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Werribee Railway Station - Date Stone



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The Werribee Station Date Stone
The Werribee Station date stone is an architectural fixture that was most likely purpose‐made for the building in 1857, the year the station was constructed and the railway line officially opened. Carved from natural Barrabool sandstone, it is rectangular in shape with scalloped corners. The surrounding margin has a droved finish; a fine linear pattern made with a drove chisel.

This simple pattern is also used vertically over the face of the stone and in contrasting angles on the raised capital lettering and numbers. Plainly tooled, these boldly feature the initials, G.&M.R and the date, 1857 to permanently and publicly record the establishment of the station as well as the achievement of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway company in designing and building the first country railway in Australia. The stone has managed to endure and remain relatively intact in its current detached state, but the building is now a shadow of the former picturesque design, which distinguished it from the other wayside stations along the line.

The architectural drawings for the station, as it was originally built, have not been found and may no longer exist, and the small number of early photographs held in public collections are unable to hint at where the stone may have featured on the building. 

If not for a cursory reference to it in the Bacchus Marsh Express newspaper in February 1879 its provenance to the station would be difficult to confirm. 2

Typically, date stones were set in a prominent location on an external wall in a gable, above a lintel or at a formal entrance. Werribee’s was most likely positioned at the front of the station where passengers approached the building from the street, just like some examples found on historic British railway stations, such as East Devon’s Axminster Station (1859), which has a date stone in the form of an unfurled scroll (see image). Some stations occasionally featured two date stones on different facades.

Their display on station buildings can be traced to a design tradition that emerged during the construction of Britain’s first company railways, with many stations displaying similar architectural styles, and visual elements identifying the company that built and owned the line. The Great North of England Railway Company, builder of the line from York, attached a crest‐shaped stone carved with ‘G.N.E.R.Co. 1843’ on its structures, and the tradition continued late into the century with the Great Eastern Railway, for example placing a circular terra cotta plaque inscribed with ‘GER 1881’ in the brick gable of the Acle Station in Norfolk (see images). Invariably built of stone and/or brick, the stations consistently featured pitched slate rooves, contrasting barges, prominent chimneys, quoining, and awnings on cantilever beams or brackets; all brought together in a revivalist English style that could also easily serve as the design for a small lodge or gatehouse on a grand country estate or even a country vicarage. The standard wayside stations designed in the 1840s by Great Western Railway (GWR) engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806‐1859) advanced this domestic approach most notably in village stations for Bradford‐on‐Avon, Twyford and Culham and served as inspiration for the Geelong & Melbourne Railway’s unique Werribee Station (see images).

Edward Snell (1820‐1880), who was appointed engineer to the Geelong & Melbourne Railway Company in September 1852, would have been the star recruit for this adventurous and competitive enterprise. A few years before, he had been working at the coal‐face of England’s railway boom, at the Great Western Railway Company’s Swindon Works under Superintendent of Locomotives, Daniel Gooch and brilliant Engineer to the Company, Brunel, whose ground‐breaking projects ignited the imagination of all those around him.

Both Gooch and Brunel had chosen Swindon as the place to locate the GWR’s locomotive works turning the town into a fast‐growing, modern urban centre with planned facilities such as housing, hospitals, churches and places for recreation in an estate that came to be known as the ‘Railway Village’. Completed before 1850, all the streets were arranged on a grid and named after the destinations of passing trains. 3

Starting the Geelong job with a very generous contract, Snell used his British contacts and background to his advantage to progress the railway and also express his vision for its infrastructure. He kept in touch with his old boss, Gooch and ordered rails, carriages and locomotives, some of which he designed himself, and completed surveys for the line and plans and specifications for culverts, crossings, bridges, workshops, stations and even a railway township.

In May, 1853 Snell was instructed to prepare the plans for the company’s flagship Geelong terminus and a few months later Governor Charles La Trobe turned the first sod on the site and laid the foundation stone. The event was celebrated with pomp and ‘great style’ in a specially constructed carriage shed lined with drapery and flowers. 4

Snell elaborated on his vision for the terminus in a drawing printed as a colour lithograph in 1854 showing an extensive complex of sheds, workshops and Italianate station buildings, but not all of this grand plan eventuated. 5

At the same time he also produced a painting of a railway township he envisaged for Duck Ponds on the line 9 miles from Geelong. To be known as Swindon, and clearly inspired by the initiative taken by Gooch and Brunel for the GWR, he laid out a plan for the township naming every street ‘after an Engineer. Gooch Street runs from Maudsley St to Archimedes avenue and crosses the railway at the Station’. 6

Advertisements in April and June 1854 promoted the ‘modern’ township, with its ‘great railway station’ and other facilities anticipated for intending settlers. 7

Some of the streets, including one named after Brunel, survive today, but the idea of a modern railway township failed to gain interest in the mid‐1850s and after three months advertisements promoting it stopped appearing.

