Australia in the 1880s


In 1882, the Russian fleet moored off South Australia. A year later Germany claimed part of New Guinea. Both these events increased the long standing fear of invasion or annexation from European Imperial powers, and fortifications were built on the coastline not far from the cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1884, two British officers completed an official inquiry into the defence of the colonies and recommended stronger seaport fortification, with more emphasis on armed vessels, batteries and torpedoes. A field force was established in which most were volunteers, but with a core of permanent paid men. Colonial forces expanded from 9,423 soldiers and volunteers in 1884 to 29,010 in 1901. It was not until 1917 that, due to shortage of volunteers and the major loss of life on the Western Front, the army officially allowed Indigenous people to enlist – but since they were not acknowledged as Australian citizens they were unable to receive the pension on their return. The distinctive 'slouch hat' with side turned up, which would become so iconic of the Australian soldier during the First World War, dates from this period.

In February 1885, news reached Australia that General Charles Gordon had been killed in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum after a long siege. Three weeks later a contingent of 700 New South Wales troops, the colony's first overseas expeditionary force, left to join the British Expeditionary Force in the Sudan. They fought in one engagement, and two men were wounded. The contingent embarked for home in late May.

Ships of the Royal Navy squadron moored in Farm Cove, c. 1880

A snapshot of 1888

  • January
    • Non-Indigenous Australians celebrate 100 years of colonial settlement.

  • May
    • A demonstration against Chinese immigration takes place outside Sydney Town Hall and a month later an Intercolonial Conference on the Chinese question is held.
    • In Queensland, Thomas Glassey becomes the first trade union candidate in any colonial parliament.

  • December
    • The Centennial International Exhibition opens in Melbourne in the newly built Royal Exhibition Building.
    • Henry Lawson's first story, His Father's Mate, is published.
    • The women's magazine, The Dawn, begins publication with editorials by Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry Lawson, and advocates voting rights for women and divorce law reform.
    • It also included household hints, a short story and poetry as well as fashion news. Established by Louisa it was prepared and printed by women.


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