by John Young and Peter Spearritt, 2014

Victoria, one of the six states of Australia, is on the south-east corner of the island continent. Its area is 227,600 sq km, slightly less than 3% of the mainland. Its southern boundary is its coastline on Bass Strait. A few offshore islands are part of Victoria, but not the islands in the larger Flinders/King Islands chain which are part of Tasmania.

Victoria's other long border is on its north, comprising a straight line from Cape Howe to a source of the nearest tributary of the Murray River, and thence by that river to the border with South Australia. The South Australian border (Victoria's west boundary) is a few kilometres west of 141 degrees east of Greenwich.

Victoria's regions

Victoria can be described in six regions.

Region 1. Western District

A mostly fertile area extending from Geelong to the South Australian border. It is noted for extensive lava plains in which there are lakes and craters. It also includes the Otway ranges, which are also classed with hills in Gippsland as the southern uplands. The Western District's northern limit ends at the Grampians and the central Victorian hills.

Further reading: Otways and Western District entries

Region 2. Central Victorian Hills

These are the western part of the Dividing Range, extending west from Mansfield to the Grampians, and the Dundas tableland north of Hamilton. Unlike the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, the central Victorian hills did not block European exploration to the interior, and gaps were readily found west, north and north-east of Melbourne. There have been numerous volcanic eruption points, particularly around Daylesford and Kyneton. West of Kyneton there was rich gold bearing country which accounts for the many towns, some that have held their populations or have grown, many that have declined.

Further reading: E. Sherbon Hills, Physiography of Victoria: an introduction to geomorphology, 1940, 1975

Region 3. Murray Plains

Victoria's largest region, from the South Australian border to Benalla and from north of the Dividing Range to the Murray River. It also includes the northern Wimmera and Mallee regions. The Murray Plains are the place where 'the sky reaches down to your ankles'. From the late nineteenth century, the dominant theme in this vast riverine plain is irrigation, whether for intensive cultivation, dairying or livestock water. Irrigation is supplied from streams off the Dividing Range and the Grampians, the important ones being the Goulburn, Loddon, Campaspe and Broken Rivers. Some streams, eg Avoca, do not reach the Murray River but end in a lake. There is also extensive dryland cereals and wool growing.

Further reading: Goulburn Valley, Mallee, Murray Valley and Wimmera entries

Region 4. Alps

The western, elevated part of the dividing Range from Mansfield to the Snowy Mountains. The alps include high plains with mountain summits. Since the early decades of the twentieth century more and more of the alps have been reserved for national parks, water harvesting and timber plantations. There are areas of grazing at towns such as Omeo and Corryong, and ski resorts such as Mount Hotham.

Region 5. Gippsland

East of Melbourne, this area includes the southern slopes of the Dividing Range and coastal plains along Bass Strait. It was a place of pastoral settlement in Victoria: settlers from NSW's Monaro tableland trekked through to Omeo and settlers from Tasmania crossed to Western Port. Gippsland has had gold mining, and has dairying and other grazing, coal mining, electricity generation and gas from Bass Strait. The South Gippsland forests and areas east of Orbost have dense tree cover and deep gullies. Trees are up to 90 metres high, unbranched to 50 metres. Where trees are smaller, the under-storey can be jungle scrub. Only when mists lifted and a clearing was made did the sky reach as far as an axe person's shoulders.

Further reading: East Gippsland, Gippsland, Gippsland Lakes, Koo Wee Rup Swamp, Latrobe Valley, Strzelecki Ranges and Wilsons Promontory entries; Charles Daley, The story of Gippsland, Melbourne, 1960; The land of the lyre bird: a story of early settlement in the great forest of South Gippsland, 1920 and facsimiles 1966, 1972, 1998

Region 6. Port Phillip or Melbourne region

This last region ranges around Port Phillip Bay, from Little River to Portsea. For census purposes it reaches Bacchus Marsh, Gisborne, Whittlesea, Healesville, Warburton and Lang Lang. It includes all of the Mornington Peninsula and the terrain north of Western Port Bay. The region includes the southern slopes of the central Victorian hills, part of West Gippsland and the edge of the Western District lava plains. There are several (dormant) volcanic eruption points:

name location distance from central Melbourne
Mt Holden Sunbury 35 km
Mt Kororoit Diggers Rest 33 km
Hayes Hill Donnybrook 30 km
Mt Dandenong Mt Dandenong 34 km

All had lava flows that reached inner Melbourne, as can be seen at Point Gellibrand (Williamstown), Van Ness Avenue in Maribyrnong, Quarries Park at Clifton Hill and the Yarra River at Richmond. Hayes Hill, now an inconspicuous mound, probably disgorged lava into the Merri and Darebin Creeks about 800,000 years ago.

