Historical Melbourne 

Aborigines in Victoria
Georgian Melbourne

In 1841, the District of Port Philip was part of the Colony of New South Wales which was how all of the eastern part of Australia was generally known at the time. The Colony of Victoria came into being in 1851 and later became the State of Victoria upon the federation of Australia in 1901.

Williamstown Wharf  ca 1850

In 1802 Port Phillip Bay was discovered by John Murray and Matthew Flinders. British ships first visited Port Phillip in 1802 and 1803. The first European to explore the Yarra River was Charles Grimes, Surveyor General of New South Wales, in January 1803. Rowing up the river, he passed a reef near today's Queen Street, which separated the tidal salt water from the Yarra's fresh drinking water. The Grimes party reported that this made the Yarra 'the most eligible place for a settlement' - a discovery that is often misleadingly credited to John Batman, who arrived thirty-two years later.

They reported their discovery to the British government but colonists were not sent there right away. The first European settlement in the Port Philip District was established near Sorrento in the south of Port Phillip Bay. It was not until 1835 that a group of Tasmanian entrepreneurs led by John Bateman and including John Pasco Fawkner signed a treaty with the local Aborigines in 1835 and a settlement began at the head of Port Phillip Bay which, in time, grew to become the city of Melbourne. Batman gave the Aborigines 40 blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 50 scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and six shirts in exchange for 500,000 acres. Initial port facilities for the new settlement were set up at Williamstown, which for a time was the major town in the area and was the capital city of the new Colony for some time.

Although the settlement was not named until 1837, its characteristic grid layout was imposed by military surveyor Robert Hoddle the same year, and by 1840 over 10,000 people had been attracted to the area. Melbourne was built one mile along the Yarra River (east to west) and three-quarters of a mile north to south. Melbourne was named after the British Prime Minister at the time, Lord Melbourne.

In 1841, the Port Philip District was under the administration of Lieutenant-Governor Charles LaTrobe. LaTrobe is well known for introducing the gold mining licence (the Miner’s Right) into the Victorian goldfields, a move which precipitated the Eureka Stockade rebellion at Ballarat. The population of the Port Philip District was very small initially. In May 1836 it is recorded as 175 persons, in November 1837 as 364 and in 1839 as over 2,000. Free immigrants began arriving in 1839. The colony of Victoria was formed in 1851, with Melbourne as its capital, neatly coinciding with the discovery of gold which swiftly and inexorably transformed them both.

The original site of Melbourne was chosen for its access to fresh water rather than its potential as a port. An underwater bar at the entrance of the Yarra River ruled out the entry of vessels drawing more than about nine feet of water. Ships arriving from overseas had to drop anchor in Hobson's Bay (now Williamstown), or at the Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) Pier. Passengers and goods then had to be transhipped up the river in smaller vessels or 'lighters' as they were called. These charged excessive amounts. It has been recorded that it cost 30 shillings per ton (half the entire freight costs for the voyage from England) to have goods taken the eight miles from sea to city, and the average delay in 1858 was three weeks. The discovery of gold in 1850 exacerbated the problems of the port. In just one week in 1853 nearly 4,000 passengers from 138 ships arrived in Hobson's Bay.

In 1850 gold was struck in Ballarat. This rural community was north west of Melbourne. The great gold rush began and Melbourne began to grow. By 1860 the population was 125,000 people. This was an increase of 15.7% from 1850. In 1851 Victoria split from New South Wales because they wanted to be on their own and the new found gold gave them economic confidence. Melbourne became the centre of government for Victoria. By 1860 Melbourne was the largest city in Australia. Gold brought a huge influx of immigrants from around the world, and the wealth it generated created a city of extravagant proportions. In 30 years the designs of the city's architects, the skills of its many European trades-people and the designation of large areas of the city for public parkland had established what was known as 'Marvellous Melbourne - the Paris of the Antipodes'.

Melbourne and the old port area currently being refurbished into a new
commercial and housing development known as Docklands.

Manufacturing also began to flourish but by the 1890's Melbourne's economy fell. Banks closed, businesses went bankrupt and unemployment soared because gold mining declined, there was too much British investment in Melbourne and there were too many disreputable land speculators. Still by the end of the century Melbourne had a bigger population (close to half a million people) and a political control over Sydney.

In 1901 Britain gave up Australia as a colony and Australia formed a federation. Melbourne was the first capital of the Australian Federation. The formation of the Australian Federation was good because it increased their international market. In 1927 the capital was moved to Canberra, which is located in New South Wales.

Opening Of The First Federal Parliament, Melbourne

The ethnic mix of Melbourne's population has always been an important influence on the city's character: the Chinese and Irish diggers attracted by gold in the 19th century and the postwar arrival of refugees and migrants from all over Europe (particularly Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Poland) and more recently from Vietnam and Cambodia, have all contributed elements of their cultures to what could otherwise have been a conservative, passionless English society. These migrants have boosted Melbourne's population to 3.3 million and their influences are witnessed in Melbourne's robust and varied architecture, restaurants, festivals and entertainment.

