By world standards, Melbourne is a relatively young city, and yet it has multiple layers of interesting and rich history associated with its growth. Read on to discover how Melbourne went from a fledgling settlement to modern commercial centre and Australia’s second-largest city.
Where the city of Melbourne now stands was once the home of the Kulin people, which was an alliance of several language groups of Indigenous Australians who occupied this region for at least 40,000 years. By taking a Melbourne day tour, you can learn more details about these first people before and after Europeans arrived.
The early days
In May 1835, John Batman explored Port Phillip Bay in search of sites that would be suitable for a settlement and grazing land for sheep farmers coming from Van Diemens Land (Tasmania). Although the government in Sydney opposed the settlement, and claimed the “treaties” that Batman got the local aboriginal community to sign were illegal, the settlers kept coming. Within two years, more than 350 people and 55,000 sheep had landed, and the squatters began to establish large wool-growing operations, so the government was forced to accept the growing township.
1850s gold rush
On August 12, 1842, Melbourne officially became a town or, essentially, a collection of small tents and huts along the banks of the Yarra River with a population of 23,000. Around 1851, gold was discovered in several locations around the colony, and the ensuing rush radically transformed the town as people came in droves from Europe to cash in. The population quickly doubled as money started flowing; the city then began developing infrastructure, such as pipes for carrying water and civic buildings, and the eight-hour workday was won.
The boom fuelled by gold and wool lasted through the 1860s and ‘70s: the population soared, wealth poured in and the city grew. Victoria became known as “the working man’s paradise”.
By the 1880s, Melbourne’s population reached the half-million mark, and rivalled the size of many of the larger cities in Europe. Growth continued in a reckless manner as the suburbs sprawled and lavish banks, hotels, towers and mansions were erected. By 1891, however, the boom finally busted as banks closed their doors, stockbrokers panicked and thousands of people lost their jobs, homes and savings. As Melbourne plunged into hardship, the city became far more cautious and urban poverty became commonplace.
By 1910, Melbourne’s population grew to about 670,000 and people began to experience what would become decades of fluctuation between depression and prosperity. Electricity came to the city, revolutionising the way work was done and helping bring prosperity by 1925. This prosperity would be enjoyed for a short time before the city was hit hard by the depression in the ‘30s.
The post-war city
After World War II, a new era of prosperity arrived, fuelled by good prices for wool, increased government spending on transport and education, and the stimulus of high levels of immigration. The Olympic games in 1956 helped transform the years that followed, when buildings grew taller, traffic became thicker and immigrants brought their distinct cultures. Many old buildings were torn down and replaced with new ones made from glass and steel, although you can still take a short tour in Melbourne to catch a glimpse of the old stone gargoyles and opulent architecture.
Soon Melbourne became established as a “nine to five” city, where hordes of cars from the suburbs created traffic jams during rush hour, pockets of sophistication arose, and the art and sporting worlds began to flourish. Melbourne as we know it was taking form.