Melbourne from 1852 to 1854

by J. R. M.

“Reminiscences of Olden times – Melbourne from 1852 to 1854” was written by J.R.M. and published in the The Queenslander and The Brisbane Courier on 18 December 1869.

This is the month of November, A.D. 1869 — seventeen years and a few months since the writer left the old land for Australia. How long seventeen years look ahead; how short, when contemplated from the past. Still, short as they seem when looked back on, what immense changes have taken place in Australia during that period. Somehow, the re-appearance of July, in its annual turn, brought thoughts of home to my mind, and I took a sort of mental survey of that long left but never-to-be-forgotten distant land, and the many occurrences that have happened to me since I left it; the many changes I have seen, places I have visited, ups and downs I have had during these seventeen years; in all probability the most eventful in my life; a seventeen years’ experience which would be eventual in the lives of a great majority of men, had they witnessed the scenes, visited the places, and met with the occurrences that I have; a seventeen years during which more changes have taken place in this vast continental island of Oceanica than ever were witnessed in the same time in any other portion of the globe since old father Time commenced to register his footsteps. Well, reader mine, of all the places visited, Melbourne, from the year ’52 to ’54, was the most remarkable, and the scenes which I viewed there, partially, perhaps, because it was my first lesson in real life, are the most vivid; and I will attempt to give you some description of life there during that period, which, if it possesses no other qualification, will at least possess that of truthfulness, for the occurrences described will be what I have witnessed and taken part in.

On the 11th of May, 1852, I was just fourteen years of age, getting Latin and Greek drilled into me, together with some other lads, at a private school a few miles from Dublin, having no more notion of going to Australia than of taking a trip to the moon. I went home at the June vacation, little thinking that I was leaving school, at least, the school of boyhood, forever. My father was a parson, possessing a fair income, but at the same time a large family, mostly boys, to educate whom stretched the income to its fullest limits. I was the eldest of the family, and had been well drilled for my age in what my first preceptor, a village Solon, termed “classical larning.” At this vacation, my father wished me to choose a profession, or, rather, to adopt one of his own choosing — viz., his own. To this I demurred, as I wished to follow another. The matter ended in his allowing me to go out to Victoria, under the care of an acquaintance of his, from which place splendid news about the gold-fields had just arrived. My father having made arrangements with a shipping firm in Liverpool to secure me a return passage, if I wished to come home again which result he prophesied would occur within twelve months — he accompanied me to Liverpool, and the last I saw of him, or ever will again in this life, as he is now dead some years, was the day we cleared out of the docks into the Mersey. There was a rather peculiar scene at our final parting, which I see in the mind’s eye even yet. The passengers and their friends had said a last good bye, the planks had been withdrawn from the vessel, and a tug boat made fast. My father was standing on the end of the pier, and our vessel was just moving, when I took a small pen-knife out of my pocket and hove it to him, as a keepsake from me. The knife fell near him, and he was in the act of stooping to pick it up when a young street Arab, doubtless on the lookout for any odds and ends that might fall in his way, dived between my father’s legs, nearly upsetting him in the act, snatched the knife, and decamped, my father shaking his stick in the direction the young urchin had gone amid the laughter of the bye-standers.

We lay in the Mersey for a day, during which the hon. W. E. Gladstone (who was then engaged in inspecting passenger vessels, with a view of introducing some improvements in the Emigration Act, which he has since done) came on board, accompanied by his eldest brother. I can just recollect him, a tall, pale, reserved looking man, wearing a close-fitting frock, buttoned up to the throat. This brother was, I think, then-Mayor of Liverpool, or at all events connected with the Municipality. He was much jollier on board than his more eminent brother the hon. William; shook hands with the captain and several on board; and as the mate happened just then to be calling over the passengers’ names, and mine among others, he, having noticed a thin strippling of fourteen answering this name, and none other of the same being called, asked me was I going out to my friends. I told him I had no relations in Australia. He asked me had I any onboard? I answered no. He asked me was I going out to a situation? I said I had no fixed situation, but was going to push my fortune. He placed his hand on my head, gave me some good advice, and made some remark about my being a specimen of British pluck, in which, by-the-bye, he was wrong — if there was any pluck in the matter it was Irish pluck.

