The Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales/Chapter 1

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It is not until a man has seen the colonies of England that he can duly estimate her strength and resources, or appreciate the untiring energy of her sons, whose bloodless conquests have extended the empire of civilization to the furthest quarters of the globe. It has been said that Paris is France. But how much more noble is the boast of the Englishman, that England is not circumscribed by the walls of her capital, nor even by the four seas that gird her cliffs, but that wherever, under her red-cross flag, her laws are observed, her institutions retained, and her memory cherished, there England does in fact exist. That, like the banyan tree of India, she sends forth shoots through which the sap of the old tree still circulates, but which themselves presently take root, becoming in time sources of strength and nourishment to the parent stem.

Nothing so forcibly struck me on my arrival at Port Phillip, in 1840, as the state of advancement in civilization already attained by the colony. I had frequently to pause in order to realize the fact, that where I saw a civilized town of considerable extent, supplied with most of the comforts and luxuries of life, there, only four years before, had been an untrodden wild; that where I found the bustle and excitement of business, and din of trade, so short a time before, the echoes had only been awakened by the hum of insects, or the cry of the savage; that the tame, quiet-looking teams of horses and oxen were the immediate successors of the wild dog and kangaroo, and that the substantial brick houses by which I was surrounded, had so lately superseded the rude mi-mis[1] of the native. But the wonder did not stop here; for still more astonishing was it to see the comfortable villas, with their smiling gardens and thriving crops, in the neighbourhood of the town; and to reflect that not only had all this been done within such a limited space of time, but that in addition to this, a territory, superior in extent to Ireland, had been explored, occupied, and, in a great measure, stocked with sheep and cattle, during this period, while roads and lines of communication had been established, not only through the different parts of the district itself, hut had been connected with Sydney on the one hand, and with Adelaide on the other—each at a distance of about five hundred miles from the town of Melbourne, this by a population which, at the time I speak of, had not reached 10,000 souls, surrounded, too, by tribes of hostile natives. That part of this rapid growth might be attributed to the proximity of the older colonies, from whence a supply of stock was obtained with comparative ease, and that too much of it could be traced to the over-stimulus of excessive speculation, were facts with which subsequent experience made me acquainted, but which did not obtrude themselves to lessen my first surprise at the progress of the infant settlement; nor, even when I look back at this distance of time, can they destroy the feeling of admiration with which I regard the enterprise and energy of the men by whom these circumstances were turned to so much account.

The district of Port Phillip was occupied as a permanent British settlement in the year 1836, when a few huts were put up for the accommodation of the government officers, on the spot where Melbourne now stands,—a town, the population of which, at the close of 1841, was supposed to be underrated at 9000 persons.

Melbourne is built on the banks of the river Yarra, and occupies two eminences of moderate elevation, and the valley which divides them. Both of these hills slope gradually down to the river. The town covers a space of about a mile in length, by half a mile in breadth. The westernmost of these eminences, commonly called the Western Hill, is bounded on the south-west by a declivity, which leads down to a succession of low flats, while on the south-east it slopes down to the river. The west end of the town thus occupies a comer of high ground, which rather increases in elevation for about half a mile, as it stretches to the northward. In the other direction, that is, on the river-front, there is an open valley, which, running at right angles with the river, divides the two hills which I have spoken of. Across the valley the town extends, and also up the eastern hill. The principal street, Collin's-street, running from the western limits of the town, in a direction nearly parallel to the river, crosses the valley, and stretches up the eastern hill to its eastern limits. About a quarter of a mile further on in this direction is a suburb called Collingwood. As all the other streets and lanes are either parallel to, or at right angles with Collin's-street, the plan of the town is perfectly regular, and simple enough to please the greatest lover of parallelograms.

There is great variety in the style of architecture of the buildings which compose the town, ascending, as it does, from the frail weather-boarded tenement of the first settler, to the new court house, a substantial cut-stone building, which may be taken as the extremes of a series, the mean terms of which include the baby-house-looking imported wooden house, the neat four and five roomed brick cottage, the substantial store, the flashy shop, the square solid-looking bank, the plain dissenting chapel, a gloomy and, strange to say, antique-looking Church of England church, built of a dark brown stone, and a Roman Catholic chapel of more pretension but less solidity. I am sorry to add that the demon of Roman cement has doubled the Cape, and begun to revel in all the luxuriance of the Regent-street school of architecture. Most of the houses are built of bricks and roofed principally, I might almost say entirely, with shingles, which are imported from Van Dieman's Land. The exceptions are a few which are roofed, some with zinc, and others with Welch slate, both of which can be imported on reasonable terms.