Port Phillip Bay is a sunkland and much of its coastal margin is sand-based, loamy or former swamp. The Yarra River, coming from Warburton, emptied into a swampy delta. The delta area at the north of the bay was the place of European settlement (1835).

Further reading: Melbourne metropolitan area and Port Phillip entries

Mountains and Rivers

The dividing range separates Victoria's two main watersheds: north to the Murray River and south to Bass Strait. Many of the rivers have dams and reservoirs, and some of the significant storages are:

water use of storage
  domestic agriculture and domestic agriculture
North-flowing rivers   Goldfields towns, 1860-70s, Coliban & Loddon Rivers Mildura irrigation, 1896-, Murray River
      Waranga basin, 1905, Goulburn River
      Eildon, 1928, Goulburn River
      Hume, 1936-81, Murray River
      Big Eildon, 1955, Goulburn River
      Dartmouth, 1978, Mitta Mitta River
South-flowing rivers Yan Yean, 1857, Plenty River Glenmaggie, 1929, Macalister River  
  Upper Yarra, 1957, Yarra River Rocklands, 1953, Glenelg River  
  Cardinia, 1973, Cardinia Creek    
  Thomson, 1983, Thomson River    


Before 1835 there had been attempts at European settlement (see Western Port, Corinella, Sorrento and Mornington Peninsula entries) and there was a successful pastoral settlement in the Western District in 1834 (see Portland entry). Melbourne on the Yarra River had many more advantages. It had a sheltered port, initially up a winding, timber strewn river, but in time the port facilities were enlarged and moved downstream. Just above the first port a volcanic remnant across the river divided salt from fresh water. Around the coastal margin there was cultivable soil, some of it rich river alluvium. Further away there was timber in the foothills.

Most important, away to the west there was an almost endless park-like plain for almost endless sheep grazing. Above all, the Tasmanian immigrants wanted sheep pasture.

The land may have seemed to be God's bounty, but in reality it was a carefully nurtured landscape made by Aboriginal fire-stick farming. They kept it that way for food supply: wildlife was attracted to green pick and scrubby rubbish was kept out so yams could be harvested. The delta was rich yam country.

Port Phillip's last important quality was that it is in the middle of the southern coastline, from where railways and later highways could fan out into Victoria.

Further reading: Gary Presland, The place for a village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2008

Pastoral invasion

The pastoral invaders had two main entry points: Port Phillip Bay, and a route (1836) marked by the New South Wales Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, that crossed into Victoria near Wodonga. Both entry points headed towards the park-like Western District. Within nine years about half of Victoria was under pastoral occupation, the most productive and best watered Aboriginal homelands. The cost to the original inhabitants was incalculable, losing their homelands. They could no longer burn out the scrubby rubbish that invaded pastures and smothered perennial grasses; and cloven-hoofed livestock compacted the previously friable soil. Land degradation from rabbits, water scouring, salinity and exotic weeds would turn serene exploitation into a battle with the land. Some hilly farm lands, cleared at enormous cost in human effort, would later be returned to tree cover.

Further reading: James Boyce, 1835: the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia, Melbourne, 2011; Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia, Crows Nest NSW, 2011


Until 1851 Victoria was the District of Port Phillip, administered by the Governor of New South Wales and his representative in Melbourne, Superintendent Charles La Trobe (1801-75). On 1 August 1850 the British Parliament passed an Act for the 'better management of Her Majesty's Australian colonies' which provided for the Port Phillip district to be named after Queen Victoria and to be separated from New South Wales on 1 July 1851. Government was to be by a single House of Parliament, a Legislative Council of ten appointed and twenty elected members. The vast influx of population after 1851 lead to a second House, the Legislative Assembly, being created in 1856. The restricted franchise for electing the Council was loosened, but complete reform did not come until 2003.

Local government formally began with a NSW Act creating Melbourne and Geelong councils in 1842. Gold mining towns needed local government, and Melbourne council was kept from expanding by the creation of suburban councils around its boundaries. Early municipal boroughs were: East Collingwood (later 'Collingwood') and Richmond, April 1855; Prahran, St Kilda and Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) May 1855; Castlemaine and Sandhurst, April 1855; Ballarat, Portland and Warrnambool, December, 1855. In rural areas there were a few earlier road districts such as Barrabool, Bellarine and Belfast (Port Fairy) in 1853 and Boroondara (Hawthorn, Kew, Camberwell), Epping and Warrnambool (1854). All the early local government areas are listed in the Shires Statute 1869 and the Boroughs Statute 1869, Acts Nos 358 and 359.

Most local councils were amalgamated by the Kennett government in 1993-95, and are mentioned below in the section headed Rural Contraction.


