In Victoria, railway refreshment rooms are as old as the railways themselves. The first railway, constructed by the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company, opened in September 1854. It ran from Melbourne to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne). The refreshment room at Sandridge Station was leased to William Peter McGirr, who successfully applied for a liquor license in April 1855.
The launch of the first railway line caused great excitement in Melbourne, with crowds assembling to see the Governor and his wife ushered into their first-class carriage. A banquet in the engine shed followed the 10-minute journey to Sandridge.
Less than a year after the refreshment room opened, a sad event took place there. In August 1855, a boat ferrying a young woman to a ship in the port hit a sunken wreck and sank. As The Argus reported:
Some ballast men on the beach at once put off to render assistance, and succeeded in rescuing Miss Hall and one of the men. The other waterman was drowned; and we regret also to say that Miss Hall, after exclaiming, “Oh dear,” gradually sunk, and died soon afterwards at the railway refreshment rooms.
By 1856, there was also a railway refreshment room at Flinders Street, which became a hub for the new privately-owned railway lines. By 1859, there were refreshment rooms at other stations including St Kilda, Williamstown and Sunbury.
As both privately-owned and government-funded railway lines extended further, so did the need to provide sustenance for travellers. The railway refreshment room that opened at Seymour Station in 1873 became the largest country refreshment room in the state. It came to include buffet and seated dining rooms catering for up to 260 people at a time, and at its peak employed a staff of 34.
Railway food had its critics, even in the early days. Until 1920, the rooms were leased to private operators who were accused in the local papers of charging too much and providing food of dubious quality. In 1884, according to a letter to The Argus, diners “could have a chop or steak (if they have it), with potatoes and a cup of tea or coffee and a glass of colonial ale, for 1s; but according to the lessee’s ruling, if you take any one of the articles enumerated, they can and do charge the same as if you had taken them all.” The writer claimed that steak was rarely to be found and could often be inedible, so choices were reduced to chops, sausages or pies.
The railway refreshment rooms were licensed to supply alcohol but, after the passing of The Railway and Theatre Refreshment Rooms Licensing Act, 1895 they could only do so “within a reasonable time before and after the arrival or departure of any passenger train at or from such station”. When six o’clock closing was introduced to pubs in 1916, the restrictions on evening and Sunday trading also applied to railway refreshment rooms.