Toorak Melbourne 1860

Life in Melbourne Victoria Australia 1841-1852

William and Catherine Fanning arrived in Port Phillip, in the Colony of Victoria, on the 4th of October 1841. This is what they would have seen and experienced when they arrived.

Melbourne was only five years old, with a population on 2nd March 1841 of 4,479 people. Every week during that year migrant ships poured more and more people into it. Although there was plenty of work up country, many hung unemployed about the Immigrants’ Depot. Though the town had some brick houses, because of rapid increase in population it also had many tents and calico huts. It had three banks, two newspapers, two sawmills, a flour mill and several shops. Some doctors were practicing and clergymen of five denominations ministered to their flocks. People had watches, but no-one was certain of the correct time, for the clock at the Post Office was not installed until 1843.

“The streets were quagmires, and the only beacon to guide the wayfarer’s slithering course at night was the dingy spluttering oil lamps, one of which every publican was to keep alight at night in front of the groggery. There was no hospital, no Benevolent Asylum, no lunatice asylum; but there was a gaol, a stocks, and instead of “Black Maria” the sombre hearselike police van now in requisition, a huge chain officiated as assistant pacificator at races and sports, to which refractory individuals used to be manacled, and a very unwholesome string of rascals might, at times, be seen escorted through the streets by the non-descript expiree constables of the period.”

The streets still had stumps in them and were dust-bowls in summer and slushy in winter, Elizabeth Street being a water-course which could only be negotiated with difficulty.

Stagnant water in the streets and insanitary conditions led to epidemics. During that summer there were epidemics of typhoid and dysentery and a patient was buried each week. Drainage from properties was into William’s Creek (as Elizabeth Street was then called) or Batman’s Swamp or the Yarra. From the Yarra, water was sold to the community, the carriers charging two shillings for eighty gallons.

Mail was brought from ships by Mr Liardet and handed to the Postmaster, Mr Kelsh, who operated from a small brick building on the side of the present G.P.O. He was a sour and uncivil person and was superseded in July 1841 by Mr Kemp, a polite and efficient officer, from whom the Clancy’s and others received good service.

At the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets, on the edge of the town, was St. Francis Church, where Father Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan ministered. He arrived in Melbourne on 15th May 1839 and celebrated the first Mass in Victoria on 19th May in an unroofed store belonging to Messrs Campbell and Woolley at the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Street .

The great influx of Irish migrants during 1841 caused congregations to increase, collections to become larger, and the need for a Church building to replace the small wooden structure to become imperative. Only a month before the arrival of the Clancy’s the foundation stone of St. Francis Church was laid on 4th October 1841 (the Feast of St. Francis). The day was stormy, but nevertheless a large crowd assembled, including many Protestants. Nearly £200 was collected at the ceremony. Coins were deposited under the Foundation Stone but thieves stole them.

The month of March began with a round of outdoor entertainment. Races were held on 1st March, a sultry day when the attendance was good and on 2nd March when the day was cool. The country came to town when the First Annual Pastoral and Agricultural Society Show held in the cattle market but the show of cattle was not numerous. Business generally was buoyant and building was going on apace in the suburbs and “where the bird whistled today, the chimney smokes tomorrow”. Present high rents encouraged some to rush up Jerry built houses. New Town was renamed Collingwood and building blocks were advertised in several streets. Bushrangers were operating on the outskirts of Melbourne and in the Geelong area. These men – Martin Fogarty, Charles Ellis and Daniel Jeep – were captured, condemned to death, and paraded through the streets to their place of execution. There also took place, for the first time, the public execution of natives on 21st January 1842 when two Tasmanian murderers, “Bob” and “Jack” were hung.

Natives strolled about the streets in considerable numbers. The annual Census in 1841 showed 175 blacks in Melbourne. This number dropped to 92 in 1848 and continued to dwindle. Later, they were prohibited from the town by the Corporation because of their non-conformity of attire, the temptations to drink and their constant begging. From time to time, they held corroborees, the last of these being held near Melbourne in the middle of 1844. A blacks’ school was started near the junction of Merri Creek and the Yarra River, under Mr Peacock. The school was later transferred to Newtown.