Gold was discovered at several locations in Victoria in 1851. Clunes was probably first, but within months there were finds at Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Daylesford. Gold brought population and a vast demand for commodities, which needed to be locally produced, or imported and transported to gold towns. Railways would supply an answer. Until then private carriers charged extortionate fares for transport services, whether from shipside to Port Melbourne where belongings were dumped on the beach or from Melbourne to the diggings. Many would-be miners pushed wheelbarrows. Prefabricated iron houses were imported to meet the demand.

Tent towns sprung up at diggings, and goldfields commissioners were responsible for law enforcement and defacto local government. Melbourne public servants quit their posts for the diggings. Separation from New South Wales coincided with the gold discoveries in 1851, the Ballarat Eureka miners' rebellion came in 1854 and local government was granted to Bendigo, Castlemaine, Ballarat East and a few inner-Melbourne suburbs in 1855. Victoria's population grew from 80,000 (1851) to 300,000 (1854).

Most miners made little better than ordinary wages; those with a trade qualification could go back to their profession, those who did not could try for a town job or go on the land. Many married if they could find a wife, and most were of a marriageable age. 'Unlocking the land' from the hold of pastoral squatters was the intent of a land Act in 1860, but it took a decade of parliamentary amendments to neutralise the pastoralists' superior finance and influence in getting the best farm holdings for themselves. By then railways were not only bringing commodities to the bush, but were able to carry farm crops to metropolitan and overseas markets.


Railways were opened from Melbourne to Port Melbourne (1854) and to Williamstown (1857) both ports for incoming cargo. The Williamstown line was extended to Geelong in 1857. Inland railways started in the 1860s:

Melbourne to Woodend (1861), Bendigo (1862) and Echuca (1864)
Geelong to Ballarat (1862)

The next two decades saw hectic railways construction, reaching and going beyond the gold towns to wheatlands and future irrigation districts. Gippsland was also reached by railways:

The larger lines included:

Melbourne to Seymour (1872) and Wodonga (1873)
Ballarat to Horsham (1874-79)
Ballarat to St Arnaud (1878)
Ballarat to Portland (1877)
Geelong to Colac(1877)
Gippsland line (1877)
Bendigo to Wycheproof (1883)
Bendigo to Kerang (1884)
Ararat to Warracknabeal (1886)
Horsham to Serviceton (1887)
Colac to Camperdown (1883)
Melbourne to Albury (1883) connections on different gauge to Sydney, single gauge route 1962

A host of shorter and branch lines were opened in the 1880s, including ones from Melbourne to Healesville, Ferntree Gully and South Gippsland. Country rail openings coincided with closer-settlement farm selections, local irrigation trusts and rural one-teacher schools.

Further reading: Leo Harrigan, Victorian railways to '62, Melbourne, 1962; Robert Lee, The railways of Victoria 1854-2004, Carlton, 2007

Government schools

Farmers and new settlers built halls, churches and schools as soon as they could afford them, but the difficulty with schools was that ecclesiastic disputes obstructed practical public education. Religious instruction was hotly contested. George Higginbotham (1826-92), parliamentarian, chief justice and sincere Anglican was well credentialled intellectually and religiously. He took a keen interest in education, but by the late 1860s he gave up on the churches doing full 'justice to the equal rights of the children of all classes' for adequate education. He championed free, compulsory and secular education. The Education Act 1872 brought forth a flurry of government school building in towns and country paddocks.

An energetic Railways architect, Henry Bastow (1839-1920), was recruited as chief schools architect. He got 615 schools built in five years. Several examples of his work survive, a notable building being the former Queensberry Street school, North Melbourne, where a statue of Bastow is installed.


The gold towns and railways construction stimulated local foundries and engineering works for industrialised mining and the supply of rolling stock. Provincial schools of mines turned out male engineers and artisans. Government schools turned out boys ready for apprenticeships, or ready for factory work in large manufacturing enterprises. Employment opportunities for girls were much more limited with domestic service one of the largest areas of employment until World War I opened up some jobs in manufacturing. By the time of federation Victoria had a manufacturing economy and advocated tariff protection for its industries. Employment in major industry sectors before and after World War I was:

manufacturing employees, Victoria:

Nos and percent of total

Industry 1904 1927
Wool fellmongering, chaff cutting, etc 1347 (1.8%) 4112 (2.5%)
Brick, pottery making; glass making, asbestos, etc 2906 (3.8%) 6117 (3.8%)
Wood products, furniture etc 3747 (4.9%) 9134 (5.7%)
Metal fabrication, engineering, foundries etc 11,027 (14.5%) 28,563 (17.7%)
Baking, preserves, brewing, cordials, confectionery, sugar, tobacco 10,660 (14.0%) 18,881 (11.7%)
Textiles, clothing, footwear, rope 28,219 (37.0%) 55,101 (34.1%)
Books, newspapers, stationery 6948 (9.1%) 11,720 (7.3%)
Vehicles, saddlery etc 3122 (4.1%) 8236 (5.1%)
Furniture, bedding, upholstery 1840 (2.4%) 5460 (3.4%)
Drugs, chemicals, paint 970 (1.3%) 2811 (1.7%)
Leather, rubber goods, etc 315 (0.4%) 4946 (3.1%)

Notes: Comparative data not available for heat, lighting and power. Some small industry sectors omitted from table.

