Melbourne History

Melbourne history starts back in the area around Port Phillip and the Yarra Valley. This is where the City of Melbourne now stands. It was the home of the Kulin people, an alliance of several language groups of Indigenous Australians. Their ancestors had lived in the area for an estimated 31,000 to 40,000 years. At the time of European settlement 20,000 indigenous inhabitants lived in the area. They were hunter-gatherers from three tribes: the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Wathaurong. The area was an important meeting place for the clans of the Kulin, as well as a vital source of food and water. The Kulin lived by fishing, hunting and gathering, and made a good living from the rich food sources of Port Phillip and the surrounding grasslands.

Many Aboriginal people who live in Melbourne today are descendants of aboriginal groups from other parts of Victoria and Australia. However, there are still people who identify as Wurundjeri and Boon warung descendants of the original people who occupied the area of Melbourne prior to European settlement. While there are few overt signs of the Aboriginal past in the Melbourne area, there are a wealth of sites of cultural and spiritual significance.

Early settlement

Melbourne history books state that Melbourne began as a collection of tents and huts on the banks of the Yarra. People washed themselves and drank from the river. By the 1850’s the river had become quite polluted and many people dies because of an outbreak of typhoid fever. The city council opened the Melbourne City Baths on 9 January 1860, but many people continued to swim in and drink the river water.

With the arrival of Europeans in the area, the local indigenous people were hard hit by introduced diseases. Their decline was hastened by mistreatment, alcohol and venereal disease. There were also frontier conflicts such as the Battle of Yering in 1840. Simon Wonga made moves to reclaim land for Kulin people to settle on in 1859. However, they were not successful until 1863 when the surviving members of the Wurundjeri and other Woiwurrung speakers were given ‘permissive occupancy’ of Coranderrk Station, near Healesville and forcibly resettled.

Melbourne History 1850s Gold Rush

The discovery of gold led to a huge influx of people to Victoria, most of them arriving by sea at Melbourne. The town’s population doubled within a year. In 1852, 75,000 people arrived in the colony and this, combined with a very high birthrate, led to rapid population growth. The State of Victoria’s population reached 400,000 in 1857 and 500,000 in 1860. As the easy gold ran out many of these people flooded into Melbourne or became a pool of unemployed in cities around Ballarat and Bendigo.

There arose a huge wave of social unrest urging the opening of the lands in rural Victoria for small yeoman farming. A few year later a provisional government was formed by land hungry miners demanding land reform. The accelerated population growth, and the enormous wealth of the goldfields, fuelled a boom which lasted for forty years. This ushered in the era known as “marvellous Melbourne.”

The city spread eastwards and northwards over the surrounding flat grasslands, and southwards down the eastern shore of Port Phillip. Wealthy new suburbs like South Yarra, Toorak, Kew and Malvern grew up, while the working classes settled in Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy. The influx of educated gold seekers from England led to rapid growth of schools, churches, learned societies, libraries and art galleries.

The boom fuelled by gold and wool lasted through the 1860s and ’70s. Victoria suffered from an acute labour shortage despite its steady influx of migrants. This pushed up wages until they were the highest in the world. The Stonemasons Union won the eight-hour day in 1856 and celebrated by building the enormous Melbourne Trades Hall in Carlton.

The 1880’s and 1890’s Expansion

Melbourne’s population reached 280,000 in 1880 and 490,000 in 1890. For a time it was the second-largest city in the British Empire, after London. In terms of area, Melbourne was already one of the largest cities in the world. Rather than building high-density apartment blocks like European cities, Melbourne expanded in all directions in the characteristic Australian suburban sprawl.

New suburbs were soon connected with the city centre via a network of trains and trams. Melbourne’s civic pride was demonstrated by the huge edifice of the Royal Exhibition Building, built in 1880 to house the Melbourne International Exhibition.

In the 1880s the long boom culminated in a frenzy of speculation. Land prices became more expensive creating the Land Boom. Governments shared in the wealth and ploughed money into urban infrastructure, particularly railways. Huge fortunes were built on speculation, and Victorian business and politics became notorious for corruption. English banks lent freely to colonial speculators, adding to the mountain of debt on which the boom was built.

Melbourne History 1891 Economic Bust

In 1891 the inevitable happened: a spectacular crash brought the boom to an abrupt end. Banks and other businesses failed in large numbers. Thousands of shareholders lost their money as well as tens of thousands of workers were put out of work. Although there are no reliable statistics, there was probably 20 percent unemployment in Melbourne throughout the 1890s.

Melbourne had 490,000 people in 1890, and this figure scarcely changed for the next 15 years. This was a result of the crash and subsequent long slump. Immigration dried up, and emigration to the goldfields of Western Australia and South Africa increased. The high birthrate of the mid 19th century fell sharply, and the city’s growth continued, but very slowly.

Current Day

Today Melbourne is home to about 3.2 million people. The city once attracted many Greeks and Italians. In people terms, it is the third largest Greek city in the world and the largest Italian city outside Italy. In common with Sydney, it has a large Chinese community dating from the 1850s gold rush. Melbourne has long been a bastion of the Jewish community in Australia. Authorities say the city’s residents come from approx 140 different ethnic backgrounds.

Explore Melbourne

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