By 1842, the boom period of employment for migrants was over and many were finding difficulty in obtaining employment. A depot was formed, the first of the immigrant Homes, and work was found for a hundred or two during several months in making a good carriage road from the falls of the Yarra to Sandridge. A reduction of wages from twenty shillings to eighteen shillings per week led to a strike.

The first elections for a Municipal Council were held in 1842, there being 729 burgesses entitled to vote.

The first Regulations for Schools in Australia took effect from 1st January 1842. A Government grant, not exceeding a penny a day, was made for children whose parents could contribute little toward the cost of education. Quarterly returns were checked by the Inspector of Schools. In 1842, Melbourne had schools conducted by the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Wesleyan, Independent and Roman Catholic Churches, with a gross enrolment of 422 children. Private schools had 2l4 children. Only one-third of the children were attending schools.

Towards the end of 1843, Melbourne experienced a grasshopper plague, when potato and turnip crops near Melbourne were destroyed. “The grasshoppers were lying in myriads all the way from the Catholic Church to the Supreme Court”. An idea of the cost of living can be gained by prices reported on New Year’s Day 1844 – potatoes 8/6 to 9/-per cwt, retailing at 1d to 1d per lb, lettuce 1d a head, French beans 2d per quart, oranges 2d to 3d each, eggs 1/- a dozen, fresh butter 7d to 8d per lb, bacon 1/- per lb, beef 1d to 2d per lb, flour first-grade retailing at 12/- per 100 lb.

Irish people in Melbourne were dining in luxury compared with most of their compatriots in Ireland. The year 1845, with the widespread failure of the potato crop, ushered in a famine the like of which the people of Ireland had never known before, a famine that brought appalling misery and widespread death.

News of this appalling tragedy was published in the papers. This item from the Port Phillip Patriot is indicative of the nature of many published reports. Lamentable records of starvation are published in the May, files of Irish papers, eg., from the Nation -“Cork is like a city of the plague – the unburied corpses trip men in the streets”.” In addition, details would come in letters .

The Rev P.B. Geoghegan called a meeting on 12th August 1846 to consider what they could do to help the people who were suffering. Some 300 attended . A sum of £250 was collected from those present. In four days, this grew to £423 and a little later, the sum of £500 was remitted to Ireland. Later, the amount reached £l,362:17:3.

In 1846, 9,000 – or one quarter of the population of Victoria – was Irish born. As a result of the famine from 1847, another 16,000 Irish arrived in Victoria in the next six years, many of these coming from County Cork. Coming from one region, sharing one religious faith (in the main), belonging to the same economic and social class, they provided a remarkable homogeneity in this rapidly growing community. Indicative of their numbers is the fact that when St. Francis Church was completed and blessed on 25th October 1845, 23 babies were baptised A Census of Gipps Ward taken in March 1846 revealed 886 Roman Catholics, 691 Church of England, 343 Presbyterians 99 Wesleyans and 99 adherents to other denominations, making a total of 2,118.

Gold was discovered in Bendigo in 1851. In that one month, December 1852, 120 ships arrived in Port Phillip, bringing 12,000. Melbourne was a very expensive city in which to live. Rents were multiplied by five and ten; a four pound loaf of bread rose from 6d to 1s 4d for most of 1852, then to 2s late in the year, vegetables and dairy produce trebled in price.

Thanks to Brian Powell for allowing me to post extracts from Eric Clancy’s book “The Overflow of the Clancy”


The Argus 28 March 1916


Interesting memoirs of the boyhood days of Mr. J. W. Miller, one of the oldest mem bers of the Historical Society, depicting life in Melbourne between 1842 to 1851, were read by the secretary (Mr. A. W. Greig) at a meeting of the society in the Mel bourne Town Hall last night. The paper was compiled from notes prepared by Mr. Miller, who was born in Little Collins street, near the present site of Cole’s Book Arcade, in 1841. Melbourne was pictured as a sparsely populated common, with primi tive buildings and with tall gum trees and wild bush vegetation encircling the out skirts of the settlement. Mr. Miller told how the Government Domain was once used for small farms, and how the spot where Federal Government House now stands had been the rendezvous of the aborigines. He told of the swarms of dogs that infested the settlement, and how in one year the police were praised by “The Argus” for having s laughtered no lower than 1,200.


