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Immigration is one of Melbourne's most dramatic and defining themes. The Aboriginal occupation of Melbourne's river terraces occurred 40 000 years ago, but few details are known. European settlement followed the Port Phillip Association's 'purchase' of Aboriginal land in 1835. Subsequently, over two million immigrants have settled permanently in Victoria, the majority in Melbourne. Their individual experiences, not revealed here, were rich in the joys and anxieties of traversing new worlds.

Two-thirds of the 90 000 newcomers to Port Phillip before 1851 arrived unassisted, largely from the United Kingdom. Few general details exist about them, except that their passage cost double a labourer's annual wage and took almost four months of sailing. The assisted were mostly in the prime of their working lives, and the vast majority were domestic servants or agricultural labourers. They were chosen by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission in accordance with the desires of the colonial administration, which funded immigration from colonial land sales. Imported as pastoral workers, many feared the bush and settled in Melbourne.

Over 600 000 gold rush immigrants remade Melbourne despite most initially heading for the diggings. Of those who came by sea, 300 000 arrived from the United Kingdom - only about a third of whom were assisted - 55 000 from foreign ports, and the rest from Australian ports. Melbourne boomed, forcing thousands to live in a canvas town on the banks of the Yarra River at South Melbourne. Melbourne was changed irrevocably in size and complexion by its fourfold growth in the decade.

Small ethnic enclaves emerged, like Chinatown in Little Bourke Street, and hotels and caf├ęs flourished with American, French or other ethnic clientele. An economic slump in 1854 created social tensions and led to discriminatory duties against the entry of Chinese in 1855 and controls over their participation in mining. There was also opposition to assisted immigration. Half the decade's immigrants, and 80% of those from the United Kingdom, remained after the gold rushes; 10% of permanents were of non-Anglo-Irish descent, being mostly Germans, Americans, or Chinese.

Immigration fluctuated between 1860 and 1900, modest increases in the 1860s and larger gains in the 1880s being offset by small then negative gains in the 1870s and 1890s respectively. Economic difficulties and working-class opposition ended assisted immigration in 1873.

Immigrants were scattered throughout Melbourne by 1900 and no ethnic enclaves were formed. However, each group was over-represented in certain suburbs. The English clustered increasingly in the eastern suburbs, the Welsh in Williamstown (where there was a Welsh Calvinist Church), the Scots in Carlton (where there was a Gaelic Church), and the Irish in Melbourne proper, its inner suburbs, and in Coburg and Heidelberg. There was a small German farming community in Thomastown. Chinatown expanded in the 1880s as Chinese diggers left mining for urban factory work. Their presence created a new wave of anti-Chinese feeling, which led to renewed entry restrictions in 1881.

By 1900 immigrants provided three-quarters of Melbourne's political, business and community leaders. Immigrants predominated slightly among white-collar workers living in the wealthier outer suburbs, with the native-born more predominant among skilled and unskilled workers in inner Melbourne.

In 1909 the government renewed assisted immigration, and in 1910 and again in 1922, it formed land schemes to populate the countryside. Over 55 000 settlers arrived between 1900 and 1914 when the war stopped the inflow. A further 90 000 permanent settlers arrived in the 1920s, before the depression again brought a halt to immigration and government assistance in 1929. However, these land schemes were only moderately successful, which added to Melbourne's growth. Ninety per cent of these permanent arrivals before 1940 were British or Scots, with a sprinkling of Irish. The remainder were from Southern Europe, 20 000 in all between 1900 and 1940, half of them Italians. They mostly settled in market garden areas on Melbourne's fringe. Small numbers came from Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia. Many Greeks worked in Melbourne's catering industry. These non-British arrivals caused anxiety among other Victorians, and led to immigration restrictions on non-Britishers in 1924 in the form of annual quotas and landing money requirements. Small numbers of Jewish newcomers in the 1930s, fleeing Nazism, created similar fears and restrictions.

Since 1945 about 1.5 million permanent settlers reached Victoria. A third were British, Scots and some were Irish. By 1955, 60 000 came as 'displaced persons', refugees from war-torn Eastern Europe: Poles, Yugoslavs, Baltic peoples, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Romanians and Russians. To allay Australian anxiety, they were placed on two-year work contracts and directed to specific jobs. Once their work contract expired most moved to Melbourne where they enriched its urban culture and industrial skills. Australia formed immigration agreements with 10 European countries bringing large numbers from the Netherlands (Dutch), Germany, Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia, Turkey and smaller numbers from a dozen other European countries. With the end of the White Australia Policy in 1973 and the exodus from Vietnam from 1977, significant numbers arrived from Asia to further reshape the face of Melbourne. By the 1980s 77% of the Australian population were of Anglo-Irish descent, 8% each were descended from Northern and Southern Europe, 4% from Eastern Europe, 2% from Asia, and 1% were of Aboriginal descent. In cosmopolitan Melbourne the Anglo-Irish percentage would have been lower.

As successive immigrant waves moved from the inner suburbs of Melbourne to better housing, and to some degree from the ranks of the low paid, they left their mark. They also made an indelible cultural impression on Melbourne. Their house styles, distinctive sports and pastimes, their churches, their languages and manner, altered the world of the street, school and workplace. Their foods and restaurants enriched the tastes of Melburnians.

The old Australians, adults when all these postwar changes began, were challenged because they now knew that their own worldview was less than inevitable. Fears played on many minds, reflected in attempts at assimilation of non-Anglo-Irish groups until the 1970s, and the growth in the late 1990s of political parties such as One Nation, opposed to non-Anglo-Irish immigration. However, such parties did not thrive in Melbourne. The postwar baby-boomers grew with and tolerated these cultural and demographic shifts. Their own children find multicultural Melbourne and its unfolding migration drama to be stimulating.

Richard Broome

Broome, Richard, Arriving, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, Sydney, 1984. Details
Victoria Public Record Office, Coming south: Victorian archives of immigration, 1839-1923: a guide, Public Record Office, Melbourne, 1995. Details