Lonsdale Street  ca 1870

Aborigines  in Victoria

Although mystery surrounds many aspects of Australian prehistory, it seems certain that the first humans came here across the sea from South-East Asia around 50,000 years ago. There were about 38 tribal groups living around Victoria when white people arrived. Aborigines were traditionally tribal people living in extended family groups and using the environment sustainably. It is believed that Aboriginal people were the first to make polished, edge-ground, stone tools, to cremate their dead and to engrave and paint representations of themselves and animals. Although their society was technologically simple, it was culturally sophisticated, using complex ceremonies which integrated religion, history, law, art and codes of behaviour. Aboriginal people around Victoria resisted white settlement (which began in 1803), and although some settlements had to be abandoned, the original inhabitants were really just postponing the inevitable. Soon after settlement, the Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of their lands and massacred in their thousands. Between 1834 and 1860, Victoria's Aboriginal population dropped from 15,000 to 2,000.

There were five clans around the Port Philip Bay area making up the Woiwurung language group. The Wurundjeri-William clan inhabited the area where the current port is situated. The area teemed with water plants and bird life. It was a favoured hunting ground for the Kooris who set fish traps, hunted small birds and animals, and foraged for roots, seeds, leaves and insects.

Georgian Melbourne

Well known newspaper columnist, Keith Dunstan has written a beautiful article describing a previous, quieter Melbourne for the new year celebration of 1999/00 in the Sunday Age, 21 January 2000.

“Georgian Melbourne was comfortable, opulent and elegantly English. So much so, we didn’t like untidy Australian trees. We preferred trees from ‘home’ – the oak, the elm. A silver birch was almost compulsory for the front garden.

Melbourne was flat with this never-ending low profile. The Exhibition Building was the highest spot. The most prominent features were the spires of St Paul’s, St Patrick’s, Scots Church and the Congregational (later Uniting) Church. We could see the dome on Flinders Street station, which we thought was at least as satisfying as St Paul’s in London.

Queen Street in earlier times

To the left was the Hollywood inspired State Theatre. It was the biggest in Australia, with 3300 seats and all manner of minarets and filigree. Rudolph Valentino’s sword was in there and one could imagine it housing an Arabian harem too.

We honestly believed we were the world’s best at a number of things: the best Botanic Gardens, the biggest cricket ground. Flinders Street was the world’s busiest railway station; nothing could beat our public transport.

Our cable trams were exquisite, as beautifully designed as Singer sewing machines and there were so many of them, one every two minutes. progressively through the 1920s the splendid electric trams took over and the last cable car travelled down Bourke Street at its sedate 12 mph on the last weekend in October 1940. The Tramways chairman, Mr Hector Hercules Bell, kept it a secret for fear of grief-stricken Melbournians would tear it apart for souvenirs.

Bourke Street

We loved Collins Street. A visiting English travel writer, James Morris (he later changed his sex to become Jan), described it as one of the world’s greatest streets. We believed him utterly. It had this leafy charm, but more than that, a feeling of security. You could never imagine anyone getting raped or robbed there.

There were so many noble Victorian buildings like Melbourne Mansions, where 101 Collins is now. The wool people, when wool was money, used to come from the Western District and stay there for the entire spring racing season. Down below was Mr Jonas’ fruit shop, the only place you could buy avocados and Bowen mangoes.

Elizabeth Street ca 1900

There was six o’clock closing, but we took our beer drinking seriously. One didn’t have to walk more than 20 yards to find a pub. Oh dear, the hotels that have gone: the Supreme Court, the Yarra Family, the Cathedral (where do the clergy drink now?), the Astoria, the Occidental, the Oriental, Parers, the Federal, Scots, Phairs, Menzies and in Flinders Street, next to Young & Jackson’s, there was the Port Philip. It had a labyrinth of bars with great punkahs. On a hot February day they would sway back and forth sending little waves across the surface of your beer.

The Yarra was important. There were punts and excursion boats to the Hawthorn Gardens. The two biggest events were Henley in March, when you had to have your lady in the prettiest canoe, and the public schools boat race, which vied in importance with the Melbourne Cup. Fifty thousand or more would gather on the banks to see the final. The headmasters called a stop in 1946. They thought the Head of the River crews were being turned into gods, so they moved the event to the Barwon River near Geelong.

Swanston Street

Most of all one remembers the sedateness of Melbourne. The Melbourne Sunday was a work of art. Sport was forbidden and, unlike sinful Sydney, we had no Sunday newspapers. Picture theatres and restaurants were closed, but, provided you did not make too much noise, you could visit the Zoo.

The quiet in the city itself was beautiful. Nothing stirred, you could lie down in the middle of Bourke Street, go to sleep and come to no harm.

That would make a nice feature to bring back for the next millennium.”

Thanks Keith!

Trams in Swanston Street

View of Melbourne from Williamstown, 2000

St Kilda Promenade – 1880s to 1890s

South Bank of the Yarra ca 1870