The children of the Kulin Nation moved over the territory that would become Melbourne, learning from their elders the stories and rhythms of the land. Among the immigrants that displaced them, children held an iconic position as both the building blocks and heirs of the nation-building project. For generations of new arrivals, cut off from their extended families, children became the focus of parental emotion and ambition, their imagined future the justification for the pain of dislocation.
The pastoral economy of the Port Phillip District favoured single people over families. The need for both parents to work to establish themselves in the new country led to the perception that both immigrant and locally born children were allowed to run wild. But behaviour that was seen by some 1840s settlers as evidence of inadequate parental supervision was fondly recalled by pioneer children as a mark of their freedom. The discovery of gold intensified such impressions, with children recalling their lack of restriction growing up in the rapidly expanding city.
Where Koorie children lived within a community, European children were the property and the responsibility of their parents, their experience of childhood varying according to both class and gender. The costs of child-rearing grew in proportion to the amount parents were able to invest in their children's future, prolonging their dependency through education. The opening of Melbourne's first school on Batmans Hill in 1838 was indicative of an early enthusiasm for learning, but few children in such a mobile society had an extensive education. While school enrolments grew rapidly in the years before the introduction of compulsory attendance in 1872, the pattern of irregular attendance continued as children travelled with their parents and helped at home, or entered the workforce, when family economy dictated.
The proportion of children in the population rose as gold rush immigrants established families in the city and its suburbs. Working-class children grew up in a lively street community where respectability was measured by the time of the nightly curfew. Toys were basic but the games and rhymes of Britain were adapted to the new environment. Middle-class children were more restricted, mixing at church and at school, but otherwise confined within the home. Mothers rather than domestic servants took primary responsibility for their care, surprising English visitors like Richard Twopeny, who complained 'the little brute is omnipresent, and I might almost add omnipotent'. In a strange transposition, the Sunday Schools and juvenile temperance organisations, focused in Britain on the reform of the working class, became, in Melbourne, markers of respectability, a safe social meeting place for children of the middle class. But the city offered more varied opportunities for family entertainment. Visits to the Cole's Book Arcade, the home of the popular Cole's Funny Picture Book, the Aquarium, the Royal Melbourne Zoo, bay cruises and picnics delighted generations of children.
Melburnians prided themselves on being first among the Australian colonies to introduce legislation designed to extend the middle-class model of an idealised childhood throughout the community. Child welfare, either through the orphanages and children's charities established by philanthropic organisations or the industrial schools and, later, the boarding-out scheme, administered by the Neglected Children's Department, had at its core a belief that children 'without natural protectors' had a right to a childhood, however regimented, before they were forced to provide for themselves. To child rescue activists the city was a site of moral contamination, its 'gutter children', 'street arabs' and larrikins the antithesis of the ideal of the colonial child. It was important for the future of the nation, they argued, that government introduce legislation to protect such children from what they saw as abusive parents, restricting opportunities for child labour, and setting minimum standards for food, clothing and medical care.
The 20th century brought greater regulation into children's lives. Decreasing family size increased the emotional intensity of parent-child relationships. Concern about the falling birthrate, and the loss of life during World War I, brought greater government surveillance as well with infant welfare centres, kindergartens and a school medical service to monitor the wellbeing of the future generation. Compulsory education left only 3% of Melbourne children in the paid workforce, although many more helped at home outside school hours. As motor cars brought danger to the streets, social reformers sought to establish supervised playgrounds, and uniformed youth movements like boy scouts and girl guides spread across the suburbs. Between the wars suburban cinemas built up loyal audiences for Saturday matinees which catered exclusively for children, but Sunday Schools and church-sponsored sport and youth fellowships remained at the centre of the middle-class child's social world.
The baby boom after World War II created large concentrations of children in the newer suburbs on the city's edge. Schools and services were often slow to follow, re-creating, for a short period, the sense of being pioneers. More families than ever before had a stay-at-home mother and the period of childhood was extended as secondary education became more widely available. The introduction of television brought further change to children's lives, widening their horizons, assaulting their innocence and, most fundamentally, reconstructing them as a direct target for advertising.
The nuclear family idyll was short-lived as economic and personal pressures produced a decrease in the birthrate, an increase in the proportion of mothers in the workforce and greater family breakdown. In the second postwar generation children formed a much smaller proportion of the population, living even further from the city's core in suburbs where a McDonald's restaurant and a private child-care centre often preceded publicly funded children's services, and church and community children's organisations were overshadowed by a range of private lessons or after-school care. The divisions of class are, however, as evident as ever. While the large institutions of the past have been dismantled, children form a growing proportion of the homeless visible on the city streets, creating a striking contrast with the designer-dressed young people who have enjoyed a more fortunate upbringing.