The G&MR works progressed slowly and by the end of 1856 the focus shifted to inviting tenders to build the minor stations Snell had designed for stops at Cowie’s Creek, Little River and Werribee as well as the more substantial station designed for Swindon which was still set to be built at Duck Ponds. Just after the contract awarded to McClement & Holly however, the company decided to shift the Swindon design to Werribee and build a modest structure at Duck Ponds. The builders agreed to transfer their contract to Werribee but by February 1857, they had lost interest in the job. The work was re‐tendered and Geelong contractor, Charles Dunnett, was awarded the job.

Again, there seemed to be an issue with the work and the contract remained unsigned until an undisclosed matter was resolved. Snell’s plans also needed to be altered and estimates made for the increased cost, 8 and there was discussion on stone to be measured before it was ‘brought from the Werribee’ and ‘delivered on the Station’. 9

The contact had stipulated that the work be completed by 11 May, but when the line opened on 25 June 1857 ‘the commodious station‐house’, also described as ‘a very handsome stone station’, was still ‘in the course of construction’ and would not be ready until late August. 10

Despite the delay, the company went ahead and appointed a station master and at the last minute turned its attention to providing accommodation for him and also finding space for a refreshment room and tenant to run it. 11

The sudden decision to move the more elaborate station to Werribee must have presented an ideal solution to the need for a comfortable station about half way down the line where passengers could step off and take refreshment while the trains refilled their engines with water.  On observing the novelty of this new practice as well as the cost involved one traveller quipped that ‘a most delicious glass of water is obtainable for sixpence’, and another remarked on the ‘nobblers of coffee, brandy, beer or other liquor, with edibles at pleasure (of purse)’ that were available. 12

With its bluestone masonry and contrasting sandstone quoins, windows with chamfered reveals, barges, and decorative vent and pommel on the highest gable, and its pitched slate roof, sturdy chimneys and asymmetrical massing, Snell’s attractively designed station stood firmly in the tradition of England’s rail boom architecture, with the motif of the sandstone G&MR date stone serving to reinforce the connection. It must have been pleasing to the eye as the station stood in what was described as an ‘essentially pastoral’ landscape, which is ‘at the present time used chiefly as a sheep walk, and has some claim to the picturesque’. 13

The estate and sheep all belonged to Thomas Chirnside, who gave the G&MR land station and no doubt encouraged and welcomed the decision to transfer the English lodge‐style building to his environs. 14

Within a short time he was inviting ‘merry’ parties of guests to travel down on special trains with their horses ‘to the ordinarily quiet and prettily situated station on the Werribee’ River and also organizing large extravaganzas, most notably the Werribee military encampments. 15

Although the Victorian Government took over the railway in 1860, it was apparent that Chirnside still regarded the otherwise little‐used station as part of his domain, and special trains continued to bring his friends sometimes with their horses and hounds, where they would assemble at the lodge‐like building for coursing, hunting, racing and other social gatherings. By 1877 he had built a magnificent sandstone and bluestone Renaissance Revival mansion, which stood as the great manor of the district supported by a host of rusticated bluestone outbuildings. A picturesque gatehouse flanked the entrance to the grounds which Chirnside chose to build in a style similar to the station. It too, was designed in the familiar English tradition of a small lodge with sandstone dressings, pitched slate roof and a projecting gable in which a date stone was displayed above the decorative window lintel. Surprisingly, like the Werribee Station date stone it is carved in the same rectangular shape with scalloped corners and has the numbers ‘1877’ also raised on the sandstone surface. On closer inspection however, it is smoothly cut with no texture, with the surface having a much greater degree of precision, suggesting a more expensive, technologically advanced process (see images).

Thomas Chirnside died in 1887 and in May the following year the Victorian Government prepared plans for the station’s ‘complete transformation’ by extending the building and platforms, refitting existing rooms and other works. 16

Undertaken in 1896 after an economic depression, it also included rendering the original bluestone fabric but retaining other historic features such as the slate roof and sandstone detailing. By the 1920s, the local community was calling for further improvements and some members were not dismayed when the building mysteriously went up in flames late on the Sunday night of 15 May 1927. 17

A photograph published in The Argus looking across the scene from the platform side shows the gutted building with remnants of the chimneys and tall, roofless gables still standing with their decorative vents and pommels (see image). 18

These and other badly damaged features were demolished in the clean‐up but the historic date stone was salvaged from this fate presumably by the Victorian Railways. Its whereabouts for the next thirty years are a mystery, but it appears to have remained in the care of the Victorian Railways, who were able to provide a photograph of the stone while still in a detached state for their history published in 1962. 19

Soon after the publication, the stone resurfaced in North Melbourne on the front wall of a new red brick office constructed by the railways at its printing works in Laurens Street. The site had been associated with the railways from the 1860s, when the network began expanding in this direction with branch lines and sidings, which today have long since been removed or covered over.

