eMelbourne feature

World War I and the City of Melbourne

The majority of Australians experienced World War I not on the battlefields of Europe or Africa but at home, in everyday ways in the cities and towns where they lived and worked. While spatially distant from the battlefront, daily life in Melbourne was filled with events and interactions that brought the war home and affected the city and its citizens on multiple levels. Public life and entertainment, economic prosperity, the day-to-day running of the city, international trade relationships, housing and health, and the lives of ordinary individuals — all would be changed and shaped by the conflict. This feature explores the experience of the war, through one particular collection of documents from the archives of the City of Melbourne, in order to tell the big and small stories of war in the city.

This website presents around 600 files and almost 6000 individual pages from the Town Clerk's files that reveal the everyday war in Melbourne. The files can be browsed by year or by theme to enable users to discover the rich array of material in the collection and to provide a valuable resource for students, researchers and members of the public.

Read an in depth critical examination of these records and their profound importance - and the ways in which they can be used to tell the big and small stories of war in the city - in the article 'World War I on the Home Front: the City of Melbourne 1914-1918' in Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria (issue 15, 2016-2017) by Nicole Davis, Nicholas Coyne and Andrew J May.


The City of Melbourne Town Clerk's correspondence (VPRS 3181 and VPRS 3183) is a diverse collection of documents that record much of the minutiae of everyday life in the city. The records from 1914 to early 1919 form an assemblage through which the workings of the council and the life of the city and its inhabitants during this period can be traced and in which the effect of the war can be discerned.


As the war progressed, concerns with economy, the running of the council and the use of urban space came to the fore. The city became a major site for public events related to the war effort, and the ever-present sight of the military was a growing reminder of the ongoing conflicts abroad.


With the beginning of World War 1 in August 1914, the conflict in Europe began to appear as a topic in the Town Clerk's Correspondence. The effect of the conflict on international trade as well as local social life is noticeable during the first six months.


Public space continued to be a site for events related to the war, including large numbers of military processions of departing and returning soldiers. Later in the year the conscription debate became a key topic.


Discussions surrounding the repatriation of returned servicemen and women and postwar rebuilding begin to be a significant focus, not only in Melbourne but Australia wide, and there are also occasional glimpses of antiwar sentiment.


During the year, enlistment continues, reported deaths of council workers still find their way into the files, while the Defence Department develops propaganda materials aimed at lifting recruitment levels in Melbourne. On 11 November the war finally ends.


Servicemen and women return from active duty, but many show the debilitating mental and physical effects of war that will continue to affect them for the remainder of their lives. News of deaths continues to be received, despite the joy of victory in the previous November.


Themes that run through the correspondence enable comparison of experiences in Melbourne with other cities in Australia and the world. These themes traverse diverse aspects of public and private life within the city, such as the usage of urban spaces, the workings of council, participation in patriotic acts, international trade and political relationships, the role of women, children and other non-combatants, the presence and impact of the federal government and military forces, and the repercussions of the war.

Public Life

Public life in Melbourne during the war was overwhelmed by gatherings and entertainments in urban spaces both on a large and small scale. The city streets, halls, parks and other public spaces were constantly in use for events related to the war, such as fundraising concerts, patriotic displays, enlistment drives and troops marching to war.

Duty Calls

Public expressions of loyalty took on many forms during the war: from fundraising events such as balls and concerts to marches through the city streets; from the provision of comfort funds for soldiers to the display of flags and patriotic slogans on business letterheads; from the promotion of war bonds to the push for conscription.

Us & Them

International relationships and trade were quickly affected by the outbreak of war. Australia followed Britain in restricting commerce with German or other enemy alien suppliers. Initially this led to a supply shortage but later resulted in new business relationships, as well as the expansion of local industries.

Council Matters

The purpose of the Town Clerk's Correspondence was to record the minutiae of the day-to-day running of the council. They reveal much about its inner workings and, during the period from 1914, demonstrate that the war had an impact on almost every aspect of its operations.

Individual Stories

Not only was the collective experience of the city revealed in the letters, but they also tell the stories of individual lives. These included council staff, business owners, members of the defence forces, representatives of patriotic groups, entertainers, and private citizens — the names of thousands of Melburnians are recorded within.


Female involvement in civic life during wartime features regularly in the files. Women were heavily involved in patriotic funds and movements but also are present as businesswomen, council employees and jobseekers, as well as among those who headed to the front those that lost their lives in the war.

Children & Schools

Schoolchildren played an active part in the war effort, contributing to patriotic movements through the provision of comforts for soldiers and fundraisers. Events such as Wattle Day and Children's Flower Day specifically appealed and children proudly displayed commemorative badges that demonstrated their involvement.


The consequences of the war began to be seen very quickly, initially with reports of deaths of council employees and the consequences for wounded returned soldiers. For some of them, the results of their participation in the conflict affected them for the rest of their lives.




Site-wide information and acknowledgements

This eMelbourne feature was curated by Professor Andrew J. May and Nicole Davis, with research assistance from Nick Coyne. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, and Public Record Office Victoria.

Special Thanks to: History Program, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies

Thanks to: Helen Morgan (eScholarship Research Centre), Daniel Wilksch (Public Record Office Victoria) and John Lycette (Lycette Bros.)
The University of Melbourne Public Record Office Victoria