Shows facade of post office, building in "E" shape with veranda all round, courtyard in centre, clock on central rooftop; includes pedestrians, men, women and children, hawker with barrow and horsemen.
Melbourne Post Office 1851

Behold me, in the good ship Rip Van Winkle, just fourteen years and a few months old, with no relations on board or in the land I was bound for, with little or no knowledge of the world. We sailed from the Mersey on the 2nd August, and had a fair passage, for that time, of ninety-nine days to Melbourne. I often look back on these three months as the happiest in my life; hope was big, experience small. I had shaken the school dust off my feet, and was a man, if not in re at least in nomine, and I indulged in mental castle building to my heart’s content. Besides we had a pleasant voyage, and I was not troubled, after the first few days, with that great bugbear to happiness on board ship — sea sickness. Our purser, on the contrary, was, and as I had a slight acquaintance with that gentleman, I generally acted as his deputy. The doctor, also — a young medical student just left the University — was seasick a great part of the voyage, and I used to act as sort of private secretary for him; often going to see his patients, none of whom were seriously ill, bringing back their own reports of how they felt, and applications for medical comforts, such as wine, beer, fruit, &c., these, with an occasional dose of salts, were the principal medicines administered on board. The doctor was a good-natured fellow, and as the granting of these applications cost him nothing, he generally gave them, when I made out a list, at his dictation, which I took to the purser; and as that gentleman was generally sick also, he gave me his keys, and the third mate and I, who got to be great friends, administered the comforts, and some to ourselves too generally, but never any salts. Between the purser and the doctor, I had enough to occupy a deal of time, and was thus saved from that constant source of unhappiness, or at least discontent — pure idleness — which most of the passengers had to undergo; a state in which I believe real happiness is rarely if ever attained. Amusement, pleasure, and taking the world easy, are all very well in their places; but it requires duty or labor, whether mental or bodily, to be added to give zest to life.

We arrived in Port Philip about the middle of November, and were duly landed at Captain Coles’ wharf, by a small river steamer, for which service we were charged exorbitant rates. There was much grumbling among our passengers thereat, as they were under the impression that they would be landed at the ship’s expense when they paid their passages, and found out, when too late, what they have often, doubtless, found to be the case since — viz., that impressions are often very different from realities, and generally erroneous.

Immense quantities of immigrants were pouring into Melbourne just then, which place was very different from the metropolis of the south it now is. Lodgings of any kind were almost unprocurable, and I, with some others, were glad to get shelter in an already crowded establishment, where we paid 2s. 6d. each for mere shelter for the night; we could get no beds, and slept on the floor. Next day, the gentleman under whose charge I came out erected a tent at Canvas Town — about the third or fourth put up there, though in a few weeks its inhabitants could be counted by thousands, and it eventually grew, to such a size, and became such a den of iniquity, that it had to be eradicated by the Government. This gentleman, having been charged £1 for a passage from Liardet’s beach, as it was then called — now known as Sandridge — to the vessel we came out in, determined on purchasing a boat himself. He knew something of the sea and boating, and, together with a friend, bought a spare boat from one of the vessels in the bay, and I have often known them clear £10 in a day, and they used to grumble if they did not realise £30 a week. This was not bad on an outlay of £30, what the boat cost them. I cooked and kept tent for them for about a fortnight, in the meantime looking out for a billot to suit me.

At the end of that time I obtained one as wharf clerk, and general junior clerk when not engaged at the wharf. I stopped in this billet for about two years — till the end of ’54, at which time my governor retired from business. It was two years of a description of life I will never see again, and which has been seen but by few; and I doubt if Melbourne ever had a parallel during these two years, except, perhaps, San Francisco. Of course, my reminiscences are but meagre. I was a mere lad, untutored in the world; but even I am often disinclined to speak of things I have witnessed and come in contact with; they seem to strangers almost past belief.

There was an old Scotch clerk in the office, from whom I used to receive orders every morning — a crusty old block, especially if you were later than 9 o’clock, the hour we were supposed to be in attendance at the office. If you were up half the night before, working as hard as you could — which was the rule, not the exception, those busy times — and came a few minutes later next morning, he never made the slightest allowance, but was as cross as a bear; even the governor used to shun him when he was in one of his beautiful tempers, and has often given me the key of his private desk, and sent me into the office for his pocket-book, when he wanted to go downtown, as he always did about 10 o’clock. But a mere faithful or useful servant could not be had than this same crusty old clerk; in fact, in those times he was invaluable. No matter how much business was done, he would keep the office work up to it and would tolerate no arrears.