By the 1890s, several buildings had been put up adjacent to the sidings including a large timber‐framed, saw‐toothed carpenter’s shop, which was repurposed to serve as the railways’ printing branch by 1930. Among the subsequent extensions was the red brick office, typical of the early 1960s period, with a low pitch gable roof clad in metal sheeting, large timber framed windows and a skillion verandah facing Laurens Street. It would seem the rationale for bringing the displaced date stone to this site and setting it into a wall, was to commemorate the early railway history of North Melbourne, to which the Geelong railway was extended in 1860, and also find a place for it after thirty years of being in a detached and movable state.

Awareness of the date stone and its cultural heritage significance began to grow, particularly in 2007 when the Werribee Historical Society requested its return to the station for celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the station and the opening of the Geelong to Melbourne Railway. The building had been undergoing restoration and at that stage its future use was still undecided, making installation problematic. The stone remained at Laurens Street until 2017, when it was removed from the wall prior to demolition of all the buildings across the site to make way for a new station forming part of the Victorian Government’s Metro Rail Project. It is currently (2018) in storage awaiting conservation and a decision on its future relocation. It measures 635mm by 1125mm and although intact as a stone tablet, it is in poor condition and requires the special expertise of a conservator who can determine the most appropriate action for treating its crumbling, cracked and chipped sandstone fabric and detailing. The investigation and conservation process will identify ways to retain and manage the stone’s long‐term preservation and will determine options for its appropriate relocation and display.

This historical report has confirmed the stone’s provenance to the Werribee Station and has presented a good case for dating it to 1857 despite the earliest known reference to occurring in February 1879. Although Thomas Chirnside installed a date stone of the same shape and seemingly the same style in the gable of his gatehouse in 1877, the Werribee Station’s stone displays an earlier technology of carving and chiseling and has to be older. It’s more probable that Chirnside, in adopting the stylistic elements of the picturesque station, chose to also include a similar, albeit machine‐sawn date stone. Moreover, date stones on mid‐nineteenth century railway stations were fashionable, and as shown in this report, were a standard motif of their domestic style. The Victorian Railways also chose this architectural style for the rusticated picturesque station it designed for Little River in 1864, which also displays a stone in the shape of a heraldic shield on its gables inscribed with its ‘VR’ monogram (see image). 20

The Werribee Station was listed on the Victorian Heritage Register in 1997 for its historical importance as one of the oldest railway buildings in Victoria as well as Australia and for retaining remnants of the styling used for mid‐nineteenth century stations. 21

Apart from the station, which now bears little resemblance to its original styling, the only fabric known to survive from the Geelong to Melbourne Railway as designed by Edward Snell, is the Werribee Station date stone and the stone bridge abutment
at Lara (Duck Ponds/Swindon). In addition to the date stone, other artefacts include an iron goods wagon body at Mitiamo now used as a shed; 22 an example of the red wax seal used by the G&MR and designed in 1853 by Melbourne publishers and lithographers, Macartney and Galbraith; and the gold trowel designed by Edward Snell & Frederick Kawerau and presented to Governor La Trobe in 1853 on turning the first sod for the Geelong terminus. Surviving documents include the company Minute Books now in the Public Records Office, and Snell’s drawing/colour lithograph showing his conception of the Geelong terminus (1854) and his diary, both held in the La Trobe Collection, State Library Victoria.

The author wishes to gratefully thank Graeme Butler, Rick Eberle, Gary Vines, and the Hotham History Project for their assistance, and Dusk Johnston, Communications and Stakeholder Relations Advisor, Melbourne Metro Rail Authority, for facilitating an inspection of the date stone on 23 April 2018.


1. ‘Werribee Railway Station’, State Library of Victoria, H96.200/1476 [late 19th C]; and
‘Werribee Railway Station’, Source: City of Wyndham, http://www.wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/1481, [early 1920s]

2. Bacchus Marsh Express, 1 February 1879, p.3.

3. Guide to Swindon – Swindon’s Heritage – Railway,

4. Snell’s diary for Tuesday 20 September 1853, reproduced in Griffiths, p.342

5. Coloured lithograph, R. Quarrill & Co., La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria

6. Letter from Snell to Gooch, 1856 footnoted in Griffiths (ed), p.350

7. The Argus, 13 April 1854, p.9. ; Geelong Advertiser & Intelligencer, 14 April 1854, p.2. ; Geelong Advertiser, 9 June 1854, p.7.

