Werris Creek

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Derived from The Conservation and Management Plan of the Werris Creek Railway Station

by John Carr Architects and John Ferry - State Rail Heritage Unit 1988

The area of today’s Werris Creek was initially part of the land holding established on the Liverpool Plains by George A. Single in the 1830’s. The town’s main street, Single Street, commemorates the family today. In the 1860’s and 1870’s the interior of the state of NSW was being opened up by the train, however it wasn’t until the railway arrived in the Werris Creek area in the 1870s, that she was put on the map. The line went through it from Quirindi to Tamworth, and bypassed Wallabadah, much to the consternation of the inhabitants of the latter township!

Then next, a decision to build a line from Werris Creek to Gunnedah was made in the New South Wales Parliament on the evening of 26th April 1877. It was an uneventful debate but a significant decision which was taken after no more than 20 minutes. Several speakers rose to their feet to support the motion although a couple of half-hearted concerns were raised by other members, but these were quickly put to rest and the motion had an easy passage. Almost certainly, all the lobbying for this decision was made by the man behind the scenes who was Thomas G. G. Dangar member of parliament for the electorate of The Gwydir, embracing the towns of Narrabri, WeeWaa, Moree and Walgett, all of which would be connected ultimately to the branch line.

Dangar’s success in getting a line from Werris Creek to Gunnedah led to an explosion in branch lines in other areas as well. The branch line from Werris Creek was commenced late in 1877 and reached Gunnedah in September 1879. In those times, the politicians were free of the constraints of party politics and not so readily identified by a political label as today. There was no greater achievement for the nineteenth century local member from the bush, than to get a railway line (or two, or three) cutting across his electorate. And they tried and vied with all their might to achieve this.

The mania for railways was based on everyone’s experience of the alternatives. Rail was not just quicker, it was far quicker. It was not just cheaper it was immensely cheaper. It was not just safer and more comfortable, it was unbelievably so. As well, rail was the great technological wonder of the age. It was fashionable to be fascinated by railways.

If the branch line to Gunnedah provides evidence of the beginning of the railway mania in New South Wales - the beginning of the truly great days of rail, as it were - it also indicates the growing power of the public service, most particularly the railways division. Neither Tamworth nor Quirindi pressed very strongly to become the railway junction. In fact, many years later, it was hinted that Quirindi was decidedly luke warm on the prospect of becoming a railway town. So the major junction on the Great Northern Line was sited, cost effectively, in splendid isolation in the middle of a paddock, owned as a free selection by pastoralist George Single.

The original station at Werris Creek was about a quarter of a mile south of the present junction. However, with the opening of the line to Gunnedah and the splitting of the mail train from Newcastle at Werris Creek, it was necessary to have a station nearer the actual branching of the line. The platform for the new station was finished by October 1879. From the new platform was to rise a magnificent station and refreshment room complex. It was to be a remarkable building that could easily grace a city, a monument to railway confidence and bureaucratic power, yet, incongruously, a lonely citadel in the middle of the bush.

The refreshment room was opened for business on 19th November 1884 and in its first fortnight Mr. Quinn boasted sittings of from 40 to 50 people at dinner. This new building was an impressive structure in the Victorian Free Classical style. A lavish effect was achieved by contrasting rich red bricks in tuck-pointed Flemish bond with crisp stucco embellishments. The strongly decorated astylar façade facing the eastern platform, with its quoining, pronounced cornices with paired brackets, and moulded grouped windows was not unlike a city bank, at least until it was covered in its first of many layers of railway soot. The western side was similar in detail except that the symmetry, so carefully maintained on all the other façades, was broken here on the top storey of the refreshment room where a single off-centred window looks strangely out of place. It was not meant to be. This is the most obvious departure from the original plan, but there were a few others of lesser prominence. The central elliptical windows on the top storey of both east and west façades are unusual, but not entirely uncommon in the free classical style.

The main entrance to the refreshment room looked south along the axis of the railway platform. Its central features were large double doors surmounted by a ten light fanlight. On entering the building through these doors the nineteenth century traveller stood in a foyer, flanked on the left by a grand cedar staircase leading to the top floor bedrooms, and, on the right, by a large lavatory where travellers could wash the soot from their faces and hands. At least this is what the original floor plan showed. From the foyer, double interior doors led to the refreshment room itself where a massive cedar counter swept along the western wall, then curved to take in half the northern wall. Little else is known of the original furnishings except that the first lessee installed two very large mirrors known as pier glasses, which were designed to fit on pier tables often over a chimney piece. A double row of cast iron columns went across the interior from east to west.

The staircase just inside the main entrance led to nine upstairs bedrooms with two bathrooms and a private dining room. To the north of the refreshment room was a large single storey annex containing a scullery, pantries and a spacious kitchen, with a cellar underneath. A series of servants’ bedrooms planned for a second storey above the kitchen was not initially built. There was a fenced yard adjacent to the kitchen, which contained the servants quarters.

Ironically, the Railway Refreshment Room at Werris Creek was finished and operational before tenders for the adjacent railway station were called in March of 1885. This led to the ridiculous situation of the refreshment room and associated accommodation being a quarter of a mile from the railway station which was located on the old platform. Timetables at this time indicated that there were two stations at Werris Creek and another nearby at the Gap!

The main station building which emerged throughout late 1885 was a first class railway station. It was sumptuously finished, its main decorative feature being its parapets which supported, on each side of the station, three segmental pediments (now demolished) the central one of which being inscribed with ‘N-S-W-G-R– ERECTED—1885’. The verandahs boasted elaborately fretted spandrels, and were supported by hollow iron columns which were connected by a water pipe to the guttering and acted as down pipes to collect run-off water for storage in the underground tank. The columns supported the verandah rafters, which were assembled in an uncommon hammerbeam arrangement. Column brackets were moulded in filigree patterns and carried shields bearing the inscriptions ‘GNR’ and ‘1885’. The building was a celebration of the railway bureaucracy rather than a reflection of the importance of the town.

