Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia


The idea of ‘decline’ was one of a number of factors that unsettled European settlement in Victoria and, at the same time, was a formative theme in the development of an historical consciousness. Decline posed both as a threat to colonial progress and an encouragement to the historical imagination. Local history was, to some extent, a product of settlers’ anxiety about decline. I am interested in how decline (and its opposite partner ‘progress’) helped to formulate a history of the countryside, and how the countryside ideal provided a context for decline in Victoria. This chapter will firstly consider the problem of decline in the colonial context before looking at some of the ways in which decline helped to shape the local past.

In understanding the colonial experience of decline and reactions to it, the overriding importance of progress needs to be recognised. Progress was the dominant message of the nineteenth century and intrinsic to the colonial mindset. Newcomers to Port Phillip were dazzled by progress. After the discovery of gold, Geoffrey Blainey suggests that progress was ‘an incantation more than a word’ (cited in Hughes-d’Aeth 2002 p. 70). Gold discovery only magnified hopes for prosperity. A Castlemaine newspaper article in 1857, for example, predicted the grandness of the town in thirty years hence: ‘a city of a quarter of a million people, of beautiful parks, spacious theatres and music halls’ (Spielvogel 1914 p. 84). Some years later, during the buoyant years of the 1880s, city journalists regularly reported on rising country townships.

Colonial historiography dutifully recorded the steady march of progress. Descriptive accounts of the colony, such as Alexander Sutherland’s Victoria and Its Metropolis (Sutherland 1888) and James Smith’s Cyclopedia of Victoria (Smith 1903), subtitled ‘an epitome of progress’, presented the colony as a vast panorama of industry and prosperity (see also Westgarth 1889). Local histories provided smaller, place-specific chronologies of achievement. Even in declining towns, these narratives continued to assert and emphasise past progress. They opened with visions of their own future greatness and tirelessly reiterated the message of progress as the ultimate goal. Progress, it was hoped, begat progress. The general avoidance of decline remained a feature of traditional New World historiography, as it posed a troubling contradiction.

Fundamental to the colonial view was a striving for further expansion, improvement and economic development. But alongside the bravado about the spectacular progress of colonial Victoria there was a simmering anxiety about the potential for failure and decline. Decline, by definition, implied a failure of some kind, and as such was inherently disturbing and destabilising. At the same time, however, decline encouraged the imagining of the past. It made the past appear somehow richer and more appealing. Acknowledging decline gave meaning to the story of what had happened before decline set in. It hastened a re-evaluation of the past and cultivated nostalgia for what was past, based on the conviction that the present could never be as good as what was past. Decline admitted downturn and pre-empted the final fall. It was an economic parallel to the biological process of human ageing and, like old age, invited veneration. This can be seen, for example, in the ageing of the first generation of settlers in the 1880s and 1890s, which re-affirmed their status as founders and pioneers.1 Decline could be historicised in a way that progress could not, for in marking out a specific historical period, it was the corresponding book-end to a period of prosperity. It was, in effect, integral to the story of the past and to its telling.

Although well known as examples of dramatic downturn, mining towns were not the first places to experience decline in nineteenth-century Victoria. While many mining towns declined in the 1880s and 1890s, the fringe outports of Portland, Port Fairy and Alberton (Port Albert) faced economic downturn much earlier. Portland, in the colony’s far south-west, which was founded with great promise in the 1830s, was showing signs of decline from the late 1840s.2 In 1853, the newly surveyed township of Port Albert on the east coast was reported as being ‘entirely abandoned’.3

Figure 4.1 ‘Deserted’ – a scene at Gippsland, c.1887.

Wood engraving by Samuel Calvert. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

The subsequent decline of gold-mining in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s deeply affected many towns. After only a few decades of existence, many gold towns had lost their main function. In a number of towns, the once teeming populations of tens of thousands of people shrunk to a mere fraction of that.4 Economic historian Noel Butlin found that after the 1860s, eleven gold-mining towns were unable to sustain themselves and many others were stagnating (Butlin 1974 p. 117).5 The number of miners on the fields halved in the period 1865–75.6 By the 1880s and 1890s, mining had virtually ceased in most gold towns. The Welsh swagman Joseph Jenkins noted in the 1880s that Maldon was ‘quiet and dull’, with many people ‘selling up and leaving the place’ (Evans 1993 p. 154). At Stawell in the 1890s, where the population had fallen by 2000 over ten years, Robert Croll recalled how it was an everyday occurrence to see entire houses being removed from his home town, and how ‘the gaps in her streets made Stawell look forlorn indeed’ (Croll 1930). In the larger towns, such as Ballarat and Maryborough, population decline was less significant.7 Bendigo’s population, for example, showed a slight fall between 1881 and 1891, but this was in the context of a long-term, though slow, increase.8