8. G&M R Minutes, 8 May 1857

9. G&M R Minutes, 2 June 1857.

10. The Age, 27 June 1857, p.4. ; Bells Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle, 27 June 1857, p.2.; G&M R Minutes, 4 August 1857.
While Dunnett’s quotation for the job is not stated, the cost of the station to July 1857 was £1,200
(The Age, 9 July 1857, p.5)

11. G&M R Minutes, 16 May and 18 September 1857. The tenant was required to provide all the furnishings to Snell’s approval. The refreshment room was a novel feature of the station and may have been the first example in the colony.

12.  Melbourne Punch, 7 January 1858, p.6. ; The Star (Ballarat), 24 November 1858, p.3.

13. The Age, 27 June 1857, p.4.

14. Report of Smith and Oldham on the state of the works p.7, in the Seventh Half‐Yearly Report of the
Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company, Geelong 1857 (January 1856), State Library of Victoria

15. Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle, 3 September 1859, p.2.

16. The Age, 4 July 1896, p.7.

17. The Age, 16 May 1927, p.9. ; The Argus, 16 May 1927, p.12. ; Werribee Shire Banner, 19 May 1927, p.3.

18. The Argus, 17 May 1927, p.9.

19. Leo J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to ’62, Victorian Railways, 1962, p.32.

20. Little River Station was included in the Victorian Heritage Register on 20 August 1982 (H1572)

21. Heritage Council Victoria, Victorian Heritage Register, H1309

22. Rick Eberle, email correspondence 28 March 2018.

Other Sources

The Building Trades Pocketbook, http://chestofbooks.com/architecture/Building‐Trades‐Pocketbook/Stone‐Finishes.html

Butler, Graeme, ‘Arden Macaulay Area – from the MCC heritage amendment C207 panel submission’,
presentation to the Hotham History Project, 2013.

Context P/L, ‘Werribee Railway Station, Station Street, Werribee’, Heritage of the City of Wyndham,
Volume 2: Heritage Places, 1997. Accessed from http://wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/397

Documents 1854‐1856, G&MR Co, 1854, MS F Box 3688, Manuscripts Collection, State Library of

Griffiths, Tom (ed), The Life and Adventures of Edward Snell. The Illustrated Diary of an Artist, Engineer and Adventurer in the Australian Colonies 1849 to 1859, Angus & Robertson and The Library Council of Victoria, North Ryde, 1988.

Harrigan, Leo J, Victorian Railways To ’62, Victorian Railways Public Relations and Betterment Board by
direction of the Commissioners, 1962.

Heritage Council Victoria, ‘Werribee Railway Station’, Victorian Heritage Register Number H1309,
accessed online 7.3.2018.

Kilsby, Dr AJ, ‘On the Werribee; Volunteer Reviews and Encampments in Victoria 1860‐1862’, January
2015, http://www.historyvictoria.org.au/wp‐content/uploads/On‐the‐Werribee.pdf

Kurt Price, Project Manager VicTrack to Robert Green, Heritage Victoria, email 3 May 2007.

‘Melbourne and Geelong Line Werribee Station May 1888’, architectural drawings (elevation to platform
and station floor plan), source unknown, presumably drawn by Public Works Department for Victorian

Minute Book Directors Meetings 1853‐1857 G&MR Co, PROV VPRS 1280/P0/000, Unit 1.

Minute Book Directors Meetings 1856‐1859 G&MR Co, PROV VPRS 1280/P0/000, Unit 2.

Minute Book Directors Meetings 1859‐1860 G&MR Co, PROV VPRS 1280/P0/000, Unit 3.

Minute Book Directors Shareholders Meetings 1854‐1860 G&MR Co, PROV VPRS 1280/P0/000, Unit 4.

Papers 1852‐1950, Geelong and Melbourne Railway Co, 1852, MS Box 35/4, Manuscripts Collection,
State Library of Victoria.

Papers September 1852‐September 1853, Edward Snell, MS Box 2798/5, Manuscripts Collection, State
Library of Victoria.

Press Cuttings Book, G&MR Co, PROV VPRS 06545/P0000, Unit 0000001.

RBA Architects, ‘Laurens Street Railway Workshops’, PCLTM NORT 2017, Box 1‐2, SLV Pictures Collection. Photographic survey prints taken in August 2017.

State Transport Authority Victoria, ‘Werribee Station Restoration Plan and Elevations’, February 1983.


Michele Summerton, “Werribee Railway Station - Date Stone,” Wyndham History, accessed February 6, 2023, http://wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/2624.


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