Source: Victorian Year Books, 1905 and 1926-27

World War II stimulated essential industry areas such as metal fabrication, engineering, food processing, rubber, chemicals and even sawmilling. Burnt forest trees from the 1939 bushfires were rescued from decay and turned into sawn lengths for the war effort.

By the early postwar years most cars and trucks were aged and creaking. An intense program of vehicle building was needed. The Commonwealth Government called for bids to make Australia's own car, and the United States firm General Motors, appropriating the Holden body works in Adelaide, won the bid to build the Holden, with the main plants in Adelaide and Melbourne. Australia's biggest car plant, at Fishermans Bend, churned out millions of Holdens. Ford set up at Geelong, later at Broadmeadows, and started their own local marque, the Falcon in 1966. In 1948 horse-drawn farm machinery was still common, but by the mid-1950s most had been replaced by tractors.

Further reading: Victorian Year Book 1973, ch. 4

Higher education

The University of Melbourne (1855) produced a trickle of graduates, but not enough to overcome preferment for overseas applicants with degrees. Between primary and university education there was a vast middle ground defended by private grammar schools and churches. The State was kept out of secondary education until, by stealth, an energetic director of education, Frank Tate (1864-1939) started the Continuation School (1905), forerunner of Melbourne and MacRobertson high schools. He also started agricultural high schools in country towns. They did not succeed as such because farmers wanted their sons in office jobs rather than battling the land, but they succeeded in getting the State into secondary education in the 1920s-30s. By then, the State's intervention was but a continuation of Victorian 'State socialism'.

Further reading: L.J. Black (ed), Vision and realisation, vol 1, Melbourne, 1973

State socialism

Victoria's early suburban train lines were started by private enterprise but taken over by Government. The private lines were buffeted by gold-era cost surges and only the Government had access to cheap loan funds to maintain the railways. Pragmatism triumphed over capitalist anti-government scruples. In time, there were government operated immigration and land settlement, public transport, communications, water, sewerage, fire protection and irrigation. Of all the Australian states, Victoria had the biggest dose of State socialism, celebrated by the Victorian conservative politician, Eggleston, in his book, State socialism in Victoria published in London in 1932.

Irrigation was extended in lock step with railways, each run by semi-independent boards of commissioners. Government came to irrigation much as it had come to railways, as local water trusts failed to make sufficient headway. The notable exception to government irrigation was William Chaffey's Mildura scheme (1896), but that depended on government railways, an interstate River Murray Commission and government agricultural research.

The State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (1905) constructed dams and one of the world's largest systems of irrigation channels, from the Goulburn River to the north-west Mallee. A State mine (1909) at Wonthaggi supplied coal for the railways and the domestic market. Electricity generation from Gippsland's brown coal was run by a commission (1919), gradually absorbing local schemes run out of dairy factories and town generating plants. A State housing commission (1938) took on slum landlords, declared slum reclamation areas and after World War II built large estates in Melbourne's inner suburbs demolishing thousands of terrace houses to make way for walk-up and high rise apartment blocks.

'State socialism' was supported by the left and right of State politics. Paradoxically, non-Labor governments were slightly more enthusiastic, appointing their kind of people to boards, better positioned to withstand any 'wrecking' policies brought in by Labor governments. On the other hand, Labor governments favoured more ministerial control. State socialism never met serious opposition until neo-liberal economics rolled back government enterprises in the 1990s. Since then Melbourne's freeway systems have largely been provided by tollway companies, most notably Transurban.

Further reading: F.W. Eggleston, State socialism in Victoria, London, 1932; G. Sawer, 'The public corporation in Australia' in W. Friedmann, The public corporation: a comparative symposium, London, 1954

Town and country

During the 1870s-80s railways and closer settlement schemes turned much of pastoral Victoria into farmland. Rural populations increased, offsetting population declines in post gold rush towns. Despite all the agrarian settlement, however, metropolitan Melbourne claimed increasing proportions of Victoria's population:

year  population melbourne as % of Victoria 
Victoria Melbourne
1861 539,764 139,916 26%
1871 735,188 215,991 29%
1881 873,965 288,169 33%
1891 1,158,372 486,620 42%

Local mining investment was replaced by urban investment in cable trams, gas works, harbour trusts, international exhibitions and, most of all, land speculation.