It was hoped that the end of mining would mark the beginning of a new period of agricultural prosperity, and the Victorian government introduced closer settlement legislation to create a greater number of smaller holdings. But the population decline of the countryside from the 1890s, which was compounded by economic depression and the collapse of the railway boom, suggested that schemes for small-scale agriculture had not been completely successful. Overall, the decline in the rural population during the latter part of the century was absorbed by the relative growth of the metropolis. The proportion of the Victorian population living in Melbourne was 26 per cent in 1861, but this had risen to 43 per cent by 1891 (see Coghlan 1896–97 p. 60; Powell 1970 p. 147). The overall growth in Victoria’s population was insufficient, taking into account the proportional share between city and country, to stem the tide of countryside decline. The colony was now faced with two problems: the slowdown in mining and the falling population in the countryside. By 1918, an inquiry into the Drift of the Population to the City was deemed necessary, and various schemes were adopted for stemming countryside decline. To progressives and romantics alike, the decline of the countryside was a double blow. Nourishing the countryside ideal in Victoria went some way to help to allay fears of decline, but at the same time made these fears more apparent.

Colonial writers struggled at first to admit decline. Early histories of the port towns and the gold towns conceded little – on the surface at least – about decline. Yet their very telling, it would seem, was prompted by the experience of decline. Recognising downturn after a period of activity and progress signalled the beginning of history. Decline accentuated what could be seen as historic about the new settlement. It allowed the imagining of the past and encouraged a sense of nostalgia.

By the late-nineteenth century, decline was an important, though subtle, motive in local history-writing. The early histories of Ballarat and Bendigo reflected a heavy consciousness of decline and a sense that the towns’ histories had an inevitable end-point. They seem to have been written in part to acknowledge a town’s passing, and also to serve as a record of what was gone. In the preface to his History of Bendigo (Mackay 1891), for example, George Mackay quoted Ovid: ‘While time shall last / Endure, and die but with the dying world’. An underlying sense of decline is also evident in the narrative structures of many local histories in Victoria, including those produced in the late-nineteenth century. After a climax is reached at the apex of some golden age (usually related to gold or agriculture) the story loses momentum. At the same time, these local histories depicted the earlier period as more fabulous, and emphasised the celebrated extremes in fortune and social behaviour during the boom time. The ‘rise’ and subsequent ‘golden age’ received considerably more attention than the ‘fall’.

While the decline of mining towns was acknowledged, it was not entirely accepted. The small mining town of Amherst, for example, was described in 1885 as having been ‘on the wane for many years’. But there was a glimmer of hope: ‘The reefs... are beginning to be opened up, and it is anticipated that some of these will prove payable, when increased prosperity is expected.’9 Much impressed after a visit to Bendigo in 1880, the journalist Garnet Walch referred to Trollope’s denigration of the place some years earlier and assured his readers that if Trollope ‘were to visit the Sandhurst [Bendigo] of to-day, he would write very differently’ (Walch 1881 p.153).

Figure 4.2 Mining Scenes, c.1886.

Reproduced from Charles R. Long, Victoria: Its Foundation & Development, Melbourne: Whitcombe & Tombs; 1925.

Local histories helped to define the present, in spite of evident decline. In looking back, the footsteps of the past, and their direction toward the present, appeared firmer and surer. William Withers’ History of Ballarat, published in 1870, reflected on twenty years of spectacular growth and development, and asserted ‘we may look with confident hope towards the future, whose uncertain years are lit up with the radiance of the past, and shaped to our vision by the promise of the present’ (Withers 1999 p. viii). Likewise, in 1896, Port Fairy’s first historian, the newspaperman William Earle, imagined the town to be ‘prophetic of future greatness’, claiming that the Moyne River would one day ‘be lined with the world’s merchantmen; warehouses and manufactories will crowd its banks ... and everywhere Port Fairy will be a synonym for push, progression and prosperity’ (Earle 1975 p. xviii). In contrast, where decline was absolute, as appeared to be the case in Port Albert, chroniclers offered only melancholy ‘dreams’ about the busy scenes of the past (see Smith 1903 vol. 3 pp. 627, 629).

EJ Brady’s weighty volume of 1918, Australia Unlimited, developed this idea further. He embraced progress as Victoria’s raison d’etre, and recorded evidence of decline in a purposeful juxtaposing of past glories with present progress. While he saw ‘The scenes of many a “rush”... marked by pot-holes or crumbling [mine] shafts’, he reminded his readers that Bendigo, Castlemaine, Maryborough, Stawell, Ararat and Ballarat were ‘flourishing cities’ (Brady 1918 p. 248). Brady’s lively commentary both highlighted progress and provided a rich historical backdrop to present prosperity, which served to reinforce the relentless linear progression of history. With one eye on the colonial past and the other on signs of modernity, he contrasted the passing scenes of present and past in order to emphasise progress. At Ararat he was pleased to see the ‘successful grafting of an agricultural Present on to a mining Past’ (p. 322).

