Melbourne, Sydney, and the Population Prize

You’ve probably heard that Melbourne has overtaken Sydney as Australia’s most populous city. This demographic milestone has come about earlier than predicted due to the re-drawing of statistical boundaries, somewhat deflating the weightiness of this momentous moment. But Melbourne overtaking Sydney in population terms is still history making. Since Sydney first overtook Melbourne in population around 1901, both cities have swelled ten-fold to almost 5-million people today. These evolutions speak to enduring contests around cities and rivalries.

Melbourne and Sydney have competed on many metrics for almost two centuries. Population has been a key marker of this rivalry. During the nineteenth century, the Victorian gold rushes and cycles of boom-and-bust led Melbourne to rapidly outgrow Sydney. Melburnians called Sydney a ‘Sleepy Hollow’. Sydneysiders retorted that Melbourne was a ‘Mushroom City’: its fortunes predicted to follow a trajectory of rapid incline, extended stagnation, and inevitable decline. Sydney was seen as more beautiful and cosmopolitan – Melbourne as more intellectual and conservative.

Bruce Petty, 1967. Source:

At stake for both cities were their economic fortunes, political influence, social experience and cultural life. Bigger was generally seen as better. Because city size equated to modernity and progress. The success of Australia and colonisation was dependent on economic and demographic expansion. City boosters wished to see new industries and homes, museums and parks, and roads and railways as far as the eye could see. Population growth drove this development.

Bruce Petty, 1967. Source:

Once Marvellous Melbourne stagnated. In the 1890s, the Melbourne correspondent for London’s The Economist wrote of ‘The Decay of Melbourne … Of course, there are many intelligent [people] who understand and deplore the situation; but the political power of the colony is mainly in the hands of the classes void of understanding’. Melbourne’s poor city leadership was blamed for its lack of fortune.

At the start of the twentieth century, Sydney overtook Melbourne in population, with both exceeding 500,000 people for the first time. When exactly this occurred was debated at the time. It depended whether the city boundaries were set at a 10-mile radius from the CBD or based on adjoining suburbs of sufficient density. By either measure, Sydney had become known as a city of possibility and excitement. A journalist published a booklet: Sydney, Commercial Capital of the Commonwealth: Being a consideration and recognition of her national pre-eminence as the civic mother and chief industrial centre of the Australian States.

Mark Knight 2018. Source: Adelaide Now.

With Australian Federation in 1901, both cities fought over which would become the new national capital. Melbourne looked back to its recent grand Victorian past. Sydney projected forward to its exciting twentieth-century future. The new Australian Parliament first opened at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building and then sat on Spring Street. After intense negotiations, Canberra was soon founded as the comprise option between the cities, albeit closer to Sydney than Melbourne. Canberra absorbed government and Sydney absorbed business from Melbourne. 

During the twentieth century, both Sydney and Melbourne rapidly expanded outward and upward. They grew to 4 million and 3.5 million people, respectively. These were Australia’s principal metropolises. By the close of the century, Sydney appeared to be in pole position. The Sydney 2000 Olympics reflected the strength of the city, especially following Melbourne’s failed 1996 Olympics bid. But Melbourne was entering an urban renaissance under a new generation of city leaders. It also had a greater hinterland to absorb for sprawling suburbs than Sydney.

As Melbourne again overtakes Sydney, this history tells us about how development and rivalry between the cities is enduring. But does city size really matter? For nineteenth-century colonists, the answer was a definite yes. Size has long represented progress and modernity and has been equated to opportunity and prosperity. In more recent decades, we have recognised the limits of the urban growth agenda, particularly in this age of climate change and alongside the desires of residents. And what about for us Melburnians and Sydneysiders on the ground? Ultimately, for writer Donald Horne in the 1960s, ‘whatever differences there are between Australian cities are differences within a range of similarity’. 

Dr James Lesh is an urban historian specialising in cultural heritage conservation at Deakin University. A Melburnian, James has also lived for a time in Sydney.

Page Banner: The Weekly. Source: ABC Television.

Read more:

  • Jim Davidson, ed. The Sydney-Melbourne Book. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986.
  • Graeme Davison, City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2016.
  • Donald Horne, The Lucky Country. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1964.
  • Robert Freestone, Urban Nation: Australia’s Planning Heritage. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing, 2010.
  • Bruce Petty, Petty’s Australia Fair. Melbourne: Cheshire, 1967.
  • Peter Spearritt, Sydney’s Century: A History. Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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