The general appearance of the town is more that of an English country town than of any thing else to which I can compare it. The weather-boarded houses and numerous stores giving it, however, a character peculiar to itself, while the long teams of bullocks, with their wild-looking drivers, and occasionally a straggling tribe of natives, followed by a host of mangy dogs, remind you that you are not in the British isles. There is also a deficiency in that neatness for which English country towns are generally remarkable, but which is naturally to be attributed to the circumstances of the place. The streets are alternately immoderately wide and inconveniently narrow—the former being one hundred feet, the latter not more than thirty feet, in width: this gives the town a straggling appearance. Until very lately the streets were in so bad a state as to be absolutely dangerous, owing to the rain having been suffered to make channels for itself, some of which yawn most fearfully in the middle of the principal streets, and even where this is not the case, they give one in wet weather a lively idea of the condition of the world in its transition state, when it is supposed to have been the abode of the Saurian reptiles. In consequence of this state of things many serious accidents have occurred, accompanied, in more than one instance, with loss of life. However since the establishment of the corporation an attempt has been made to improve the streets, by making drains for the water to escape. This attempt, humble as it is, has been hailed as the beginning of a better order of things, but the original error, in laying out the streets of so great a width, will always tell disadvantageously against the town, as the expense of forming them into roads, and keeping them in good repair, will always be nearly double what it would have been, had they been of a more moderate width, while in summer the dust is far greater than it would have been, had the surface on which it is formed been smaller.

The river Yarra, which I mentioned as bounding Melbourne on one side, is a deep, but rapid river of about forty or fifty yards wide, the banks of which are lined with gum-trees and mimosas. There is a natural dam across it at the place where Melbourne is built, which has been rendered more effective by art. This serves to keep the water above it fresh: this water is of excellent quality. Up to this point the tide flows, and the river is navigable for ships of two hundred tons burden; and many of the vessels from Van Dieman's Land, and the steam-boats from Sydney and Geelong, take in and discharge their cargoes at the wharf. The anchorage for ships of larger size is at Hobson's Bay, which is about seven miles from Melbourne by the river, though not more than four or five in a direct line. Between these points small steamers ply, carrying passengers to and from Williamstown, and towing up lighters employed in discharging the cargoes of merchantmen in the bay. The Yarra is subject to heavy floods in winter and spring, but at other times presents a very uniform appearance, the volume of its stream not apparently suffering much diminution during the drought of summer. It is supposed to rise in the spurs of the snowy Alps to the eastward of Melbourne; but the impracticable nature of the country in that direction has made the exact locality a matter of conjecture.

The country in the neighbourhood of Melbourne is very picturesque, though without any decidedly prominent features, the scenery being chiefly what is characterized by painters as woodland, and by the writers on this country as open forest. There is a good deal of it which is perfectly clear of timber; other parts are wooded about as thickly as the open parts of an English park; while in those most heavily timbered the trees are generally from about ten to thirty yards apart, with grass growing under them, and the ground perfectly free from brushwood of any kind, though flowering shrubs ore interspersed here and there. This is indeed the general character of the open forest-land, which occupies so large a portion of the district. Near the mouth of the river there is a belt of tea-tree scrub which borders it for a mile or two between Melbourne and the sea. On the south side of the Yarra the timber is thickest; from thence, in a north-westerly direction, the country gradually assumes a more open character; and at about four miles to the westward of Melbourne commence the plains, which, beginning about a mile beyond the Salt-water river, extend to the westward for forty miles. Near the Salt-water river are some beautiful situations, with just enough of timber on them for ornament and use. The distant mountains. Mount Macedon to the northward, the Snowy Alps and the Dandenong range to the eastward and southward, adding much to the effect on clear days. Along the Yarra river, the Moone ponds, and also on the shores of the bay are some very beautiful views. That which from my first arrival has always struck me as the main characteristic of the country is, its remarkably civilized appearance. It is difficult when you see trees intermixed with the most graceful flowering shrubs, grouped with all the effect which a landscape gardener could desire, and growing from a green sward, entirely free from overgrowing weeds or brushwood, not to fancy that the hand of man had been engaged in combining and arranging these elements of natural beauty. If to this be added a group of cattle resting in the shade, a rustic paling, or a winding road, you have a landscape such as our English artists delight to pourtray. I own that before leaving England I received descriptions of the same tenor with the foregoing with considerable distrust, making allowance for the language of enthusiasm excited by novelty, and anxious to find every charm in a country which the writer had adopted as his home. I cannot therefore expect that my descriptions should obtain more implicit credence. What I have stated is, nevertheless, perfectly true.