The idea that history was a product of decline runs counter to the notion that local histories were published to celebrate progress – of the past and the present. Whilst much local history was certainly produced to coincide with various colonial jubilees, many publications were also borne out of the experience of changing fortunes, and decline in varying degrees. Many of these also acknowledged the ‘decline’ of available historical information (i.e. living witnesses) on which to draw. Colonial writers in the 1880s and 1890s adopted a sentimental attitude towards the decline of the pioneers and expressed serious concern that ‘old Australia’ – both its old ways and its old landscape – was disappearing.10 But this loss, real or otherwise, enriched the sense of the past. Ageing settlers urgently sought to record what had happened while it could still be remembered. James Dawson regretted that so little was recorded by the early settlers in western Victoria, but was relieved to hear that his friend Richard Bennett was publishing his reminiscences of early Port Fairy. He was anxious that it was ‘not yet too late’ to obtain from other settlers ‘a few notes to help you in your work’.11 Other ‘old colonists’ sought to remedy this problem and, as result, numerous pioneering accounts were recorded in this period.12

By the early 1900s, the life cycle of many towns in Victoria was often seen to parallel the lives of its ageing pioneers. As Robert Croll, who grew up in Stawell explained, ‘the borough and I began life together’ – both were born in the same year, 1869 (Croll 1930 and see Nunn 1954 p. 5). His sentiment concurs with an observation of the philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche about the antiquarian mind: ‘the history of the town’, he says, ‘becomes the history of himself’ (cited in Griffiths 1996 p. 2). Townsfolk felt a heightened sense of history-making when their town’s foundation date was still in living memory. As long as the early settlers were still alive, a tangible link to the past survived, and history seemed alive and recoverable. As more and more old residents began to die, however, this perceived temporal parallel between town and residents tended to augment anxiety about the town’s future.

Concern for the disappearing colonial past persisted into the early twentieth century. The pecuniary interests of the Harcourt Fruitgrowers’ Association, for example, were put aside for the cause of history when its members published a ‘brief and doubtless imperfect’ history of their town in 1910 (Harcourt Fruitgrowers 1910). The flooding of the town of Talgarno to create the Hume Weir in the late 1920s prompted WH Ferguson to produce an urgent and emotive record of the town’s history. With the places of the past about to be lost forever, he was compelled to set down a record before they were swallowed up (Ferguson 1928).13 Journalist Frank Whitcombe also diligently recorded the histories of countless country towns in Victoria from the late 1920s, but was frustrated at the disappearing human sources of pioneer history: ‘One here, another there, and all our Victorian pioneers are passing over to the great muster in The Beyond, leaving in but few instances any written annals of their deeds that won the state for their descendants’.14 Where decline set in, nostalgia for the old days grew stronger. Whereas old pioneers could pass away due to natural human decline, the towns they built were expected to live on, carrying the memory of the past into the future as a testament of their success and legitimacy.

The impact of decline in the different kinds of towns – port towns, mining towns, and pastoral and agricultural towns – left different residues and made for different kinds of historical consciousness. The outports and the early pastoral service towns often developed in the popular imagination into old world ‘English’ towns. Portland and Port Fairy in particular were romanticised for the rustic quality of their buildings and historic associations. The mining towns were seen initially as eyesores, and evidence of pronounced failure. Initially, they were incorporated as part of a productive countryside, but this was not entirely successful. Later, however, they came to be seen as curious reminders of past endeavours, and of the novelty and spectacle of the past. These models were adopted by travel-writers for the new economic imperative of tourism.

In former mining towns the idea of visiting the past became especially popular. The remains of former mining settlements, including ruined buildings, mulloch heaps, mining machinery and mine shafts became points of interest in the local tourist literature.15 Tours of the old mine workings became popular, for example at Stawell and Bendigo.16 Mining towns also rehabilitated the fabric of the colonial past in the early 1920s, for the benefit of tourism. At Maldon in 1923, a poppet-head from Bendigo was propped up on Mt Tarrangower as a tourist attraction, while at Kilmore a monumental tower celebrating Hume and Hovell’s centenary was erected on ‘Monument Hill’, using stone from the demolished local gaol (Mt Alexander Diggings Committee 1999; Maher 1972 pp. 20–21).

Another way in which the country towns were treated as historical was through the powerful influence of an established ‘countryside myth’ in western tradition (see Williams 1973; Bunce 1994; Young 1994; Daniels 1983; Griffiths 1984). The countryside had not been long settled in Victoria before it was being romanticised and its decline lamented. Its lack of development, indeed its very decline, invited retrospection and encouraged history-making. Small landholders, rather than the pastoralists, strove to recreate a familiar rural world in the 1850s and 1860s. Following the decline of mining, former mining areas were claimed as countryside. Jonathan Moon, describing Maldon in 1864, praised the neat, snug cottages of working men and their families, and painted a happy domestic scene of town life (Moon 1864 p. 9).

