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The geographic boundaries of Melbourne have been extended frequently over the 156 years since it was officially proclaimed as a town. In 1842, Melbourne was confined to little more than the formal square mile demarking the town in Port Phillip District of New South Wales. Now it extends up to 70 km from this square mile to Portsea in the south and includes, counter-clockwise from Portsea, places as far afield as Hastings, Cranbourne, Healesville, Eltham, Whittlesea, Melton and Werribee. Thus, in talking about the population of Melbourne, change in numbers comes not only from the balance of births, deaths and migration, but also from incorporation of new areas into the city.

Between May 1836 and September 1839, Melbourne became a thriving commercial centre, chief port to the rich pastoral districts that surrounded it, its population growing from 177 people to some 3000. The town was proclaimed an ecclesiastical city (with a bishop of the Anglican Church) in 1848 and, in 1850, Victoria was proclaimed as a new colony, separate from New South Wales. The speed of official recognition was matched by the rapid growth of Melbourne's population. By the 1851 census, depending on the boundaries used, Melbourne's population had risen to between 23 000 and 29 000 people. Thus, in a little over a decade, Melbourne had grown to almost half the size of Sydney, despite Sydney's 50-year longer history of settlement. As the population growth rate in the 1840s was more than 17% per annum, the population increase must have been dominated by immigration rather than by natural increase, which could have accounted for growth of no more than about 3% per annum.

The earliest consistent estimates of the growth of Melbourne were provided by Timothy Coghlan, statistician for the Colony of New South Wales. Coghlan defined Melbourne in 1851 as the City of Melbourne which had a population of 23 000 people. This excluded Richmond, Collingwood, Brighton and Williamstown, all of which were well established in 1851, but included Fitzroy which did not become a separate municipality until 1858. The economic historian John McCarty considered that the other well-established areas should be added into the 1851 population of Melbourne. This would increase Melbourne's 1851 population to 29 000.

According to McCarty, Coghlan defined the population of Melbourne from 1861 to 1901 as being the population living within 10 miles (16 km) of the central point of the city. McCarty disagreed with this definition, arguing that much of the population within this radius of the centre of Melbourne was rural until 1911. He undertook a more detailed evaluation of each area and arrived at his own estimates. In fact Coghlan's figures from 1861 onward are simply the figures published by the colonial statisticians for Victoria, variously referring to Melbourne and Suburbs (1861, 1871 and 1881) and to the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works District (1891 and 1901). The table shows Coghlan's and McCarty's population estimates for Melbourne from 1851 to 1911 and the annual rates of population growth in the years between the censuses based on McCarty's estimates.

Estimates of the Population of Melbourne: 1851-1911 (thousands)
YearCoghlanMcCartyYear Intercensal rates of growth (% per annum)

Although Melbourne grew fastest in the gold rush years of the 1850s, during these years the city grew more slowly than the rest of Victoria. In 1851 Melbourne constituted about 38% of the total population of Victoria, but by 1861 it was only 23%. Towns such as Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo grew substantially on the back of the gold rush and, even up to today, these towns have maintained their rankings as the next biggest cities in Victoria after Melbourne. For Victoria as a whole during the 1850s, 86% of the growth was due to migration and 14% to natural increase. For Melbourne in the same period, immigration would also have accounted for most of the growth, although the percentage due to natural increase would have been higher. By 1861, its population exceeded that of Sydney.

For the rest of the 19th century, population growth rates fluctuated above the level that would be expected from natural increase. In the 1860s and 1870s, the rate of growth was about 1 percentage point or more higher than the expected rate of natural increase, indicating a small and positive net migration to the city. During this 20-year period, Melbourne's share of the total population of the colony rose from 23% to 31%. In the 1880s, however, population growth was more than three times the likely level of natural increase, indicating large-scale in-migration to the city. Driven by the commercial production of gold, in the 1880s Melbourne became one of the richest cities in the world, the entrepot city for the rich mining, agricultural and pastoral colony of Victoria. By 1891, Melbourne's share of the total population of the colony had risen to 41%, above the level that had applied in 1851.

In 1857, there were around 2.7 single men of marriageable age for every single woman in the city. But as the first large Australian-born generations came of age, this ratio changed rapidly so that there was an even balance by 1870 and an excess of women by 1881.

The land boom of the 1880s was followed by severe depression and depopulation of Melbourne in the 1890s. Many people left for the Western Australian goldfields.

Taking account of natural increase, the recorded rate of population growth (0.1% per annum) was consistent with about 10-15% of Melbourne's population leaving the city in these years. The impact of the economic downturn was less severe in Sydney, which by 1901 had once again attained the ascendancy as Australia's largest city, a position it has held ever since. Melbourne's growth was again above the level of natural increase in the first decade of the 20th century and its share of the State population increased from 40% in 1901 to 45% in 1910. This indicates the beginnings of substantial migration from the country to the city, a pattern that has continued ever since.