Workers did not necessarily walk to work, having access to trains, trams and (from about 1892) bicycles. The failure of the property market and several leading banks in 1893 caused widespread unemployment. In the absence of effective safety nets one solution was rural village settlements. Most such settlements did not succeed, but they were an early essay into putting people on the land. Twenty-five years later those schemes were succeeded by soldier settlement, by which the government acquired some surviving pastoral empires and cut them up into farm blocks for orcharding, dairying or grazing. A good many did not succeed: lack of capital, inexperience of individual returned service personnel, rabbits and vermin, too-small farm blocks and bad seasons were some of the reasons. Soldier settlement farms after World War II did better: farm commodity prices held up, particularly wool during the Korean War, rabbits were exterminated and government assistance was more effective. Land holders had champions in Professor Samuel Wadham (farm economics) and Harold Hanslow (soil conservation). The Soil Conservation Authority advised farmers about preventing erosion.

From 1914 until 1945 Victoria underwent two world wars and a financial depression, interspersed with splutters of prosperity. The State parliament was skewed toward rural interests. Rural suspicion of city extravagance had been manifested in the Kyabram movement (1901-02), aimed at cutting the cost of government. (Its sentiments were later absorbed by conservative urban interests.) Echoes of the movement were felt in campaigns to reduce the drift of population to the cities and for decentralisation of manufacturing. Country towns were everlastingly reminded of their contributions in blood to the world wars, when farmers passed by war memorials on their weekly shopping visits. Popular fiction championed hardy farm workers over weedy factory hands. There was a town and country divide, but the towns kept growing bigger.

Between 1924 and 1943 Victoria was ruled by Country Party or coalition Country-non Labor governments for 17 years. Premier Albert Dunstan (Country Party) held office for ten and a half years. His rule has been characterised as miserly, prone to rural pork-barrelling and noted for bad treatment of the public service. Allying his misrule with a financial depresssion and world war austerity, there was a lot of catching up needed in the 1950s.

Postwar Victoria

For ten years after the end of World War II in 1945, Victoria had unstable State governments. The Cain Labor government (1945-47) faced industrial claims revived after wartime industrial obedience, extreme pressure on rundown public transport and sectarian disputation in the Labor party. Cain was succeeded by two non-Labor premiers, both contending with internal party divisions and industrial strikes. The second Cain government (1952-55) foundered on the ALP/DLP split, succeeded by a majority Liberal-led government of Premier Bolte (1955-73).

European immigration, especially from Britain, Greece and Italy, supplied workers for factories, new housing construction and the Kiewa Hydro Electric Scheme. Melbourne got a boost of confidence from the Olympic Games in 1956. In that year Bolte took up an idea offered by city businessperson, Maurice Nathan, for a Victoria Promotion Committee to mount missions for overseas investment in Victoria. Among its successes were the Volkswagen motor works. Although a farmer, Bolte backed non-rural development and a crash building program of Besser brick State primary and secondary schools.

At war's end metropolitan Melbourne had 14 coeducational high schools, nine girls' high schools and one boys' high school. A few new high schools opened in the early 1950s, but the building program sped up in the next decade and a half. By 1969 metropolitan Melbourne had 121 high schools and 53 technical schools. For all of Victoria there were:

  1953 1969
State high schools 55 240
State technical schools 36 94

Sources: Department of Education annual reports and Melway street directory of greater Melbourne, edition 4, 1970

Cars and shops

While State secondary schools were being built Victoria's private car fleet was expanding even faster:

year victoria, private car registrations
1947 167,331
1952 368,944
1957 522,100
1962 723,657

Car ownership was in readiness for drive-in shopping centres.

By the mid-1950s the Melbourne city council had installed its first on-street parking meters, and modern shopping strips in new suburbs such as Ashwood had set-back footpaths to make space for recessed angle parking. In 1956 the State housing commission built a drive-in neighbourhood shopping centre at Heidelberg West, Victoria's first shopping centre of that kind. Grocers' shops expanded to become supermarkets with self-service shopping: an early self-service chain was S.E. Dickins, originally from Geelong. The war time invention of waterproof plastic film for keeping ammunition dry supplied a ready-made packaging material for self-service fresh food. Cellophane packaging of dry goods, eg biscuits, began to replace weighing up from bulk containers. Finally, the expansion of metropolitan Melbourne made suburban shopping more convenient than a day in town, and driving to the shops was easier than a walk with a shopping jeep or lugging string bags of goods along footpaths in all weathers.

In 1949 and 1953 Kenneth Myer visited USA and saw for himself how drive-in suburban shopping centres succeeded. In 1960 Myer Emporium opened a regional drive-in shopping centre at Chadstone, on a site 900 metres from a railway station but with hundreds of car parking spaces. Myer followed with three more drive-in centres, Northland (1966), Eastland (1967) and Southland (1968).

