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Expanding Colonization, Cities and Suburbs

Catherine Helen Spence, exhaustible resources, Clara Morrison, romantic images, sardonic humor

Between 1851 and 1891 the Australian population grew from 437,000 to 3.2 million. It became one of the fastest growing and most urbanized regions of the world. In 1891 more than one-third of Australians lived in the six capital cities. The largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, were as populous as all but the largest European and American cities. The colonial cities sprawled; Melbourne’s 473,000 people occupied as much area as London’s 4.7 million.

People gathered in the cities in part because the staple industry, grazing, employed relatively few people. Mining, the next most significant industry, was based on exhaustible resources in remote locations and usually did not produce permanent settlements. Increased urbanization was also a reflection of the high demand for urban goods and services in a prosperous and increasingly suburbanized society. Australian per capita incomes exceeded those of the United States and other developed countries. Australia was arguably the first suburban nation. Working people, who formed the bulk of colonial immigrants, were often able to aspire to homes and gardens of their own. However, many of their houses were cheap and flimsy shanties built on low-lying, badly drained allotments. Sydney and Melbourne had typhoid rates equal to the worst-hit European cities.

Each capital served as the major port and administrative center for its respective colony. Perceiving others as rivals, each tended to emphasize its own identity. Newspapers and colonial politicians talked up their differences. The rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney was especially intense. Until the 1890s contacts between individual colonies were secondary to their ties with Britain. Even when transport and communications links were established between the colonies, these did as much to divide as to unite them. In fact, each of the eastern colonies—Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland—built its railways to a different gauge.

The capital cities were also the center of political change. In the 1850s merchants and professionals agitated for political reform and the drafting of new colonial constitutions. Small-scale manufacturers and early trade union leaders aided the passage of tariff and industrial legislation favorable to the urban working class. In 1856 Victoria’s stonemasons successfully struck in support of an eight-hour working day, the beginning of a movement that rapidly secured support across all the colonies. All the colonies established systems of free, compulsory, and secular primary education by the 1880s, making education primarily a government responsibility. The power base for most reforms crossed class lines, although by 1890 trade unionists were moving steadily toward the formation of their own political party. By the 1890s Australia was widely regarded as a pacesetter in progressive social legislation.

The culture of the cities was essentially British. Many colonial Australians read, with a three-month delay due to distance, the books and newspapers being read and discussed in London. However, a small number of Australian writers began to command a wider public. Local themes took precedence in For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke and Clara Morrison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever (1854) by Catherine Helen Spence. Despite the dominance of the cities, by the 1880s Australians had begun to fashion a national identity based on the romantic images of the sheep shearer, small farmer (known as a selector), and miner. Short-story writer Henry Lawson and balladist A. B. “Banjo” Paterson became the leaders of a literary movement based in Sydney that celebrated the rugged countryside—known as the bush or outback—as the original source of Australian ideals. The movement was associated with the Sydney weekly journal the Bulletin. The true bushman, as portrayed by the Bulletin writers, was both an individualist who was a natural rebel against authority and a collectivist who was a loyal comrade, or “mate.” The archetypal bushman struggled against his boss and the squatter, but his most implacable enemy was the harsh, waterless country of the outback. As distinctive as these writers’ outlook was their vernacular style, which echoed the laconic speech and sardonic humor of the people they characterized.

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