Australia’s first electric tram: the Box Hill to Doncaster tramway

This article was written by Robert Green for the centenary of the Box Hill to Doncaster electric tramway in October 1989, and published in a commemorative pamphlet by the Box Hill City Council. Robert Green is a noted historian and author of The First Electric Road, the definitive history of the Box Hill to Doncaster tramway.
Box Hill and Doncaster Tramway Company tramcar No 2. La Trobe collection, State Library of Victoria Box Hill and Doncaster Tramway Company tramcar No 2.
La Trobe collection, State Library of Victoria.

From October 1889 until January 1896, an electric tram ran between the Box Hill Post Office, on the corner of Whitehorse Road and Station Street, and a terminus near the intersection of Elgar and Doncaster Roads, Doncaster. It was the first electric tram in Australia, and the southern hemisphere, to operate as a regular service. The history of this pioneer electric tramway is a story of technical innovation, initiative and perseverance by the early settlers at a time when Box Hill was a small but growing township.

The origin of the Box Hill-Doncaster electric tramway dates from the Centennial International Exhibition, held at the Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne, in 1888-89. Among the unusual attractions at this elaborate event was a working electric tramway exhibited by the electrical importer W.H. Masters and Company.

The people of Melbourne had enjoyed the novelty of cable trams for three years; visitors to the Exhibition, however, had the unique opportunity to ride on an electric tram less than twelve months after the technology had been perfected in America.

During the Exhibition, the primitive open tram carried nearly seventeen thousand passengers along a 300-yard (274 metre) track at threepence per ride. The Exhibition Commissioners awarded the Thomson-Houston Company of Boston [1], which had supplied the tram equipment, a First Order of Merit and a Gold Medal.

Meanwhile a syndicate of landowners and investors in the adjoining rural shires of Nunawading and Bulleen was planning a tramway between the townships of Box Hill and Doncaster. The line would provide Doncaster with a transport link to the railway at Box Hill and the syndicate hoped that it would promote sales of land being subdivided as well as attract tourists to the area.

At the time, Box Hill and Doncaster were among the largest fruit-growing areas in Victoria, The Nunawading Shire, of which Box Hill was then a part, was described as ‘undulating, picturesque and very healthy’. The agricultural township of Box Hill, with a population of 500, was situated on the railway line to Lilydale. It had a bank, two hotels and brickworks. A contemporary report noted that ‘property in this district is increasing in value and buildings are being erected in all directions’.

Box Hill had become the market town for the surrounding areas; it was booming and well serviced. The railway line through Box Hill was opened in 1882 and by 1888 the town had regular letter deliveries and a telegraph service. (It was not until 1914, however, that the municipal electric supply undertaking commenced operations.)

In October 1888 the consortium of landowners and investors formed the Box Hill and Doncaster Tramway Company Limited. This company had an authorised capital of fifteen thousand pounds. William Meader became its chairman.

The Company purchased the electric tram, generating dynamo and steam engine from the Centennial Exhibition and let a contract for construction of 2.25 miles (3.6 kilometres) of earthworks and track. Second-hand rails from Tasmania were used for the standard gauge line.

Advertising poster for Box Hill-Doncaster tramway, circa 1892-1896. Melbourne Tram Museum collection Advertising poster for Box Hill-Doncaster tramway, circa 1892-1896.
Poster from the Melbourne Tram Museum collection.

One writer described how they ‘cut the route from Whitehorse Road in the south, out across the paddocks, over Koonung Creek, and up to Doncaster, leaving a brand new road behind them. At the Doncaster end reared that famous tower, 285 feet [87 metres] high, which had been erected by an enterprising publican. Already it had stood for ten years and from its platforms thousands of visitors had been awestruck by views of immense breadth and depth’.

There was some opposition from locals who objected to construction of the tramway on the grounds that it would supplant the need for a railway to Doncaster and bring ‘undesirable tourists’.

The hilly route through private property followed what is now Station Street and Tram Road; the line between Koonung Creek and Doncaster was particularly steep and winding. The Union Electric Company of Australia Limited was engaged to erect overhead wiring, install the power generating equipment and operate the line for a period of six months.

The combined engine house and tram shed was erected on the south bank of Bushy Creek (just north of Wimmera Street). The creek was dammed to provide water for the steam-generating plant.

After considerable obstacles were overcome, the line was finally opened on 14 October 1889 by a local Parliamentarian and Government Whip, Ewen Cameron, MLA. The occasion was appropriately celebrated with a lavish banquet and succession of toasts and speeches at the Tower Hotel, Doncaster.

The tramway was an initial success and a second tram was ordered from the Thomson-Houston Company of Boston. By the time the Union Electric Company handed over the working of the line to the Tramway Company a profit of fifty-eight pounds had been realised.

The tram made ten round trips on weekdays and additional trips on weekends averaging a speed of about nine miles (14 kilometres) per hour. The single fare between Box Hill and Doncaster was sixpence. Arrangements were made with the Victorian Railways for issue of a combined first class tram and train ticket from Melbourne via Box Hill and return, costing one shilling and sixpence.

Soon after the Union Electric Company’s contract to operate the line ceased, troubles began to develop. The steep gradients and sharp curves of the line severely taxed the underpowered primitive electric car, which constantly broke down under the strain. This annoyed many locals but especially the South Doncaster Estate Company Limited, which had allowed the line to be constructed through its land just north of Whittens Lane.