Energy and industries

The State Electricity Commission's Latrobe Valley generating plants lifted the State's output from 577 megawatts in 1949 to 3531 in 1971. By 1966 the Commission had electrified nearly all of Victoria, leaving only about 3000 unconnected dwellings in the Little Desert and remote alpine areas. By 1966 there were three petrol refineries: Mobil at Altona (1949), Shell at Geelong (1954) and British Petroleum at Western Port (1965). An aluminium smelter opened at Point Henry, Geelong in 1969.

Victoria's manufacturing profile was greatly altered from the prewar position. An approximate comparison between the figures for 1904, 1927 and 1969 is shown in the following table. The sectors where employment had increased most were chemicals, petrol etc, basic and fabricated metal products (including motor vehicles) and rubber goods, plastic etc.

 Industry  manufacturing employees, victoria
% of manufacturing employment Nos of employees
  1904 1927 1969 1969
Food, beverages, tobacco 14.0 11.7 13.2 57,134
Textiles, clothing, footwear 37.0 34.1 21.4 92,557
Wood products, furniture  4.9 9.1 4.6 19,801
Paper, printing 9.1  7.3 7.8 33,582
Chemicals, petrol, coal products  1.3 1.7 5.1 21,944
Basic and fabricated metal products, incl motor vehicles & other transport 18.6 22.8 23.8 102,826
 Rubber, plastic, leather goods  0.4  3.1  6.6  28,411

Sources: Victorian Year books, 1905, 1926-7, 1971, 1984

Although the employment numbers in the metals industries had moved from only 22.8% to 23.8% between 1927 and 1969, their value of manufacturing output went from 16.8% of all output to 35.6%. Bigger firms, production lines and automation had made huge advances from pre to postwar.

Locations of postwar populations

Postwar State Governments encouraged the decentralisation of manufacturing to provincial cities and towns, including Shepparton, Maryborough and Wodonga. Nonetheless Melbourne became even more dominant, with three quarters of the State's population:

year greater melbourne's % of Victoria's population
1901 45
1947 65
1971 71
2001 72

Rural Victoria's share of Victoria's population halved in 100 years. The loss was even more extreme in small country towns and villages, as large provincial centres acted as 'sponge centres', growing bigger at the expense of their small neighbours. In the postwar years examples of 'sponge centres' are:

place  population
1947 1991
Geelong 44,561 126,306
Ballarat 40,181 64,980
Bendigo 30,779 57,427
Shepparton-Mooroopna 7914 30,511
Wodonga 3066 23,639
Warrnambool 9993 23,946
Mildura 9527 23,176
Traralgon 4384 19,699
Wangaratta 6670 15,984
Sale 5119 13,858
Horsham 6388 12,552
Bairnsdale 4644 10,770

Rural contraction

Small textile and clothing factories in towns such as Clunes, Kyneton and Newstead were among the first to close in the 1960s. In the 1960s-70s dairy factories were amalgamated, many at the behest of the Murray Goulburn Cooperative. Economies of scale, mainly reinvestment in large, more efficient processing, preordained the concentration of milk processing in larger factories. If a medium size town was among the last two or three left standing, a factory closure was a big loss. Rural sports clubs amalgamated (particularly for 21-player football teams), post offices and banks closed and churches amalgamated. Since the 1970s the closure of rail passenger services increased, and many branch lines were closed entirely.

The election of a Liberal-National Party coalition State government in October 1992 ushered in severe rounds of government service closures. (Known as the 'Kennett government', after the Liberal Premier, Jeffrey Kennett, it is more accurate to call it the Kennett-Stockdale government as Treasurer Alan Stockdale was the architect of many of the government's initiatives in privatisation and small government.) Rural schools, hospitals and railway lines were closed. The record years for rural school closures were 1991 to 1993. The totals for all of Victoria were:

Victoria: closures of state schools
year primary secondary special
1991 16 2 3
1992 46 34 7
1993 153 11 2

Source: Department of Education, internal document facsimilie, 4.4.1997

Following closely there were local government amalgamations in 1993-95:

  nos local government bodies
  pre-amalgamation post-amalgamation
Cities*  74 37
Towns   3 -
Boroughs   6  1
Shires 127 40
  210 78

* including 'Rural cities'.

More than a few rural town halls ended up as little more than a customer complaints office and some small towns also lost schools. All this came during a decade of farm drought and falling rural incomes. Only one question remained unanswered in 1999: would rural voters change the habit of a lifetime and vote out incumbent non-Labor politicians. Furious at what they saw as an attack on rural Victoria, some switched to the Australian Labor Party, aided by several independent rural members who also unseated government members.