Countryside decline prompted various remedies. Politicians and town promoters fought decline with overt demonstrations of economic and civic advance, proclaimed under a banner of multiple loyalties: locality, colony, nation and empire. Such was the persistence of the rural dream, especially in the history-conscious mining towns, that government rhetoric saw no bounds in seeking to reverse the course of decline. Referring to Castlemaine in 1919, the Argus reported that ‘It was disheartening to see once-thriving mining towns dropping into a state of decay, and the Government would help any genuine undertaking to bring back their ancient glory’.17 Politicians drew heavily on the rhetoric of progress. The slogan of the Bruce–Page government in the 1920s – ‘men, money and markets’ – looked hopefully to growth in population, wealth and the economy.

Figure 4.3 Hume & Hovell Memorial, Kilmore, Victoria, erected in 1924.

Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

Others looked to history as the important salvageable riches of decline. An appreciation of the historical value of old towns came from two main sources: firstly, an antiquarian appreciation that was part of traditional European aesthetics of landscape and secondly, a growing interest in the local colonial past. Domestic tourism, as it had developed in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was strongly based on the visual appreciation of the landscape that was encouraged in the detailed descriptive works of the period (Bermingham 1987; Ousby 2002). Popular travel-writing in Victoria began to romanticise the colonial landscape in a similar way, dwelling on the picturesque and signs of antiquity, imitating the style of British travel-writers, who had discovered their own countryside a century earlier.

Local progress associations established across Victoria, mostly in the early 1900s, recognised the past as a way of highlighting future prospects and, through tourism, of bringing money into the town. These began as co-operative groups formed by local farmers in the Wimmera who were concerned for their town’s future. They sought to promote local industry and decentralisation, while at the same time asserting prosperity. Local publications highlighted local advances in terms of agriculture and technology. These were not towns in decline; they had not yet had their glory days like the mining towns, but rather saw themselves on the cusp of greatness. Birchip’s latter-day historian June Senyard has pointed out that JE Robertson’s The Progress of Birchip, published in 1911, was intended ‘to promote tourism to the town rather than a recitation of the facts of settlement and pioneering’ (Senyard 1970 p. 74). There was some ambiguity, however, in the fact that these publications, with their chronologies of progress, did in fact acknowledge the successes of the past. Here, the past was more valuable in outlining the model for future success.

Local progress and tourist associations also promoted popular interest in nature and outdoor recreation (Palmer 1955 p. 241; Robertson 1911; Rabl 1972 p. 72). Progress associations in ‘picturesque’ towns, such as Bright and Beechworth in the state’s north-east, introduced beautification schemes and tourist facilities, and published tourist brochures.18 Seaside towns, from Mount Martha to Warrnambool, promoted themselves in a similar way.19

In a number of towns, progress associations demonstrated strong links between progress and tourism, and hence between progress and history. Many associations published local tourist guides and local histories.20 In other former gold towns, tourist groups were established as a hopeful economic compensation for the waning gold activity. Through tourism, the physical effects of decline promised commercial value.

The ongoing tension between progress and history, between moving forward and looking back, was a strong factor in shaping local identity. While progress and history largely remained opposing interests, the two were also fundamentally connected. Visiting Portland in its jubilee year of 1884, the peripatetic journalist and seeker of the picturesque, Julian Thomas (‘John Stanley James’), was – not surprisingly – in search of local history, but the Mayor, who was showing him around, was more intent on pointing out signs of progress (Cannon 1981 p. 61). The need for a progressive future on the one hand or a nostalgic past on the other fitted with the seeming inability of the colonial mind to deviate from the uni-directional, linear model of human endeavour.

Whereas early tourist guides in Victoria had been chiefly concerned with the masculine pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing, by the 1880s, town promoters and guidebook writers were drawing on history as a tourist attraction. Despite the unrelenting allure of progress through the late nineteenth century, interest developed in old and ‘forgotten’ places. For a new settlement there was novelty in antiquity, imagined or not. The windswept outpost of Portland on Victoria’s south-west coast, for example, had been founded with great promise, but had conceded its decline as early as the 1850s. By the 1860s, it was described as an age-old place.

By the 1880s, tourist literature celebrated Portland as ‘the cradle of settlement’ and noted the town’s ‘antiquity’.21 Local attractions included a well-stocked local history museum and several ‘old grand homes’.22 Visits to the historic town were vigorously promoted by the local town council and encouraged by cheap railway excursion fares. Although a town in decline, with buildings that had ‘a sombre old world aspect’, Portland was seen as ‘not lacking in picturesqueness or comfort’ (Smith 1903 vol. 2 p. 114). Visiting Port Albert on the eastern coast, the Vagabond commented ‘“[it is the] strangest out-of-the-world place I have seen in the southern hemisphere since I visited Norfolk Island. The stamp of ancient days is upon everything in the place”’ (Cannon 1981 p. 141). Visitors who flocked to Port Fairy in the late 1890s and early 1900s noticed the same old world character. They found a ‘quaint, curious, strange, old fashioned interesting place’. Its buildings had an English look about them and one journalist went on to say: ‘In fact, one might easily fancy oneself on the west coast of England or Ireland’.23 A transformation had taken place in respect of these colonial towns, once new, now old wordly. The emphasis, however, was on their perceived historic appearance rather than their intrinsic historic value. Colonial history, for many, continued to be considered something of an anomaly.

