Australia in the 1870s


Summary of the decade

The 1870s was a decade in which intrepid explorers such as Ernest Giles (18351897), John Forrest (18471918) and Peter Warburton (18131889) suffered extremely harsh conditions to discover and map viable routes across the centre of Australia. The era is exemplified by the building of railway and telegraph links as more of the continent was explored and settled. In 1872 work was completed on the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, linking Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory, to provide faster communication.

By 1870, 37 per cent of Australia's population lived in the cities and the majority was Australian-born. It was a time when Australia became one of the most urbanised countries in the world. The Selection Acts had opened up land to small farmers, but as time passed many moved back to the cities in search of work. The gold rushes of the previous decades had brought wealth for many and increased the population and, as a consequence, the population recognised the value of better schooling. For much of the 19th century, school was not compulsory and required payment to attend, which many couldn't afford. Most children attended irregularly and for only a few years. The Education Act 1872 (Vic) introduced a system of government-run schools that were to be 'free, secular and compulsory'. New schools were built, teacher-training colleges were established and teachers' salaries were paid by a new department of education. All funding of non-state schools was withdrawn.

Aboriginal people continued to be dispossessed of their lands and forced from urban areas. During the 1870s, colonial governments created 'Aboriginal reserves', which were sometimes run by missionaries (for example, the Hermannsburg Mission at Finke River in the Northern Territory). The reserves were under the supervision of European managers who were accountable to the Aborigines' Protection Societies. Many Aboriginal people resisted attempts to control their lives and appealed through deputation and petitions to improve their conditions. In some outback areas where Aboriginal people were still living on their own lands, there were many violent clashes with settlers who wanted to farm the land for themselves.

Many sites were re-named with European names. In 1873 surveyor William Gosse saw Uluru and named it 'Ayers Rock' after the chief secretary of South Australia, Henry Ayers. In 1876 Truganini, a Palawa woman from Tasmania, died. At the time, she was wrongly believed to have been the last Tasmanian Aboriginal person.

The National Gallery School was established and artists developed a unique perspective on the Australian landscape and an emerging Australian style. A group of Australian-born artists emerged, including Indigenous artists such as Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla, who documented, through drawing and painting, their ceremonies and everyday life.

The colonial governments adopted their state flags.

A snapshot of 1878

  • January
    • The construction of the Ghan railway line commenced at Port Augusta in South Australia.

  • February
    • The telephone was used for the first time in Melbourne.

  • April
    • The Stawell Easter Gift, a professional foot-racing competition over 120 metres, was run for the first time on Easter Monday.

  • May
    • One thousand unemployed men marched up Collins Street in Melbourne demanding relief work.

  • November
    • The song 'Advance Australia Fair' was presented for the first time.

  • December
    • Seamen in Sydney went on strike against the employment of low-paid Chinese crews on ships. The strike spread to other ports in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. A mass anti-Chinese meeting was held in Hyde Park, Sydney.


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