There was a momentous decision in 1917 to make Werris Creek the northern headquarters of the Railway’s Mechanical Branch, and this marked the beginning of the junction’s boom years. As early as 1913, approval had been voted for a lengthy cross-country line to be built from Binnaway to Werris Creek. This line would effectively join the northern line to both the western and southern lines. Its main purpose was the movement of stock in times of drought, but it was felt that the line would open the southern Liverpool Plains to closer settlement, and provide New South Wales in times of war with a line which ran from north to south across the state without going through Sydney. The first World War delayed the project but the line was commenced after the war and opened on 23rd October 1923. Werris Creek was now the junction of three of the State’s railway lines!

Up until that time, traffic on the northern line had been controlled from Murrurundi, but in the eyes of railway officials that town was diminishing in importance. A contract was let in 1925 to erect a second storey to the railway station. That upper storey had been completed by the time the Traffic Superintendent and his staff moved up from Murrurundi.

The transfer of staff to Werris Creek precipitated a crisis in accommodation in the town. The Refreshment Rooms came under increasing pressure to provide more accommodation. The balcony on the southern side above the main doorway was now provided with lattice screens and up to six beds were put out there in summer. In some emergency situations in the mid 1920s, guests slept on the floors. There were at least two proposals to extend substantially the Refreshment Room accommodation by adding either another wing to the north, or a third storey to the existing complex. But nothing came of these plans.

By 1939, the first floor office accommodation was inadequate, and plans were approved for the extension of the upper storey to include the entire length of the station building. The additions included new offices for the District Superintendent, a Control Room, a Telegraph Office, an Apparatus Room, and awnings were erected over the western windows to give some relief from the afternoon sun. The addition was completed in October 1939 and, from the outside, provided a good match with the older section of the upper storey. The whole complex was now quite impressive. Clearly Werris Creek was the most important junction in the north and the station buildings were a monument to decentralised railway administration and the reality of the branch network which had now spread across all of the state.

Nothing of great substance was added to the complex after the late 1930s though. However, considerable pressure was put on the facilities during the Second World War, as Werris Creek became a vital junction for the movement of troops. The Binnaway line connected the northern line at Werris Creek to both the southern and western lines, and inland railways became increasingly important after the outbreak of war with Japan, as coastal shipping routes became more perilous, and as Australian harbours came under attack. The situation was exacerbated by the discovery in 1939 that the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge on the main, and only, northern line out of Sydney, had been poorly built and, fifty years after its construction, was in some danger of collapse. Throughout the war train movements across this bridge were severely restricted. At Werris Creek the staff of the Refreshment Room took on the task of feeding the troops coming through the station. In order to cope with the influx, trestle tables were lined along the platform and these were set with refreshments, ready as the trains pulled in. In later years former soldiers remembered Werris Creek as an ‘eating place’.

The 1950s was the last decade of steam in New South Wales, and was probably the most prosperous decade in Werris Creek’s history. The town’s population peaked as did the number of employees on the New South Wales Government Railways. The Refreshment Rooms were in full operation with a daytime and night shift to keep the facilities running around the clock. There were about a dozen people employed on each shift. Accommodation in the upstairs section was still well patronised by commercial travellers despite the greater availability of car and plane travel. Some people simply refused to travel by means other than rail, and one well known patron was Member of Parliament Mr Frank O’Keefe who always travelled to Sydney by train, stopping for a bite and a cup of coffee at Werris Creek (he was in Federal Parliament in the 1960s and 70s).

However the 1960’s signalled a period of changes to come. Buffet trains were used increasingly on all country lines after the war. Werris Creek was a staging point for the buffet girls working the night mail trains and those working on the northern line would have their breaks at Werris Creek..

Throughout the years after the war, the Refreshment Room kitchen at Werris Creek provided the buffet trains with scones, sandwiches and other light refreshments. The 1950s were the last great days of the Refreshment Rooms. By the 1960s the argument as to whether railways should run as a business or as a means of achieving desirable social and political ends. Cost recovery was going to be a minimum goal, and services would be rationalised. Dining cars and buffet cars were increasingly employed, and in 1963 the bar in the Refreshment Room was closed, and approval was given for the reduction in size of the main area.

Gradually Refreshment Room staff were cut back to about twenty employees and then to about ten to fifteen. Eventually on the long weekend on October 1972, in line with general railway policy, the Werris Creek Refreshment Room was closed after 88 years of service.

The 1960s was also the decade when diesel took over from steam. In terms of operation they were very much more efficient, and their servicing required more specialised, centralised workshops. The New South Wales Government Railways were beginning a period of contraction of staff and of services. The very fact that all lines led to Sydney was now going to lead to centralisation, whereas decades earlier, the nature of the steam engine had led to decentralisation. Werris Creek was the first country depot to receive an allocation of diesel electric locomotives when branch line locomotive 4801 was delivered from the manufacturers in September 1959.

With increasing rationalisation and centralisation of rail services in the 1980s and 1990s, Werris Creek station became underutilised. The old 105ft turntable was rarely used, and the old Refreshment Room became little more than a storeroom until it was converted into offices. In April 1998 most of the first floor offices above the station, where once 70 or 80 people were employed, were empty and many of the ground floor spaces were little utilised. The trend seemed to be one of further reduction of staff and less use of the building. Werris Creek station is now a monument to a railway system that has long since passed, and some change of function for the complex would seem likely, and desirable. An Internet Café or a Backpackers Hostel are among the uses suggested in the report.

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