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Impressions of Melbourne

After 100 hard days at sea, reaching dry land at Melbourne was hardly the paradise many had been waiting for.

"The migrants who had travelled so eagerly to the other side of the world were rarely prepared for the frontier society they found at the end of their journey ... the township of Melbourne whose streets were a far cry from the leafy avenues and promenades of London, Liverpool or Dublin."

Canvas Town, between Princess Bridge and South Melbourne in 1850's.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Marvellous Smellbourne

The moniker the town attracted - 'Marvellous Smellbourne' - was quite fitting. Factories polluted the air and slaughterhouses lined the river. Animal carcasses and empty bottles littered the streets. From the 1840s on, the waters of the Yarra River were unsuitable for domestic usage.

"On the riverside entrails, blood, gore and the stripped carcases of rotting animals trailed into the river, creating a malodorous welcome to the newly arrived immigrant."

Melbourne was a wild colonial town where packs of dogs roamed the streets and men carried guns and tomahawks in their belts. Bushrangers roamed the countryside around the town. Dust, flies, mud, swamps, disease and alcohol caused further aggravation.

Ellen Clacy was alarmed that "revolvers were cracking in all directions until daybreak, giving one a pleasant idea of the state of society."

She also found Melbourne very expensive.

"We were getting initiated into colonial prices - money did indeed take to itself wings and fly away."

Dust or floods

The famous Melbourne climate was much too hot for an Englishman, and prone to flash flooding. Flooding washed rubbish out to sea, but took livestock along with it. And it often caused havoc for pedestrians. Henry Brown describes a sudden river blocking his path.

"Where Collins Street crosses Elizabeth Street, I was arrested by a crowd ... and much to my own astonishment found myself on the banks of a raging torrent. I was surprised, for if my geography of Melbourne was not utterly wrong I had crossed at the same place only a few hours before."

But Melbourne wasn't without its positive aspects. Ellen Clacy described Melbourne as "very well laid out; the streets (which are all straight, running parallel with and across one another) are very wide, but are incomplete."

Suburbs like St Kilda and Brighton had already established reputations as fashionable bayside suburbs.

Mansions and canvas towns

Melbourne was close to the gold fields and offered enormous scope for adventure to new migrants. But there was very little in in the way of European comfort on offer. Before the gold rush, the city had started to take a solid shape, and with that a more definably British character. With the gold rush, all these improvements came to a halt. Henry Brown described Melbourne's incongruous architechture.

"Side by side with a shop that would have graced Regent Street stood some wooden shanty ... The new buildings were all fine, the old small and mean; the same could be said of the people, the newcomer being smart whilst the old residents were most of them plainly and dingily dressed."

Emigration was big business, and the number of arrivals seeking gold was so vast that accommodation was a problem. Tent cities sprang up on the southern banks of the Yarra River. Life under canvas was an unappealing prospect.

"Tents were again pitched, but owing to their not been fastened over securely, many of us got an unwished-for shower-bath during the night; but this is nothing - at the antipodes one soon learns to laugh at such trifles."

The tents were a chance for prospectors to test their camping ability. Many formed partnerships to take to the gold fields, or consolidated ones formed during the long journey south.

Some prospered, some simply survived. Others just gave up.

" ... life in Melbourne proved too distasteful, and they simply returned on the ships that had brought them out, having never even landed their sea-trunks ... Hundreds have already gone back again, cursing those who sent such one-sided statements of the goldfields and of the climate."


By Jack Kerr


Henry Brown, Victoria, as I found it, during five years of adventure in
Melbourne, on the roads, and the gold fields; with an account of quartz
mining and the great rush to Mount Ararat and Pleasant Creek
, Newby,

Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia,
Lansdowne Press, 1963.

Geoff Hocking, To the diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary
of the discovery of gold in Australia
, Lothian Books, 2000.


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