Canvas Town, between Prince's Bridge and South Melbourne in 1850s

‘Canvas Town’ – Managing Melbourne’s First Housing Crisis

By Alex Little and Benjamin Mountford

Melbourne is no stranger to housing shortages. Although Melburnians sometimes pride themselves on inhabiting the ‘world’s most liveable city’, the ability of Melbourne’s residents to access quality, affordable housing continues to be at the forefront of public consciousness. Likewise, while the need for more public housing is well recognised, providing housing is often a costly and lengthy process that makes it difficult to offer immediate assistance to those in need.

While housing Melbourne’s growing population continues to present challenges to policymakers and planners today, the city’s first great housing crisis came way back in the 1850s – as a result of the rush for gold.

The Victorian gold rushes led to an explosion in Melbourne’s population. Not long after the official discovery of gold at Clunes, gold fever was drawing thousands of new arrivals to Victoria. Soon migrants were pouring in from across the globe to join the rush – passing through the mushrooming city on their way to the goldfields. In 1852 alone, almost 100,000 people made the (often long and arduous) journey to the colony.[1]

Arriving with optimism at the prospect of finding gold and changing their fortunes, most goldseekers found their experience in Victoria to be far from easy. The American merchant (and later presidential candidate) George Francis Train arrived in Melbourne astonished there was ‘no railroad, no lightning wires, no gas lamps, no marine communication by telegraph to the heads, no water works, no Yankee inventions of any kind.’[2]  

Eager to come ashore and embark for the goldfields, new arrivals had first to endure a Melbourne that was significantly unprepared for their arrival. Transport was expensive, law and order uncertain, and the possession of too many belongings an inconvenience. As they emerged from the forest of masts growing up in port (see image 2) with some crews having abandoned their ships for the diggings, the realisation of just how difficult life in Australia might be began to dawn. Having carted their possessions from across the globe, many were now forced to abandon them by the pier.

Melbourne Wharf looking South. West from Custom House enclosure
Melbourne Wharf looking South. West from Custom House enclosure, James J. Blundell & Co., 1853, Lithograph, State Library of Victoria

One of the key hardships facing the population, and one of the most pressing challenges for Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe’s government, was housing. As always, there was money to be made by speculation in the property market. Housing prices actually fell during the immediate onset of the gold rush, as the population dashed towards the goldfields. However, the sheer demand for property meant prices in Melbourne soon made a rapid recovery. By 1852, housing in Melbourne was unaffordable and there were not enough roofs to put over people’s heads. William Westgarth in his recollections of the gold rush, recalls a friend who had taken several properties as debt payment while their owners left for the goldfields and who managed to sell them for 1000 pounds each not long after.[3] Newspapers advertised, for those ready to get away, ‘portable wooden houses, complete and well adapted for winter on the diggings.’[4]

Under the guidance of Governor La Trobe, what was colloquially referred to as ‘Canvas Town’ came to be accepted as the best short-term solution. Canvas Town consisted of a settlement of tents along the south bank of the Yarra River, near the Princess Bridge. Residents could rent a tent for the measly fee of a few shillings per week. One migrant lamented enduring the long journey, ‘only to find at the end an inhospitable country, that does not even afford the shelter of a house … we can, in common with hundreds, see nothing before us but absolute starvation.’[5] While far from ideal, these tents provided shelter from the elements for the short duration that many chose to stay in Melbourne before leaving to the goldfields.

Sir Francis Grant (1803-1878) artist. Charles Joseph La Trobe, 1855. Oil on canvas.
Sir Francis Grant (1803-1878) artist. Charles Joseph La Trobe, 1855. Oil on canvas.

While making home in Canvas Town was better than sleeping in the rain, it was not without its problems. Crime was rife and policing inadequate. Sanitation was not wholly recognised during this period and large numbers became ill from the poor conditions and tight confines of the living quarters, and from their proximity to the increasingly polluted Yarra River. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 25th September 1853 that ‘deaths and funerals are more than usually melancholy sights at Canvas Town. The dead are often utterly friendless.’[6]

Canvas Town was short-lived, La Trobe electing to shut it down, partly due to its infamous reputation. Despite the closure, many Victorian residents continued to live in tents throughout the remainder of the 1850s and 60s. Others lived in temporary ‘immigrants homes’, or moved into the city’s fast growing suburbs including Port Melbourne, Collingwood, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, Richmond and North Melbourne – though housing pressure continued for years to come.

According to ABS estimates, between 2013 and 2018, the population of Greater Melbourne grew by almost 570,000 people.[7] This growth has emphasized the development challenges the city faces, particularly when it comes to providing sufficient affordable housing for its residents.

But as we seek to accommodate the city’s current growth, we might also remember those migrants who joined the rush to Victoria and the colonial government charged with managing their arrival. For all its failings, Canvas Town was a marker of how urgent the matter of housing had become in gold rush Melbourne, and of the government’s desire to grapple with the problem as best they could. Between 1851 and 1857 Melbourne’s population grew from less than 30,000 to over 90,000, a more than threefold increase in merely 6 years – with many more people passing through en route to the goldfields.[8] Perhaps Charles La Trobe summed up the situation best in a letter to a friend, writing: ‘what we are to do with you all, I cannot tell.’[9] 

 

[1] W. H. Newnham, Melbourne: The Biography of a City (London: Angus & Robertson Ltd., 1956), 25.

[2] Daniel Potts and Annette Potts (eds.), A Yankee Merchant in Goldrush Australia: The Letters of George Francis Train, 18531855, (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1970), 25.

[3] William Westgarth, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria, (Sydney: Robertson and Co., 1888), 133.

[4] ‘Wooden Houses for the Diggings’, Argus, 16 April 1852, 1, in Trove [Online Database], accessed 22 October 2019. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4784406

[5] ‘The Stranger’, Argus, 26 January 1853, 5, in Trove [Online Database], accessed 22 October 2019. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4789253/508101

[6] ‘Canvas Town’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 1853, 5, in Trove [Online Database], accessed 25 June 2018.

[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Population Estimates by Significant Urban Area (ASGS 2018), 2008 to 2018, https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/3218.02017-18?OpenDocument, accessed 1 October 2019.

[8] The estimate for 1857 includes Melbourne, St Kilda, Collingwood, South Melbourne and Richmond. Census of Victoria 1857, 24.

[9] Charles La Trobe, [Letter to Ronald Campbell Gunn], 6 February 1852, Para. 1, in Blake (ed.), Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe, 40—41.


Alex Little is a PhD candidate at Australian Catholic University. His thesis examines Australia’s commitments to the British Empire in imperial defence from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

 

 

Benjamin Mountford is Senior Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University. Ben is the author of Britain, China, and Colonial Australia and co-editor of Fighting Words: Fifteen Books that Shaped the Postcolonial World and A Global History of Gold Rushes.

 

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