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Science and the making of VictoriaRoyal Society of Victoria
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Royal Society of Victoria 1854-1959


Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science

Philosophical Society of Victoria

Philosophical Institute of Victoria

Royal Society of Victoria



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Introduction (continued)

The most important single factor in the development of the Colony of Victoria up to 1854 was undoubtedly the discovery of gold in 1851. The inevitable first effect of this discovery was an exodus of the male population of both Melbourne and Geelong to the 'Diggings'. At the beginning of 1851, Melbourne had a population of approximately 20,000 people. Immediately this number became drastically reduced, and new suburban areas nearby, such as Richmond, almost became abandoned, while the city itself became more and more deserted day by day. Incentives were offered by employers to keep employees in the city—government officials, e.g., being hastily granted a 50% increase of salary to induce them to remain at their posts. This exodus was only a passing phase; in a week or so the gold seekers were drifting back, some successful, some disappointed.

Before long, the mighty flood of immigration from other parts of the world set in to seriously embarrass the whole life of Melbourne. During 1852, 1853 and 1854 the numbers of persons arriving in Victoria by sea averaged 90,000 a year, or nearly 250 a day, so that by 1854 the population of Melbourne and suburbs was close on 80,000. This immediately created an accommodation problem. It was obvious that the buildings already constructed in the town proper, less than 10,000 in number, could not house this tremendous influx. The solution lay in the rapid growth of 'Canvas Town', as it became known, an extensive area of tents of all descriptions on the south side of the river, on what is now known as the King's Domain. The city itself on the other side of the river contrasted sharply with this mass of canvas but was equally unreal. No two houses adjoining were of the same height or of the same material, while large numbers of iron buildings had been imported over the years for use as stores. This had caused the City Council to tighten its building regulations.

By 1854, when the Town Hall was completed, neither water from the Yan Yean supply, nor gas from the newly formed Gas Company, had been reticulated through the city area, and the streets, though formed, were still of gravel, and not particularly well drained. The business houses of Melbourne were largely concentrated in the heart of the city proper, with little or no expansion to the nearer suburbs.

The scientific life of Melbourne was centred largely on government departments, with meetings being held at the offices or at the homes of individual scientists. The recently formed University of Melbourne, situated in 'the bush at Carlton', was in the process of organization, with the foundation stone laid, and the first four professors appointed but not yet arrived. With regard to the natural sciences, the need for university supervision was considered of the utmost importance, 'as questions of the most ordinary character are being daily referred to England'. It was to Professor Frederick McCoy that the University was looking for this guidance—McCoy, a scientist with an overseas reputation who was also to make a name in Australia, and cause considerable embarrassment at times, particularly in the affairs of the National Museum, to the Philosophical Institute and later to the Royal Society of Victoria.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Philosophical Institute of Victoria; University of Melbourne

People in Bright Sparcs - McCoy, Frederick

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Pescott, R. T. M. 1961 'The Royal Society of Victoria from then, 1854 to now, 1959', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol. 73, no. 7, pp. 1-40.

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