Looking across busy wharf with men resting near barrels in foreground, others standing near stacked lumber. Forest of ships' rigging in background, buildings along wharf and in right foreground
Melbourne Wharf looking S. W. from Custom House enclosure 1853

One morning when I hurried into the office to get orders, or rather a memo. of my day’s work, from this gentleman (which memo. would open the eyes of some of the dandies in the Queensland Civil Service, if they had to do it in a week), there was a lady there. She asked me if I was going towards the wharf. I answered Yes. She asked me if I would be kind enough to settle a small account for her at a confectioner’s as I passed, at the same time introducing herself as my employer’s wife. Of course I expressed assent. She gave me 30s., and a bill to get receipted. I was taking the bill from her with my hat off, doing tho polite, for she was almost the only person who had spoken kindly to me since my arrival in the colony — “Do not,” “will you do,” being the order of the day, and please,” and “thank you,” being reckoned quite superfluous, when old crusty bawled for me to be off. I made my exit at once, and on gaining the street looked at the account I had to pay — two dozen eggs, at 15s., 30s. I was astonished. I had but a short time left a place where from 4d. to 6d. per dozen was the current rate for that article.

I saw things afterwards that astonished me more, but that was about my first lesson. I was generally at the wharf checking our goods, that is, goods landed with my employer’s brand, and a nice job it was. Say a ship came out from England; the vessel stopped in Hobson’s Bay; the goods were bundled out into lighters almost any way; time was the great object, and saving labor; labor then would be a good profit now; freight in those lighters from the bay up the river was £3 per ton. Well when these lighters arrived at the wharf, packages were landed in admirable confusion as to brands. You had to be as sharp as a lamp-lighter, so as to get all the goods with your brand on; look at every dray leaving the wharf for other firms, and see that they had none of your brands, or the chances were you would ever see them again; turn over cases, &c. As for landing goods with brands placed so as to be visible, that was unheard of labor for wharf lumpers in those days; fosic out draymen amongst great competition; and keep a correct tally — all at the same time. Draymen then got from 7s. to 8s. per load, and earned from £3 to £4 per day. Perhaps, by way of a little change in the scene, just as you had got seven or eight drays collected together, and was commencing to load, and congratulating yourself on the run of luck you had had, a whistle is heard — one of Cole’s steamers has just arrived with immigrants from some vessel in the bay. Off scampers every mother’s son of your draymen, to earn from the immigrants even a richer harvest than they are getting from you. Horse feed was very dear then, and draymen required to earn good wages. Oats, from 30s. to 40s. per bushel; maize, about 30s.; bran, 10s.; and hay £40 to £50 per ton. When the Junction Hotel, near St. Kilda, was being built, plasterers were advertised for, and 50s. per day offered; carpenters and masons were paid at the rate of from 20s. to 30s. per day; and laborors from 15s. to £1. Men who had been previously poor all their lives, suddenly came into the possession of hundreds of pounds. Their heads seemed to be turned by so much good fortune, and instead of saving, how to spend quickest seemed to be the end aimed at.

All descriptions of orgies were enacted nightly in the streets, and the watch-houses were crammed to suffocation with inebriates, who were fined 40s. each next morning, and hurried off, never being allowed to speak a word in defence. I had to appear as a witness at the police court one morning, and I saw the manner in which the worshippers of Bacchus were dealt with. About forty or fifty were up, and as quick as one was placed in the dock he was fined 40s., or twenty-four hours; not allowed one moment for defence, and the next victim introduced. This was rather an arbitrary mode of proceeding; but really there was no help for it; but one small court to transact all the business in, and if cases had not been hurried they could not have been gone through at all. Of course, when higher offences were committed, and criminals were brought up, the proceedings were different, and more in accordance with law and justice.

The police were then a body notorious for looking after themselves — a good many of them had been formerly convicts — and any amount of loot was taken from the various incapables they took up in the streets every night. Bands of miners, down for a spree, were perpetrating any amount of mad freaks, and spending money like dirt, believing that they had only to return to what they facetiously termed the bank — i.e., back to the gold-fields, when their funds would be soon recruited.

