Australia in the 1880s


Summary of the decade

The decade of the 1880s saw a generation of children of gold rush migrants grow up, get married and start having families of their own. This time in Australia's colonial history brought about the dream for many non-Indigenous Australians of owning their own home on land that they could either farm or grow their own food on. But, realising this dream of home ownership had unexpected consequences for many settlers. The land boom led to a great 'speculative mania', as thousands of workers and investors took their money and placed it in high-return building societies, investment companies and new banking institutions. Investment returns, profits and wages became higher and higher.

Migrants came to the colonies in the hope of making a fortune, whether from gold discoveries or in new businesses. People flocked to the cities in search of work thus creating an available labour force, and new manufacturing industries blossomed.

The society that emerged in this era was a relatively open and fluid one, in which new possibilities emerged, such as women's suffrage, the trade union movement and an electoral party for the workers. Indigenous people were being dispossessed of their land and removed from their country to reserves or missions as the land was opened up for the settlers.

In 1886, the Board for the Protection of Aborigines was given powers to make decisions governing Indigenous children's lives, removing them from their families, apprenticing 13-year-old Indigenous children and granting or denying permission to visit their families. Most of these children never saw their families again after being taken away, hence becoming known as the 'Stolen Generations'. 

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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