Accessibility | Skip to primary navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer |

What's on City of Melbourne

Settlement to City

Melbourne was meticulously planned. It began as a barely legal, speculative settlement in 1835 that broke away from New South Wales in 1851 as the capital of the new state of Victoria. It was fortunate to be blessed with farsighted founders who envisioned a great 19th century city with an abundance of parks and wide roads and boulevards.

Since Robert Hoddle laid out his grid in 1837, many buildings have been raised and razed within the original ‘town reserve’ bounded by Victoria Street, Hoddle Street and the Yarra River, but the streets and parks remain resolute.

Settlement - foundation and surveying

Melbourne was founded in 1835. Unlike other Australian capital cities, Melbourne did not originate under official auspices. It owes its birth to the enterprise and foresight of settlers from Tasmania, where the land available for pastoral purposes was becoming overstocked. These settlers formed the Port Phillip Association for the purpose of the pastoral exploration of Port Phillip.

On 10 May 1835 John Batman set sail in the 30-tonne schooner ‘Rebecca’ on behalf of the Association to explore Port Phillip for land. After entering Port Phillip Bay on 29 May, Batman and his party anchored their ship a short distance from the heads and made several excursions through the countryside. On 6 June, at Merri Creek near what is now Northcote, Batman purchased 600,000 acres of land, including the sites of both Melbourne and Geelong, from eight Aboriginal chiefs. The Government later cancelled this purchase and, as a result, had to compensate the Port Phillip Association.

On 8 June 1835, Batman and his party rowed up the Yarra River and landed near the site of the former Customs House (now the Immigration Museum). John Batman recorded in his journal: "about six miles up, found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village." Batman left three white men of his party and five Aborigines from New South Wales behind with instructions to build a hut and commence a garden, and returned to Launceston to report to his association.

John Pascoe Fawkner had made a similar decision to settle at Port Phillip and formed a syndicate in Launceston that purchased the 55-tonne schooner ‘Enterprize’. Fawkner and his party of six set sail from Launceston but due to sea sickness Fawkner had to return to shore and the party sailed without him.

On 29 August 1835, the ‘Enterprize’ sailed up the Yarra River and anchored at the site chosen earlier by Batman as the place for a village. Fawkner’s party then went ashore, landed stores and livestock, and proceeded to erect the settlement’s first home. The ‘Enterprize’ returned to Launceston to collect Fawkner and his family who eventually arrived at the settlement on 10 October that year.

There has been conjecture as to who is Melbourne's rightful founder, John Batman or John Pascoe Fawkner, and indeed the two were rivals during their lives. To find out more about the founders of Melbourne, visit Explore History, the State Library of Victoria's online exhibition portal.

A settlement formed

The Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke, issued a proclamation on 26 August 1835 stating that all treaties with Aborigines for the possession of land would be dealt with as if the Aborigines were trespassers on Crown lands. Later that year, Bourke wrote to the Secretary of State, Baron Glenelg, reporting his action and proposing that a township be marked out and allotments sold. On 13 April 1836, Baron Glenelg authorised Governor Bourke to form a settlement.

The settlement lacked the essentials of a town (a governing authority, a legal survey and ownership of lands) but the community was law-abiding.

On 25 May 1836, Governor Bourke sent a Commissioner to report on affairs. In his report he stated that the settlement, which he called ‘Bearbrass’, comprised 13 buildings – three weatherboard, two slate and eight turf huts. At the time, there was a European population of 142 males and 35 females.

Surveying the Settlement

On 4 March 1837, Governor Bourke arrived and instructed the Assistant Surveyor-General Robert Hoddle to lay out the town. The first name suggested by the Colonial Secretary was Glenelg. However, Governor Bourke overruled this and named the settlement Melbourne as a compliment to the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Hoddle’s plan

Hoddle’s plan for Melbourne was approved by Governor Bourke but the plan was based largely on the work of Hoddle’s predecessor and junior, Robert Russell. The grid Hoddle designed was controversial - it was much larger than the population of 4000 people needed, and the roads were unusually wide. Governer Bourke disapproved of the plan but Hoddle convinced him that wide streets were advantageous to the health and convenience of the future city.

However, in return for allowing wide main streets, Bourke insisted that every second street running north and south be a mews or little street. This left Melbourne with a legacy of constraint. This legacy necessitated the Council, in the late 1930s, to request the enactment of legislation to permit it gradually to buy back a four-foot strip of land on both sides of the little streets when redevelopment of each property fronting took place.

