The area involved in this brief article is situated north west of the centre of Melbourne, being from two to six miles distant. During most of the latter half of the last century, the transport serving the district consisted of the Victorian Railways' main country line to Bendigo (with a branch line to the Agricultural Society's Showgrounds at Flemington, and the adjacent Racecourse), horse cabs and some horse omnibuses. Although known generally as “Essendon”, it consists of Flemington, Ascot Vale, Moonee Ponds and Essendon. Towards the close of the last century, the population of this area was increasing quite steadily, as suburban housing devoured the farmlands, and can be illustrated by the population of Essendon (the outermost of the abovementioned districts) :- 1897 – 13,000 people; 1906 – 20,000 people. The outcome was the inevitable agitation for improved transport facilities, which were coupled with the usual counter-arguments, delays, appeals, “back-biting”, accusations, etc., all taking place over a considerable period of time, before any positive action could be taken.
Finally, the Cabinet of the recently appointed Premier of Victoria Mr. (later Sir) T. Bent, approved the application by a Mr. Morgan to install electric electric tramways in the area, on 29th March, 1904, and a poll of ratepayers overwhelmingly voted in favour of the proposal on 29th July, 1904, by 2874 votes to 146. The concession was transferred by Mr. Morgan to the North Melbourne Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Limited, which had been formed for the purpose of constructing the proposed tramways, and to supply electricity in the area. Land was purchased on the east side of Mount Alexander Road, Ascot Vale, upon which to erect offices, car barn and power house, and the foundation stone for the latter was laid by the Mayors of Essendon and Flemington on 24th May, 1905. A month later, the Premier laid the first rail at the west end of Racecourse Road, amidst due ceremony and followed by appropriate festivities.
Under the terms of the agreement, the promoter was to construct certain tramways in the two municipalities and operate them for 30 years, and supply electricity in the area, and at the end of the period the whole scheme was to become absolute property of the municipalities, the only payment due being for the freehold lands involved. Other clauses in the agreement allowed the municipalities to acquire the undertaking, if they so desired, in 1916 (when the Melbourne cable tramway system lease expired), and at 20 and 25 years, at valuation. The promoter agreed to run the trams at least every 20 minutes at eight miles per hour, with an adult fare of 2d. for the full journey and children at half fare. Woman's tickets, at half rates, where to be issued in the morning and evening. The Promoter also agreed to maintain at least sixteen feet of the roadway in the middle of all the streets traversed by the tramways, for the full thirty years.
The Company built two main tramway routes, commencing from a common terminus at Flemington Bridge, adjacent to the terminus of the North Melbourne cable tramway, two miles from Melbourne. The route was double track along Mount Alexander Road for almost 1¾ miles to Moonee Ponds Junction, where it became single for the remainder of the route to Essendon, via Pascoe Vale Road, Fletcher Street and Mount Alexander Road, a further distance of almost two miles. The second route branched off the Mount Alexander Road route about 3/8 mile from Flemington Bridge, and traversed Victoria Street, Racecourse Road, Epsom Road and Union Road in double track, a distance of approximately 2¼ miles. The route then turned into Maribyrnong Road in single track and ran another ¾ mile to the Maribyrnong (Saltwater) River. A short branch, ¼ mile long in single track, was also constructed in Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds, westwards off the first mentioned route. The total distance of thoroughfares traversed was thus approximately seven miles, and, as four miles of double track were involved, the single track mileage was about 11. All the single track was laid with provision for duplication, with passing loops (place at half-mile intervals) likewise. A long loop was provided at the Essendon Railway station, and the line passed underneath the main railway line a few yards further north, while there was a level crossing with the Flemington branch railway in Epsom Road, after passing under the main line at Newmarket Station.
The track was laid to standard (4' 8½”) gauge, with 90lb. rail of British Standard Section N.1 in 30ft. lengths, jointed with standard fishplates. Electric continuity through the rails was ensured by pairs of protected copper bonds at each rail joint and inter-track and cross-track bonds every 80 yards. The gauge was maintained by tie-bars spaced at 7'6” centres, while the were carried on continuous longitudinal concrete stringers. The points and crossings were of specially toughened cast steel, with specially hardened insets. The roadway was completed by bluestone macadam. The track laying progressed at the rate of approximately ¾ mile per week.
