‘The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne’—the title of Graeme Davison's chronicle of a late-nineteenth century boom and bust—is a settled expression for a renowned event in Australian history. Before Davison's account, the sequence of stunning growth and collapse caught Asa Briggs' attention. In Victorian Cities, Briggs—whose essays sought to portray Victorian civic culture in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Melbourne, and London—proposed that the depression of the early 1890s altered Melbourne’s personality. Once bustling, confident, and brash, Melbourne beheld such a grim reversal of family fortunes and civic works that, in his estimation, it never regained a comparable reckless belief in unfettered growth. Underlying the shift in mood was an economic fluctuation of grand proportions.
Although well-known, it is useful to review the trajectory of collapse. A slow down in real estate transactions in late 1888 is the conventional beginning. Starting in 1889 higher than usual numbers of builders, estate agents, and speculators failed. This continued through to 1894. Financial institutions of all sorts were implicated in the real estate market. An alarming number of building societies and land mortgage banks failed in 1891 and 1892, and a wave of reorganisation among major banks transpired in 1893. As an organising centre for pastoral and mining ventures, Melbourne was integrated into London finance, international investment and population movements affected the colonial city. Unquestionably, its rise and fall was linked to the international business cycle of the late-nineteenth century. Yet Melbourne's collapse was extreme.