They once carried steam and telegrams. Take a tour of the city’s secret tunnels and discover what lies beneathMay 21, 2023
By Cara Waters and Patrick Hatch
Access to the city’s underground tunnels is highly restricted.Credit: Illustration: Marija Ercegovac
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Deep underneath Melbourne’s streets run networks of tunnels, some of which were built more than a century ago, with the purpose of carrying steam or telegrams.Now, some are conduits for data, power and water, while the use of others, owned by Telstra, is a secret.
Access to these tunnels is often highly restricted, and at the Royal Melbourne Hospital an unremarkable staircase near the hospital entrance leads to the basement, enabling access to this subterranean world.
Heading down into the steam tunnels underneath the Royal Melbourne Hospital with director of facilities management Michael McCambridge. Credit: Simon Schluter
More than 100 people work in the basement underneath the Royal Melbourne Hospital, which houses its kitchen, laundry, pharmacy, second hand uniform shop and morgue.
A locked door at the end of one corridor gives access to those with permissions to the hospital’s tunnel system, which was built in 1939 primarily to carry steam through the facility.
In the Underground Melbourne series, The Age is exploring what lies hidden underneath Melbourne.
Michael McCambridge, director of facilities management at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, leads The Age on a tour of the hospital’s tunnels and says steam was important for medical sterilisation, to heat the buildings and for domestic hot water.
A steamy underbelly
“If you go back to 1940s, it was hot water and heating,” he says. “Air conditioning wasn’t invented, computers weren’t invented. Now we use [the tunnels] to run high-voltage power underneath the floor, so it doesn’t affect any of the clinical equipment.”
The tunnels, which are large enough to comfortably walk through, run for 1.5 kilometres in a loop underneath the hospital and also underneath the road connecting the building to the Royal Children’s Hospital, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne.
They sit around three to four metres under the ground, although some go as deep as 17 metres.
The tunnels are used to pipe medical grade oxygen for patients from the Royal Melbourne Hospital to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Hospital and is still used to supply steam to the university, which uses it for domestic hot water.
Large pipes and cables run along the sides of the tunnels carrying data, power, water and sewerage.
The steam tunnels are now used for water, sewerage and for transporting data. Credit: Simon Schluter
The tunnels are rarely accessed today, except to check on services, and when The Age visited, the only signs of life were the occasional mouse and rat bait trap.
McCambridge says rodents are rare as there is no food there, although in the tunnel which leads to the Royal Children’s, there are cockroaches so large that “you could stand on them and they keep walking”.
US Army war base
The tunnels came into their own during the Second World War, when they were used by the US Army, which had a base at the hospital.
“The US Army used it for the first two years of its life and their mess room was down there where we’ve got our kitchen now,” McCambridge says.
The US Army had its main camp at Camp Pell in Royal Park and also utilised nearby University High School.
“There were rumours they’ve dug tunnels all the way up to their camp, but we’ve never found them unless they’ve buried them quite well,” McCambridge says.
US Soldiers at Camp Pell in Royal Park learn how to use a portable wireless field set in 1942. Credit: State Library of Victoria
The Royal Melbourne Hospital is not the only hospital with tunnels. St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy features a tunnel underneath Victoria Parade, connecting it to the Eye and Ear Hospital across the road.
The tunnel was built in 1978 and stretches for 164 metres at a depth of 10 metres. It is used to transport food, pathology, radiology and personnel, with patients taken between hospitals for services such as MRI scans.
In 2002, The Whitlams filmed the music video clip for their song Fall For You in the tunnel, which is now clad in blue and white panelling.
The elaborate network of hidden tunnels and tubes that run underneath Melbourne’s central business district has a history dating back to the 1880s.
A land boom had made Melbourne one of the tallest cities in the world, and the invention of passenger and goods lifts made buildings as high as eight storeys feasible for the first time.
Hydraulic power system
The Melbourne Hydraulic Power Company started digging up city streets in 1887 to lay a network of pipes which pumped highly pressurised water from the Yarra to power lifts and other machinery.
Melbourne was just the fourth city in the world with a hydraulic power system when it commenced operating in 1889, and one of only eight cities to ever have one.
“The passing of a tram directly overhead sounds like the muffled explosion of a bomb a mile away.”
Around 70 hydraulic lifts around the city were powered by the system within six months, and by 1897 the network of pipes extended 26 kilometres and powered more than 450 devices including lifts, wool presses, cranes and hoists.
Water power continued well into the 20th century, with the Capitol, State (now called The Forum) and Regent theatres all installing hydraulic systems to raise and lower their orchestra platforms in the 1920s. Electricity gradually took over and the Melbourne City Council shut down the system in 1967.
A descriptive sketch of Melbourne’s Pneumatic Tube System in 1892. Credit: The Illustrated Australian News
Most of the extensive hydraulic pipe network remains buried under the city. Remnants of one of Melbourne’s early communication systems are also sometimes found when digging below the streets: a network of tubes used to telegram messages between buildings.
Early on-demand shopping
Powered by compressed air, the pneumatic system commenced operating on March 10, 1893, shooting around leather boxes filled with telegrams between the General Post Office on Elizabeth Street and the old Stock Exchange building on Collins Street.
Messengers on horseback took seven minutes, but the tubes, travelling at around 96 km/h, would get there in just 30 seconds.
The basement of the Royal Melbourne Hospital leads to the tunnel system and houses the hospital’s kitchen, laundry and morgue. Credit: Simon Schluter
“The total cost of the installation so far has been £5000, and it is asserted that it will pay for itself by the saving in horse flesh and messengers’ wages in three or four years,” The Age reported at the time.
The pneumatic system was extended to the Rialto building on Collins Street and the Spencer Street telegraph office.
The Argus newspaper reported in 1901 that some 2300 telegram boxes were being shot through the tubes every day and speculated it could be extended as far as Bendigo and expanded to carry larger parcels to enable Jetsons-like on-demand shopping.
“Ladies who do their shopping in the afternoon will find their purchases awaiting them when they return to their homes,” it said.
Jeremy Smith, principal archaeologist at Heritage Victoria says tunnels were built for the telegraph offices and run from the former General Post Office, which now houses H&M, to directly underneath a number of Melbourne’s streets.
Workers in the tunnel beneath the Royal Melbourne Hospital pictured in 1940.Credit: State Library of Victoria
Smith says the tunnels are made from red brick with vaulted ceilings and stretch for kilometres under the city.
“They are big enough to walk through, they are brick lined and quite substantial,” Smith says.
The tunnels are now owned and serviced by Telstra and Smith says the telecommunications giant is very secretive about the tunnels. It refused to answer questions about them.
But newspaper reports from the 1910s describe engineers taking tours through the tunnels – which are close to two metres high and 10 metres below the surface – from the Central Telephone Exchange built at the corner of Lonsdale and Queen streets, and stretching for almost five kilometres beneath the CBD’s main streets.
In 1946, a perhaps less security-conscious age, a journalist from The Argus given a tour of the tunnels describes walking beneath the Town Hall, GPO, and Myer along tunnels marked with street signs and meeting a full-time underground street-sweeper.
“The passing of a tram directly overhead sounds like the muffled explosion of a bomb a mile away,” the paper reported.
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