First and second land sales

Governor Bourke authorised the first sale of Crown land in Melbourne, which was conducted by Robert Hoddle on 1 June 1837. The sale comprised three areas bounded by:

  • Swanston Street, Collins Street, William Street and Bourke Street
  • King Street, Flinders Street, William Street and Collins Street
  • Elizabeth Street, Flinders Street, Queen Street and Collins Street

Each block, as laid out by Hoddle, was subdivided into 20 allotments each of approximately half an acre (0.202 hectares). Each purchaser was covenanted to erect a substantial building on the land within two years. All the land was sold and the more westerly the block, the more valuable the land.

The Golden Mile

The highest price was paid for the north-east corner of William Street and Collins Street. The lowest price was paid for the allotments on the north side of Collins Street, between Swanston Street and Elizabeth Street – an area later to be known as ‘The Golden Mile’ and the highest-priced real estate in Australia.

Second land sale

On 1 November 1837, five months after the first land sale, the second sale of land took place. The boundary streets were:

  • Swanston Street, Flinders Street, Elizabeth Street and Collins Street
  • Queen Street, Flinders Street, Market Street and Collins Street
  • Swanston Street, Bourke Street, William Street and Lonsdale Street, with the exception of the reserved land where the General Post Office and the Law Courts now stand

Even in this short space of time the price of land in Melbourne had risen, the highest price being paid by John Batman for the allotment on the north-west corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Street.

It was thought that land in Melbourne would fetch a higher price if the auctions were conducted in Sydney, thus the next land sales were conducted in that city and this assumption proved correct.

Newspaper articles from the time show that Melbourne was 'kind of a big settlement' and could not yet be called a town. A census taken on 2 March 1841 showed that the total population of the province was 16,671 and that the inhabitants of Melbourne numbered 4479, comprising 2676 males and 1803 females.

Incorporation of the Town of Melbourne

On 22 October 1841 the settlement of Melbourne was divided into four wards for the purpose of electing commissioners for the management of the Melbourne markets. The internal boundaries of the four wards were the centre lines of Bourke Street and Elizabeth Street prolonged to the settlement’s boundaries.

First markets

The first markets were established by the Commissioners at the present sites of:

St. Paul’s Cathedral (hay and corn markets)
the National Mutual Centre (Western market site, fruit and general produce)
the north-east corner of Elizabeth Street and Victoria Street opposite the present Queen Victoria Market site (cattle)
A fish market was later established on the present site of the Flinders Street railway station.

Autonomy for Melbourne

From the time of its establishment in 1835, Melbourne had been a province of New South Wales and the affairs of the settlement had been administered by the Parliament of New South Wales. With the growth of the settlement there had been an increasing demand by the inhabitants for greater autonomy over their own affairs. On 12 August 1842, Melbourne was incorporated as a Town.

The Town of Melbourne was then subdivided into four wards, the internal boundaries being the same as those defined by the markets. The names given to the wards were Bourke Ward (north-west), Gipps Ward (north-east), La Trobe Ward (south-east) and Lonsdale Ward (south-west).

Melbourne becomes a city

The Town of Melbourne was raised to the status of a City by Letters Patent of Queen Victoria dated 25 June 1847, just five years after its incorporation. This royal action arose from a desire to establish a bishop’s see of the Church of England in the town, as the establishment of a bishopric required the status of a city.

The Right Reverend Charles Perry was consecrated as the first bishop of Melbourne on 29 June 1847, four days after the granting of the Letters Patent by the Queen. He arrived in Melbourne on board ‘The Stag’ on 23 January 1848, and was installed in the Cathedral Church of St. James.

However, the Letters Patent merely changed the name from Town to City. An Act of the Colonial Legislature was necessary to change the status of Melbourne from town to city. A motion was tabled at a meeting of the Town Council to alter the style and title of Melbourne, and a draft bill was approved and sent to the government for introduction to the legislature.

On 3 August 1849, the City of Melbourne finally found a place in the statute book. Act 13 Victoria No. 14 states: "An Act to effect a change in the Style and Title of the Corporation of Melbourne rendered necessary by the erection of the Town of Melbourne to a City."

In 1851, the state of Victoria was created with the City of Melbourne as its capital.


Horses with tram and city in background