How the kids of Melbourne fought for their playgrounds

22 Aug 2013

In 1870 forty-two per cent of the population of Melbourne were under fourteen years old. Without playgrounds or organised sports they took to the streets, smashing trams and tearing down trees in public parks. Historian Simon Sleight charts this forgotten history of youth turmoil in a new book about the Victorian capital.

Melbourne is one of the world's great cities, with a population that is cosmopolitan, cultured and sports mad.

But its modern face hides a disorganised past, when a huge youth population roamed the streets in search of fun, and 'larrikins' were destructive hoodlums more reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange than Barry McKenzie.

Lecturer in history at King's College London Simon Sleight describes the port town in the late 19th century as 'a sapling city' in his book Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914.

Its roads were being transformed into boulevards, electric lighting was replacing gas, and the horses that pulled taxi cabs were being carted to the knackery—replaced with trams.

Forty-two per cent of the population were under the age of 14. There were children everywhere but no playgrounds. Conflict was inevitable.

'It's described as "perspiring juvenile humanity" by one observer in the 1870s,' Sleight says. 'Young people are everywhere, they're selling things and playing in the streets, forming gangs and hanging out on street corners and in vacant lots and they are very much a focus for concern for city fathers.'

'Conflicts over the use of public space often feature age as a central factor. Indeed I think age is a crucial category of analysis for understanding urban experience, just like class, gender, or race.'

Historical documents and photographs from the time—personal diaries, letters of complaint to newspapers, letters to the town clerk, police files and parliamentary debates—show that children were considered a nuisance in public parks, which were still places set aside for gentlemanly strolling and contemplation.

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Photo Credit: stweedy via Compfight cc

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