched with the Chhatrapati Shivaji station (formerly Victoria) in Mumbai resulting in a station which looked somewhat Indian in design in Melbourne and a more European structure in Mumbai. Although I doubt this is true it does make for a great story of intrigue and skulduggery.
Even the platforms in Flinders station have an interesting history. Originally there was a station close to Flinders called Princes Bridge and it was proposed to amalgamate these two by extending platform 1 at the end of the 1890s but the work was never carried out. In 1910 the stations were merged for signalling purposes and finally in 1966 both stations were joined by extending platform 1, which stretched over 800 metres. This remains the longest train platform in Australia and one of the longest in the world. Also in 1910 a milk dock was built at the north end of platform 1 to take in milk, dairy goods and small parcels for distribution in the city. These early morning trains were the most important means of bringing dairy goods in before the road transport took over.
Every old building has tales of hauntings and Flinders station is no different. There is only one story that I know of but there are probably many more. The one I am familiar with involves the ghost of an angler looking out into the direction of the Yarra river. He stands on platform 10 with his fishing gear and then disappears. This is believed to be the ghost of George Mansfield who died in the river in 1902 after a boating accident.
If the clocks at Flinders station could only talk. They have looked down on people meeting for well over century and have also looked out onto one of the busiest thoroughfares in Australia for all that time. The great and good have walked under them including the Olympians of the 1956 games and they have seen constant change. Not only outside the station but inside also where renovation and modernisation have battled to take over but the people of Melbourne have remained steadfast in their will to hold onto this wonderful station and the clocks at its entrance, which have taken on a character all of their own.