The land throughout the district may be divided into four classes. First—Rich alluvial plots of deep brown loam, formed of decomposed trap, generally free from timber, with the exception of a few large trees. Secondly—Plains entirely free from timber, or else thinly sprinkled over with sheoaks or stunted honeysuckle-trees; sometimes of a light reddish clay soil, mixed with sand; in others of a brown loam, but producing every where excellent food for sheep. Thirdly—Open forest, varying in fertility, but every where producing excellent food for sheep or cattle. Fourthly—Stringy bark ranges, which are in general too closely timbered to form good sheep runs, but which afford a good change for cattle in the summer. The soil is in general poor and stony on these ranges; but it is, nevertheless, here that we find the greatest variety of beautiful flowers. This division does not of course pretend to accuracy. The characteristics of the three first classes, particularly the first and third, are so frequently blended into each other, that there are many tracts of country that could with equal propriety be placed in one or the other of them—still it may be of use as a rough kind of classification.

A great part of the country from Geelong to the river Grange, on the way to Portland Bay, going the southern road by the lakes Colac, Poorambeet, and Caramgemite, and more to the southward still, towards Port Fairy, a tract of probably one hundred and fifty miles long, and varying from ten to thirty miles in breadth, consists of the first description. This is admirably adapted for cattle or tillage, but not so well calculated for sheep, which on this rich soil are apt to suffer from footrot, unless very well looked after. The second division comprises the plains, which stretch from Melbourne for about forty miles to the west, where they meet the Brisbane range; and from the ranges to the north of the Salt-water river, (towards Mount Macedon,) to Geelong, which is as great a distance in a north and south direction, interrupted, it is true, by a belt of forest on the banks of the Wearribbee, and by Station Peak, a mountain range which cuts them nearly across. It also comprises the Mount Elephant plains, which stretch from near Geelong to the river Hopkins. Over these latter plains the middle road from Geelong to Portland runs for three days' journey; and the northern road from Mount Emu to the Hopkins river, a distance of forty miles. From north to south they extend from near the Pyrennees on the north to the lakes on the southward, a distance of probably more than a hundred miles. Some of the best sheep runs in the country are on these plains. Similar tracts occur on the Campaspe, and in different parts of the country; but I have particularized these in order to give some idea of their extent. The third division occupies the far greater portion of the country, and includes every variety of woodland scenery from open lawns, with a few single trees, to that which deserves the name of forest, but the whole forming excellent pasture for sheep or cattle. Through districts of this kind are scattered many alluvial flats, some of them of great extent, which belong to the first division. The stringy bark and iron bark ranges, which form the fourth division, are but limited in extent, and are scattered through different parts of the wooded districts. They are chiefly valued as affording the best timber for fencing or building. The stringy bark, (which is a variety of the Eucalyptus,) possessing the quality of splitting straight and freely in greater perfection than any other member of the family known in the Port Phillip district, is peculiarly valuable to the settler, who thus obtains his slabs (rough planks) for building, and his posts and rails for fencing, without the trouble and expense of sawing.

Next in importance to the soil of a country is its command of water. And here I am bound to say that, though not absolutely niggard, nature has not been so bountiful as in her gifts of soil and climate. There are in the Port Phillip district, but few rivers which flow all through the year, of which the Murray, with its tributaries, and the Yarra, are the principal. There are others which flow for eight or nine months in each year, and whose beds, even in the dry seasons, contain many deep lagoons. There are many other similar lagoons (or waterholes as they are called) in creeks, which are filled occasionally by a heavy fall of rain, and retain water for two or three years without any fresh supply. Besides this, the settlers every now and then discover springs; but with all these sources the country cannot be said to be at present plentifully watered, though were its inhabitants placed in a position to use artificial means, such as sinking wells and building tanks, (for the latter of which the undulations of the ground and the abundance of rain afford great facilities,) I have no doubt that on this head there would be no room for complaint. But, until the stockholders are given some interest in the land, it cannot be expected that any improvement of this kind can be made. This absence of permanent water-courses, though far from a desirable feature in the country, is one of the causes which have tended to the rapid development of its resources; there being few spots on the face of the globe where the nature of the surface would have permitted a handful of men to spread themselves as fearlessly, and to occupy such an extent of territory, as they have done in Australia, and which, of course, they could not have done had the deep rivers been more numerous.

