St Kilda foreshore with Kenney’s bathing ship in the background, sketched by Eugene von Guerard in 1857. Source: State Library Victoria
St Kilda 1841–1900: Movers and Shakers and Money-makers
In September, the Society will auspice an application to the City of Port Phillip’s Cultural Development Grant, for funds towards publishing an exciting new book – that explores the dynamics of nineteenth century St Kilda, by budding historian Carmel McKenzie.
We see this as an important work to further our knowledge of St Kilda’s cultural development. St Kilda’s twentieth century evolution into an artistic and entertainment hub has been extensively documented but there is no cohesive narrative that charts its extraordinary nineteenth century rise and fall. Carmel McKenzie, an SKHS member and a long-term resident of East St Kilda, is set to change this when her social history of nineteenth century St Kilda is published. Although a release date is yet to be determined, a respected non-fiction publisher is on board to publish the book, which will be extensively illustrated.
Carmel adopts a chronological approach, charting and analysing five distinct periods she identifies in St Kilda’s nineteenth century history. A satellite settlement for Melbourne’s elite by the mid-1840s, St Kilda blossomed into Melbourne’s ‘premier suburb’ in the 1850s and 1860s, by which time it was the wealthiest suburb in Melbourne at a St Kilda foreshore with Kenney’s bathing ship in the background, sketched by Eugene von Guerard in 1857. Source: State Library Victoria. continued from page 22 time when Melbourne was the richest city in the world on a per capita basis. The power dynamics associated with this wealth are one of the themes Carmel explores. “During the course of my research, I became intrigued by the manner in which its wealthy residents sought to frame and embed a dominant culture. This is evident in attitudes toward the Indigenous, the Chinese, the poor and servants and in measures designed to foster or exclude participation in cultural and social forums,” she explains.
By the 1860s, ambition and optimism pervaded the air. Ramshackle early houses were replaced by terraces and mansions, many built by men in their thirties building their careers and living their lives with precocious zeal. The 1870s marks the golden age of the squattocracy and extravagance soared to new heights as a mining boom and land boom enriched many in the 1880s and early 1890s. By the mid1880s, the demographics in St Kilda bulged with distortions. One-third of its residents lived off investment income and merchants and warehousemen reliant on the consumption of imported goods formed the largest single occupational category among those who worked. The speculative investments that underpinned the wealth meant the Depression hit with cataclysmic force around 1892. The severity of the crash in St Kilda appears an inevitable culmination of the conditions that its leading residents spent decades cultivating, as any significant deterioration affecting the upper strata threatened to collapse the proverbial house of cards. This shakedown cleared the decks to repurpose its mansions as lodging houses or to redevelop sites for apartment construction, making St Kilda accessible to a new cohort.