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Pioneering Families of Australia

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An Eyewitness Account

 The following article was published in the Times on 22nd August,1853 and is a wonderful description of the problems associated with the mass migration to Melbourne due of the Gold Rush. It is worth reading in full; there are a few strange words, - I have not edited the document.

The Times, Monday, 22 Aug 1853 AUSTRALIA "The tide of immigration continues to pour into Melbourne at a rate almost alarming. Up to the end of 1852 the population of the province of Victoria had more than doubled what it was in 1851; what it will be at the close of 1853 it would be difficult to predict. The arrivals in the month of April have exceeded the maximum of any month in 1852; and on the 27th ult. more than 2,400 immigrants arrived in the bay in the course of the 24 hours. To meet this daily increasing mbutt of life there is in Melbourne little or no preparation; the place is fed, like a besieged city, by supplies thrown in by distant speculation, and pro- visions are, indeed, nearly at siege and famine prices. As to house-room, every nook is filled; the places of those who leave for the goldfields are instantly occupied by new comers. Only the more provident and better circumstanced arrive furnished with tents, which they can pitch at "Canvas town," or portable houses, to put up on any patch of ground that can be obtained. The first few days after his arrival must try the courage of an intending settler severely; his first impressions on landing can hardly be other than unfavourable. In this respect Melbourne differs, and greatly to its disadvantage, from Sydney.

The immigrant arriving at the latter place sails up a beautiful bay, locked in by well wooded hills and headlands, dotted with handsome villas. After the monotony of the long sea voyage, the landscape, with its evidences of wealth and cultivation, is quite exhilarating. The ship anchors close off the city, and in a few minutes a boat lands him on a clean and well-built quay, and he may find a lodging to put his head in, and get his baggage conveyed to it for something less than financial ruin. If his destiny is Port Phillip, after a long pbuttage up the bay, which, however good as a harbour, cannot be compared with Port Jackson for beauty, the ship anchors, probably, off a cluster of wooden houses and low stores, the beach in front of them strewn with decaying bones and refuse, called Williams- town. The boatmen of the place ply only for extortionate and fancy prices, calculated on the anxiety of the passenger to get ashore and the means of transport. As nine persons out of ten cannot pay the demand, or will not submit to what appears to their as yet happy inexperience to be robbery, they wait on board, for two or three hours perhaps, till one of the Melbourne steamers makes its circuit of the bay and brings up alongside the ship for fares. With a full freight she starts for the mouth of the muddy Yarra, and glides up between flat and scrubby banks, pbutting the wreck of an iron steamboat, rusting to pieces in the show water, a few vessels taking in ballast, and an official in uniform lying on his back by a gum tree, watching the process, ready to pounce on the evasive skippers, who at times abstract portions of the Australian continent without paying for a license. Higher up, the Yarra, not very wide any- where, narrows in rapidly, and becomes evidently too small for the traffic that, as yet, has no other channel; here and there the rotting carcase of an ox or horse on the water's edge contagions the air for a considerable distance, and as the new comer begins to sight the city of Melbourne, at the very narrowest part of the river, there is a succession of wooden dissolution-houses, melting-houses, and other similar establishments, surrounded by indescribable filth, of a most patched, rickety, and makeshift construction, and yet in full activity. In the yards of the dissolution-houses pigs are revelling among the garbage, dragging about large lengths of entrails, or devouring them in a manner that makes the stranger inwardly vow to abstain from "dairy-fed" pork during his entire sojourn in the colony. Through this part of the river he had better shut his eyes, and nose, too, if possible, and reserve himself for the landing-place, where his real troubles will begin, especially if he has unsuspectingly brought any luggage with him on his first journey up.

There are two landing-places, and the steamers stop at the worst, called Cole's Wharf. An enormous amount of traffic has certainly been thrown suddenly upon this spot; but, considering the re- venue derived from it by the proprietors, something might have been done to redeem it from being, as it is, a disgrace and scandal to the city. Goods are tumbled on to the bank, and the drays back up to them to be loaded through pools of black mud, in which they stand nearly axle-deep. Boxes, cases, and bags (no matter what their contents) may roll into the slush, and stay there soaking till called for. Expensive as horseflesh is, half the power of the animals is wasted in getting out of these pits and the deep ruts of the roadway, which a few loads of stones would fill and level. There is no shed to protect goods liable to be damaged by rain. Reckless indifference to everything but collecting the enormously high freights up the river, and the still higher rate of carriage to the city, seems to be the rule. Combined, these charges have frequently amounted to more, for a distance of six or seven miles, than the freight of the goods from England. The other landing-place, the Queen's Wharf, is a little higher up the river, and here the accommodation is much superior, a proof that improving is not so impossible as represented. How the mercantile men of Melbourne can quietly bear the damage and expense such utter neglect must entail on them, without strong remonstrance, is a marvel .

Once clear of Cole's Wharf, things being to mend; you ascend into the city, and in the course of a walk of an hour or two a better impression is produced. The main streets of Melbourne are well planned, wide, and regular. The houses are, of course, very dissimilar - a good stone or brick build- ing often having a mean little wooden shed for its neighbour. There are many vacant plots of ground for building, and in good situations they command fabulous prices, far more that would be given for ground in the heart of London; it is difficult to believe that these prices represent the real values. Many lots have been bought over and over again, not to build on - the only thing that could make them profitable - but to sell as a speculation. The original owners, or the first purchasers, of them have netted enormous sums, but those who bought late, calculating that such sites must continually rise in price, may find themselves disappointed. The most rapid progress will not for some generations make Melbourne a London or Paris, and the most valuable business sites in the most populous and wealthy capitals of the world can be purchased for less than has been given for the same surface in Melbourne. Yet, in Europe, labour is at hand to convert such barren spots at once into sources of income; here they must long remain what they are at present, mere city wastes, deposits of rubbish, or pools of stagnant water. The prices of land are symptomatic of a touch of mania in this branch of speculation, and a reaction would surprise no one but the speculators.
Of public enterprise, even to guard against impending social perils, there is none; the rains of heaven are the only scavengers of the city, and, out of the main streets, the filth of the alleys and back premises is excessive, there being no drains of any kind. Much alarm, indeed, begins to be felt for the health of the place, and with good reason, when 4,000 souls are being added to the population weekly. But in this, as in everything else, gold paralyses effective exertion on a large scale, and the very wealth of the land seems to be condemning its capital to disease and pestilence.

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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.

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."