Every-day life in the colony [17 September 1879]

[Editor: This article was part of “The International Exhibition Supplement” published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1879.]

Every-day life in the colony.

A stranger, arriving in Sydney from the mother-country, would find very little at first sight in the every-day life of the people to remind him that he was many thousand miles away from home, though if he proceeded into the country he would probably observe a marked difference. But in town he would notice the streets presenting very much the same appearance as those of an English town, and in some of the principal thoroughfares he would find a strong resemblance to the scenes familiar to his gaze in London, Liverpool, or Manchester.

He would see the side-walks crowded with an ever-moving throng of people, some intent on business, others bent on pleasure. He would notice large and handsome shops, with glittering plate-glass fronts, and he would see the wares displayed to the gaze of passers by just as in Oxford-street or Ludgate Hill. He would notice the roadways alive with vehicles of all descriptions — omnibuses, cabs, carriages, carts, vans, and waggons. He would see large and handsome stores, or wholesale warehouses, and magnificent architectural structures occupied as banks and public institutions. If he went into one of our principal hotels he would be attended to and served in a manner that would forcibly remind him of home — with one exception — the waiter would expect no fee.

But when the stranger had had time to mix a little more intimately with the people, and witness their mode of living, and their habits in their homes, he would find that every-day life in New South Wales, though very similar to that of England, nevertheless differs from it in many important respects. These differences would not be observed so much in the abodes of the higher classes, for there may be found all the luxuries and elegances of life that wealth can procure.

In one respect there is a difference; for while comfort and ease are pretty generally studied, there is not so much attention paid to the Fine Arts here by the wealthy classes as would be the case in England. And the reason is not far to seek. In a young community like this, where nearly all are engaged in business avocations, more or less, there is not the time to attend to the minor elegancies of life; there is not the encouragement for artists to settle here, and the few who would willingly encourage them by purchasing their works have but a limited choice of objects. However, in this respect we are improving fast; there is a decided taste for Art among us, and the number of artists settled among us is steadily increasing.

The middle classes of the community, too, live, generally speaking, very much as the middle classes of England do. Very many of our business people have their homes in the suburbs, and come in and go out by train, by omnibus, or in their own vehicles. Living out of town means early closing, and therefore in the principal establishments from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening is the business day. Still the early closing movement is by no means universal, and a large proportion of the retail establishments are open until 8 or 9 o’clock at night. On the whole, however, the struggle for existence in the business world here is not so severe as it is at home, and the assistants, as well as the principals, have far more time for recreation. Hence, the various places of amusement — the Schools of Arts, the Free Libraries, and similar institutions — are generally well patronized.

Among the middle, as well as the higher classes, there is a considerable amount of social intercourse, free from the restraints of class distinction that prevail at home, but pervaded with an atmosphere of genial hospitality and unostentatious welcome. Music and dancing are prominent among the amusements at these social gatherings, and these are indulged in with the same zest as would be displayed in family circles in England.

But it is in regard to the working-classes that the greatest contrast to English every-day life is to be found. To put the matter plainly, the working man here toils less hours, earns higher wages, lives more comfortably, and has more enjoyment than he could possibly hope for at home. Any one who wishes to form an idea of the condition of the working classes here need only notice how they turn out on a holiday — and holidays occur here in a way unknown in England. The recognized and regular holidays are New Year’s Day, Anniversary Day (January 26), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Queen’s Birthday, Prince of Wales’ Birthday, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. All these festivals are most religiously kept, to say nothing of special occasions, such as races, regattas, trade anniversaries, exhibitions, &c., which are eagerly seized upon as opportunities for an outing.

There is no place in the world that presents greater facilities for enjoying a holiday than Sydney; there is no place where such facilities are more availed of. On these occasions everybody is early astir, and after an early breakfast crowds of people may be seen wending their way towards the steamer, the train, or other modes of transit to some favourite place of recreation. As a rule they are all well dressed, and the hampers and baskets they carry with them evidence that the solid and substantial elements of enjoyment are not wanting. A pleasant trip in the harbour, or an excursion by rail or omnibus, brings them to the selected scene of the day’s pleasure, and then free and unrestrained enjoyment is the order of the day. In the evening all the theatres and other places of amusement are thronged, and the festivities are kept up from beginning to end with unflagging zeal. It is only a people who are fairly prosperous that can afford to enjoy themselves in this way.

Nor does the ordinary family life of the working classes evince the presence of that grinding poverty so common at home. The workman here enjoys an amount of independence he is a stranger to in the mother country. With most of the artizans eight hours is a day’s work; some trades work nine hours, but ten is the exception. Wages, too, are fairly good, so that the labourer can live in a style that he would have considered luxurious in England.

