The Bondi Tram
- July 7, 2010
Long after the line itself is a lost memory, the Bondi tram will retain a place in the Australian language. In some future age, maybe a space traveller will say to a companion: ‘What’s the new rocket ship like, is it fast? ‘To which the other will doubtless reply: ‘Fast? I’ll say! It shoots through like Bondi tram…
People may have forgotten the origin of the phrase and whether or not it started with steam or electrics is an argument rather irrelevant to this story. To find the beginnings they’ll search dusty files for the story of Australia’s most famous tramway that began when Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England; when ‘Tea Gardens’ was the name for Bondi Junction and Bondi Beach, an expanse of deserted surf and empty sand hills.
If they look far enough they’ll find that there once was a steam tram that did ‘shoot through’ – reputedly at speeds of up to 50 mph (80km/h). Every weekday morning it sped from Bondi with its load of commuters bound for the city -a plume of steam drifting in the breeze, cars rolling like ships on an ocean swell, starch-collared businessmen solemnly consulting their watches and having a quiet wager as to whether or not they would beat the ocean street tram to Mark Foy’s corner. In the late afternoon the process was reversed.
Bondi tram travellers first glimpsed the ocean on May 24th 1884 when anew track, branching from the established Waverley route at Bondi Junction opened as far as Denham street corner. An extension on 29th August 1887 took it to the headland above Tamarama beach to serve the new Bondi Aquarium, which awed the crowd with a couple of vast man-eating sharks.
The zenith of the steam tram age was at hand when the line finally reached down the hill towards the pounding Pacific rollers. No pavilions, no milk bars, cafes or bottle shops; the trams terminated on a balloon loop with just a water tank for replenishing the boiler. Drivers warned to ‘watch out for sand drifts across the rails’.
The service began on the 19th of February 1894. A fourpenny fare (cheaper than the sixpence to Coogee Beach) bought a 35 minute ride covering the 5¾ miles (9km) from Bridge Street. But the would-be traveller needed to be on time, for at the start of the service,, one tram in the morning and one tram in the afternoon was the whole weekday schedule.
Summer weekends were a different story. Thousands packed the steam trams to picnic, sniff the ozone, let children paddle in the ripples; but they certainly did not bathe, for only lawbreakers or crackpots entered the surf in daylight. Push-up motors stationed at Bondi beach boosted the three-car holiday trams over a 1-19 grade through the rock cutting to Denham street, while on the outward run another pusher might be needed to assist on Barracks Hill between Darlinghurst junction and the Ocean Street siding.
Historian Gil Hayman recalled the introduction of the ‘Fishing special’s’ ‘taking the fishermen by express trams to the old Bondi terminus, near the top of Bellview Street, Tamarama. The fish tram left the city at 10am. Fishermen would board with their gear and spend a day on the ricks with rod and line’.
Steam was in its final golden era then. Express ‘mail’ trams were in operation to Bondi, Waverley Cemetery, Coogee beach, Botany, St Peters, Dulwich Hill, Abbotsford, Leichardt, Balmain and Glebe Point. The Bondi Expresses of up to four cars ran from the Aquarium to Upper Tamarama pausing at Bondi Junction, Paddington Post office for mail) then Ocean Street until reaching the city. They had first and second class accommodation and the road was kept clear by timetabling the all-stop trams to be refuged into loop sidings to let them pass. When the crowded holiday trams left Bondi Beach at dusk, they went belching fire as they chugged up the grade, giving watchers a foretaste of hell, a regular prelude to Dante’s Inferno.
The steam trams helped to build Bondi into a densely populated suburb, and to encourage the culture of surf worshipping that has never ceased. In some ways one can blame the Bondi steam tram for the failure of the successive governments to build a long overdue Eastern Suburbs railways, for it was easy to argue that the trams that ‘shot through’, whose speed and madcap progress earned a place in the lexicon of sayings that are essentially Australian, were more than adequate for the run to the beach.
This article is by Blue Horizon Printing, www.bluehorizonprinting.com.au , we offer a massive selection of replica tram and bus scrolls with a number of options for the Eastern suburbs and covering all major early tram routes. For more selections also visit our sister company at www.tramscrolls.com.au .
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Thanks to David Burke and his book ‘Juggernaut’, A story of Sydney in the wild days of the steam trams’.