Often now described as an 'English' city in contrast to 'American' Sydney, in its formative years Melbourne was more regularly described as 'Scottish' compared with 'English' Sydney. The Melbourne elite had a large Scottish and Anglo-Irish component by the mid-19th century and there was an influential Irish Catholic population from which two colonial premiers were drawn. Yet as elsewhere in Australia, the English have always been the largest immigrant group. As in other English-speaking societies such as the USA or Canada, they have tended to remain invisible because of their conformity to the norm, which they created, and their lack of formal ethnic organisations.
Melbourne's population grew by British and Irish immigration, by transfers from across Bass Strait and by movement inward from the provinces and especially the goldfields. The largest numbers on the goldfields were unassisted migrants from England. Despite considerable Scottish migration between 1837 and the late 1850s, the English were also the largest group among assisted immigrants and former convicts from Van Diemen's Land. One of the earliest English settlements was organised by the speculator Henry Dendy in 1842. Of these 57 were from Surrey, 19 from Sussex, eight from Hampshire, six from Wiltshire, four from Oxfordshire and three from Derbyshire, together with 22 from Ireland. Most were labourers or building craftsmen, as was common for assisted immigrants throughout the 19th century. They were expected to settle the land developed by Dendy and J.B. Were at Brighton, though some moved elsewhere. Another group settlement was by Baptists from Sussex in 1851, who named their settlement Preston after their village.
English influence came mainly from London and the south-east, as is evident from Melbourne placenames. Many were named after London suburbs but some reflect settlement from a particular English locality. Camberwell was named by a Londoner, while the Shire of Whittlesea, which was completely rural in the 19th century, was named for a small town in Cambridgeshire. Most names were from the south-eastern Home Counties, including Ringwood (Hampshire), Box Hill, Croydon, Kew, Mitcham, Richmond and Surrey Hills (Surrey), Seaford (Sussex), Canterbury, Eltham, Footscray and Maidstone (Kent), Essendon and St Albans (Hertfordshire), Chelsea and Kensington (London) and Hampton (Middlesex). This reflected the larger proportion of southern English who were migrating. Names from further afield included Doncaster (Yorkshire), Malvern (Worcestershire), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Sandringham (Norfolk) and Ashburton (Devon). Street names commonly recalled English politicians and aristocrats, for example in Carlton, with Palmerston, Canning, Lygon (family name of Lord Beauchamp), Queensberry, Cobden and Pitt. English migrants did not need to feel they were in a foreign environment, though many of the suburbs bore little resemblance to the places after which they were named.
While the commercial and business classes had a strong English component, it would be wrong to see early English settlement as primarily middle class. Of mainly working-class suburbs in 1857, the English-born were 47.8% of the population in Collingwood and 47.3% in Richmond. This was similar to the 37.8% in the socially mixed city of Melbourne, 38.6% in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) and 49.8% in middle-class Prahran. In later years Footscray developed as an industrial suburb with a very high English immigrant component, as did Preston and Port Melbourne. Although Catholics of Irish descent came to control the Australian Labor Party in many of these areas, most of them continued to be inhabited by workers of English descent until post-1945 immigration from Europe changed their character. The Protestant middle-class suburbs, extending from Toorak, Malvern and Kew out to Camberwell and Box Hill, had very high English-born proportions. In 1881, when locally born had come to exceed immigrants, Bourke County was still 19.7% English-born, more than for the Irish and Scots combined.
Suburbs further east attracted many more English migrants in the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast to the previous century, English migrants avoided the inner suburbs from the 1950s except for an initial settlement in rented premises in St Kilda before purchasing a home. Many postwar English migrants passed through the six migrant hostels in western and northern industrial areas. There were only two hostels in the eastern suburbs. But it was towards the new suburbs in the east and the south that the English gravitated. The English-born population was at its height in 1971 and has declined since. By 1981, when most English were permanently settled in their own homes, their largest numbers were in Broadmeadows, Camberwell, Dandenong, Frankston, Knox, Lilydale, Moorabbin, Nunawading, Springvale and Waverley. Of these the highest numbers were in Frankston.
The religious pattern of Melbourne is also an ethnic pattern. The great majority of Anglicans were of English origin, as were most Methodists. Once the locally born became a majority, those of English descent were only visible through their religion. The 1901 census shows that Anglicanism was not simply a middle-class religion, enrolling over 40% of the population in Prahran, St Kilda and Brighton, but was similarly popular in Flemington, Footscray and Collingwood. Anglicans and the English dominated the elite in Melbourne's formative years. This was due to Anglican presence at Government House and to the work of Charles Perry, Londoner and bishop of Melbourne (1848-74), who founded Melbourne Grammar School. It was normal for the headmaster and the bishop to come from England, like the first headmaster from 1858 to 1874, John Bromby, who was born in Hull. Perry was also a member of the foundation council of the University of Melbourne.
Despite a strong Scottish and Irish presence in public life, many 19th-century political leaders were either born in England or, like Alfred Deakin, had an English parent of recent arrival. The major source of information on prominent Victorians, Sutherland's Victoria and its metropolis (1888), shows that 41.5% of his self-selected elite in Melbourne were born in England, 35.2% of these in the east metropolitan periphery and 34.6% in the northern periphery, all greater than the number of the Australian-born and totalling 1211. Of those living in Melbourne, over a third of the English had been born in London or the south-east, which was also true on the eastern and northern semi-rural fringes. South-eastern origins outnumbered those combined from northern and south-western England but were only slightly higher than the Scottish total.
Most Victorian governors until 1974 were English, which set the social tone around Government House. Elected politicians reflected population trends more rapidly and after 1920 most were locally born. Six Victorian premiers were born in south-east England, all but one in London, including Graham Berry and John Bowser, who was the last English-born premier (1917-18). Nicholson (Cumberland), Kerferd (Liverpool) and Patterson (Northumberland) were born in northern England. The Labor agitator and politician Frank Anstey was born in London and arrived in Australia as a stowaway at the age of 11. English involvement in more recent years has been minimal, and only one English-born parliamentarian, Peter Nugent, was returned for a Melbourne electorate in the 1996 federal election.
The English character of Melbourne is enshrined in such institutions as the Melbourne Club, Government House, the Anglican Church, and the architecture, though no longer the personnel, of the University of Melbourne. Between 1891 and 1961 there was a slump in English immigration to Victoria and despite short bursts of migration before and after World War I, the English-born population remained static. The large-scale arrivals after 1961 also tapered off within a dozen years. The English remained the largest immigrant group but did not play the role that was so apparent in the previous century. Only in a few suburbs such as Frankston or Ringwood were they numerous enough to form social clubs and these, too, began to fade as distinctive English loyalties waned. In 1977 there were at least six predominantly English clubs in Melbourne, such as the Union Jack Club in Doncaster, the British Ex-Service Legion, the UK Settlers' Association in Fitzroy, the Free Settlers Club in Vermont and the WISE Migrants' Association in Frankston. By 1992 only the British Legion and the UK Settlers' Association were still listed by the Department of Immigration. Associations such as the English Speaking Union or the Victoria League continued, but these catered more for Anglophile Australians than for English immigrants.