State Electricity Commission of Victoria – Thomastown Terminal Station (1924-2024)Thomastown Terminal Station

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State Electricity Commission of Victoria – Thomastown Terminal Station (1924-2024)

By Robert Wuchatsch

As you drive north along High Street and cross the intersection of Mahoney’s Road and Keon Parade, the Thomastown Terminal Station dominates the landscape on your left. This Thomastown landmark, which commenced operations in 1924, has now served Melbourne and Victoria for a century.

On 6 December 1922 the Argus reported:

Steady progress is being made with the assembling and erection of the steel overhead masts to carry the high tension transmission line from Morwell to Newport via Thomastown, a distance of 102 miles.

Sir John Monash, chairman of Electricity Commissioners, explained yesterday that no good purpose would be served in proceeding too rapidly with this work, as the power-house at Morwell would not be completed until early in 1924, so that if the transmission line were finished much before the end of next year, a considerable sum spent in wages and material would be lying idle.

With regard to the progress of work at the two power-house sites at Yallourn and Newport respectively, Sir John said that the first turbo-generator was now nearly erected in the Newport B power-house, while the second generator for Newport was shortly due to arrive in Melbourne. The first of the series of six turbo-generators for the Yallourn power-house was now undergoing trial tests at the works of Parsons Bros., Rugby, England, and should arrive in February. The other five would arrive in due course, and should all be erected before the end of next year.

Three Electricity Commissioners had been appointed in 1919, followed by the establishment of the publicly owned State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) in 1921, led by Sir John Monash. The SECV’s role was to assume control of the generation and distribution of Victoria’s electricity. Until then, the four main organizations generating electricity in Melbourne were the Melbourne City Council, the Melbourne Electric Supply Co., the North Melbourne Electric Tramways and Lighting Co. and the Newport power station of the Victorian Railways. In regional and rural Victoria, some cities and towns generated their own electricity, but many did not.

The State Government’s aim in establishing the SECV was to ensure Victoria’s independence from the supply of black coal from New South Wales, which was subject to mining and shipping strikes, along with the rationalization of power generation and distribution. Victoria’s base load electricity was to be generated from brown coal in the La Trobe Valley, supplemented by hydro-electric power stations in north-east Victoria.

On 14 November 1923 it was further reported:

The Electricity Commission has commenced the stringing of conductors on the transmission line from Thomastown to Dandenong. When this line is completed electricity will be transmitted from the commission’s Newport B station via underground cables to sub-station C, Brunswick, and thence on to the overhead line from Thomastown to Dandenong. This will operate at 22,000 volts pressure. Supply from this will also be given to Lilydale, Ringwood, Nunawading and the Mornington Peninsula.

The terminal station at Thomastown was designed to receive and control incoming electricity, transform or break it down to a lower voltage, then radiate it at reduced voltages to local transmission stations. It also served as a control centre to transfer power to or from other parts of the system.

As well as the 132,000 volt transmission line under construction from Yallourn, it was announced in December 1923 that a 66,000 volt line would be built from the proposed Sugarloaf hydro-electric power station at Eildon, to Thomastown. Then in March 1924 it was reported that another transmission line would be constructed, from Thomastown to Benalla, to provide electricity from Yallourn until the power station at Sugarloaf was completed. This 66,000 volt line was soon extended to Albury. The first power generated from Victorian brown coal began to flow over the Yallourn to Melbourne 132,000 volt transmission line in Sunday 15 June 1924.

To enable construction of the terminal station, the SECV compulsorily acquired two acres from James McKimmie, who owned the former Mahoney Farm. Unhappy with the price offered by the SECV, McKimmie took the matter to arbitration in October 1924. The SECV argued the land was worth only £100 per acre whereas McKimmie valued it at £450 per acre. The judge fixed the price to be paid at £300. Easements were also created across Thomastown’s farmlands to carry the high voltage lines to and from the terminal station.

The prospect of electricity being available encouraged several largely unsuccessful residential subdivisions at Thomastown during the mid 1920s. It also influenced the Sydney company R. Fowler Limited to establish a branch pottery at Thomastown in 1927/28. In 1929, the Victorian Railways electrified the line from Reservoir to Thomastown, the increased annual operational costs underwritten by a developer named Robert Lowe whose Keon Park Estate gave its name to the railway station built at the same time. Electricity, however, wasn’t laid on to Thomastown’s residents until 1934. Our farm at Westgarthtown, located west of the Edgars Creek, wasn’t connected until 1966 and before then I did my homework or studied for exams by the light of a Tilley lamp.

The SECV’s 1932 Annual Report noted that lightning had caused a brief interruption of supply to the terminal station at Thomastown from the 66,000 volt North-Eastern transmission line and that a fault at Thomastown had also caused a 12 minute interruption of supply to customers. This fault was reported to have affected the Collingwood and Preston areas.

Edward Beech was the caretaker at the terminal station during the late 1930s and early 1940s and his children attended Thomastown Primary School. He was followed by Lewis Letts, who remained until the 1960s. Lewis’ son Roderick Letts enlisted in the AIF during the Second World War and Jack Gawne, an SECV employee and farmer from the Thomastown Small Holdings Estate, is said to have served as a guard at the terminal station during the Second World War.

In 1948 the terminal station site was enlarged to around 60 acres by the purchase of adjoining farmland. In 1949, the station was said to be supplying power to the SECV’s Bendigo, Midland and Eastern Metropolitan Supply Branches. Lightning strikes at Thomastown in January 1953 and November 1956 were reported to have blacked out Bendigo and Castlemaine for several hours. These areas were supplied via a 66,000 volt line from Thomastown. During the 1950s, a 220,000 volt transmission line was constructed from Kiewa to Thomastown, to bring hydro-electric power to Melbourne. Donald Oldman was one of the terminal station’s operators during the 1950s.

As a child the terminal station was a mystery to me, partly explained in about 1966 when Alf Gilbert, father of my Merrilands High School classmate and friend Richard, gave us a tour of the control room in the old multi-storey building. Alf was Operator-in-Charge at Thomastown and the Gilbert family lived in one of the SECV houses between the terminal station and Bostik factory. All I recall now from Alf’s tour is seeing large control panels with lots of black, red and green buttons. Much enlarged since then, the Thomastown Terminal Station was privatised during the 1990s, now being operated by Ausnet.