Further reading: Nick Economou, 'Jeff Kennett: the larikin metropolitan' in Paul Strangio and Brian Costar (eds), The Victorian Premiers 1856-2006, Leichhardt NSW, 2006; Marc Fiddian, Trains, tracks, travellers: a history of the Victorian Railways, Pakenham, 1997; Catherine Watson, Just a bunch of cow cockies: the story of the Murray Goulburn Co-operative, Brunswick, 2000

Rural 'civic glue'

A rural town or hamlet can count itself fortunate if it has kept its local hall and school. Some halls have been restored, with financial assistance from State taxes on gaming machines distributed through the Community Support Fund. The Commonwealth's economic stimulus package (2009) put money into both halls and government and non government schools.

It is the school, however, on which community spirit focuses; it holds the town's future in its classrooms, and to some extent it has absorbed the civic and moral education once the province of churches. This was nowhere more apparent in Flowerdale and Strathewen after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. In Flowerdale the school was saved, and the town heaved a sigh of relief when classes resumed. In Strathewen the school was lost, but rebuilt with volunteers and community support.


In January 2011 torrential rain, riverine and flash flooding took place across much of the north, western and central parts of Victoria forcing evacuations, causing power outages and closing some major roads and rail lines. Many of the areas had only just recovered from flooding in September 2010. Infrastructure, homes, businesses, the agricultural sector and the natural environment all suffered. Towns in the path of the Wimmera, Loddon, Campaspe and Avoca Rivers were inundated. Major regional flooding had occurred in Victoria in 1909, 1916, 1917, 1934, 1956, 1974, 1990, 1993, 1998, 2010 and 2011.

The people

The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 recognised Aboriginal people as the primary guardians, keepers and knowledge holders of Aboriginal cultural heritage. As such it subsequently recognised ten Registered Aboriginal Parties across Victoria. These included (with their registered office): Barengi Gadjin Land Council Aboriginal Corporation (Horsham), Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (Bendigo), Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (Halls Gap), Gunaikumai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (Bairnsdale), Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation (Heywood), Martang Pty Ltd (Halls Gap), Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (Seymour), Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation (Ballarat), Wurundjeri Tribe Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Inc (Abbotsford), and Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation (Shepparton). For the 2011 Census in Victoria (State/Territory), there were 37,990 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Until the 1950s the non-Indigenous Victorian people were overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic by place of birth or ancestry. The gold rushes brought a surge of population in the early 1850s. By 1857 over half of Victoria's population had been born in the United Kingdom and Ireland; native-born and New Zealanders were about one-fifth. The two main foreign-born populations were Chinese (6.2%) and German (1.9%). The Chinese were over 99.9% male. The Germans dabbled in gold but more often took to other industrious pursuits. Many had fled from poverty or persecution, and their Lutheran tradition is still strongly evident in places in the Wimmera and the Western District. Irish Catholics also left their mark on the landscape, with hundreds of churches and convent schools in the larger towns. Their cultural heritage can also be found in the Western District, especially in Koroit and Yambuk.

Immigrants of the gold rush years and the 1860s soon had children. By 1871 native-born Australians were nearly half of Victoria's population and by 1901 they were nearly 80%. The high point of native-born Victorians came in the 1930s: 89% (1933). The second largest group was native-born British (9.7% in 1933), encouraged by prospects of a life on the land, or displaced from a British home life because of illegitimacy or forced removal for adoption. There were also a few impoverished Italians, and some rose to unexpected success.

Populations displaced by World War II crowded on to Princes Pier, Port Melbourne. Italians, Poles, Germans, Greeks and Maltese were the main groups. Dutch migrants were encouraged to leave by their government, and the threat of an atomic war weighed on their minds in the postwar years.

The White Australia policywas legislatively abolished by the new Whitlam Labor government in 1973. Turkish migrants arrived and Vietnamese boat people soon afterwards. Islamic mosques and Buddhist temples appeared in suburbs in the decades that followed. Like the Irish before them, they have clustered together in cheaper housing areas.

The following table summarises Victoria's main populations by birth place, 1861-2011.

victoria, birthplaces of the people by % of population: main ethnic groups
where born 1861 1871 1901 1933 1954 1966 1981 1991 2001 2011
Victoria 25.6 45.2 72.9              
Other states  3.6  3.9  5.4              
Australia       88.6 85.0 78.9 76.1 73.7 71.1 68.6
England 31.9 22.5  9.7             3.2
Wales  1.1  0.9              
Scotland 11.4  7.7  3.0              
Ireland 16.4 13.8  5.1              
UK       9.0 7.0 7.4 6.8 5.8 4.4 n/s
Germany  2.0  1.2  0.6 0.2 0.9 1.2 0.9 0.7 0.6 n/s
China  4.7  2.5  0.5         0.5 0.8 1.8
New Zealand  0.1 -  0.8 0.7 0.5 0.5 1.0 1.0 1.2 1.5
Italy       0.3 1.7 3.5 3.0 2.5 1.9 1.4
Greece       0.1 0.9 0.8 1.9 1.6 1.2 n/s
Malta         0.3 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.5 n/s
Netherlands         0.7 1.1 0.8 0.8 0.5 n/s
Yugoslavia         0.3 0.8 1.6 1.5 n/s n/s
Poland         0.9 0.8 0.6 0.6 0.4 n/s
Vietnam               1.0 1.2 n/s
India               0.5 0.7 2.1
 Sri Lanka                 0.6 n/s
Turkey             0.6 n/s 0.3 n/s