By the early twentieth century, there was a strong impetus at a local level to preserve the physical past and to chronicle significant local events. Promoting the local past was a modest means of making something from decline, if not combating its effects. While local history-writing had been encouraged in the 1880s by the jubilee celebrations, the continuing interest in local history in the 1890s, however, would seem to indicate a response to decline.24 With economic decline, country towns in Victoria tended to become increasingly self-reflective and pre-occupied with the preservation of the physical sites, documents, and remembered accounts of the past.

The countryside continued to be seen as a repository of the past, especially by city folk. History could be better imagined in the countryside than in the rapidly growing cities and towns. As Beechworth local historian Ian Hyndham points out, ‘that is where the gold rush started and that’s where many of our forebears came from in the very early days’.25 The countryside continued to provide an escape to how things were, or how things were thought to have been. Going back to the country was like returning to a comfortable, familiar past. The slow pace of change meant that early buildings and landmarks survived longer. ‘Old timers’ could stand at a scenic viewing spot and savour the same sight they remembered from childhood. For city folk, however, the obliteration of so much physical evidence of the past produced tarnished memories.

The perceived connection between countryside and history in colonial Australia perhaps also reflects a colonial defensiveness, a need to justify occupation. It was in the countryside, in the port towns, along the overlanding routes, and at the squatter’s station that the land had been seized and where the story of settlement had been played out. The ‘decline’ and ‘disappearance’ of the Aborigines, which ran parallel to these concerns, was largely overlooked. The countryside ideal effectively excluded Aboriginal people. Settlers more easily placed Aborigines in the ‘bush’ than in the countryside, occupying a mia mia rather than a cottage.

Coinciding with the decline of many Victorian country towns came a growing incidence of public commemoration. As local institutions, churches, and municipalities reached their fifty-year milestones, especially in the early 1900s, jubilee celebrations spread like a wave across the colony. The New South Wales centenary celebrations, which were held around the same time, probably also provided an incentive. These celebrations connected small communities to a bigger progressive entity – of colony, nation, Empire – but also demonstrated more immediate and parochial concerns. Church jubilees drew on an older British tradition that stemmed from the 1660s, in which local church or parish histories encouraged appreciation of the old buildings and antiquities in a particular parish or locality (Clarke 1974 p. 24). In Victoria, these celebrations were also firmly fixed to place and community. But rather than focusing on the ageing infrastructure of a locality, they celebrated the pioneer story by setting individual accounts, usually of early churchmen, against the broader story of the settlement, development and progress of the colony (see Davies 1914; Steele 1937). To celebrate town jubilees, many ‘Old and New’ or ‘Then and Now’ booklets were published, which provided a pictorial contrast between past and present.26 These reflected the optimism and civic-mindedness of the early 1900s, buoyed by Federation and the new century, and celebrations of Empire. The newly formed Historical Society of Victoria encouraged the compilation of local histories, or ‘chronologies’, as CR Long preferred to call them, and provided a set of guidelines for these in 1906.27

During the interwar period, at a time of heightened affection for and idealisation of the English countryside, history could seem more glaringly absent in ‘new’ towns. For conservative politician Robert Menzies, the English countryside highlighted what could only be dreamt of in Australia. On a visit to England in 1935 he was entranced by the beauty of the countryside, but struck by a different historical resonance in the rural landscapes of Australia and ‘Home’:

Here are no wide roads as in Australia with muddy earth formations on either side, but narrow winding lanes with close grassy banks and hedges with now and then the straight stretch of an old Roman road travelling as straight as an arrow over hill and dale ... green and flowering things – a beauty no new country town in Victoria could ever possess (cited in Clark 1987 p. 484).

For some, promoting the countryside ideal, with its strong historical associations, only served to undermine the value of history in the new country. But, on the other hand, the adoption of the countryside ideal in Australia helped to create a sense of history and tradition, however misplaced. Settlers, it seems, were in a constant state of confusion about the past. Their attitude seemed to oscillate between the denial and the celebration of local history. Recognising themselves as historical at such a relatively young age was a particular phenomenon of New World settlements, especially those that experienced a rapid decline so quickly after being settled.28


Adelaide Old and New, 1836–1913: A Pictorial Contrast. Melbourne: J Feldheim; 1913.


Almanac and Guide Book to the Borough of Daylesford and Surrounding Districts. Daylesford: Daylesford Herald; 1887.


Beautiful Ballarat. Ballarat: Ballarat Progress Association; 1906.

Beautiful Mansfield. Melbourne: Mansfield and District Progress Association;1906.

Boldrewood, Rolf (TA Browne), Old Melbourne Memories. Melbourne: Heinemann; 1969. (First published Melbourne: George Robertson and Company; 1884.)