Meat, instead of being a delicacy to be enjoyed only on Sundays, makes its appearance on the table at every meal; bread, butter, cheese, and other viands are within the workman’s reach. Fruit is plentiful and cheap, including grapes, peaches, nectarines, apricots, bananas, oranges, and other varieties that in England are generally scarce, and always dear. Steam communication with Tasmania enables our markets to be supplied with English fruits, such as apples, pears, gooseberries, currants, and cherries; indeed many of these varieties are grown in the cooler parts of our own territory, and are brought to the metropolis by train. Vegetables, too, are cheap, and in great variety, comprising potatoes, cabbages, cauliflowers, peas, beans, lettuce, celery, radishes, onions — and in fact all the esculents to be found in Covent Garden market. Fish is plentiful in our waters, though not so well supplied in our market nor so cheap as it ought to be. Still there is plenty of variety in food, and even the tables of the working classes are bountifully supplied.

Articles of clothing also are moderately cheap, so that our labouring population can turn out on festive occasions clad as respectably as the middle classes would be in England. House accommodation is tolerably good, but dear as compared with rents at home. Nevertheless it is a not uncommon thing for mechanics to be able to pay from twelve to twenty shillings a week for a house; many of them have homes of their own, especially in the suburbs, and those who are thrifty, and aim at being their own landlord, can be assisted in the attainment of their desire by the many substantial Building Societies that exist.

We have already alluded to the comparative independence of the working man in New South Wales. In this respect he is strengthened and aided by the trade organizations that have been formed. Almost every class of labour has its trade union, formed for the purpose of protecting the interest of its members, and of regulating the rate of wages and hours of labour. Then, again, every working man possesses a right to the franchise, the only conditions being that he shall be twenty-one years of age, and shall have resided in the colony for six months. He is protected in the exercise of his vote by the system of the ballot, a privilege which, with universal suffrage, has existed here for many years. A working man, also, is as eligible to become a candidate for a seat in Parliament as the richest in the land, and it has been a not uncommon thing to find an artisan who possesses the confidence of his fellow-workmen elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly, and sometimes supported while occupying that position by the subscriptions of his constituents. Such a member, if possessed of ability, and conducting himself with decorum, commands as much respect in the House as any other member, and may even aspire to a seat in the Cabinet.

Our remarks hitherto have referred chiefly to life in Sydney, but, as already hinted, country life is somewhat different. In the large towns of the interior, as Goulburn, Bathurst, Maitland, &c., things are on the whole very much the same as what we have described in speaking of the metropolis; but it is in the country — the bush, as we call it — that the new-comer finds the difference between Australian and English life; it is here that he is forcibly reminded that he is in a “new” country. Let him go into the interior — to the great plains in the south, west, or north-west — and he will see what Australian life really is. In the first place he will miss the magnificent mansions, the substantial farm houses, the cultivated fields, and the thriving villages of the old country. But he will find Nature unadorned, in her primitive condition. He will see miles and miles of country, now forest, now open plain, with not a sign of human habitation visible until he comes to the residence of some squatter — the lord of a domain larger than some English counties. Many of these dwellings, even in the remote interior, are good, well-built houses, though in regard to architectural pretensions not to be compared with the mansions of the nobility and gentry of England.

But it is in the dwellings of the humbler classes that the greatest difference exists. The houses of the free selectors, as a rule, deserve little letter than to be called huts. The best are constructed of weatherboard, but the majority are of rough slabs, and very often roofed with sheets of bark. The interior arrangements correspond with the external appearance. The furniture is generally of the plainest description, and the decorations seldom extend beyond a few pictures from some illustrated journal pasted on the walls. The mode of living is of a piece with the aspect of the dwelling — rough and ready — yet not so destitute of comforts as might at first sight be expected. There are no shops at hand whence any trifling want may be supplied, so it is necessary to keep on hand a good stock of such necessities as flour, tea, sugar, salt, and the like. Meat is usually supplied either from the selector’s own little flocks and herds, or purchased from those of some neighbouring squatter; but as temporary supplies cannot be obtained from the butchers as required, the bulk of the meat has to be salted. Vegetables in the bush are somewhat scarce, and bread — baker’s bread — is not to be thought of, but its place is supplied by home-baked loaves, or else by dampers baked in the ashes on the hearth. In spite of the apparent roughness of this mode of living it is not devoid of charms, and those inured to bush life often look with some amount of contempt upon the luxuries enjoyed by dwellers in towns.

There are some drawbacks to living in the bush, which must remain until the population of the colony is very much larger than it is at present, such as the difficulty of obtaining medical assistance, and in many places the total absence of religious ministrations. Education is better provided for, though where the population is sparse the schools are of necessity a considerable distance apart. After all, life in the bush is healthy, and the daily toil creates an appetite which makes the rude fare acceptable. Bushmen, as a rule, are contented with their lot; they are cheerful, thriving, and hospitable in the extreme.

