Hawthorn horse tram. Photo: Public Record Office, Victoria, VPRS 12800 P1, H 5359. Copyright has expired.

Cable tram dummy number 28 and trailer number 256, Hawthorn tram depot, Hawthorn, Melbourne, 14 January 2017.

Great Tram Robbery

David Matheson

15 October 2018

 

While the robbery of a Royal Mail train in Britain in 1963 is world famous as the Great Train Robbery, a less prominent event in Melbourne is sometimes known as the Great Tram Robbery. In the early hours of one morning in 1901 a horse tram was held up, and its driver and passengers were robbed.

 

The Robbery

Around 12.30 am on 18 August 1901 a horse tram was travelling along Riversdale Road in Hawthorn. On board were driver Thomas Taylor and eight passengers. The passengers were all men who had travelled on the last cable tram for the night from the city. At Hawthorn Bridge they transferred to the horse tram. Around eight minutes after beginning its journey, the horse tram was travelling around a curve in a wooded area near the river, shortly after turning the corner from Power Street. It was dark because the street lights had been turned off at midnight. The tram was climbing a hill and the driver noticed two men on the road and another two nearby. Thinking that the men might be intending passengers, the driver slowed the tram.

 

The horses were moving at around a walking pace when three of the men jumped aboard the tram. They had their faces covered and were wearing slouch hats and tweed coats. The other man who was part of the group kept watch from nearby. One of the men held a gun to the cheek of driver Taylor and demanded, “Stop those horses! Pull up your horses, you ----, or I’ll spill your brains on the floor!” Driver Taylor said, “Let me put on the brake”, but the robber responded, “Never mind the brake; do as you’re told.” Taylor explained that without the brake the weight of the carriage may cause it to roll backwards down the hill and possibly overturn. He was allowed to apply the brake and was then thrown into the interior passenger section. Leslie Park, a solicitor and passenger who had been smoking on the back platform, was also pushed into the inside section of the carriage.

 

It was late at night and most of the passengers were drowsy, but their attention was quickly drawn to the unfolding events. The robbers demanded that the passengers turn out their pockets if they did not want a funeral in their families. Various threats were made as money and valuables were collected. Leslie Park tried to hide a silver watch, chain and gold medal that were valuable to him, but one of the robbers noticed and demanded he hand them over. Park pleaded, “These are worth very little to you, only a silver watch and a medal.” The robber allowed him to keep them.

 

One of the robbers walked through the tram demanding, “Fares please.” Some of the passengers were searched while one of the robbers kept watch at the front of the tram. It seemed that the robbers were in a hurry because they did not search all of the passengers thoroughly and some retained money in their pockets. The cash box containing two pounds and ten shillings in fares was taken from Driver Taylor, but five pounds of his own money that he had in his pocket was missed by the robbers. One of the passengers, Charles Jones, hit one of the robbers with his umbrella, declaring, “You ruffian, you took me down for six pounds.” The robber struck back, thrusting a revolver into his face, cutting his nose, and causing him to slump to the floor. He then searched Jones, finding more money that had previously been overlooked.

 

Before leaving the scene one of the robbers turned to the passengers and called out, “If any of you turn your heads in the next few minutes you’ll never turn them again.” The robbers disappeared into the darkness. They had collected a total of around £25, along with several watches and chains.

 

After The Robbery

Driver Taylor drove the horse tram forward; four of the passengers alighted at Glenferrie Road and then reported the incident at a nearby police station. The tram continued to the terminus of the line and Taylor reported the incident at the Riversdale Hotel. A number of police were sent to investigate but no trace of the robbers could be found. Taylor returned to the scene later. In the mud near the river he found a few coins, but the cash box was missing. It had possibly been emptied of money and then thrown into the river.

 

A reward of £300 was offered for information that might lead to the arrest of the robbers. A pardon was also offered if any of them should assist in the conviction of the others. The offers were to no avail and the robbers were never apprehended.

 

Horse tramways began operating in Melbourne on 20 December 1884. The first line ran from Fairfield railway station to Thornbury. A number of horse tramways operated until 1923. The line from Hawthorn Bridge cable tram terminus to Auburn Road, along which the horse tram involved in the robbery was travelling, was opened in 1890. It was closed in in 1916 after it was sold for conversion to an electric tramway.

 

The Hawthorn Bridge to Auburn Road horse tram line connected at Hawthorn Bridge with a cable tramway from the city. Passengers travelling on the horse tram had transferred from a cable tram at Hawthorn Bridge. Cable trams first commenced operating in Melbourne on 11 November 1885 when this line was opened from Flinders Street to Hawthorn Bridge. Melbourne developed an extensive cable tram network, reaching 45.9 miles (73.9 km) by the end of the 1880s, with around 1200 cars in operation. Most of the network was eventually converted to electric traction. The last cable tram in Melbourne operated from the city to Clifton Hill on 26 October 1940.

 

Most of the horse and cable tram lines in Melbourne were eventually converted to electric traction. In 1919 the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) was formed as a government body to control and operate tramways in Melbourne. Prior to the establishment of the MMTB there were various private tramways within the city, but most eventually came under the control of the MMTB. The MMTB controlled tramways within Melbourne until 1983.

 

The Current Scene

The tramway network in Melbourne is today operated by Yarra Trams. It is the largest operating tramway network in the world, consisting of 250 kilometres of double track. The network has 25 routes, including the City Circle loop route, and there are 1763 tram stops. The network is standard gauge (1435 mm) and electrified throughout, using 600 volts DC. Tram services operate for 20 hours each day. There are eight operational tram depots: Brunswick, Camberwell, Essendon, Glenhuntly, Kew, Malvern, Preston and Southbank.

 

The Melbourne Tram Museum@Hawthorn Depot is located at the junction of Power Street and Wallen Road in Hawthorn, close to the site of the Great Tram Robbery in 1901. It was an operating tram depot from 1916 to 1965. In 2003 it opened as a tramway museum. Today, it has a collection of 21 historic Melbourne tramcars and related objects, including a cable tram grip car and trailer. Hawthorn depot is open to visitors on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.

  

References

‘An audacious crime: midnight sensation at Hawthorn’, Argus, 19 August 1901, p. 5.

‘An audacious outrage: Hawthorn tram bailed up’, Leader, 24 August 1901, p. 22.

‘Daring highway robbery: a tram bailed up at Hawthorn tram bailed up’, Weekly Times, 24 August 1901, p. 23.

Dwyer, R, ‘Armed and Masked Footpads at Hawthorn’ The Bellcord, no. 9, June 2010, pp. 4–5.

Kelly, M, Australian trams through the ages, Topmill, Sydney, 2015.

Melbourne Tram Museum@Hawthorn Depot <www.hawthorntramdepot.org.au>.

‘Tramcar held up’, The Australasian, 24 August 1901, p. 36.

Yarra Trams <www.yarratrams.com.au>.

A2 Class tram 290, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, 19 December 2017. The Great Tram Robbery took place in this vicinity.

Wallen Road frontage to the former Hawthorn tram depot, Melbourne. The Melbourne Tram Museum@Hawthorn Depot is located inside the building. Photo: Marcus Wong, Wikimedia Commons.