The failure of smallholder rural settlement, the greater labour efficiency in the pastoral and agricultural sectors and the decline of mining employment were all push factors for rural people to move to the cities in the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, the cities diversified and manufacturing industry expanded, including the manufacture of rural machinery, which led to fewer jobs in the rural areas. Suburbanisation facilitated this urban trend. Building and service provision were further stimuli to urban growth.

The population of the City of Melbourne municipality grew from 37 000 people in 1861 to 55 000 in 1871, 66 000 in 1881 and 73 000 in 1891; in the 1890s, however, its population fell to 68 000. This pattern of population change from 1861 to 1901 was mirrored by most of the other inner cities or towns within Greater Melbourne, including Fitzroy, Collingwood, North Melbourne, Richmond, South Melbourne and Port Melbourne. In all of these places, the population rose steadily from 1861 to 1891 and then declined in the 1890s. In fact the populations of all of these inner municipalities peaked in 1891. By 1991, none had returned to the population levels reached 100 years beforehand. More effective public transport, industrial and commercial growth in the inner areas and slum clearance were some of the factors that contributed to the shift of population from the inner part of the city. The extension of Melbourne's suburbs is indicated by the fact that inner areas made up 54.0% of Melbourne's population in 1891 but just 4.5% in 1991. However, the long-term depopulation of the inner parts of Melbourne was reversed after 1991.

Depopulation of inner Melbourne, 1891-1991
Melbourne and North Melbourne94,35860,828
South Melbourne41,72418,499
Port Melbourne13,0678,080

While the area beyond these inner localities had been settled by the 1850s, transportation in particular precluded rapid population growth. This all changed with the construction of suburban railway and tram lines, especially in the 1880s as described by Graeme Davison in his essay 'Public utilities and the expansion of Melbourne in the 1880s' (in McCarty & Schedvin, Australian capital cities). In the 1880s, suburban housing was developed around the railway and tram lines. By 1891, population had increased by two to four times the 1881 levels in areas such as Essendon, Flemington, Footscray, Brunswick, Kew, Hawthorn, Heidelberg, Prahran, Malvern and Caulfield. The rail and tram lines continued to dominate the shaping of Melbourne until the 1950s, when the impact of the motor car led to extension of settlement beyond the public transport routes. Both the earlier extension of public transport and the later spread of the city based on the car led to a sparsely settled city by international standards. Industrial expansion on the south-eastern and northern edges of the city from the 1960s accelerated this tendency.

Merrett (in Schedvin and McCarty, Urbanization in Australia, 1978) compares population growth in Melbourne in the two periods, 1911-47 and 1947-61. The increment to population was similar in the two periods (637 000 and 686 000 respectively) as was the natural growth of the population (277 000 and 262 000 respectively). However, in the 1911-47 period, 75% of growth from migration was due to movement from the rest of Victoria into Melbourne, while in the latter period, 75% of growth from migration was due to international migration. International immigration from 1947 to 1971 changed the character of the city. In particular, in these years, migration from Southern European countries such as Italy, Greece, Malta and the former Yugoslavia was very substantial. At first the new arrivals settled in the inner parts of the city and imbued these communities with a Southern European flavour, a flavour that is still very much the distinctive feature of Melbourne among the Australian cities.

The table below shows the city's population growth from 1921 to 2001. It also shows a rise in the proportion of the population of Victoria who lived in Melbourne from 1921 to 1976. From 1976 onwards, however, Melbourne's proportion of the State population has remained constant, largely a balance between movement out of the city by existing residents and movement into the city from outside Australia.

Metropolitan Area of Melbourne, 1921-2001
YearPopulation (thousands)% of Victoria in Melbourne

When demographic trends change in Australia, Melbourne has tended to be a leader. This is particularly true of changes in the birthrate. When fertility fell in the latter part of the 19th century from historically high levels, Melbourne led the way in Australia. Then, during the post-World War II baby boom, Melbourne was again in the forefront, this time towards higher fertility. By 2002, Melbourne clearly had the lowest fertility rate among the major capital cities.

Peter Mcdonald

McCarty, J.W., and C.B. Schedvin (eds), Australian capital cities: historical essays, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1978. Details
Schedvin, C.B., and J.W. McCarty, Urbanization in Australia: the nineteenth century, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1978. Details
Turner, I., 'The growth of Melbourne', in J.W. McCarty and C.B. Schedvin (eds), Australian capital cities: historical essays, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1978. Details