Bride TF, editor, Letters from Victorian Pioneers. Melbourne: Published for the Trustees of the Public Library by Robt S Brain, Govt. Printer; 1898.

Brief Outline of the History of Echuca. Echuca, Vic.: Echuca Progress Association; 1907.

Castlemaine, and Its Charming Environs. Melbourne: Castlemaine Progress Association; 1907.

Curr, Edward M. Recollections of Squatting in Victoria. Melbourne: G Robertson; 1883.

Dawbin, Annie Baxter. Memories of the Past by a Lady in Australia. Melbourne: WH Williams; 1873.

Feldheim J. Victoria Old and New, 1850–1912: A Contrast. Melbourne: Lake, Sons & Cowell; 1912.

Hamilton JC. Pioneering Days in Western Victoria: A Narrative of Early Station Life. Melbourne: Exchange Press; 1914.

Henty, Mrs SG (Jane). ‘Old Memories’, c.1902. MS 8861, Box 992/1(c), La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Henty, Richmond. Australasian Reminiscences. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington; 1884.

Illustrated Guide and Map to Kyneton and Surrounding Districts. Kyneton [Vic.]: WJ Semple; 1898.

Illustrated Guide to Beechworth. Beechworth, Vic.: James Ingram & Son, 1892.

Lorck W, editor. Victoria Illustrated: An Illustrated Trip Through Some of the Most Important and Picturesque Towns, With Short Articles Touching Upon the Industries of the State of Victoria. Melbourne: Government Printer; 1909.

Ord, Maynard. Stawell Guide Book to the Stawell Mines, Borough of Stawell and Shire of Stawell. Ballarat: Rider & Mercer; 1894.

Port Campbell and its Attractions. Port Campbell, Vic.: Port Campbell Progress Association; 1928.

Portland: Nature’s Ideal Resort. Its History and Resources. Ballarat; 1910.

Souvenir of Warrnambool and its Exhibition. Warrnambool: J Jorden; 1897.

Stawell, Mary. My Recollections. London: Richard Clay and Sons; 1911.

Terang: Old and New, 1860–1907. Terang: Express Print; 1907.

Tourists’ Guide to Picturesque Healesville and District. Healesville: Healesville Tourist and Progress Association; 1910.

Trip to Portland: The Watering Place of the West. Melbourne: Arnall & Jackson, printers and stationers; 1880.

Victorian Municipal Directory, 1880, 1885, 1916.

Victorian Railways, Picturesque Victoria. Melbourne; 1897.

Victorian Year Book, 1875.

Warrnambool Standard.

Weekly Times.

Whitworth, Robert P. Official Handbook and Guide to Melbourne. Melbourne: Bailliere; 1880.


1     Decay and old age are discussed in Lowenthal 1985 pp. 128–129. For a discussion of this experience in Victoria, see Davison 1995.

2     See various newspaper references cited in Harvey 1949.

3     Charles J Tyers, 1853, quoted in Bride 1983 p. 236.

4     The population figures for a number of the main gold towns are given as in the tens of thousands, for example on the Mount Alexander (Castlemaine) diggings, but these unofficial figures were not effectively recorded and were often anecdotal. The population figures for the goldfield towns given in the 1854 and 1857 censuses may also be wrong due to the great degree of people moving about from field to field. This is alerted in the reports on the Census by the statisticians; see Birrell 1998.

5     See also D Urlich Cloher’s study of towns in the nineteenth century in Powell 1975 pp. 104–149.

6     Victorian Year Book, 1875, p. 12, cited in Victorian Municipal Directory, 1880.

7     Watson 2003 p. 291. Maryborough showed an increase in population from 2495 in 1861 to 5622 in 1901.

8     ‘Bendigo and Eaglehawk population, 1871–1891’, taken from Hibbins et al. 1985 p. 90.

9     Victorian Municipal Directory 1885. Melbourne: 1885, p. 103.

10    This issue has been widely discussed; see for example Macintyre 1987 pp. 1–29.

11    Dawson’s lament first appeared in the Warrnambool Standard, 21 December 1887; it is reproduced in Critchett 1984 p. 45.

12    Examples include Rolf Boldrewood (TA Browne), Old Melbourne Memories. (1969; first published 1884); Edward M Curr, Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (1883); JC Hamilton, Pioneering Days in Western Victoria (1914); Richmond Henty, Australasian Reminiscences (1884). Accounts by women were less common but a notable example is Annie Baxter Dawbin, Memories of the Past by a Lady in Australia. Melbourne: WH Williams; 1873; Mrs SG (Jane) Henty, ‘Old Memories’ (c.1902); and Mary Stawell, My Recollections. London: Richard Clay and Sons; 1911. A collection of letters, edited by TF Bride, was published in 1898 as Letters from Victorian Pioneers; this had been gathered by Governor La Trobe in the early 1850s in an effort to preserve Victoria’s pioneering records for future posterity.

