Australia in the 1870s

Elected representatives

The 1870s began with the British military presence being withdrawn after 80 years. Each colony was now governed by a parliament with elected representatives. In 1870, Victoria became the first colony to pay its members, thus allowing men who were not wealthy the opportunity to stand for election. For example, in 1874 Angus Cameron (18471896), a tradesman with no independent means of support, was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He was the first representative of the working class and was paid £3 per week by the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council during his term of office.

In 1870 Sir Charles Gavin Duffy (18161903) appointed a Royal Commission to consider the question of federating the colonies. However, feelings for national unity were not strong enough at this time. Regional differences and rivalries between Victoria and New South Wales over trade emerged during the Intercolonial Conference in Melbourne, preventing a customs union and providing an obstacle to federation. The conference eventually agreed to cooperate on intercolonial sea postage and telegraphic charges, currency and the need for uniform statistical records.

In 1870 the Victorian Parliament voted to abolish state aid to religious organisations. Until this time Crown land had been reserved for churches to house ministers of religion. In 1875 the Victorian Legislative Assembly rejected a bill that proposed to allow women to own personal property. In 1879 the eight-hour day became a public holiday in Victoria; it celebrated the stonemasons' strike of 1856.

The colonial powers cast their eyes on the territories of New Guinea and the Torres Strait Islands to strengthen security as Russian and Italian warships were seen in the area in 1870s. In 1872 Queensland annexed the Torres Strait Islands up to 95 kilometres from the coast of Cape York and by 1879 the majority of the remaining islands were annexed.

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Speaker of the Victorian Assembly

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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