Scratching Sydney’s Surface

Exploring hidden Sydney


Central Station

9 June 2016: Time, Clocks and Towers

It is hard now to imagine when telling the time was a difficult thing to do. With everyone having a phone or at least a watch, it is easy to forget that not that long ago public time pieces were, for many, the best available option for getting to work on time, making sure they caught the train or made the meeting.

It’s amazing how many of these clocks and timepieces were sited around Sydney, and even more amazing how many survive still. The most prominent of these were the clock towers, which in their day, loomed over the low scale city round them and were visible to all the workers scurrying back and forth to offices and factories.

From the earliest days of the colony time was important. Convicts were sent here to do time, and their days were broken up into timed patterns. In 1797 Governor Hunter erected the first clock tower to the west of the settlement on what is now Church Hill. The tower was 46 metres high with its clock facing the town. The tower was damaged in a storm in 1799 and then collapsed in 1806. The clock itself was salvaged and re-erected in a smaller tower the following year.

The oldest clock still working in Sydney is in the façade of the Hyde Park Barracks. This was installed in 1819 by convict clockmaker James Oatley. Oatley, appointed as Keeper of the Town Clock by Governor Macquarie installed a number of public clocks across Sydney, with clocks in churches at Parramatta, Campbelltown, Windsor and Liverpool amongst others. The suburb Oatley is named after him.

Of the clock towers it is those at the Sydney Town Hall (1884), the Lands Department (c1890, clock 1938), the old General Post Office (1891), and Central Station (1921) that remain as the best examples. Each was built so as their clocks could be seen across the part of the city they stood in or from the approaching ferries to Circular Quay. Workers would check them as they went to their jobs. Their heights hint at the low scale of the nineteenth century metropolis and they could be seen across surrounding suburbs. Central Station, which was visible across the industrial suburbs of Redfern and South Sydney was colloquially known as “The Working Man’s Watch” for this reason. Town Hall Clock was visible from Balmain. Their prominence on the skyline was such that during World War II the GPO clock tower was dismantled for fear it would provide a target for Japanese air raids.  It was not rebuilt until the 1960s.

GPO Clock being removed 1942 (NAA C4078 N1914D)
GPO Clock being removed 1942 (NAA C4078 N1914D)

While the others worked independently, the clock at Central was the centre of an intricate system of integrated clocks around the station and across the Sydney train network. A system of electrical pulses regulated the time across the network so all showed the same time. Correct time is essential to safe and efficient running of railway networks and has been from the start. As such, the adoption of railway time as local time as the network extended across Sydney and NSW was instrumental in the eventual adoption of it as standard time for NSW and later Australia from 1895.

Central Station with its landmark clock tower in 1952. It still towers over the southern end of Sydney. (NAA A 1200 L 14553)
Central Station with its landmark clock tower in 1952. It still towers over the southern end of Sydney. (NAA A 1200 L 14553)

The scale of these clocks is not appreciated from the ground, but some ideas of the size of the mechanism can be taken from the fact that the Central Clock hands are 2.3m and 3m each, with the clock face itself is 4.8m in diameter. Upgraded in 2014 the Central Clock continues to provide accurate time, although fewer notice it these days.

Check out this short film on the history of the clocks on the Sydney system.


27 June 2014: Sydney’s Ghost Railway

Like many major world cities, underground Sydney is crisscrossed with tunnels of all kinds.  Most are in use carrying water, sewers, people, cars and trains but some have long been abandoned or never used.

Some of the best belong to Sydney’s railways: abandoned and never completed bits of infrastructure, built in the time when railway engineers had grand plans.  Of these, the most impressive are those at Central and St James Stations, built as part of the Eastern Suburbs Railway (ESR) in the 1940s and the City Circle in the 1930s.

The Central Station tunnels are located above the existing ESR line.  Known as Ghost Platform 26 and 27, these were built between 1947 and 1952 as part of the first work on the ESR and a proposed southern suburban line.  When work was stopped in 1952 the platforms and stub tunnels (extending about 30m each end of the platforms) were complete.

However, when the work restarted in the 1960s, it was decided not to proceed with the southern suburban line, so the platforms were left as they were, half finished.  Two other tunnels and platforms were also constructed at Redfern Station as part of the same system and also left uncompleted.

If you get the ESR at Central you may notice the escalator is a long ride down.  This is because you are passing the ghost platforms on the way down.  There have been some plans to use them for other lines, such as a Very Fast train to Melbourne or even for other suburban extensions, but nothing yet.

At St James the same thing happened, but this time as part of Bradfields’ original underground and suburban railway concept.  Due to the complexity of building the underground system and the disruption it caused, a number of extra tunnels for proposed future lines were also constructed in the 1930s.  A double track tunnel was constructed between the lines of the existing city circle to take a Gladesville line, with a platform extension, tiled and fitted out in the same colours as St James Station.  This is why the concourse is so wide at St James; there was supposed to be two more lines here.

4 unfinished tunnels at St James, Jan 1925.  The middle 2  are the ghosts. (Subterranean Sydney, Brian & Barbara Kennedy)
4 unfinished tunnels at St James, Jan 1925. The middle 2 are the ghosts. (Subterranean Sydney, Brian & Barbara Kennedy)

But before they were completed World War II intervened, and in the panic and fear of potential air raids the disused tunnels were converted as public air raid shelters on the southern end and as military air raid shelters and operational command posts in the northern end towards circular Quay (the Circular Quay link was not completed until the 1950s).

The public air raid shelter was entered via Hyde Park, down steep stairs to the concrete bunkers below.  At the end of the war the entrance was sealed up and the bunkers largely forgotten.  But they are still there beneath the park.  The military shelter was removed entirely to allow for the trains to run on the completed city circle.  However one of the other northern extensions remains unused and over the years has slowly filled with water seeping through the ground above.  The water has collected as the fabled St James Lake, a dark, cold underground lake extending below the city streets.

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