Down about the wharves, where I was mostly engaged, the mud was literally knee-deep in wet weather. My governor one day gave me an order for a pair of thigh boots on his own bootmaker, as a present. When I had fitted myself with one of the least expensive pairs I could get, I enquired the price — £7 15s. I told the boss when I got home, and he seemed to think it reasonable. Sometimes I was sent down to the bay to check cargo coming over the vessel’s sides into lighters, for merchants as well as passengers found, unfortunately to their cost; that generally the owners of vessels considered their part of the contract over when the ship dropped anchor, so that consignees had to pay lighterage to the wharves, often more than the freight from England. As nearly all crews deserted immediately on arrival, great difficulty was experienced in obtaining labor to discharge vessels in the bay; £4 to £5 a week, food, and three or four glasses of grog a day were the current rates. Goods, especially breakables, were badly knocked about in discharging, and we unfortunate clerks, who would get blamed in the matter, had to be very cautious in finding fault, as the sons of toil were masters of the position, and let us know it. The slightest reprimand, and the parties spoken to demanded their money and were off, and their places were not easily supplied. It was amusing to officers of vessels, in this to them new state of affairs; they had, as a rule, to make requests, not utter orders, and keep a bridle on their tongues.

Sandridge – or Liardet’s beach, as it was then called — consisted of one hotel and a few huts and tents. There was not a single building on what is now known as Emerald-hill; no railway pier, nor railway, and the town pier, as it was called, only suitable for a boat landing. None of the back streets were metalled, and the great majority of the buildings were wood. Bullock teams were to be met within all the streets. Carriage to Bendigo was about £110 per ton, and to other places in proportion. Cabbage-tree hats and black cutty pipes were the rule, and not the exception among the squatting lords vegetating in the Club in Collins-street, and the Port Philip Club Hotel, in Flinders-street —their principal houses of resort when in Melbourne. Black tiles, except on Sundays, were few and far between; and such a thing as the idle saunterers now to be seen on afternoons about Collins-street, doing the block, were non est inventus.

The bay itself was a sight worth seeing, crowded with vessels from all parts of the world — principally English and American. Many of these vessels had discharged their cargoes, and only waited for crews to take them away; but this was no easy matter to obtain.  Nearly every ship’s crew deserted upon arrival, and often even the officers. Labor was employed to discharge the inward cargo, but the greatest difficulty was found in providing crews for the various vessels, to enable them to proceed on their return voyage. Eighty, one hundred, and one hundred and twenty pounds were often paid to seamen for the return trip. Just fancy, from thirty to forty pounds a month for A.B. seamen going a begging.

Collins Street (Looking West from Russel St.) 1853

It must be remembered that in this year (’53) there were more imports to the Australian colonies than had ever taken place before, or have been attained since. That the imports were far in excess of the demand may easily be inferred, when the then population and present is taken into consideration; but nevertheless the ships arrived, and with them the goods or merchandise. When it is taken into consideration that nearly three-fourths of these imports came to Melbourne — a town with about thirty thousand inhabitants — fancy may depict some description of the scene, and the mind’s eye get a partial glance. Just imagine, for a moment, Brisbane all at once receiving the same amount of shipping, and transacting the same amount of business as Melbourne and Sydney combined do at present, and you may form some opinion of the state of affairs in Melbourne at the time I speak of.

Men as poor as church mice had suddenly become possessed of thousands; hucksters had become merchants; merchants had become millionaires; squatters, from hanging on by their eyebrows, as bad as they are in Queensland now, had, as it were in a day, become possessed of almost untold wealth; society was in a state of high fever. These sudden changes had pitchforked men into possessions nature never intended them for, and neither education nor their previous mode of life had fitted them for.

I recollect an occurrence, which I have often since seen noticed by the Press, which took place about this time, and which may give some idea of the state of society in Melbourne in the year ’54. I refer to the dinner held by old colonists. This dinner was held by colonists who had resided for fourteen years in Victoria, and a few guests invited by them. I was not present as a colonist of fourteen years’ standing, not yet as a guest, but, as an outsider, with a few other youngsters, was allowed to view, at a respectable distance, the proceedings of these august revellers. His Excellency C. I. Latrobe, Esq., occupied the chair. Things went on pretty well at first; the good things, under which the tables groaned, were evidently enjoyed by the recipients. By-and-bye a change came over the scene. The wine had circulated to some purpose. There were evidently gentlemen (save the mark) present not much used to the courtesies of life, and whose conduct was not calculated to shine, at public entertainments. As the night waned, the guests commenced to talk altogether, and got rather boisterous. Order was called again and again. At last, one or two, wishing to get more elevated, left their seats and perched themselves on the table. The Governor rose from the chair to retire. One of the company — since a member of the Upper House, an hon., and one of the wealthiest men in Australia — jumped up on the table, seized a decanter, and hurled at His Excellency’s head, at the same time calling him a German sausage head. Numbers of the company followed the example of the thrower of the decanter in leaping on the table. Confusion became general, and the fun fast and furious. A general dance on the table was commenced, plates and glassware were hurled through the windows into the street, and a great crowd gathered outside. The landlord came into the room to try and make some order, but had to beat a hasty retreat, and cried for the police. These guardians of the peace made short work of the ringleaders; and, as some well-known colonist was escorted, hand-cuffered and wanting his hat, through the crowd, on his way to the watchhouse, the cheering was vociferous. The result of the dinner was — a very heavy bill had to be paid to the landlord, and heavy fines in the police court were imposed on the revellers, and it became a nine days’ wonder.