To afford some idea of the cost of living in Sydney at the present time, it may be as well to append the present retail prices of several of the principal articles of daily consumption. Such things as the colony produces are of course cheaper in those districts where they are grown, while imported articles are charged in the far interior a somewhat higher price on account of the cost of carriage being added. Flour is sold at the mills at about 13s. to 14s. per hundred pounds weight; bread is 3d. to 3½d. per 2-lb. loaf; beef is from 2d. to 5d. per lb.; mutton, 2d. to 3½d. per lb.; pork, 3d. to 6d. per lb.; bacon, 9d. to 1s. per lb.; potatoes, from 7s. to 10s. per cwt.; cheese, 6d. to 1s. 3d. per lb; eggs, 1s. to 1s. 6d. per dozen; fowls, 4s. to 6s. per pair; ducks, 5s. to 7s. per pair; geese, 3s. 6d. to 5s. apiece; turkeys, 5s. to 8s. each; cabbages, 1d. to 3d. each; cauliflowers, 2d. to 1s. each; turnips, carrots, and parsnips, 1½d. to 3d. per bunch; onions, 12s. to 15s. per cwt.; oranges 3d. to 2s. per dozen; lemons, 6d. to 1s. per dozen; apples, 1s. to 2s. per dozen; bananas, 1s. to 2s. per dozen; pine apples, from 9d. to 1s. each. Tea is sold by the grocers at from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. per lb.; sugar of excellent quality may be had from 3½d. to 6d. per lb. Tobacco, which is looked upon by many as almost a necessary, varies in price according to whether it is colonial grown or imported, from 2s. to 8s. per lb.

Some idea of the general prosperity of a community may be formed by an inquiry into their thriftiness, as evinced by their Savings Bank deposits, to which reference has already been made.

As the condition of the Savings Banks in any country indicates the material prosperity of the community, in like manner its charitable institutions may serve as a gauge of its benevolence and philanthropy. Regarding these matters as a sort of moral barometer, New South Wales will be found fully up to the standard. In all the principal towns of the colony there are hospitals, benevolent asylums, or other institutions for the relief of the sick, aged, or distressed. To enumerate all those, and to describe their condition and their objects, would require far more space than we can command, and it must suffice to mention a few of the metropolitan institutions, and let them serve as a sample of those scattered throughout the land.

The Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary dates from the very establishment of the colony. A large building erected for the purposes of this institution in 1811 was recently pulled down, on account of the walls having become infected with “hospitalism.” Temporary wooden buildings to accommodate nearly 200 patients have been put up at the rear of the old hospital, but at present it is not decided whether a permanent building shall be erected on the old site or not. A magnificent new hospital is now being built at the back of the University, which will be known as the Prince Alfred Hospital, in commemoration of the escape of the Duke of Edinburgh from the bullet of an assassin at Clontarf, in February, 1869. This will probably become the principal hospital of Sydney, but there will still be the necessity for a hospital in the centre of the town for the relief of accidents and urgent cases. The Prince Alfred Hospital, when complete, will contain about 350 beds. It will, probably, be connected with a medical school, as a branch of the Sydney University. The St. Vincent’s Hospital, conducted under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity, is open to all sects. The building is situated at Darlinghurst. There are two wards, one for males and the other for females.

The Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind is situated on the Newtown Road. It receives and instructs afflicted children from all the Australasian colonies, and it has done an immense deal of good in teaching these unfortunates, and providing them with the means to employ themselves and occupy their time. A building for the reception of the adult blind has been erected at the junction of Boomerang Road, with William-street, but at present it is not occupied.

Benevolent asylums exist in several of the principal towns. That of Sydney was founded in 1818. It gives both indoor and outdoor relief to a large number of indigent persons, and at the building near the railway terminus there is a lying-in ward for necessitous women. Among other institutions having for their aim the relief of the distressed poor may be mentioned the Home Visiting and Relief Society, the Sydney Night Refuge and Reformatory, and the Sydney Soup Kitchen.

To deal with another evil of large cities we have the Female Refuge, the Catholic Female Refuge, the Female Mission Home, and the House of the Good Samaritan. There are several institutions for the reception and instruction of destitute children, notable among which is the Randwick Asylum, where between five and six hundred children are clothed, fed, and educated. Besides these there are institutions for the training of girls as domestic servants; there is a Foundling Hospital, and a Hospital for Sick Children is now nearly ready to be opened.

Altogether there may be reckoned up about forty institutions, in Sydney alone, supported in great measure by private contributions, and having for their object the spiritual and physical good of the poorer part of the community.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 17 September 1879, p. 5 of “The International Exhibition Supplement”

[Editor: Corrected “ought to he” to “ought to be”.]

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