The writings of an Englishman upon arriving in Melbourne 1852


Decr 26/52

My Dear Papa

We arrived here on Saturday , and by all accounts everything was very dear – for instance – bread 2/- the 4lb loaf, salt 4d per lb – meat 6d per lb, coffee 1/8 per lb, sugar 4d per lb, lump sugar 10d. Spirits etc very dear – beer 6d per glass or 2/- per pot etc and everything in comparison.

I did not intend going on shore till I went for good for they charged 5/- to land. I stayed on board all Sunday – packed up on Monday – and Tuesday morning at 8 o’clock went by the steamer to Melbourne which is about 10 miles from where we were anchored.

It cost me nearly £2. to land with my luggage and all, for labour is so expensive.

Entering the town, it seemed so queer and strange – my chum and I went and walked about, after we had got our luggage stored – we were quite bewildered.

We went to a lodging house and there were two beds – mind I say beds because a room is a thing impossible to get.

These beds were in a room where 12 slept – and I hear there are some houses where 20 sleep together in a room. We took these beds and paid 3/- each for them, and we then had dinner – 2/-.

After dinner I walked in the town and I saw put up in a printers, “Compositors wanted” so I walked in and was engaged at £4.18/- per week.

It is a jobing office and I like it very much – Well I was to go there next morning at 6 o’clock – after that I went and found Frank Wyman, who was very glad to see me – he is doing nothing, but he is not single in this – but of this I will write more of, when I have finished about myself.

After that I went to the tents – or “Canvas Town” as they call it. I should think there must be nearly nearly 1000 tents, and it looks for all the world like Eden in the “Martin Chuzelwitt” of Dickens.

There I saw Mountee and Charlotte, very miserable. They had arrived about 10 days before us – and were 120 days at sea.

They are both very miserable and wish they had never come – which is the cry of everyone that arrived. We had tea with them, and then went home and went to bed.

Since then I have been to work every day from 6 till 6 and have felt very tired when the day is over, and I generally turn in about 9 o’clock. On the morning after I arrived I went to a boarding house to live where they charged me £2.2/- per week for breakfast dinner and tea, and a bed with 12 in the same room.

Oh it is a wretched place destitute of every comfort is this Australia. Cherries 4/- per lb – Cabbages 1/ each Apples 4/ per lb and not worth eating. Washing 12/- per dozen if you send all shirts – but if you mix the things large with the small you can get them done for 8/- per doz.

On the first Monday and first week after I came on Shore I was so dreadfully bit by the Moschettos they bit me all over while I was asleep, you must not scratch the place when they itch for it makes them worse.

My face was so covered with these bites that I looked as if I had the small pox, and really thought I was going to be ill, but I stood up against it, and Charlotte and Mountee, hearing of a house to let at 30/ a week near my office I said I would take one room with them for the houses have only two rooms most of them.

Well – the second Monday after I arrived we were in this house, and thank God I am now free from moschettos, for it was only through so many living and sleeping in one room at the boarding house that I was so bit.

On Christmas day we had some baked pork and plum pudding which was very good. They charged 9d for baking it and if you take 1/- will not give you the change.

Coppers are rare things here nothing hardly is to be bought under 6d .

Change is never hardly given.

To give you an idea of the things here is today that 10/- here is only equal to 1/- in England this is a fact.

I bought a bottle of Port wine and Rum to drink at Christmas and they charged me 6/- for the bad wine and 4/6 for the Rum – one thing of this, I don’t care for I am no drinker.