In November 1890 the Estate Company requested a guarantee from the Tramway Company that the line would operate on a regular basis. When this was refused, the Estate Company removed 50 yards (46 metres) of track from its land.

This was a severe blow to the Tramway Company, which was by then experiencing financial difficulties. It had already been involved in litigation over construction of the line and three employees of the Company were pressing for payment of wages. The directors tried to extricate the Company from the predicament by offering the line and equipment for sale. This was not successful so on 25 December 1890 they began a truncated service from Box Hill to Whittens Lane with the new enclosed tram, which had recently arrived from America.

A compromise was subsequently reached between the feuding parties and the Tramway Company reinstated the trackwork. By January 1891 the entire line was again operational – but not for long. In February, the Estate Company again removed the rails over a question of legal fees relating to the initial dispute. By now, the Tramway Company was in severe financial straits, through lack of regular revenue and other problems.

In April the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank [2] successfully sued the Tramway Company for recovery of some five hundred pounds. Three employees also obtained judgements against the Company for non-payment of wages. As the Company was unable to pay, the Sheriff sold the trams and equipment to George Thomson. During the following month, the Company decided to go into voluntary liquidation, as economic recovery was impossible.

Mr Thomson, through his agent William Ellingworth [3], ran the line satisfactorily until June 1891 when the South Doncaster Estate Company threatened to blow up the line with dynamite if ‘certain conditions’ were not met. The tram service was stopped and the employees dismissed. Within days, fences were erected across the Estate Company’s boundaries and a deep trench cut across the right of way to stop passage of traffic. A notice in the local press warned that no public road existed through the Estate Company’s land.

Incensed by the blockade, locals removed the fence and filled in the trench. Not to be outdone, the Estate Company retaliated by chopping down poles carrying the overhead wires. Locals suspended an effigy of the Estate Company’s secretary, Alfred Tankard, from the tram wire at the Doncaster terminus. This was later burnt on a bonfire.

Frustrated by the inability to properly run the line, Thomson sold his interest to Richard Serpell of Doncaster. The deadlock over the right of way was finally broken in September 1891 when the landowners, through whose land was laid, offered to transfer the right of way to the newly created Shire of Doncaster free of charge providing it was declared a public road. This was achieved over a long period and Tram Road was finally gazetted a public highway in November 1901.

The year 1892 heralded a new era for the tramway. In February the Doncaster and Box Hill Electric Road Company Limited, with an authorised capital of twelve thousand pounds, was formed to take over the line, The main promoters of this new company were Richard Serpell and Matthew Glassford, a Melbourne merchant.

The Doncaster section was straightened to ease the steepest gradient and trams began running under the auspices of the new Company in March 1892. During the following year, Henry Hilton was appointed manager of the tramway and from that time the line was run on a more regular and profitable basis.

The tourist potential of the tramway was widely advertised. On Easter Monday 1893, a record number of more than 1,300 passengers were carried. However, as the tramway settled on a more successful course, economic conditions which had boomed for the previous few years deteriorated rapidly.

During Easter 1893 the Tramway Company’s bank suspended business and did not reopen its doors until August. Thus credit or any cash it may have had deposited was unavailable. The Tramway Company struggled on until April 1894 when it leased the line and plant to Henry Hilton for one shilling per week until such time as economic circumstances improved. Hilton was assisted by his cousin William Hilton. They privately referred to the enterprise as their ‘bob a week tram service’.

Henry Hilton pursued every avenue of economy and by prudent operation managed a modest profit. But it was hardly a satisfactory living. After a long and difficult struggle he finally closed the tramway on 6 January 1896.

Some of the overhead copper wire was stolen before the tramway could be dismantled. The rails were sold to a sawmiller in the Otway Forest. After languishing in the tram shed for some years the two trams were sold to H.V. McKay. The tram motors were adapted for use at his Sunshine Harvester Works and the bodies became shelters at the factory’s recreation ground, now known as Chaplin Reserve.

For many years the old tram shed and engine house at Bushy Creek were frequented by swagmen. By the Second World War, only the dam and foundations for the engine house equipment remained.

In 1940 the Box Hill Council erected a cairn to mark the terminus of the tramway. Until demolished by an errant motor vehicle in 1988, this small memorial stood outside the Box Hill Post Office. The Council further commemorated the tramway in 1971, when the right of way behind the Post Office was named Hilton’s Lane, after Henry Hilton, the former engineer and lessee.

In October 1989, on the tramway’s 100th anniversary, the plaque from the cairn was reinstated in Station Street and new plaques commemorating the centenary unveiled. A full size replica of the first tram is on permanent display at the Doncaster-Templestowe Historical Society’s museum at Schramm’s Cottage, Doncaster.

Probably the best-known monument to Australia’s pioneer electric tramway is Tram Road, Doncaster. The history of roads is in some measure the history of civilisation. Tram Road therefore serves as a permanent reminder of the aspirations, trials, failures and triumphs of the pioneers of the district.


Green, R (1989) The First Electric Road, J. Mason Press


[1] Merged with the Edison General Electric Company in 1892 to form the General Electric Company, now known as GE.

[2] Merged with the Australia and New Zealand Bank (ANZ) in 1970.

[3] Remembered by the street name of Ellingworth Parade, Box Hill.