13    Peter Read discusses these issues in his chapter ‘Two Dead Towns’ in Read 1996a; See also Read 1996b.

14    Frank Whitcombe, ‘History of Donald’, Weekly Times, [n.d.], c.1929–30, in his ‘Weekly Times “Country Towns” Series (Scrapbook)’, held by the State Library of Victoria.

15    For example, mullock heaps are mentioned in an account of the chief attractions of Daylesford and district; see Almanac and Guide Book to the Borough of Daylesford and surrounding districts (Daylesford Herald, Daylesford, 1887), pp. 73–90.

16    Victorian Municipal Directory, 1916; for Bendigo, see W Lorck, Victoria Illustrated (1909), p. 265; for Stawell, see Maynard Orr, Tales of the Old Stawell Mines (1896) and Smith 1903 vol. 3 p. 195.

17    Argus, 25 February 1919.

18    The first Bright tourist brochure was published by the Bright Alpine Club in 1889. Also, Beechworth Progress Association, Illustrated Guide to Beechworth (Beechworth, 1892). The Beechworth Tourist Association was formed in 1900. Stawell formed a tourist association in 1901 to capitalise on the attraction of the Grampians but this was unsuccessful; see Murray and White 1983 p. 134.

19    See, for example, A Souvenir of Warrnambool and its Exhibition. Warrnambool: J Jorden; 1897, which mentions the existence of the Seaside Tourists Association around this time; Portland: Nature’s Ideal Resort. Its History and Resources (Ballarat, 1910). The Mornington Tourist Association was formed c.1890s.

20    For example, Illustrated Guide to Beechworth (1892), Illustrated Guide and Map to Kyneton and surrounding districts (1898), Beautiful Ballarat (1906), Beautiful Mansfield (1906), Castlemaine, and Its Charming Environs (1907), Brief Outline of the History of Echuca (1907), Tourists’ Guide to Picturesque Healesville and District (1910), Port Campbell and its Attractions (1928).

21    A Trip to Portland: The Watering Place of the West (Melbourne, 1880).

22    Robert P. Whitworth, Official Handbook and Guide to Melbourne (Bailliere, Melbourne, 1880) notes the local museum at Portland.

23    Spielvogel 1914 p. 116. A railway tourist guide also described Port Fairy as having a ‘quaint appearance’; Victorian Railways, Picturesque Victoria (Melbourne, 1897) p. 80.

24    See, for example, the local histories of Ballarat (1896), Bendigo (1891), Colac (1888), Port Fairy (1896), Stawell (1896).

25    Age (Saturday Extra), 9 October 1999 p. 1.

26    For example, Terang: Old and New, 1860–1907 (Terang, 1907); Victoria Old and New, 1850–1912: A Contrast (Melbourne, 1912); and Adelaide Old and New (Melbourne, 1913).

27    The Society’s enthusiastic member Charles Long reminded aspiring local historians of these instructions by republishing them in 1925; see his article, ‘Monuments, Local Histories and Commemoration Days’, in Barrett 1925. Long explained, ‘Early in its existence, the Historical Society of Victoria issued, in connection with the compilation of local histories (or chronicles, as they may more appropriately be called), an instruction so valuable that it cannot be too widely disseminated.’

28    It would be useful to compare this tendency to other New World settler societies, especially the United States and Canada. The phenomenon also compares perhaps to the way that early human death invites romance and heroising.


Barrett, James, editor. Save Australia: A Plea for the Right Use of Our Flora and Fauna. Melbourne: Macmillan & Co.; 1925.

Bermingham, Ann. Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740–1860. London: Thames & Hudson; 1987.

Birrell, Ralph. Staking a Claim. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press; 1998.

Brady, EJ. Australia Unlimited. Melbourne: G. Robertson; 1918.

Bunce, Michael. The Countryside Ideal: Anglo-American Images of Landscape. London: Routledge; 1994.

Butlin, Noel. Investment in Australian Economic Development, 1861–1891. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1964. cited in Bate, Weston. ‘The urban sprinkle: country towns and Australian regional history’. In: Schedvin, CB; McCarty, JW, editors. Urbanisation in Australia: The Nineteenth Century. Sydney: Sydney University Press; 1974. pp. 186–87.

Cannon, Michael, editor. Vagabond Papers: Australian Bush and Town Life in the Victorian Age. Melbourne: Hyland House; 1981.

Clark CMH. A History of Australia. Vol. 6. Carlton: Melbourne University Press; 1987.

Clarke, Kenneth. The Gothic Revival (c.1928). London: J Murray; 1974.

Coghlan, TA. The Wealth and Progress of New South Wales. Sydney: The New South Wales Statistician’s Office; 1896–97.

Critchett, Jan, editor. Richard Bennett’s Early Days of Port Fairy. Warrnambool: Warrnambool Institute Press; 1984.

Croll, Robert H. ‘Foreword’. In: Sharpley WG. Back to Stawell, 1929. Stawell; 1930.