I drank all your healths at home and thought of what you were all doing calculating the 9½ hours we have gained on you for when we are going to bed at ½ past 9 it is 12 at noon with you. I did not wish any of you here for it is a horrid country.

The summer season is now on , and they say they have no rain, in England.

There have been four or five showers – not such showers as we have in England, but rain that seems to pour – not “little babies in long clothes ” but ” Giants with pitchforks “.

The morning after I arrived I had to cross a street. The water was nearly up to my knees – this the old settlers call nothing.

They don’t call this rain – they say it lasts for 3 months right off.

The Sunday before last I took a walk with Mr Wyman to Pryham, a place about 5 miles off – and nearly knocked myself up, you cannot walk here in the middle of the day – nor at night for murder is nothing here and no one thinks of walking out without a pistol in his pocket, they are “stuck up”, as they call it and thrown into the Yarra river –

It is a wicked country and a devil’s life.

To advise anyone to come out I certainly should not for though I have got a tolerable situation – I am one in a thousand, besides persons who are no trade are useless out here – Clerks are no good here – all they do is work on the road at £3 a week, which with the high price of things is not too much, considering what hard work is.

If Alfred Newman was to come out he would not know what to do – I can assure him for no one but Carpenters and Brickmakers are wanted – not even printers, for they are plentiful now – and I can only say that I am very very lucky.

As for coming out for the ” beautiful country “, it is nothing on England – even in the worst parts. It is a horrid place and where I never hope to settle.

All I say is stay in England – don’t leave her she is not to be equalled.

What some have endured living in the tents I cannot tell you but it is dreadful.

There are many out of work out of employment here as there are in England – and it is only the good workmen – and they must be lucky – that succeeds.

As for letters of introduction they are not worth a dump – in fact I have not used mine.

Bigamy is a constant occurance here that no notice is taken of it.

If a man leaves his wife to go to the diggings she marries another man and when her husband comes back, if he goes to say anything about Justice, gets laughed at, and perhaps a bullet through the head for his trouble.

All I have written is not overdrawn in the least – I can assure you,

and after leaving beautiful England to come to such a different place, where comfort is not known.

Do not advise anyone to come. I do not say this from any selfish mood but for their good while they can exist in England, let them stay.

I was not born to be lucky in some things – I shall give myself ten years and then come home again and see old England again, that is to say if I don’t make my fortune before.

To make a fortune here is easy if you can get established well. Mr Lyon and Roy is here starving, but I don’t think they make much of their London madrigal and Glee Club.

The theatre and all connections with it is far from respectable.

I went to the tents the other day and coming home heard a lady playing on the piano and singing in one of them, “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls” – poor thing.

I thought that all you can do here is to dream of those places here.

Many persons who work on the roads get sun stroke, and die.

The dysentry has carried off a great many – the water is very bad – in fact nothing is good – meat tough – the flies plentiful, and everything dear.

The gentlemen wear veils as well as the ladies here, to keep off dust and flies.

I have a wide-a-wake and green veil, to look like the rest.

Dogs are very numerous. You have to carry a stick to knock them off to prevent them biting you.

Every one is on an equality here and the only thing that I am not obliged to keep up any great appearances here.

I can wear what I like and no one looks at you. I shall become a rough and uncouth being – and not the civilised Henry Severn that was.

It is no good making friends here for they only cost money and I want to save so shall remain quite by myself going through the routine of the day like a clock.

I have not been able to get all my clothes out of the box but shall go next week.

I hope to send by next letter something to give you but must not promise till I know where I am and must keep a little store in case of illness which please God I may not have.

Good bye.

Give my love to all at home. I hope you are getting on well.

I am expecting letters from you.

Give my love to all – everyone.

Tell them I am doing well and believe my dear father I am your loving son.

Thomas H. Severn

Tell Moma and children they must not be offended because I have not sent my love separately.

A Letter to his Father from Thomas Henry Severn, a newly arrived passenger on the ship “PRINCE ALFRED”.

Written in Melbourne Australia on 26 December 1852.


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