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Victoria Settlement and Foundation


Indigenous Australians, Traditional Owners of the land, have lived within the boundaries of what is now Victoria for at least 20,000 years. It is also highly likely that earlier inhabitants, probably the ancestors of the indigenous Tasmanians lived in Victoria for as many years again. In short, Victoria with its good rainfall, its landscape crossed rivers and mountains and its mild climate has always been a good place for humans to live.

Following the exploration of Bass and Flinders in 1798, an attempt was made to settle in Port Phillip Bay in 1803. The party led by David Collins included soldiers, free men and convicts from New South Wales. After three months, the settlement failed and the party moved to Van Diemen’s Land.  However, the convict Buckley escaped, and lived in Victoria with the indigenous Australians for thirty years. On the basis of this sole European, it is sometimes argued that the 1803 expedition represents the arrival of white settlement.

Following the exploration of Hume and Hovel, a growing number of overlanders and squatters were finding their way down to what is now Victoria. By 1829, John Gardener had brought cattle over the Great Dividing Range and reached the outskirts of what is now Melbourne. Similar crossings of the Murray River from the Riverina to parts of Northern Victoria are also recorded at this time. Because of the temporary nature of these incursions, it is hard to call this settlement. Furthermore, the Port Phillip district wasn’t identified as such until 1838 and the whole area was part of New South Wales until 1851.

Probably the first permanent settlement was that of the Henty brothers at Portland in 1834. They represented the first of a flood of settlers from Northern Tasmania. The reasons for the Tasmanian source of settlers is that good grazing land was mostly sold or allotted in Northern Tasmania be that time. Furthermore, the trip from Tasmania was much easier by sail than from Sydney. The return trip to Sydney in pre-steamer days could take three weeks whilst the crossing of Bass Strait could easily by done in several days.

In 1835, John Batman and others had formed themselves into the Port Phillip Association, and it was this group that signed a treaty with the indigenous inhabitants for the acquisition of 600,000 acres of ‘the southern district of New South Wales adjacent to Port Phillip’. Obviously, to modern eyes the ‘purchase’ of this land for what amounted to trinkets and bric-a-brac (beads, nails, axe handles, blankets, etc) is outrageous. However, it is important to remember that they were well beyond the hand of conventional law, which as previously pointed out, were at least several weeks away by ship in Sydney. When in 1836 it was decided to create a Port Phillip District of New South Wales, Governor Bourke argued that they really did not have much choice as the white population was already several thousand strong and growing daily. Captain William Lonsdale was appointed Police Magistrate in September 1836 and the first Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, Charles La Trobe Esq, arrived in Melbourne in October 1839.


The separation of Victoria from New South Wales in 1851 on the eve of the great expansion caused by the gold rush, is probably the single most important factor in the development of Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne as we know it today. If Port Phillip had remained a district of New South Wales, as was the case with the Riverina, it is very likely that the wealth of the gold fields would have been sent to the capital Sydney. Melbourne would have remained a medium sized administrative centre and the coast of Victoria might well have had a series of small cities strung out much in the manner of Queensland north of Brisbane. By contrast, in 1851, not only did the Australian Colonies Act provide for responsible government, with a Parliament, a Supreme Court and a public service, but it also created an administrative and financial centre that could deal directly with both London and Sydney. How this phenomenon came about is the story of separation, and the reason it was so welcomed by Victorians, and celebrated as a holiday for many years.

The first attempt at a separate colony occurred in 1840. A group of Port Phillipians as they were then known, resolved to hold public meetings and petition London for ‘responsible government’ separate from New South Wales, ‘with all the exigencies of a free state’. The first meeting was held at St Patrick Hall and attended by six hundred colonists. They unanimously supported the petition drawn up by Henry Gisborne (who was Commissioner of Crown Lands). The meeting resolved to undertake a full petition of the Port Phillip District and to send Henry Gisborne ‘home’ to address the Colonial Secretary and the Westminster Parliament. Unfortunately, Henry Gisborne died (it is said en route to London), the petition did however reach London, but without its advocate it did not proceed.

The following year 1841, Governor Gipps visited Port Phillip and found its citizens full of complaints. The needs included a proper wharf on the Yarra River, a bridge across the Yarra, a hospital, a courthouse, a proper police establishment and above all a dam to provide good water (Colonial fever or cholera was very prevalent in the Melbourne summers). Following Governor Gipps visit, very little help of any sort came from Sydney. The required dam was only built in a very inadequate form and when it was finished in late 1842, a visiting engineer, E. P. Trumen, told La Trobe that it was of very poor design and probably too small for Melbourne’s needs. In November, floods actually destroyed part of the wall, further convincing Port Phillipians that they had been poorly treated. The dam was totally inadequate and the floods in 1844 and 1849 had a disastrous consequence. Melbourne also had an entirely open sewerage system running to the Yarra and this also was compared unfavourably with other imperial outposts.