Sources: Victorian Yearbooks, 1874, 1902-03, 1984, 1994; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001 census, Country of birth by sex

Newly arrived migrants seek out education for their children, whether they be barely literate themselves or academically qualified. Melbourne Boys' high school is an example: before World War II, Jewish refugee families; postwar, European families, especially Italian and Greek; 2000s-10s, all parts of Asia. In 2003 family origins at the school included:

Australia     34%
China         13%
Vietnam      12%
Other Asia  25%

An Italian story tells of educational ambition. In the early 1920s a Sicilian who started work as a quarry boy ventured to Australia. His family followed him. One of his sons became a pharmacist and another a motor mechanic. The father, with above average body strength, became a potato wholesaler at the Queen Victoria market. The motor mechanic son had boys who also became pharmacists; he also became Victoria's first Italian mayor in a northern suburbs council at a time when an Italian surname was not an electoral asset. His grandchildren mostly have graduate and postgraduate qualifications.

Further reading: 'Australian Ethnic Heritage Series': numerous volumes, published in the 1980s on immigrant nationalities in Australia.

Earning a living

Since the 1950s industries have expanded and contracted, generally moving toward a service economy. The following table compares employment in 1954 and 2001 in Victoria, in industries where comparisons can be made with reasonable reliability. It will be noticed that some industries have nearly half their workers employed part-time.

industry 1954 2001
'000 employees % of all employees '000 employees % of all employees % part-time
Agriculture 111.3 10.7  91.3  4.0 30
Manufacturing 341.1 32.7 361.1 15.7  
Building & construction  85.5  8.2 158.1  6.9  
Transport & storage  62.7  6.0 103.9  4.5  
Finance, insurance & property  28.6  2.7  94.0  4.1  
Wholesaling  43.5  4.2 103.2  4.5  
Retailing 110.2 10.6 360.1 15.6 47
Education  24.6  2.4 165.7  7.2 34
Hotels, accommodation, restaurants, cafes  28.5  2.7  91.0  4.0 46

Sources: Census, Australia, 30th June 1954, volume 2, Victoria, Part 2; Victorian year book, 2002

Agriculture's and manufacturing's shares of employment more than halved. Building and construction's share fell, but in 1954 Victoria was in the midst of a postwar catch-up boom in housing. Retailing had not yet moved from personal to self-service in 1954, dispensing with armies of shop assistants. Even allowing for nearly half the 2001 retailing workforce being part-time, there has been real net growth in that employment sector. Despite the hype that goes with Melbourne's coffee culture, that employment sector is not so very big. The sector that grew most is education. As a footnote to the decline in manufacturing, mention should be made of the conversion of solidly built factories and warehouses into apartments, especially in the old industrial suburbs.


Victoria's census populations have been:

census date population
1841 11,738
1846 32,879
1851 77,345
1861 540,322
1871 731,528
1881 862,346
1891 1,140,405
1901 1,201,070
1911 1,315,551
1921 1,531,280
1933 1,820,261
1947 2,054,701
1954 2,452,341
 1961 2,930,113
1966 3,220,217
 1971 3,502,351
1976 3,746,000
1981 3,946,900
1986 4,160,900
1991 4,420,400
1996 4,560,200
2001 4,829,000
2006 5,128,300
2011 5,354,040

Sources: Australian historical statistics, vol X of Australians: a historical library, Broadway NSW, 1987; Victorian Year Books; Commonwealth Year Book 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011)

Further Reading

Don Garden, Victoria: a history, Melbourne, 1984

Richard Broome, The Victorians: arriving;

Tony Dingle, The Victorians: settling; and

Susan Priestly, The Victorians: making their mark (3 vols), McMahons Point, NSW, 1984

A.G.L. Shaw, A history of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before separation, Carlton South, 1996

Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Parkville, 1963

Geoffrey Serle, The rush to be rich: a history of the colony of Victoria 1883-1889, Carlton, 1971

J.M. Powell, The public lands of Australia Felix: settlement and land appraisal in Victoria 1834-1891, Melbourne, 1970

J.M. Powell, Watering the garden State: water, land and community in Victoria 1834-1988, North Sydney, 1989

L.J. Blake (ed), Vision and realisation: a history of State education in Victoria, Melbourne, 1973

Paul Strangio and Brian Costar (eds), The Victorian premiers, 1856-2006, Leichhardt NSW, 2006