This week Crikey is taking a look at the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry. Is Sydney’s golden age as Australia’s premier city over? Read the other stories here.

It’s an old wound, and it began to weep again following recent reports that Melbourne’s population is set to overtake Sydney’s. But how far back does the Melbourne/Sydney rivalry actually go?

The roots of a rivalry

After the British Imperial Parliament passed the Australian Colonies Governing Act 1850, the newly separate New South Wales encouraged free trade, and only charged tariffs on tobacco, alcohol, sugar, tea and coffee. However, the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 led to an influx of wealth and population that dissipated just as quickly a decade later. To keep former miners employed locally, Victoria imposed additional import duties on clothing, millinery and leathergoods; woodenware, furniture and toys; woollen blankets and rugs; and glassware, earthenware and porcelain.

Thus protected, Melbourne’s manufacturing base grew stronger than Sydney’s and the familiar contours of today’s rivalry began to take shape: free-wheeling Sydney as the finance and media capital, and protectionist Melbourne as the fashion and culture capital.

In 1923, a tailor from Melbourne department store Lincoln, Stuart would allege to a neutral party — The Mail of Adelaide — that when it came to menswear, “Sydney is more sporting and American than Melbourne, but Melbourne men are more English in the care and selection of their clothes.”

Melbourne spent the 1860s to 1880s as Australia’s largest, most prosperous city, billing itself as “Marvellous Melbourne” and building grand banks, hotels and coffee palaces. But it didn’t have a sewerage system until 1897. An 1881 issue of Melbourne Punch includes a joke headlined “Our Cologne-ial”: “A new chum coming up the Yarra naturally holds his nose as he inquires: ‘And this is Smell-bourne? I could have guessed as much.’”

In 1889, a northern mole reported archly back to The Sydney Morning Herald that “Malodorous Melbourne” would be a better name. However, Sydney couldn’t really talk: public debate raged there in the 1880s about how to deal with the fragrant brown tides created by raw sewage that emptied directly into the harbour from Fort Macquarie, where the Opera House now sits.

Melbourne’s boom had been built on a property speculation bubble that burst disastrously in 1893. By 1895, a Melbourne house could be rented for £1 a week that would fetch £5 a week in Sydney. Still, Federation was delayed as each city argued it should be the capital of Australia.

Begrudgingly, it was agreed a new nation’s capital would be founded closer to Sydney, but that in the interim, Parliament would sit in Melbourne.

Sydney took this decision badly; and the cities fought over the location of key military bases, and where the governor-general would live. Even in World War I, Sydney complained bitterly that war efforts were based in Melbourne.

Melborn and Sideny

By February 1925, Sydney’s population had reached 1 million; but Melbourne’s population was already much more spread out, occupying an area of 225 square miles within a radius of 10 miles from the GPO, as opposed to Sydney’s geographically confined area of about 185 square miles.

The habit of bragging about — or disputing — the two cities’ respective rankings in “most liveable” indices is only the most recent manifestation of a pitiful tendency to appeal to outsider referees. Royal Navy Lieutenant Charles Richard opined in his 1924 book Round the World with the Battle Cruisers: “of the two cities I must confess a preference for Melbourne; it is cleaner, better planned, and takes life more comfortably”.

And in July 1925, one JD Woodruff, a visiting debater from Oxford University, wrote a light-hearted “sketch” about the rivalry for Sydney’s Sunday Times:

The stranger finds the Sydney people more sensitive, more angry if the harbour is called the river, more anxious to extort praise of their city. The Melbourne people are less sensitive, they are more concerned with the failings of their neighbours, more fully primed with proofs of the greater bigotry of Sydney, more fundamentally complacent.

In 1968 Melbourne folk quintet The Idlers Five released a novelty song, “Melborn and Sideny”, which hit number one… in Melbourne.

Sydney has always lived up to its nickname “Sin City”, from ugly, racialised moral panics to the 1927-1931 razor gangs and the 20th-century ecosystem of official corruption and organised crime. As early as 1907, The Sydney Morning Herald blamed “the disgraceful state of the thoroughfares of Sydney” on jobs-for-mates cronyism among Sydney’s sanitation workers, whereas Melbourne’s council workers were employed systematically and impartially.

The sobriquet “Bleak City”, meanwhile, was popularised by Sydney arts apparatchik Leo Schofield in his Sydney Morning Herald column “Leo at Large” — which caused some southern resentment when Schofield was appointed Melbourne Festival director in 1993. But it was Melbourne transplant David Williamson who kept the rivalry sizzling through the ’80s with his semi-autobiographical 1987 play Emerald City, which has been called “part love letter, part hate mail” to a hedonistic, opportunistic Sydney of hustlers.

Now, Melburnians seem to prosecute the rivalry most vigorously. Indeed, Sydney has being Melbournising over the past 20 years: a term that originally carried resentful connotations (especially in South Australia — but that’s another article!), but now is more likely to longingly evoke city apartments, European-style alfresco dining, small, hip bars, and no lockout laws.

In 2017, Richard Glover tried in vain to interest his ABC Sydney listeners in the fact Melbourne was overtaking Sydney as Australia’s largest city. “The rivalry is over,” he concluded. “Melbourne, you’ve won.”

Do you think Melbourne has won? Do you care about the fight in the first place? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name.

Peter Fray

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