However, the main argument centred on revenue, the Port Phillipians claiming that on a per capita basis they received far less than Sydney. What Governor Gipps had failed to be aware of was the speed at which Port Phillip’s population was increasing. By 1842, 11,000 of the entire migration to Australia of 30,000 went to Port Phillip. Governor Gipps argued that the Port Phillipians had received their fair share but had used the fund poorly and this accounted for incomplete wharves, poor dams, and a temporary courthouse and police establishment. Even La Trobe lived in modest circumstances in a pre-fabricated cottage brought with him from England.

A further petition was undertaken in 1846. The previous year the new New South Wales Legislative Council had voted against separation. Only one of the (three) Port Phillipians voted in favour, the rest being absent. The motion was lost 19 to 1. The new petition attracted a much wider support and by now the district was over 40,000 in population. Lord Stanley was reported to have suggested in the parliament, that when a settler population in a colony reached above 40,000 it was appropriate that they have responsible government. It was only seventy years since the loss of the American colonies, so perhaps the imperial parliament was sensitive to these matters.

On receiving the petition, Lord Stanley wrote in a dispatch to Gipps, “Her Majesty had received it (the petition) very graciously” but before they could reply he would “need a full report on the subject of separation.” By now, the years of complaints from Port Phillipians and the threat of further petitions had had an effect and  Governor Gipps declared his support for separation. However, at this point another dispute re-emerged.  Between 1838 and 1840 the Port Phillip District included the Riverina of Southern New South Wales, apparently the petition sought this extra land and this caused some discontent in Sydney.

Between 1846 and 1850 there were continual disputes and arguments between the New South Wales administration and the Port Phillip District. The newspaper s of the time complained about the “tyranny, the thralldom, and the robbery of Sydney”. It was during this period that funding for a lighthouse at Port Phillip heads is said to have been diverted for a second lighthouse at Sydney heads. Although in 1845 and 1846, the Sydney based legislative Council voted in favour of a Yarra bridge, new dam (Yan Yean) a new road to Sandridge (Port Melbourne), and the Botanic Gardens, none of these worthwhile projects had been undertaken and further funding was delayed by the incoming Governor Fitzroy. Certainly the press of the time thrived on these complaints but they were real enough.  In the circumstances of a migrant community, 13,000 miles from home and three weeks by sea from Sydney, it’s easy to see how dissatisfaction could develop.

It can be seen that under these conditions, the news of separation caused great rejoicing in Melbourne and the rest of the Port Phillip District. The news had arrived on the Barque Lysander on 11 November.  La Trobe made his famous formal announcement under the Separation Tree at 10.30 a.m. on 15 November 1850 in front of a huge crowd of Melbournians. It was a great occasion for Fitzroy sensing that separation was inevitable had supplied extra funds for the Yarra Bridge. The opening of the bridge, complete with bands, marching soldiers and a parade had set the tone of the Separation Tree announcement.  Afterwards, a great party was held, with liquor, cordial, bread rolls and even cakes supplied by the Royal Engineers (regiment) who were stationed in Melbourne. The party is said to have lasted several days. However, it is probably true to say the next six months was a state of continuous separation celebrations. Balls, firework displays, bonfires and further parades were held. An indication of the mood of the time are the number of ‘separation streets’ named during this period.

When the day of Separation, 1 July 1851 finally arrived, the proclamation was read outside the then courthouse. After the proclamation reading, there was held a levee or ‘gathering’ at which further speeches and toasts for the future were held. That night balls were held at St Patrick’s Hall and the Town Hall, and the bonfires could be seen as far away as Mount Macedon.

As we have noted that after Separation, Victoria grew at a frantic rate and with the discovery of gold the population quadrupled in less than ten years. A fine parliament building was erected in 1855 and opened on 20 March 1856. The courts and public service buildings followed. Within thirty years, Victoria was not only challenging New South Wales in population, but Melbourne had emerged as a great and gracious city. Victorians were truly grateful for separation and each year for the next half century, 1 July, Separation Day was celebrated as a public holiday.

Today, we are still receiving the benefits of Separation, Melbourne would not have become a great metropolis and it is extremely unlikely that Victoria would have developed into the state we recognise today.


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