Today in Transportation History – 1849: New New South Wales Railway

Image: Turning the first turf for the Sydney Railway, 1850. Lithograph by W. Harris. State Library of NSW collection.

In Australia, a company to build one of the first public railway lines in the colony (now state) of New South Wales (NSW) was incorporated. The Sydney Railway Company was put into place to develop a line between the cities of Sydney and Parramatta. The necessary capital was subsequently raised for the construction of this line and a route was surveyed.

About nine months after the Sydney Railway Company was incorporated, a groundbreaking ceremony for the new line took place on a rainy Wednesday in an area called Cleveland Paddocks (located in Sydney between Cleveland Street and the southern end of the city’s present-day central railway station).

“The great majority of the Government officers attended, and we were happy to perceive a numerous addition of strangers, from the interior, who had visited Sydney with the intention of participating in this fete,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald. “The interest manifested by the public at large was also very great, as was evident from the immense crowds who maintained their ground for hours in the heavy rain.”

Mrs. Keith Stewart, daughter of NSW Governor Charles FitzRoy, turned the first sod for the railway with a heavily ornamented spade that included engravings of an emu and kangaroo. As the Sydney Morning Herald confirmed, she “performed the duty imposed upon her with exceeding gracefulness.”

The civil engineer who initially oversaw construction of the line was Irish-born Francis Webb Sheilds. After resigning in 1850 due to a cut in pay, Sheilds was succeeded by Scottish-born James Wallace as head of the project. In addition to this change in management, the Sydney Railway Company encountered a host of other challenges involving finances, manpower, and resources. Ultimately, control of the company’s property was transferred to the NSW government on September 3, 1855. The line between Sydney and Parramatta was opened just over three weeks later. This route is currently known as the Main Suburban railway line.

For more information on the Sydney Railway Company and other aspects of rail transportation history in NSW, please check out

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