The current collection was by fixed-head under-running trolley wheel from contact wire suspended from bracket arms on centre poles or span wire held by side poles. All poles were of ironbark of grey box timber except those in Puckle Street and in the vicinity of that junction, these being of steel construction. The trolleywire was divided by insulators into sections every half-mile, in order that any breakdown of defect could be isolated and only a short length of route taken out of use. The Power House was an impressive brick structure with large cooling tower and very tall brick chimney at its rear. Babcock and Wilcox water-tube boilers, Browlett and Lindley main engines, General Electric generators and British Thomson-Houston switch-gear comprised the main equipment, and enabled 550 volts d.c. to be supplied to the trolley wire. The Car Shed was also a brick construction, and was designed to accommodate 28 tramcars. One turn-out branched from the main line and diverged into six roads for the Shed trackage. Pit-space was provided for eight cars, while workshop facilities included space and equipment for painting, fitting, turning and smith-work. Storerooms were situated at the rear of the car-shed while the adjacent office building (also of brick construction) house the managerial staff and mess rooms for the crews.
The rolling stock commissioned by the Company comprised 25 units. Tramcars Nos. 1 to 10 were end-loading eight-window saloon motors, Nos. 11-15 were open cross-bench motors, and Nos. 51-60 were open cross-bench trailers. All were carried of four-wheel trucks, those under the motor cars being Brill 21E type with 7'0” wheel base. The 15 motor cars were constructed by J.G. Brill Co., Philadelphia, U.S.A., and assembled locally by the Adelaide firm of Duncan and Fraser, who also built the ten trailer cars. The saloon cars seated 32 passengers, the “toastrack” motors 50 and the trailers 45. As far as is known, no service stock was ever on the roster, and the aforementioned 25 passenger cars were the only ones to serve the Company though its existence. It has previously been believed that the ten trailers had been numbered 16 to 25, but a recent discovery makes it appear almost certain that they were numbered 51 to 60.
The grand opening ceremony finally took place on Thursday, 11th October, 1906, with gala events, speeches and refreshments typical of the era. The following day the Company invited the school children of the district and many local personalities to ride the trams, and the service was thrown open to the general public on the Saturday. Sunday 14th provided almost an onslaught of passengers, and the cars were heavily loaded. The service soon settled down to routine working, and appears to have had a rather quite life. The only known alteration to the trackage was made on 27th August, 1913, when the Flemington Bridge terminus was extended a short distance towards the city so that it was parallel to and a few yards north of the cable tram terminus.
The matter of Melbourne's public transport had been a growing problem to State Parliament and many local Councils for many years, and finally resulted in the formation of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board to assume control of the several tramway Trusts and Companies. The Board took over the main cable tramway system on 1st November, 1919, and the other undertakings on 2nd February, 1920, except the North Melbourne Electric Tramways and Lighting Co. Ltd. and the Victorian Railways tramways. After negotiations, the North Melbourne Co. sold its tramway system to the M.&M.T.B. as from 1st August, 1922. (It also sold its power supply section to the then recently formed State Electricity Commission of Victoria).
Although this brief history of the N.M.E.T.&L. Co. Ltd. has thus been brought to a close, a few words about subsequent events may be appropriate. The M.&M.T.B. numbered the motors cars 202-211 and 212-216, classes U and V, respectively, but withdrew the trailers in September, 1923, following a fatality in a runaway accident. The toastrack motors appear to have been soon withdrawn from passenger service, and used as works motors for varying periods. The saloon motors gave from a few years more passenger service up to about 16 years of such. Today, one former “toastrack” is in daily use as the systems' “Freight Car” (although well rebuilt), one of the saloon cars is its “spare”, while the chassis and truck of one of the trailers provides the “foundations” for the ballast trailer. The Puckle Street line was closed on 12th January, 1924, but the other routes remain and have received a number of extensions over the years. Much of the original trackage has been relaid in the last decade, while the Showgrounds level crossing was rebuilt to a road/tram underpass in the middle 1920's. The Car Shed is now roads Nos. 13-18 of the present Essendon Depot.
Much of the information mentioned above had been gleaned from “The Coming of The Trams” (published in 1906), and “The Essendon Tramways”, by J. Richardson, 1963.