[NOTE from the Editor: The following article is written by John Heazlewood who resided at ‘Laurel Vale’ in close vicinity to the Leslie Railway Siding. You may find some aditional pictures of the Siding by clicking here.]
The Leslie Railway Siding had a relatively short life of sixty-four years. Opened on the 1st of October 1888 on the same day that the new Kilmore Junction (now Heathcote Junction) to Kilmore line opened, the Siding was closed permanently on the first of September 1952. Situated a few hundred metres south of Arkell’s Lane, Leslie was on the section of line that roughly followed the Dividing Range. The Siding was reputedly named in honour of David Beath, chairman of the Australian Seasoned Timber Company of Wandong, who was born at Leslie, Fifeshire, Scotland1.
The land on either side of Leslie (Lot 81C and 81D County of Bourke) was part of Laurel Vale, the property purchased by my grandfather George in 1934. Predictably these paddocks were known as North and South Leslie. South Leslie is now part of Hidden Valley and is currently being developed for housing.
Early in its life Leslie was a well-equipped station. There were two dead end sidings, a small shelter shed or waiting room for passengers, and a station master’s cottage. One of the sidings was removed in July 1941, but the other remained in place until the station was closed2. I do not recall a goods shed, and have not found any reference to one.
There is a small cottage in Wallan near the south west corner of the Northern Highway and the Darraweit road. According to our family’s oral history this is the station master’s cottage from Leslie. History does not record when it was moved.
I remember the waiting room shed. Built on the platform, it was open at the front. It was similar to a school playground shelter shed. If a traveller wished to catch the train a red flag was available, stored inside a piece of pipe which was attached to the wall at the northern end of the shed.
My grandfather did not need to use Leslie Siding. He had an arrangement with the train driver who would stop for him at a gate below the Laurel Vale homestead. George kept a wooden fruit box (remember them?) by the side of the track to use as a step. Credit to the driver on the return journey for stopping with the door adjacent to the fruit box. The passenger service in my grandfather’s time was probably provided by a rail car known as an AEC Beetle. This rail motor looked like a bus but with iron wheels. Many people would be familiar with the blue ‘Walker’ rail motor (known as a tin hare). It made its first appearance in 1948.
Leslie was mainly used to load firewood for the Melbourne market. The Leader newspaper in 1890 described Leslie as ‘essentially a firewood station’ and that ‘some thousands of tons are dispatched from there weekly for Melbourne’3. My father Geoff often commented that the firewood from Leslie kept the bakeries in Melbourne operating for years. The surrounding area was well timbered with messmate stringybark (euc. obliqua) and peppermint gum (euc. dives). Logs would be sawn into two or three foot lengths and then split. Messmate was very popular with the woodcutters as it was easy to split. Peppermint gum was known locally as “bastard gum”. It was very hard wood and was the cause of a lot of broken axe handles.
Manna gum, also known as white gum or ribbon gum (euc. viminalis) could be found in the area. However there is little evidence of these trees today. There is a remnant patch on Arkell’s Lane in the gully below the road into the siding. Manna gum was used extensively for flooring and joinery.
An indication of the value of Leslie’s location and the surrounding supply of timber can be found in advertisements of the time. For example an advertisement in the Melbourne Age in 1887 for 230 acres ( Lot 107E) at Wandong mentions that the proposed siding one mile to the west will give ‘ unequalled facilities for delivering firewood, etc. of which there is a large and valuable quantity on the property’4.
It is well known that Wandong was the centre of a large sawmilling industry. However I have been able to find only one reference to a sawmill at Leslie.
In February of 1927 Curley Bros. were reported to have closed their mill at Wandong and relocated to Leslie5. Over the next few months the Kilmore Free Press carried numerous advertisements offering ‘sawn timber for sale loaded on trucks at Leslie’ but by May of the same year Curley Bros. advertised that they would close their sawmill permanently6.
The trade in firewood in the early 1900’s was seen at the time to be highly beneficial. It provided an income generated from the clearing of the land thus allowing it to be used for grazing and agriculture. However this activity also permanently changed the local landscape.
The evidence of all the firewood harvesting was still there to see in the 1960’s. South Leslie was covered with old and scattered tree heads and stumps. The paddock immediately to the east was the same. All of this dead timber was pushed together and burnt by my family in the late 1960’s when pastures of phalaris, cocksfoot and clover were sown. I find it sad to see houses being built where we once grazed sheep.
In the 1940’s and early 1950’s Leslie Siding was used by our family for the delivery of superphosphate. Each railway wagon held 16 tons of super in hessian bags. At 12 bags to the ton, each one held the unlikely amount of 186 2/3 lbs. (86 kilos) of fertilizer. It was obviously a huge benefit to be able to unload the heavy bags directly from the railway wagon to a super spreader. The railway wagon needed to be emptied within one week so any fertilizer not spread was loaded onto a tractor drawn trailer. On one occasion as the train passed through the siding the driver called out “I need to collect that wagon this afternoon on the return journey.” It was ready for him. I remember as a small boy playing on the bags as they were unloaded. Our 2-3 wagon loads of fertilizer annually were the only freight movements through the Siding in the years leading up to its closure in 1952.
