History of Melbourne

Mother Earth Travel > Australia > Melbourne > History

Melbourne - a bayside metropolis that grew beside a river to become one of the world's most exciting cosmopolitan cities. From humble beginnings - a few tents and bark huts, through boom and bust periods, gold fever, two world wars and an influx of migrants from around the world - the city has grown with its people to become a vibrant cultural melting-pot loved dearly by the people who live here.

Melbourne is a seaport located midway along the state of Victoria's southern coast at the top of Port Phillip Bay, and at the mouth of the Yarra River. Prior to European settlement the indigenous people of southeastern Australia (known as Kooris in their own language) lived a semi-nomadic life for at least 40,000 years. The oldest site of continuous occupation yet found in Australia lies in the Melbourne suburb of Keilor.

For more than two decades, the region around Port Phillip Bay was ignored by Australian settlers, except for the sealers and whalers who worked the coast. Rumours of good pastureland caused land-seekers from other colonies to try their luck. In the spring of 1835 the rival camps of John Batman and John Pascoe-Fawkner were established on opposite banks of the Yarra River. Other settlers soon arrived from other parts of Australia with sheep and cattle, and the district grew rapidly. The government in New South Wales accepted they couldn't stop the settlers, so they acknowledged the occupation, and in September 1836 officially declared the Port Phillip district open to settlement. The infant city was named officially in 1837 after Lord Melbourne who was Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time.

The distinctive grid pattern of Melbourne's city streets was laid out in 1837, and provided for wide streets and grand boulevards leading out of the city. Land was reserved for the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Domain, and the Fitzroy, Flagstaff and Treasury Gardens. This was unusual for the times, and established Melbourne's unique landscape.

Melbourne, unlike other Australian cities was not founded as a penal colony, but settled by free men, rapidly growing from frontier town to colonial metropolis. The settlers already had businesses or property, and those from Britain included many merchants and professionals who brought capital for investments, as well as artisans and labourers. The city's activities centred on the busy port - it was a commercial city from its inception. Businesses clustered around the wharves, where ships brought mail, bank drafts, immigrants and goods. In the 1860s Melbourne rivaled Chicago population-wise.

Early Melbourne was a very rural town. All around the city centre were market gardens and orchards, fields of wheat and oats, and small dairy farms. Early suburbs like Fitzroy and St Kilda were also rural, supporting occupations like grazing, farming and horticulture.

In 1851 gold was discovered in Victoria. Melbourne's population halved as people left to seek their fortunes on the gold fields. The regional towns of Bendigo and Ballarat saw an influx of immigrants from Britain, Europe, China and America. Ethnically Australia remained predominantly British, but not segregated like in Britain. Irish, Scots, Welsh and English mixed on the gold fields. Irish and Chinese inter-married. Life in Melbourne was more open and egalitarian.

Between 1851 and 1861 the state of Victoria produced one third of the world's gold. All this gold made the colony rich. In cultural terms the gold fields generated in Melbourne an institutional approach to society and the arts. Gold gave Melbourne the opportunity to found Melbourne University (1854), the National Gallery of Victoria (1861), the National Museum of Victoria (1854), the State Library (1864), and many professional societies. Melbourne offered churches, theatres (such as the Princess Theatre built in 1854), clubs and sports (notably horse racing, cricket, and football). Arts flourished. The fledgling government was strong on conservation and education. In 1872 the Victorian Education Act made history. It made schooling compulsory and tuition free.

By the early 1880s Melbourne was recognised clearly as a metropolis. A visiting journalist coined the phrase 'Marvellous Melbourne' in 1885. The city was the centre of Australian colonial administration, manufacturing, and commercial activity. People enjoyed the excitement of Melbourne - its busy streets, the spectacles and entertainment. Between 1880 and 1890 Victoria boomed. There was an increase in immigration and the suburbs spread east of the city. Mansions were erected, lavish theatres built and land values soared.

Depression hit in the 1890s: fortunately the wheat, dairy and wool industries helped keep the state going.

On 1 January 1901, the new Commonwealth of Australia was declared independent of Britain, and the newly formed parliament met in Melbourne until 1927. During World War I, 112,000 people from Victoria served in the armed forces. Melburnians later struggled through the Great Depression, and the Second World War.

After World War II many British, Yugoslav, Dutch, German, Arab and Maltese migrants arrived. The Australian government wanted to increase the population and the labour force to help build the country. The government offered 'assisted passage', to many of these migrants, some of them having been displaced after the war. This changed Melbourne's cultural make-up, and set the pattern for decades to come. The 50s and 60s saw another wave of migrants arrive from Italy and Greece: Melbourne now has the third largest Greek population in the world, and the largest outside Greece. In the 70s and 80s refugees arrived from Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as migrants from countries such as India, the Philippines and Malaysia. Our latest wave of immigrants comes from North Africa.

Melbourne thrives on the experiences these people have brought - eating habits, religions, cultures, races and languages. It is this culture of diverse backgrounds that Melbourne has been built on and undoubtedly what gives Melbourne its unique and endearing character.