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Melbourne, Australia


Video credit: David Murphy

The history of Melbourne is composed of many hidden histories, which its grand boulevards and sleepy suburbs belie.  Like Dublin - in its day also the second city of Empire - Melbourne is a colonial city defined by the tension with, and dominance of its hinterland. 


Named "Dubhlinn" for a dark, tidal pool where the Poddle entered Liffey - now a street corner - before the Viking expansion a thousand years ago; it is hard to imagine the canopy of forest where now there are sprawling suburbs


No less so, eight-hundred years later, to imagine Melbourne's appearance before settlement began in earnest; a land described in 1836 as "enchantingly beautiful, [with] extensive rich plains all round with gently sloping hills in the distance, all thinly wooded and having the appearance of an immense park."


Photo credit: David Murphy

The Jajowrong, Wudthaurung, Taungerong, Woi wurrung and Bunurong clans of the Kulin nation who had long occupied those plains, set among marshland, lakes and billabongs, were brutally displaced to make way for boom-and-bust land speculation and a gold rush that precipitated a great mass of people remaking an outpost described as "[all] mud and darkness," and "as much a ditch in the winter as ... a dustbin in the summer."

For the newly initiated, The Birth of Melbourne by Tim Flannery (quote above) provides many insights about the city by way of carefully chosen primary sources, and is perhaps the most evocative of its changing face.  Cultural luminaries rub shoulders with land speculators, freed convicts and colonial clerks. 

Melbourne is a city which has been broken and remade through its history; in A City Lost and Found, Robyn Annear tells the story of a demolition firm famous for its markers of progress and destruction with its calling card perched atop piles of rubble: "Whelan the Wrecker was here." Whelan's work over a century, presented as a narrative thread, helps the newcomer to look past the gleaming towers and arcades in Melbourne's central business district; if you want to know who you are, it's important to know who you have been.


The Melbourne of Flannery's childhood had become a "timeless and majestic city, surrounded by formal parks and gardens", and much of the lauded livability Melbourne offers is the legacy of this era. Published in 1964, Donald Horne's critique of that society in The Lucky Country reads paternalistically now, but caused a great stir at the time.  Melbourne is compared with a Sydney that "has achieved tolerance without ideology".  


The southern capital is portrayed as more prone to "scare campaigns against migrants", in a city that "worries about its crime rate", a legacy that seems to endure to this day.  This Melbourne is conservative, cliquish and concerned with the management of money.  In Horne's view, "Australia's obsolescence is most effectively perpetuated by the Melbourne Establishment."  Horne did not regard the Melbourne of that day as the cultural centre of Australia, but instead that it "speaks up for conscience" as  the home of both the Trades Hall, and the Melbourne Club.

Walking around Melbourne's inner north, passing through the painted laneways and busy streets it seems much has changed, on the surface at least.  The decline of industry and the legacy of the Hoddle Grid, along with the inestimable effect of the Nieuwenhuysen report, gave rise to the laneways, boutique bars and cafés for which the city is now famous.  The reforms of the 1980s were intended "to create an urbane and civilised way of life similar to that enjoyed in European cities".  This is the face for which Melbourne is best known, but it is just one of many.

With the city projected to grow to 8 million by 2050, many more will come to learn these stories and to tell their own.  In reading about Melbourne there is a continuity which the structural forces of this place afford us; each generation adding something new.


As the boom-and-bust Melbourne of the past reasserts itself, it is tempting to think that some truths endure. As James Boyce points out in his masterful 1835, the myth of the "imperial metropolis  ... founded through private initiative and free-settler enterprise" is still with us. These views persist in no small part because of Melbourne's spectacular, unparalleled growth in the short time it has existed, but history repeats itself when we fail to listen to more than one story about how that was possible.

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