A Nugget Of Nostalgia In A Gallery Of Graffiti

News and Views from a Tramway Muse. By David Fryer

Henry, the Secretary from car club VCCQ.

Coal may be a dirty four-letter word these days, but the smutty black nuggets once powered the bustling trams of Brisbane; and it all happened at a prime river-side setting in New Farm.

The imposing New Farm Powerhouse was built to power the extensive tramway network of Brisbane, reportedly the largest in the southern hemisphere. 

Designed by council architect Roy Rusden Ogg, the building was constructed in stages between 1928 and 1940. 

Coal arrived by rail and barge to be stored in an enormous stockpile in a dedicated holding yard. Industrial pollution has long been a bi-product of power generation, but it was especially taxing for nearby residents. Wash days were often plagued by clouds of billowing black smoke and fine particles of dust that delivered a whole new meaning to smutty white smalls on the Inala Palms (Hills Hoists). 

Trams began to fall out of favour with the introduction of modern motor buses after WW2 and the Powerhouse began to suffer a slow but inevitable decline. The last tram was removed in 1969 and the Powerhouse was officially decommissioned in 1971.  

The redundant monolith was sold to the Queensland Government and repurposed for a variety of uses: as a works depot, a chemical store, a training base for military exercises, and a refuge for homeless people. Sadly, it languished in a state of squalid disrepair for many years before returning to Brisbane City Council custodianship in 1989. 

These days, the Powerhouse enjoys a new lease of life as a temple to the arts, performing and visual. The raw-edge industrial ambience has been preserved, along with an abundance of heritage-listed graffiti. 

The graffiti may be celebrated by thousands of visitors every week, but there are no trams or tram-related memorabilia to be seen. In fact, the only mention of the once iconic people parcel can be found on a modest information board hidden behind a privacy screen in a neglected corner. Pity, because the Powerhouse owes its very existence to trams. 

The Powerhouse may be a temple to the arts, but the Brisbane Tramway Museum is a temple of transport. The extensive collection of heritage vehicles includes a tangle of trams tucked away in deep storage. Sadly, a shortage of funding and lack of volunteers means the sleeping beauties are unlikely to see the light of day for a very long time. Will a courageous visionary pluck one out of hibernation for display at the Powerhouse? One can only hope, but if it ever happens it would surely qualify as a worthy installation, a precious nugget of nostalgia in a gallery of graffiti…..….

© David Fryer maximalist@bigpond.com

The Brisbane Tramway Museum is proudly sponsored by the Brisbane City Council.

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