About this time rag fair was a prominent institution in Melbourne. It was held on a piece of ground between Flinders-street and the Yarrow, about the spot the Sandridge Railway Station now stands on. Here immigrants who came out provided with large boxes filled with clothes of all descriptions, used to bring their trunks and expose their contents for sale. The storage charges were something enormous in Melbourne at that time, and many, rather than pay them, used to sell off their surplus baggage at any price. Dress coats, black belltopper, pistols, watches, jewellery, books et omne genus, were here sold at any price offered. It became quite an institution, and eventually a resort for dealers, stampers, &c., and had to be suppressed by the authorities.

Fires were very prevalent about this time, and as the only supply of water was obtained from a tank in Elizabeth-street, into which it was pumped from the Yarrow, and hand to be fetched to fires in water carts, it was no easy matter extinguishing them. The greater part of the buildings were wood, and very inflamable.

Some of the since very prominent Victorian politicians then occupied very humble positions. The Hon. John O’Shannassy — since Premier twice, and one of the ablest statesmen Australia has produced — then kept a small draper’s shop in Elizabeth-street. The late Hon. William Nicholson — since also Premier two or three times — kept a grocer’s shop in Collins-street at that time. Mr. George Levy, now proprietor of the Daily Herald, and a member of the Assembly, was then an itinerant newsman, and I have often bought an Argus or Herald, from him. All honor, say I, be given to men of this class, who have raised themselves from humble to prominent positions.

I will close these hastily strung together reminiscences, by describing the alarm a cannonading of the Great Britain steamer, while coming up Hobson’s Bay, caused in Melbourne about this time. I think it was towards the end of ’54 that the Great Britain, having some sickness on board, was detained for a time in quarantine. Upon release, and while steaming up the bay to her anchorage, the captain, to show his own and his passengers’ joy at the release, caused a great number of guns to be discharged, and a rather heavy cannonading took place. Be it remembered this occurred during the time of the Russian war, and the visit of a Russian privateer to Melbourne was a possibility. About 8 o’clock p.m. this furious cannonading commenced, and the universal opinion was that the Russians were in Hobson’s Bay, and that Melbourne would be sacked. The streets were crowded with people in an intense state of excitement; the few military then in Melbourne were placed under arms; residents from the suburbs were constantly arriving; officials of all descriptions were hurrying here, there, and everywhere; the cannonading still raged fast and furious; citizens of wealth, and possessing something to loose, pulled long faces; persons with lighter pockets had lighter looks, and rather enjoyed the fun, comforting themselves with the thought that, if not gainers by a row, they could not be losers, for the very cogent reason that they had nothing to lose The upshot of the matter was, the wolf was discovered to be a very harmless lamb; the worthy skipper of the Great Britain was heavily fined for discharging cannon within prescribed boundaries; and, like all nine days’ wonders, a natural death was the finis. J. R. M.


  1. Reminiscences of the Olden Time (1869, December 18). The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), p. 3.
  2. Melbourne Post Office 1851; Stringer, Mason & Co. engravers; 1851; State Library of Victoria
  3. Melbourne Wharf looking So. W. from Custom House enclosure 1853; S.T.Gill 1818-1880, artist; James J. Blundell & Co. (Melbourne, Vic.) lithograher; State Library of Victoria
  4. Collins Street (Looking West from Russel St.) 1853; S.T.Gill 1818-1880, lithographer; Macartney & Gilbraith, Melbourne; State Library of Victoria

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