By the 1870s Sydney had grown beyond a walking-distance city. Only its wealthier citizens could afford private carriages or horse- buses to the more salubrious suburbs on the fringes of the increasingly crowded inner city. The population continued to expand with alarming speed, almost tripling in the 20 years from 1871. Luckily, this coincided with the development of new forms of transport technology: the railway and the tramway.

First train leaving from the new  Central Station, 1906.  Source: Activity 154 Railway and Tramway construction

Although Sydney’s rail system was first designed for industrial and rural freight linking Sydney with its hinterland, it soon proved its worth in carrying people. By the 1880s rail lines were being planted and built to cater for the new suburban dwellers. With land cheap and plentiful, The Australian penchant for detached suburban houses became a reality for many.

While the railway serviced the far-flung suburbs, tram serviced suburbs closer to the city center. Steam trams were put into service for the International Exhibition of 1879 and proved so popular that they were retained and extended. The trams were electrified from 1898 and by 1910 Sydney had one of the world’s most comprehensive tramway networks, bigger than Melbourne and rivaling even Glasgow.

The railway and the tramway became the arteries of Sydney. Real estate developers rush to subdivide large blocks of land and small farms, from the northern line up to Hornsby to the southern line beyond Como. As the population grew, housing developments began to reach out from the city in every direction. Most houses were built within a kilometer or two of a rail or train line, with little development between the main transport routes. 

Trams running through Railway Square in the 1920s. Source: Sydney Tramway Museum

More dwellings were built in Sydney in the 1920s than in any previous decade. By this time, Sydney had expanded along the northern beaches (a tram line to Narrabeen), the north shore train line, and along the western, south-western and southern lines. Parramatta, Windsor, and the other Macquarie era towns all remained as separate settlements, as did Manly. All major beach and Harbour resorts were served by ferry or tram. Ferry companies promoted weekend outgoings to Sydney’s pleasure destinations around the Harbour. The railways catered to picnickers and hikers by providing a station at the Royal National Park to the south of the city and regular weekend excursions to the Blue Mountains. Sydneysiders began their love affair with the outdoors and the endless delights of its harbour.

Melbourne, with its riches from gold, surpassed Sydney in population, wealth and political importance from the 1860s. “Marvellous Melbourne” grew much faster than Sydney, especially in the 1880s boom.  To demonstrate its achievements, Melbourne held two huge international exhibitions in the 1880s, bringing it world attention. Both Sydney and Melbourn suffered in the 1890s depression, but Sydney recovered more quickly than Melbourne. 

Such was the competition between Sydney and Melbourne that when Britain’s six Australian colonies joined to become the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901 the Constitution stated that the new national capital must be at least 100 miles from Sydney. the federal authorities chose a sheep station not far from Yass, which could be served with a rail spur off the main Sydney to Melbourne line. The site was proclaimed in 1911 and named Canberra in 1913.

While Melbourne hosted the federal parliament from 1901 to 1927 and, more importantly, the growing federal government bureaucracies, Sydney outstripped its southern rival in population. By the early 1920s, Sydney became the first Australian city to pass the one million mark.  

Observers had begun to see Melbourne as the more traditional, more European city and Sydney as the brasher, more American city. Melbourne boasted Edwardian bayside resorts while the surf clubs of Bronte and Bondi made Sydney the center of the Australian surf movement.

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, 1930. Source: National Museum of Australia

Australia’s first underground railway opened in Sydney in 1926, but the real triumph came in 1932 with the opening of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. The event received worldwide press coverage, not only because of the bridge’s size and harbour setting but because of images of a paramilitary horseman beating Labor Premier Jack Lang to the opening ribbon were wired around the world. The bridge became, overnight, the dominant international symbol for Australia.  Melbourne never recovered from this image coup, although it did successfully stage the 1956 Olympics. 

More rivalry was to come. After height restrictions were lifted in 1957, a building frenzy reshaped downtown Sydney into a “mini Manhattan”. Its ascendancy as the financial capital of Australia matched the rising skyline.   The completion of the spectacular Opera House in 1973 inspired a new era of Sydney pride and a dramatic new focus for the city and harbour. As a final blow, Melbourne lost its bid to stage the 1996 Olympic Games and Sydney won gloriously 2000. 

Until next time,
Vânia

Sources: 

Scott, Ernest. 2002. A Short History of Australia.  Available online

State Library of NSW

The Museum of Sydney