Daniels, Kay. ‘Cults of nature, cults of history’. Island 1983 Spring: 16: 3–11.

Davies, Rev AD. Making of a Town: Being a Memento of the Jubilee of St Paul’s Church, Camperdown, 1864–1914. Camperdown: St Paul’s Church; 1914.

Davison, Graeme. ‘“Our youth is spent and our backs are bent”: the origins of Australian ageism’. Australian Cultural History 1995; 14: 40–62.

Earle, William. Earle’s Port Fairy (1896). Reprinted Olinda: Olinda Public Relations Pty Ltd; 1975.

Evans, William, editor. Diary of a Welsh Swagman 1869–1894. Sydney: Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia; 1993.

Ferguson, WH. Doomed Talgarno: A History. Mirboo North: Gippsland Print; 1928.

Griffiths, Tom. ‘National heritage or town history: Beechworth in the 20th century’, Australian Cultural History 1984; 4: 42–53.

Griffiths, Tom. Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1996.

Harcourt Fruitgrowers’ Association. Short History of Harcourt, compiled by a Committee Under the Auspices of the Harcourt Friutgrowers’ Association, Castlemaine: Harcourt Fruitgrowers’ Association; 1910.

Harvey, EW. Victoria’s Oldest Settlement: Portland 1800–1949. Melbourne: McCarron, Bird & Co; 1949.

Hibbins, GM; Fahey, C; Askew, MR. Local History: A Handbook for Enthusiasts. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin; 1985.

Hughes–d’Aeth, Tony. Paper Nation: The Story of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia 1886–1888. Carlton: Melbourne University Press; 2002.

Lowenthal, David. The Past Is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1985.

Macintyre, Stuart. ‘The writing of Australian history’. In: Borchardt DH; Crittenden V, editors. Australians: A Guide to Sources. Broadway: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates; 1987. pp. 1–29.

Mackay, George. The History of Bendigo. Bendigo: McKay & Co.; 1891.

Maher, JA. The Tale of a Century: Kilmore 1837–1937: A History of Victoria’s Oldest Inland Town. Kilmore: Lowden Publishing; 1972.

Moon, Jonathon George. Tarrangower Past and Present: A History of Maldon from 1853. Guide, Business Directory, and Calendar. Reminiscences of the Good Old Times. Maldon: 1864.

Mt Alexander Diggings Committee, Discovering the Mount Alexander Diggings. Castlemaine: Mt Alexander Diggings; 1999.

Murray, Robert; White, Kate. The Golden Years of Stawell. Victoria: Town of Stawell in conjunction with Lothian; 1983.

Nunn, Harold V. Maryborough: The Story of a Century. Maryborough: Hedges and Bell; 1954.

Ousby, Ian. The Englishman’s England: Taste, Travel and the Rise of Tourism. London: Pimlico; 2002. First published by Cambridge University Press; 1990.

Palmer, Yvonne. Track of the Years. Carlton: Melbourne University Press; 1955.

Powell, JM. The Public Lands of Australia Felix. Melbourne: Oxford University Press; 1970.

Powell, JM; Williams M, editors. Australian Space, Australian Time. Melbourne: Oxford University Press; 1975.

Rabl, LH. Murtoa Centenary, 1872–1972. Murtoa: Murtoa Centenary Committee; 1972.

Read, Peter. Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press; 1996a.

Read, Peter. ‘Remembering Dead Places’. In: Tom Griffiths, editor. People and Places: Australian Heritage Perspectives. London: Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies; 1996b. pp. 67–85.

Robertson, J Edward. The Progress of Birchip: A Wonderful Record. Melbourne: Wilke, Mitchell & Co.; 1911.

Senyard, June. Birchip: Essays on a Shire. Birchip: Shire of Birchip; 1970.

Smith, James, editor. The Cyclopedia of Victoria. Melbourne: The Cyclopedia Company; 1903. 3 volumes.

Spielvogel, Nathan F. The Gum-sucker at Home. Melbourne: George Robertson & Company; 1914.

Steele, Rev. W Huey. Early History of the Hamilton Presbytery. Hamilton: Hamilton Spectator Office; c.1937.

Sutherland, Alexander. Victoria and its Metropolis. Melbourne: McCarron, Bird and Cameron; 1888.

Walch, Garnet. Victoria in 1880. Melbourne: George Robertson; 1881.

Watson, Angus B. Lost and Almost Forgotten Towns of Victoria. The author and Andrew McMillan Art and Design; 2003.

Westgarth, William. Half a Century of Australian Progress: A Personal Retrospective. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington; 1889.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Chatto & Windus; 1973.

Withers, WB. History of Ballarat and Some Ballarat Reminsicences (1870). Reprinted as facsimile edition, Ballarat: Ballarat Heritage Services; 1999.

Young, Linda. ‘House museums in Australia’. Public History Review 1994; 3: 167–187.

Cite this article as: Helen, Doyle. ‘Local history and decline in country Victoria’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 04.1–04.15.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie