Melbourne’s 20 Decades

By Meg Hill

It took Melbourne’s population 94 years from European settlement – from 1835 to 1929 – to reach one million. In 2018 it reached five million, having jumped by a million since 2011, in only seven years.

The time it takes for the city’s population to reach each million was one of the lenses through which the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) looked at the city’s history in its 2019 publication Melbourne’s 20 Decades.

When RHSV Dr Richard Broome edited Melbourne’s 20 Decades, it was projected that Melbourne’s population would reach six million by 2025, jumping by a million in only six years.

“During the last seven years the pace of the population increases seemed to be hiking up with international students and people coming to Melbourne by way of preference, immigrating for permanent reasons,” Dr Broome said.

The pandemic has blown the 2025 projection apart, and the story of Melbourne’s next million will be untold for some time. The impact of the year 2020 will, like most of history, be best observed through much longer time frames than a single year.

Dr Broome said the decade-by-decade lens was one that was particularly useful in piecing together Melbourne’s history.

“I’ve known Melbourne’s history pretty well, but I think when you look at it from decade to decade you see the rhythms. You have spectacular growth in some peri- ods and then periods of slump, I got to know a lot more about the city,” he said. “You get a sense of the rhythms of a city over 200 years.”

Dr Broome said he originally planned to layout Melbourne’s growth year-by-year.

“It was too hard over 200 years on one page and when I did it decade-by-decade I sort of realised the great drama of how it takes to get to each million,” he said.

“I’d never thought about that issue, and on top of that is the relativity of growth.”

While it took Melbourne 94 years to reach its first million, and seven to reach its most recent million, in the 1840s and ‘50s the increases represented 500 per cent growth. During the last jump of a million it was around 20 per cent.

Melbourne’s 20 Decades also follows Melbourne’s changing sense of itself. Those identities, according to Dr Broome, included convict-free, the golden city, marvel- lous Melbourne, staid Melbourne and multi-cultural Melbourne.

“Melbourne set itself against Sydney in the 1800s and identified as the city free of convicts, fighting hard to great separation from Sydney and the NSW government, which was granted in 1851,” he said.

“Of course, once gold was discovered, and the rushes were much bigger in Victoria than NSW, there was anoth- er period of phenomenal growth and you get the idea of the golden city. There was a great degree of wealth coming in, Parliament House was built in this very young colony.”

Burke and Wills funeral cortege, LaTrobe St, 1863.
Princes Bridge during demolition 1885.

The upward trajectory was smashed by an economic collapse in the 1890s. The land bubble burst and there was international financial trouble, Melbourne went into a spin and there was negative growth for a period.

“Melbourne experienced incredible growth and by 2010 is nominated as the world’s most liveable city. There’s a very strong view that Melbourne has of itself as a global city and that’s again been punctured by COVID-19,” Dr Broome said.

You can purchase a copy of Melbourne’s 20 Decades from the RHSV bookshop at its offices at William St or online.

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