Tram museum delivers a nostalgic journey

Set on five acres in Ferny Grove, the Brisbane Tramway Museum is a testament to the 90 dedicated volunteers who have been looking after it since 1968.  Some of them are there for the love of tram history, others are members of the Ferny Grove Men’s Shed.

Yes, this is definitely a place for the boys and it’s just as well they volunteer, as there is no fund great enough to pay for the hours of dedication and commitment so happily given in the carpentry workshop; in machining and electrics, to keep a selection of trams on the rails and restore many more.

Silky oak and blackbean seats are lovingly restored, brass polished, engines cleaned. There’s always a job to be done. For the visitor, it’s a nostalgic journey.

Although the first horsedrawn trams arrived in Brisbane in 1885, followed by the first electric tram in 1897.

In 1944-45, with troops stationed in Brisbane and fuel rationing, passenger numbers peaked when 408 trams carried 160 million passengers. By 1949-50 there were 428 trams and by 1952, 108kms of track. The last trams left the city after midnight “to clear the drunks out”.

The trams reached their zenith in the 1950s, when cars were still a luxury for most families. Trams were the way to go. And go they did, all over the city, from Ashgrove to Bulimba, Bardon to Stafford, Salisbury to Clayfield, Mt Gravatt to Belmont and the Valley, Chermside to Enoggera, Rainworth to Kalinga, Toowong to the Grange and Balmoral to Ascot.

The museum tells their story, from static displays of ticket punchers and conductor’s uniforms to signage (entertainment in itself) and tours of various trams.

There’s even a mercury vapour rectifier, which looks like it came straight out of a science fiction movie. Containing two litres of mercury, it was used to break down 11,000 volts AC to 600DC for operation of the trams. There is also 500m of useable track to ride on one of the three working trams.  Plans to recreate a 1950s streetscape are now underway.

The old signal box which was elevated over the street outside McWhirters at the corner of Wickham and Brunswick streets in the Valley is there, complete with its levers –  and a toilet. The signalman could not leave his post during his eight hours on duty, so he worked beside a flush toilet inside his little signal box.

There were a number of elevated boxes at busy junctions with complicated trackwork. It was the signalman’s job to use his elevated position to read the destination blind of an oncoming tram and set the points and signals to ensure it was on its correct path.

This was done by levers which changed points and signals hydraulically.

Thirty Sunbeam trolley buses were ordered from England in 1947, but didn’t arrive until 1950 because of post-war materials shortages. They were soon dubbed “whispering death” because nobody heard them coming.

The trolley bus service ended just a few months before the trams in 1969 but a Sunbeam has been preserved.

Another treasure is the Scammel tractor truck. It was produced by the UK war office as an ammunition supply and towing vehicle for artillery and used at Tobruk and El Alamein to carry loads of 15 tons or more of ammunition.

On February 19, 1945, the Australian Army sold it to Brisbane City Council which had it modified to assist in derailments and other tram and bus breakdowns. After 36 years it was retired and arrived at the museum in 1982. Nicknamed Scamp, it was driven under its own power from the city to its new home at Ferny Grove.

The death knell for Brisbane trams sounded on September 28, 1962, when 65 trams were lost in a devastating fire at the Paddington depot.

This sudden loss of almost one quarter of the tram fleet caused both immediate heartache and then lasting damage to Brisbane’s public transport system. The end finally came on April 13, 1969, when services ceased to Belmont, Ascot, Balmoral, Clayfield, Salisbury, New Farm, West End Dutton Park and Mount Gravatt.

Brisbane Tramway Museum,
50 Tramway St, Ferny Grove. Visit brisbanetramwaymuseum.org