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History

11 Dec 2018

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Workhorses of industry in Southbank

A series of electrical sub-stations were the workhorses of many industrial enterprises in Southbank in the 20th century.

Melbourne was one of the first major cities in the world, along with London and New York, to have a public electricity supply. In the late 19th century, electricity was distributed from a central generating station. Private enterprise was responsible for financing the pioneering electricity supply enterprises and ensuring the availability of electricity supply to commercial, industrial and residential consumers in Melbourne. The south side of the river became the engine house of “Marvellous Melbourne”, relying on electricity for operations such as manufacturing and refrigeration - not just to operate machinery but also to provide lighting.

Following the establishment of the State Electricity Commission (SEC) in 1921, the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity became the responsibility of government. Power was transferred from the high voltage transmission network to major load centres via terminal stations and zone substations, making these intriguing little buildings an integral part of the industrial landscape and electricity infrastructure of Southbank. Following the setting-up of the SEC, a number of sub stations were constructed (or extended) across Melbourne to ensure continuity of supply.

Transport systems also required large supplies of electricity, and a key consideration in establishing new electric lines (such as along Sturt St. in 1925) was the amount of electrical equipment needed to ensure sufficient power to the lines. Power was supplied via the overhead trolley system, with power purchased from the electricity company.

Sub-stations are scattered throughout Southbank. They were generally designed by city engineers and, as a result, the styling was often basic. Two charming and distinctive examples can be found in Sturt Street. On the corner of Grant Street, a small pavilion is finished in Edwardian style, with stucco walls and a sloping four-sided roof finished with asbestos cement tiles laid in a pattern that resemble panes of glass, and topped by a ventilator. It sits adjacent to the former PMG workshop and was probably built to serve that site.

Further down Sturt Street, near Wells Street, a double-fronted substation was designed and constructed in the 1930s. It features a frontage of two peaked panels and utilises stylish brick work, with a variety of brick types.

Following the re-organisation of the power industry in the 1990s, sub-stations are again privately owned, and leased to electricity suppliers such as Citipower. An example is the cream brick 1960s substation in Dodds Street, which recently sold for around $4m.

As you walk around Southbank, why not keep a look out for these little buildings that make an important contribution to the history of Southbank.

Robin Grow - President, Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

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