There was never a livestock loading facility at Leslie. However Bylands did have sheep trucking yards. These were removed in 19577.
Francis W. White was the first station master at Leslie. An Irishman from Kilnamona, County Clare, it was his routine to ride to Kilmore to attend mass each week. On Sunday 14 August, 1892, he was thrown from his horse and was killed. The accident was discovered when his riderless horse was seen passing through Bylands8.
As an indication of the importance of Leslie at the time, the vacant position was filled the same week with the appointment of Mr. T. Nancarrow, a porter from the station at Kilmore. The Kilmore Free Press commented that he had ‘acquired many friends during his stay in Kilmore, all of whom are much pleased at his promotion although regretting his departure from the district.’9. It is interesting to note that Mr White rode the seven miles to mass on a Sunday, but Mr Nancarrow was seen to be leaving the district when he moved to Leslie.
These two men appear to have been the only station masters at Leslie and by May 1910 the Siding was listed as reduced from ‘Caretaker to no-one-in-charge’10. I have found no indication of when Nancarrow left and the station reduced to Caretaker.
White’s death was not the only accident to be associated with Leslie. In June of the same year, John Gleeson, 16 years of age, described as a ‘lad’ in the newspapers of the time, was helping with shunting activities. He was crushed between the buffers of two wagons laden with wood. He died while being transported to Kilmore11. It must have been a terrible death, lying on the floor of a horse drawn vehicle being driven over rough roads. In September 1906 The Kilmore Free Press reported that ‘a railway repairer named Callinan, residing at Leslie Siding on the Bendigo line, took his life by cutting his throat on Friday night. He had suffered from want of sleep and had been under medical treatment for a time. He leaves a widow and family’12. Leslie also played a small part in the well documented accident in 1910 when a locomotive and twelve wagons loaded with firewood ran out of control and overturned at Heathcote Junction. The crew had stopped the train at Leslie to apply brakes to six of the wagons before making the steep descent to Heathcote Junction. Sadly the driver, James Ryan, was killed in the accident13.
My father always maintained that the gradient between Arkell’s Lane and the top of the Divide was the steepest in the state. That claim could be open to debate but it was certainly steep enough for a steam locomotive to lose its grip on the rails. On a frosty morning it was not unusual to hear the sound of an over revving engine as it came to a stop. Sand would be released onto the tracks to give the wheels grip. When the sand ran out, as it often did, the driver and fireman needed to shovel clinker from the ballast onto the tracks. A tiresome task trying to get a stopped train up a steep grade, and not helped by having four boys standing on the adjacent railway gate watching enthusiastically. We were told very firmly to go home and find something useful to do.
There were numerous fires in the vicinity of Leslie in the first 30 years of its existence. The greatest threat to the Siding occurred on the 7th of December 1898 when a fire broke out nearby. It was feared that the station buildings would be destroyed. All the furniture and personal possessions were moved out of the cottage, however all was saved by the arrival of a train with a load of water which had been sent from Kilmore. An article in The Age newspaper describing the event concludes by saying that ‘there is only a woman in charge at Leslie Station’14. I am not sure what point the journalist was trying to make, but I am confident he would express his thoughts differently today. Does this mean that Mr. Nancarrow, the station master appointed in 1892, had moved on by 1898 and that the unnamed woman was the caretaker referred to earlier?
On the access lane into Leslie the entrance to the station yard was marked by a large white painted wooden gate. The gate was supported by a wooden post approximately one foot square and about five feet tall. This white post was still in place when I left the area nearly fifty years ago. In the unlikely event that it is still there it would be the only evidence, apart from some earthworks, that there was ever a railway station on the site, a station that for many years supported the small community centered on Arkell’s Lane.
1 Wandong History Group Quarterly Newsletter issue 7, September 2018.
2 Leslie Siding detail. https://axerail.coffeecup.com/rail_to_trail/rail/detail_leslie.html
3 Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862-1918, 1935). Sat 19 July 1890. Page 16 – News in Brief
4 The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854-1954) Sat 12 Feb 1887. Page 15 – Advertising.
5 The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848-1957) Tues. 1 Feb 1927. Page 17 – Advertising.
6 Kilmore Free Press (Kilmore, Vic. : 1870-1954) Thurs 26 May 1927. Page 3. Advertising.
7 Bylands Detail. https://axerail.coffeecup.com/rail_to_trail/rail/detail_bylands.html
8 Kilmore Free Press (Kilmore, Vic. : 1870-1954) Thurs 18 Aug 1892. Page 3 – Fatal accident at Bylands.
9 Kilmore Free Press (Kilmore, Vic. : 1870-1954) Thurs 25 Aug 1892. Page 2.
10 Leslie Detail. https://axerail.coffeecup.com/rail_to_trail/rail/detail_leslie.html
11 The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854-1954) Tues 7 June 1892. Page 6 – Fatal railway accident.
12 Kilmore Free Press (Kilmore, Vic. : 1870-1954) Mon 24 Sept 1906. Page 2 – Suicide.
13 The West Australian (Perth, WA. : 1879-1954) Mon 21 Nov 1910. Page 5 – Railway accident in Victoria.
14 The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854-1954) Wed 7 Dec 1898. Page 5- Railway station in danger.