The climate of Port Phillip is one of the circumstances which most favourably distinguish it. In winter the cold is never excessive, though the frost is generally sufficient to freeze the ponds for two or three days in each season. Snow occasionally falls, but this is of more rare occurrence. There is, however, for three or four months a considerable quantity of wet and cold weather. In summer, the heat is for the most part tempered by a cool breeze, and the nights are always cool, except during the prevalence of the hot winds; so much so, that for nine months in the year a fire is very acceptable in the mornings and evenings. Indeed, as regards climate, the period of these hot winds is the only one that can be really complained of. They are exceedingly disagreeable, particularly to the new-comer, should he be obliged to expose himself. Fortunately, they do not occur more than six or seven times a season, and seldom last longer than a day or two at a time. They are generally succeeded by thunder and rain, accompanied by a strong southerly wind, colonially called a Brickfielder. When the south wind comes up, the change of temperature is very rapid. I have frequently known the thermometer to fall from upwards of ninety, or even a hundred degrees, down to sixty-five in a few hours. These rapid changes do not, however, seem prejudicial to health, nor have I ever known any ill consequences to result from them. It should not he forgotten, in connexion with this subject, that though these changes are sudden, and the fall of the thermometer very great, the lowest limit is seldom below sixty degrees, somewhere about summer heat in England—a temperature most conducive to health, and one in which the animal heat is easily supported and the nervous energy suffers no depression; that the heat, though great during the hot winds, is totally unaccompanied by moisture, and that it does not continue long enough to relax the frame. Practically, the reaction in the system caused by the change is felt to be most grateful. There is no doubt that the effect of these vicissitudes might be very different if they took place under different conditions: if, for instance, the fall of the thermometer, instead of being within its present limits, were from 60° to 30°, or if the great heat were of longer duration or accompanied by a moist atmosphere. The causes of these quick transitions from heat to cold may perhaps be found in the absence of high ranges of mountains, whose ridges might form a protection against the force of the wind« and amongst whose valleys the cool blasts would have become, as it were, entangled, until they had time to be tempered with the milder air of the regions in which they had just arrived, and to absorb some warmth from the heated earth. Here there is nothing to stop the south wind from the time it leaves the icebergs of the Antarctic circle until it comes against your cheek; it is, however, rendered mild by passing over such an expanse of ocean, and has nothing even remotely approaching to the cutting dryness of the east wind of the west of Europe. Indeed, at no time of the year has the air anything of that disagreeable harshness.

Two circumstances which, in all probability, tend in a great measure to the healthfulness of the climate are: first—the general coolness of the nights; secondly—the circumstance that wet is invariably attended with a certain degree of cold, and that consequently there is none of that warm, moist, relaxing, muggy weather so favourable to vegetable, and so pernicious to animal, or at least to human life. Another fact may be taken into consideration, which is probably not without its influence in a country abounding with forests, namely, that none of the trees are deciduous, and that such leaves as do fall seem full of an aromatic vegetable oil, which preserves them from rotting and leaves them to crumble to powder; and hence there are none of those accumulations of putrid vegetable matter which seem in Africa and America the fruitful sources of malaria and its attendants, ague and fever. The fact of the salubrity of the climate of New South Wales may be inferred as well from general testimony, founded on an experience of sixty years, as from returns laid on the table of the legislative council, from which it appears that the entire population of New South Wales on the 30th September, 1843, amounted to 164,026; the number of deaths, from the 1st of January, 1843, to that day, to 1,720, and of births to 5,387, the proportion of births being 1 in 30, and of deaths 1 in 95, for seven months; being a proportion of 1 in 17 and 1 in 55 respectively for twelve months. Comparing this with other statistical accounts, I find that the average proportion of deaths is

In England and Wales       1 in 60
Sweden and Holland 1 in 48
France 1 in 40
Europe generally 1 in 41[2]

