When the Seventh Earl of Hopetoun, a Scottish aristocrat, politician and one-time Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, was appointed first governor-general of the new Commonwealth of Australia, it was felt he should have his own railway carriage to journey around the countryside to meet his people – albeit that this countryside would be confined to just New South Wales.
And not any old railway carriage. His would be built from the wheels up as the most luxurious carriage for its time, equivalent to anything used to carry royalty back home in Britain.
And to heck that the economy was more than somewhat fluffy as Australia approached Federation – John Adrian Louis Hope was our first national governor-general, a man of title, confidant to the Queen…and within months would be squiring the Duke of Cornwall and York – who was in line to become King George V – and his Duchess when they officially opened our first Federation Parliament in Melbourne on May 9, 1901.
Thus, the New South Wales Railways’ Office of Mechanical Engineer was charged with creating a work of extraordinary opulence and it’s workshops at Eveleigh, an inner city suburb of Sydney, with the task of putting it all together.
Such a masterpiece did they create that 111 years later, it is still the most luxurious railway carriage in Australia – and fortuitously for everyone from devout rail aficionados to the just plain curious, it has been preserved for us to gawk at, marvel over, photograph and simply ponder its appointments and lavish, almost affectionately-decadent, attention to detail.
None of which came cheaply: When the carriage rolled out of Eveleigh in 1901, the average weekly wage was 2-pounds-3-shillings, a loaf of bread cost two-pence and a litre of milk three-pence… while the Governor-General’s carriage cost a staggering 6475 pounds (in today’s terms, around a whopping $855,000.)
And because it was used for numerous royal visits, special-occasion travel by state governors and for VIP and commemorative occasions until the 1980s, it was immaculately cared-for. In 1992, it was donated by the then-State Rail Authority to the Powerhouse Museum, which in turn has it displayed at Trainworks (the former NSW Rail Transport Museum) at historic Thirlmere, an easy hour’s drive south-west of Sydney.
The carriage never ceases to draw particular Ooohs and Ahhhs from visitors to Trainworks, which is home to Australia’s biggest and most fascinating collection of railway rolling stock.
And little wonder. The governor-general’s carriage sits alongside a mock platform so visitors can see through the windows of its Indian teak exterior into its three luxury sleeping suites, a dining room, galley with attendants’ quarters and a lavish observation lounge with everything from lounge chairs upholstered in Moroccan leather to a polished oak cellarette (small portable wine cooler).
Interior decorations include no fewer than 311 intricately hand-carved English oak and Australian cedar panels depicting NSW botanical specimens. There are finely-etched glass panels of indigenous flora, silk-draped fringe windows and hundreds of items, from coat hooks to light switch covers, are gold plated from 14 gold sovereigns melted down for the job.
The dining suite has a table with six chairs and an intricately carved oak sideboard. The bedrooms feature brass and gold-trimmed bedsteads, built-in wardrobes, fans, heaters and ensuite toilets and showers.
After the Duke and Duchess arrived in Melbourne by ship and opened the first Australian Parliament, they travelled by a Victorian Railways train to Albury where, with Governor-General the Earl of Hopetoun, they boarded his brand-new carriage attached to a NSW Railways’ train made up also of the State Governor’s and Railway Commissioner’s private carriages and several support cars for the trip to Sydney.
And bizarrely, although thousands of people turned out along the route to wave them on, when the Royal train passed through stations, all window blinds were pulled down – to preserve the Duke and Duchess’s privacy.
For security, a pilot locomotive ran ahead of the Royal train, a back-up steam engine travelled behind and all railway crossing gates were closed and locked.
Although not the first royal, Queen Elizabeth, with Prince Philip, was the first reigning monarch to use the governor-general’s carriage in 1954 and the last royal was Princess Marina, the Dowager Duchess of Kent in 1964.
David Ellis is an Australian freelance writer. He has over 30 years experience in journalism including working as Chief of Staff for ABC Radio National.