Marvellous! An economic history lesson from Flinders St Station

I am completely entranced by this old photo of Melbourne’s most iconic intersection.

Source: Flickr

The shot tells a story of changes in technology and economics. For starters, there are four horse-drawn carts in the photo.

While a busy Friday night in 2014 might still see a horse and carriage at this intersection, in 2014 they’d be pulling regretful tourists, not valuable cargo. The decline of the horse and rise of the car coincides with the industrialisation of the fuel-making process. In 1927, oil company Mobil was just 16 years old.

Here’s a Google Maps image of the intersection today.

The tram stops also tell a story of change, not so much in technology as values. The tram stops of the jazz age – located in the middle of the street, amid a stream of traffic – amount to little more than a bit of paint on the ground. That has changed. Tram stops now are highly protected from traffic, probably because the value society places on human life has risen along with wealth and productivity.


One familiar thing in the shot is traffic. We see cars stacked three across and two deep, getting ready to hook turn from Flinders St onto Princes Bridge in the foreground of the shot. (For non-Melbourne readers, the hook turn is a unique form of torture inflicted by this city on unwitting drivers, for the purposes of mirth.)

The street at the top of the photograph – Swanston Street – is now closed to car traffic. The externalities associated with car traffic are very clear in this intersection, as early as 1927. (I am referring not to pollution, but the way the presence of one car on the road slows down all the others.) The proliferation of cars in the last 90 years means these externalities would have developed to city-threatening proportions had the use of cars not been limited.

The crowds suggest patterns of work is much the same. But it doesn’t show the city at night, which would reveal far more differences in society, in dress codes, and the purchasing power of young people especially. Zooming in would also reveal big differences in ethnic composition, thanks to the ease of global travel.

There are no bicycles in the shot, which is a surprise to me. Standing at this intersection now, you’d struggle to frame a shot without a bike in it.


Apparently cycling was extremely popular in the 1890s. That enthusiasm has seemingly waned by the time film was exposed for this shot. Will Melbourne’s current love affair with bikes also prove transitory, or is this shot just unrepresentative?

There have been a lot of technology changes since the 1920s. One of the most dramatic is in construction. Despite being a shot of the city, this photo, repeated today, would not show any sky scrapers. This area has heritage protection. Perhaps there were height controls even then – the shadows reveal bigger buildings lurk just outside the frame.

Most of the technology changes since the 1920s are at a smaller, human scale. The contents of the pockets of the people in the shot is probably where the most dramatic changes would be evident. The one clue we have in this shot to that sort of technological change is the fact it is shot in sepia. Image

There are a lot of lessons in this old shot, a lot of differences. But the biggest single point is probably the similarity.

The crowds swarming across Flinders St look exactly as they do today. That suggests the patterns of life – catch a train into the city, go to work, go home – have not changed too much. And three of those four corners – the railway station, the pub and the cathedral remain the same. Only the old Princes Bridge Railway Station in the bottom right is gone, replaced with Federation Square.

Swanston Street 2014

The trams in the shot are cable trams – they are not powered by electric wires but pulled along by a cable that ran beneath the street. [edit: apparently cable trams were replaced by electric trams the year before this shot was taken.]

Despite the advent of electricity and computers, trams still follow these same routes.

This shows the way infrastructure and patterns of human life endure. Technology is often first used to do the same old tasks a bit differently. We don’t quickly end up in a Jetson’s future, but a sort of inverted Flintstones, where the objects are much the same and the technology behind them is different.

(Cable tram video you will find terrific if you like history, Melbourne or public transport.)

What else do you notice about this photo? Please leave a comment!


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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

9 thoughts on “Marvellous! An economic history lesson from Flinders St Station”

  1. Jason, there were height restrictions, of 40m, up until the early 1950s. But the only nearby building that abutted them – the Nicholas Building – is just out of shot.

    I’m not sure there are hook turns, so much as a lack of lanes and a need to avoid crowds. You’ll notice there are no traffic lights, but policemen directing traffic, and that pedestrians have free reign. This was still true in 1954 because the Metropolitan Planning Scheme lamented that “The greater the number of pedestrians crossing the streets, the greater the interruption to the free movement of traffic.” (The 1954 plan is an interesting read, and very of its time).

    As you note, most of the heritage features are intact, but I will lament one: the shop-front awnings with their distinctive verandahs and cast-iron posts were much more attractive than the post-free square boxes they were replaced with. As far as I can recall, only one building on Swanston St still has the older style, opposite the town hall, which is a pity. Some country towns (and North Melbourne) are much more fortunate. Ironically they were removed to reduce clutter, but 50 years later we reintroduced clutter in spades so we could sit outside.

    Final observation, the seats outside the cathedral marked “Ladies Only” don’t seem to be there in 1927. Which is interesting, because I thought they were older?


    1. I had not noticed the policemen! I see one now, standing right in the middle of the tram tracks.

      You’re right about the verandahs on the streets. Sections of Smith St Collingwood have them and they are not only aesthetically pleasing but also useful to lock a bike too!

      As clearways come into force more and on-street parking is less available, gutter-side buffer zones full of “clutter” are more and more valuable for making pedestrians feel comfortable and safe.


  2. A great commentary Jason, but I have one nitpick – those are not actually cable trams. Melbourne’s cable tram routes were in the process of being electrified at the time, and the electrification of Swanston St and St Kilda Rd was completed in 1926, a year before the date of this photo. Sure enough, if you look closely at the trams you’ll see they have trolley poles.

    Even by the 1930s there were only a handful of cable tramways remaining, and they were gone by World War II.


    1. Thanks Tony. I was just advised of same by Daniel Bowen on twitter! I guess the resolution of the picture is the reason I can’t see the overhead wires.


  3. Great post Jason, and the only other thing I would say about this intersection is about St Pauls Cathedral on the north east corner. I believe in the photo they are constructing the neo-gothic spires which maybe was a kind of cultural cringe about the way our places of worship measured up (architecturally at least) with those in the old world. Even the prominent location of the church here, together with its extensive land area is interesting and makes me reflect on how our society, and values have changed significantly even in such a short time. Imagine that sort of prominent location and land area being allocated to a place of worship in one of our inner city urban renewal precincts today (directly opposite two major train stations and several tram routes!!) Fascinating stuff.


    1. You’re right Alana. These days such a massive and centrally located structure would only be built to worship either shopping, art or coffee!

      The church could sell that space and use the funds to feed the poor for, I don’t know, a century?


  4. There are 5 policemen, easy to spot with their white headpiece. Instead of traffic lights 5 policemen doing the same job. Just as you wrote we do the same thing the only change is the way of doing it. Marathon runner, pigeonhole, mail, email, tweet, and now Yo the app to send one and only one message Yo.


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