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    The railway accident at Prahran - working parties removing the wounded, 21 May 1887, courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Accidents and Disasters

Melbourne has over the course of its history both defended its population against damaging environmental phenomena and technological mishaps, and itself been an agent of instability and recklessness. Periods of rapid city growth have often run ahead of the necessary social and regulatory frameworks. By virtue of its structural and demographic density, the city has been vulnerable to fires, floods and disease, and human error and technical failure can be tracked across the city's history. Counted across generations, the impact of accidents and disasters in Melbourne can be measured in mental trauma, community dislocation, the disruption to livelihoods, infrastructure and the economy, the loss of life and the suffering of the injured. Of those disasters that remain lodged in the national memory, the most notable are the Sunshine Rail Disaster (1908), the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, the West Gate Bridge disaster (1970), and the Ash Wednesday bushfires (1983).

Maritime disasters were a feature of 19th-century intercolonial and international trade and travel, and many lives were lost in shipwrecks as vessels tackled the treacherous Port Phillip heads in rough conditions. Railway accidents were a periodic occurrence from the 1860s, although the crash of a train from Brighton Beach between Jolimont and Flinders Street Station in August 1881, with four fatalities, was the first attended by passenger deaths and multiple injuries. Other noted collisions or derailments in the 19th century occurred on the Hawthorn railway (1882, one fatality), Little River (1884, three fatalities), and Windsor (1887, six fatalities). Melbourne's greatest rail disaster and the worst in Australia to that time, occurred at Sunshine on Easter Monday, 20 April 1908, when the Bendigo train smashed into the rear of the Ballarat train which had just departed Braybrook Junction. The Ballarat train was crowded with returning holiday-makers and bridal parties and the collision and subsequent fire took the lives of 44 people, with another 413 injured. In July 1910 Brighton and Elsternwick trains collided in heavy fog at Richmond, killing nine, and other railway fatalities occurred at West Melbourne (1912, two fatalities), Caulfield (1926, three fatalities), and Laverton (1976, one fatality). On 7 February 1969, the Melbourne-Sydney express train the Southern Aurora hit a goods train head on at Violet Town, outside of Melbourne, killing nine people.

Transport accidents were by no means uncommon in the pre-motor car era, and city inquests attest to poor road conditions, shying and bolting horses, and the furious galloping of riders. Thomas Hall, a 47-year-old irondresser, became Melbourne's first known motor car fatality when he was knocked down by MacPherson Robertson's vehicle at the intersection of Nicholson and Gertrude streets, Fitzroy, on 24 August 1905. While ameliorated from the 1970s by more concerted road safety measures, Melbourne's annual toll of death and trauma on the roads is a measure both of the city's car dependency and the collective myopia of a citizenry prepared to sacrifice its own kin for speed, power and independence.

Expansion of the suburban railway from the 1920s, coupled with the growth of motorised road transport, ushered in an era of regular accidents and fatalities at level crossings. The collision of a bus and train at Boronia in June 1952, with nine fatalities, brought to a total of 28 deaths and 54 injuries at that crossing since 1926. Improved signalling technology and the replacement of old-style gates with booms made railway crossings safer, but never completely eliminated fatal level-crossing accidents.

In October 1938, the Kyeema, an Australian National Airways Douglas DC-2 aircraft, crashed into Mount Dandenong en route from Adelaide to Essendon Airport. With 18 fatalities, this was Melbourne's worst aviation disaster. Other multiple fatalities occurred in 1970 (a Beech aircraft collided with a helicopter near Moorabbin Airport), in 1978 (a Partenaia 68 aircraft crashed into a house near Essendon Airport), and in 1986 (a Cessna 202 air ambulance crashed into a suburban field near Essendon Airport).

The streets of the colonial city presented the unwary pedestrian with a range of impediments, obstructions and dangers, some liable to be fatal. Reports of drownings in potholed and poorly lit streets were common before the 1860s. People fell down hotel cellar gratings or through verandah roofs. A developing array of building regulations began to protect the public domain of footpath and street from the nuisances of construction sites, prohibiting builders from dangerously obstructing footways or working on adjacent buildings to the danger of those below, and limiting the hours during which such work could be carried out. In addition to the risk of being showered in brick dust from building sites, splattered with paint under verandahs, or showered by overflowing gutters, it was not uncommon for pedestrians to narrowly escape injury or death from falls of scaffolding, heavy flower pots, lumps of freestone, cement work, plaster ornaments and pieces of iron or piping. By the second half of the 20th century, construction sites were more likely to be sequestered from their environs, but the building industry continued to be a locus of injury and death. In 1961 three people died when a crane collapsed at the Colonial Mutual building construction site at the corner of Elizabeth and Collins streets. While there were no fatalities when the fracture of supporting girders brought down a section of the King Street bridge, 35 people were killed when a section of the West Gate Bridge collapsed in October 1970. Workplace safety, progressively deregulated, is monitored by the Victoria WorkCover Authority.

Urban fires were common in the 19th-century city, with many Melbourne landmarks succumbing to flames. In 1924 a Metropolitan Gas Company gas holder, weakened by internal corrosion, burst at Port Melbourne. Despite the spectacular explosion and column of flame, there were limited injuries and no loss of life. A fire at the Coode Island chemical store on 21 August 1991 had been preceded by explosions of toxic chemicals at other transport depots, factories and petrochemical plants in Altona West, Laverton North, Sunshine, Deer Park, Braybrook, and Footscray.

Drowning in rivers and creeks, quarry holes and at beaches was a common source of death in the 19th century, while baths and domestic swimming pools continued to pose a risk, particularly to young children. Flood mitigation works along the Yarra River from the late 19th century, together with improved drainage systems, abated the risk of major inundation, although localised flash floods can still occur seasonally, flooding houses and shops and stranding motorists. Destructive Yarra flooding in October 1934 claimed 35 lives in and around Melbourne. Only minor earthquakes are felt in the Melbourne region, a smart shock in August 1841 being recorded as the third since the formation of the settlement. Many 19th-century diseases such as typhoid resulted from poor sewerage and drainage. A well-publicised outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease at the Melbourne Aquarium in 2000 took two lives. Two of Melbourne's most notorious crimes occurred in 1987 when 16 people were killed and 24 injured in two separate shootings in Queen and Hoddle streets. Suburban engrossment of the rural fringes, together with lifestyle and aesthetic expectations, and outmoded planning and design codes, have contributed to the cost in lives and property at the hands of the annual bushfire season. Summer heatwaves invariably cause heat-related deaths, while electrical storms, tornados (such as the Brighton Tornado) and heavy rain cause periodic damage and insurance losses.

The necessity to respond adequately and efficiently to accidents and disasters has led to the progressive development of Melbourne's emergency services as well as insurance companies. Accidents and disasters are also times when communities rally, with voluntarism playing an important role in the relief and recovery process. Inquests, government inquiries and press reports are revealing about the ways in which city-dwellers confronted both private and public disorder and calamity, and attempted to guard against or at least minimise the effects of future catastrophes. In 1864, the father of a 9-year-old boy who drowned at Footscray was very clear on the cause of his son's death: 'I should not have allowed the child to have gone fishing if asked, on account of it being the Sabbath day.' The providentialism observable in Melbourne's early decades, when deaths were commonly attributed to Acts of God, can be contrasted with the manner in which many accidents - such as road trauma - were normalised in the 20th century as predictable outcomes of technological and social development.

Andrew May