It should be remembered, too, that if there were anything in the climate unfavourable to human life or health, it would be likely soon to show itself amongst the number of emigrants who from time to time arrive, and who, from the effects of a long voyage, would be of course peculiarly susceptible of injurious influences. The following table will give a more complete view of the particulars of the meteorological phenomena:—

From these tables, as well as from a similar one for 1841, it appears that the mean temperature at Melbourne is 59 deg., and the greatest annual range of the thermometer 62 deg. The place where these observations are made is at the flag-staff close to the town, which is placed on a hill, I should think, about one hundred feet above the level of the sea, and open to the sea breeze. This circumstance, no doubt, renders the climate more equable, and tempers the extreme heat. And I find accordingly, from a table which I kept for some time at my station, that in January, 1842, the thermometer in an open verandah rose as high as 104 deg., while at Melbourne it only reached 98 deg. The place I speak of is, however, situated in a valley about forty miles inland.

On reference to an article on climate, contributed by Sir James Clark to the Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine, I find that the mean annual temperature, extreme range of thermometer, &c., at Madeira, Pisa, Rome, Naples, and Nice are as follows:—


Mean annual temperature.

Extreme range of

Number of days
with rain.

Annual mean quantity
of rain fallen.

Greatest heat on a
mean of two years.

Greatest cold on a
mean of two years.

Fanchul in Madeira 32°37' N.   65° 14°  73
Paramatta (near Sydney)[3] 33°48' S.   65° 84° 116° 32°
Melbourne 38°18' S.   59° 62° 113 27·6 inches  98° 36°
Naples 40°51' N. 59° 28°
Rome 41°53' 
Nice 43°44' 
Pisa 44°nearly
It is evident from this comparison that it is by the greater range of the thermometer, and by the suddenness and violence of the transitions, that the climate of Australia is to be distinguished from that of the most favoured parts of Europe. That this is not a distinction by any means in its favour every one must admit. That it does not act injuriously on the health of people in general, may now be taken to be a fact established by experience. I have thrown out some suggestions as to the probable or possible causes of its not having that effect, but leave it to scientific medical men to analyse the matter more thoroughly.

Favoured with such a soil and climate, Port Phillip raises in abundance almost every product of central and southern Europe. The vine, the fig-tree, the peach, the plum, the apple, and the melon, all grow most luxuriantly, while the common vegetables, onions in particular, attain a great size and perfection. The potato, too, which is worth all the poetry of vines and fig-trees put together, flourishes in prosaic simplicity. Wheat and barley do remarkably well, oats not so well. Indian corn thrives. In fact there are few countries more prolific. One district alone, that reaching from Geelong to Port Fairy, would, if cultivated, yield wheat enough to supply millions of people; and most of the land is ready for the plough, without cutting down a single tree. This district is also plentifully watered. The relative prices of wages and flour have hitherto prevented much being done in this way. In January, 1844, we were paying £20 a year to each farm servant, together with rations of ten pounds of flour, twelve pounds of meat, a quarter of a pound of tea, and two pounds of sugar a week: and Van Dieman's Land first flour was selling at £11, and seconds at £10 per ton. Under such circumstances it is the prevailing opinion that it does not pay to grow wheat on the squatting stations, even for their own consumption. This depends in a measure on the trouble and expense of grinding. It is necessary to send the corn to Melbourne to be ground, the charges for which are very high, or else to use a hand-mill, which takes a great deal of time. When labour falls to £10 or £12, and when greater facilities are given for the purchase of land, so as to induce persons to become agricultural farmers, it is most probable that wheat will be raised on cheaper terms by persons who apply themselves wholly to this pursuit than it can be by the squatting stockholders of the present day, and that mills will be established through the country. There are indeed some farmers of this description in the neighbourhood of Geelong and Melbourne; but they are always complaining of bad prices. This has, however, I believe, been the characteristic of farmers from the days of Horace down to the present.

  1. The mi-mi is a kind of break-weather, formed of branches of trees and bark, which the natives use instead of buildings of any kind.
  2. An average of the proportion of deaths in the Sydney district for the twelve years ending in January, 1841, gives 1 in 53·15.— See Mansfield's Tables, Sydney, 1841.
  3. The observations at Paramatta are by Rev. W. B. Clark, resident of that place.