Book Review: Town Life in Australia, by Richard Twopeny

Exhibition Building, Melbourne, 1880

The Exhibition Building, Melbourne in 1880. Richard Twopeny was the secretary for the South Australian entry for the Melbourne exhibition in 1880. Photo courtesy of Museum Victoria

This book gives the reader a window on every day city life in the Australian colonies in the early 1880s.  Written by a newspaper editor and first published in 1883, this book is concise and informative. The author uses direct language and at times does not hold back his opinion making the book enjoyable to read.  Written as a series of letters, each chapter is on a separate topic allowing the reader to pick up and put down the book without losing the thread of the writing.

Richard Twopeny, was the son of an Anglican clergyman.  During his childhood he lived in England and France, finishing his education at a German university.  By the time he wrote this book he had lived in Adelaide while working for the South Australian Register and had spent extensive time in Paris, Melbourne and Sydney organising the South Australian representations at exhibitions in these places.  He was living in New Zealand, editing newspapers there when his book was published.  This background is important to keep in mind while reading this book.  Twopeny was a well-connected and  well-educated Englishman and his opinions reflect many of the values held by that sector of society at the time.

This book covers life in the colonial cities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.  It was written when Melbourne was flourishing and earned the epithet, ‘Marvellous Melbourne‘ and this book reflects that.  Twopeny highlights life in the largest Australian city, Melbourne and contrasts it with the smaller cities of Sydney and Adelaide:

…Melbourne is quasi-metropolitan, while both Sydney and Adelaide are alike provincial in their mode of life.

Richard Twopeny, pp. 73-74.

This is diplomatic compared to his following statement about Sydney:

One feels quite angry with the town for being so unworthy of its site.

Richard Twopeny, p. 20.

He then goes onto make very clear why Sydney does not meet his approval:

The most unpleasant feature about Sydney is, that there is a thoroughly untidy look about the place.  It is in a perennial state of déshabillé; whereas Melbourne nearly always has its dress-clothes on.  In keeping with the wretched pavements, the muddy crossings, and the dust, are the clothes of the people you meet in the streets.  Nobody seems to care much how they dress, and without being exactly countrified in their apparel, the Sydneyites succeed in looking pre-eminately dowdy.

Richard Twopeny, p. 21.

Woah!  This was material to flame the Melbourne/Sydney rivalry into a wildfire!  I had to check out the response from Sydney to this book.  Mmmm – one advertisement and no review in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Probably ignoring this book was the best tactic by a Sydney newspaper!

How were Twopeny’s opinions of colonial city-life received in the cities that he wrote about?  There were not many reviews of Twopeny’s book in the newspapers that have been digitised on Trove, but I found one in the South Australian AdvertiserTwopeny was 26 when the book was published.  In noting the author’s relative youth, the London correspondent for the newspaper said, “some of the views expressed indicate a super-abundance of self-confidence” and that Australian readers were likely to “frequently” object to Twopeny’s views.  Although he concludes that the book is “a taking and withal useful work”.  The review in the newspaper that had formerly employed Twopeny, the South Australian Register, was critical of the opinions that Twopeny expressed in his book.  “The main defect”, it said, “the unpleasant tone of patronage and superiority which pervades it”.  However, the review notes how engagingly the book is written and seems to reluctantly admit that Twopeny’s book will “repay perusal”.  It praises Twopeny’s comments on servants.

While Twopeny was clearly opinionated, overall this does not get in the way of an interesting portrayal of Australian city life.  At least the reader is clear where bias lies and can take this into account while reading.

The book has 18 chapters capturing a wide range of aspects of colonial life.  I found the chapters on houses, furniture, servants, young Australia, social relations and amusements the most interesting.  This surprised me because I am generally not interested in reading and writing history on these topics.  As to be expected, his chapter on newspapers is very useful.  In it he reviews the major newspapers of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.  His chapter on amusements, which includes sports, fascinating.  I found his chapters on Religion and Morals, Politics and Education the least insightful but maybe this is because most of my research has been in these areas so there were fewer surprises for me in these chapters.

As always when seeking to gain a nuanced understanding of a historical moment, one should not rely on one source.  This is well-written and interesting, but it is just one perspective.  Other writers at the time will have quite different views on colonial city-life.


Richard Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, first published 1893, republished by Penguin Books Ltd, 1973.  Available on Internet Archive.

News by the Mail:  Our Anglo-Colonial Letter‘, South Australian Advertiser, 10 December 1883, p. 6.

Review‘, South Australian Register, 5 January 1884, p. 6.

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