Investigation 2

What was life like in the Australian colonies in the late 1800s?

By the 1870s, the colonies that had begun as British outposts had grown and prospered. They had their own governments and made their own laws. Towns had developed into capital cities, centres of trade and cultural life. Newspapers carried stories from around Australia and the entire British Empire, thanks to the telegram service that connected the people of the colonies to each other and the world.

Although steamships were beginning to replace sailing ships, and railways were being constructed to connect major cities, transportation and travel between colonies was still slow, difficult and frustrating. Different colonies used different rail gauges (train tracks), which forced travellers and goods merchants to change trains at borders. Most colonies also charged intercolonial tariffs or taxes on goods brought into the colony to protect their industries and manufacturers. This meant that travellers and merchants had to be searched by customs officials at the borders between colonies.

Such divisions and differences were debated as the colonies worked towards Federation and forming one nation.

Your Task

Explore what life and travel might have been like in Australia during the late 1800s.


  1. In pairs, examine a photograph of one Australian city and describe what you see. Write a short description of the scene and what you think life might have been like in that city in the 1880s.
  2. In your pairs, read the corresponding description for your selected city. Identify the differences and similarities between the photograph and the description. What would you add to the description of the city you examined? How would you change your written description? Share your writings with the class.
  3. In groups of three, read the descriptions of Australia by Anthony Trollope. Discuss whether you would have preferred living in an Australian town in the late 1800s or in one of the capital cities. List the advantages and disadvantages for both.
  4. As a class, examine the cartoon from the Australasian Sketcher. Describe what is being shown in each frame of the cartoon. Discuss the following questions:
    • Does the cartoonist make travelling between colonies look easy?
    • What are the advantages of customs and intercolonial tariffs? What are the disadvantages?
    • Do you think that the cartoonist is in favour or against borders and customs between colonies?
  5. Use what you now know to plan a journey between two capital cities in Australia in the 1880s. Your plan must include the following:
    • mode or modes of transport you propose to use;
    • the distance you will cover;
    • stops or things to see along the way;
    • time the journey may take; and
    • your experience with customs officials at the border or port.
    Write a journal entry and illustrate a map to describe your journey. Display it in the classroom.