Officially, the first murmurs for freedom for Victoria began in 1840, a bare five years after first permanent settlement, when this State's total population equated to about 10,000 souls (the number contained in a couple of MCG Stands on any winter Saturday afternoon).
Unofficially, it is possible to say that 'psychologically' the south-eastern corner of Australia has never been a part of New South Wales, no matter what history, geography or politics say. David Collins came to Port Phillip in 1803 with the lofty commission of a Lt-Governor to found an autonomous colony, not merely another convict dot on the NSW coast.
The Hentys at Portland Bay (1834) and the Batman and Fawkner expeditions at Port Phillip (1835) came from Western Australia and Tasmania respectively, not Sydney. The first official response from Sydney to these foreign pastoral invasions was an attempt to strangle the colonisation at birth, undoubtedly motivated by the prospect of an up-and-coming brash rival.
Victoria arguably developed from the South inland, rather than from a southward migration from the established North. The initial population came from Tasmania but was quickly overtaken by direct immigration from Britain, both groups having no attachment to the northern capital.
By 1840, after a period of spectacular growth, wild land speculation and apparent boundless opportunity, the first murmurs for freedom turned to disposing of Northern administration. It could not be long before Port Phillip District overtook the old settlement at Port Jackson, in wealth and prosperity if not immediately in population.
At that time the District notionally extended to the Murrumbidgee, although the vast majority of it was unexplored and unsettled by Europeans. The total population equated to about 10,000 souls, the number now contained in a couple of MCG Stands on any winter Saturday afternoon.
A wretched depression followed shortly thereafter to take some of the over-confidence out of Australia Felix, but the remainder of the Hungry Forties saw a continued campaign by the fractious Port Phillipians to cast off the 'thraldom of Sydney'. This was primarily motivated by the inequitable return of the southern district's revenue to its source from the sticky hands of a northern master, a theme not unfamiliar even in these times.
The British Colonial Office attempted to placate the southern district of NSW with a three-fold experiment in limited self-government in 1842. The existing consultative body, the Legislative Council was revamped into a part-elected, part nominated body. Local government of a fashion came with the establishment of Melbourne Town Council. Attempts to establish Shire-like District Councils and later attempts to create a viable County system never really got off the ground. Victoria in the 1840s was essentially a large sparsely-populated sheep station with no substantial population outside its ports.
But the principal motives for separation were justifiable economic and political grievances. Port Phillip (officially shorn of the Riverina) was offered the princely sum of six representatives out of 36 in the new NSW Legislative Council. This ensured that any political clout remained north of the Murray.
With communications primitive (a one-way land trip between the two towns could take up to two weeks), the southerners were effectively disenfranchised. How many Melbournians could afford to leave their business unattended for months on end to go to Sydney, where they would be (naturally enough) outvoted by a cabal of Sydney interests? Port Phillip seats wound up either vacant for long periods or in the hands of Sydney identities who rarely, if ever ventured south. In a concerted effort to shame the Imperial Government to take notice of prayers for relief, Melbourne voters elected British worthies such as Prime Minister Lord John Russell and the Duke of Wellington as their representatives in Sydney.
By dint of those particular times, Victorian settlement was free of the stain of convicts. This has had a profound and some say defining influence on the character of this State. Had first settlement been a decade earlier and an official action, there is little doubt Port Phillip would have started life as a convict plantation.
Later in the 1840s, attempts by the British Government to resurrect transportation through the backdoor importation of 'Pentonvillains' was vigorously rejected by Melbourne (but not by labour-strapped squatters). This form of 'human pollution' as it was then called, was a constant source of grievance against continued attachment to the home of Australian convictism.
The 1840s were thus a decade of increasing pressure from Port Phillip to separate, manifested in protests, memorials and petitions to London. After premature hopes were repeatedly dashed and the anticipated Bill was drawn out by revisions and lengthy Parliamentary delays, the final Act passed both Houses of the UK Parliament.
The Act itself may be seen as both a reactionary and revolutionary document that helped shape both the State and nation we live in. It perpetuated a model of a partially nominated single-chamber Parliament that even members of the House of Lords admitted was highly flawed. They could not conceive of any of the Australian colonies having the human material necessary to constitute an Upper House of Lords. Nominated official members of the House were vital to curb the naturally hasty excesses of a democratically-elected assembly. That mentality remained with the establishment of a bicameral system in 1856, personified in a Legislative Council whose reform remains a matter of contention to this very day.
In contrast, the Colonies Act contained some radical concessions for a settlement of such callow youth. Victoria gained the fundamental right of a mature state in determining its own Constitution. The Act also provided for the establishment of a separate Supreme Court.
Drafting the first Constitution (together with management of the gold rush) was the principal concern of the now largely forgotten Victorian Parliament that existed prior to the introduction of responsible (ministerial) government in late 1855. The deficiencies of the partially nominated Council were shown starkly in the subsequent cry for representation by gold miners that culminated in the tragedy of the Eureka Stockade in 1854.
One more prescient aspect of the 1850 Colonies Act was the notion of Australian Federation that arose in parliamentary debate and was ostensibly instituted by the British Government. Although several British parliamentarians considered the notion premature, Britain floated the concept of a Federal Assembly of Australian colonies under the Governor of New South Wales who assumed the mantle of Governor-General. The noble idea never got beyond nominal titles. Communications between the colonies were still slow and primitive and the newly emancipated colonies had little interest in immediately reverting to government from Sydney. The other colonies however remained under a Lt. Governor until their respective Constitutions were instituted. The real Federation lay fifty years into the future, after much debate, compromise and arguably further growth apart between the colonies.
News of the passage of the Australian Colonies Act reached Melbourne on the night of 11 November 1850 and resulted in a non-stop four-day public holiday. Bonfires were lit, parties and public entertainments attended and the just-completed 'first' Princes Bridge formally opened. The newly elevated Lt-Gov. Charles La Trobe read the commission of separation in the Botanic Gardens. Formally, Victoria could not become free until the NSW Council got around to passing an Act to establish a separate Legislative Council for Port Phillip District, the following year.
Actual separation for Victoria occurred on 1 July 1851, a date that was enthusiastically celebrated as Separation Day until Federation. One week after separation, after many false starts and rumours, news of a golden discovery leaked from the hinterland. In a very short time pastoral old Port Phillip would vanish forever before an international invasion. The change was so marked and unprecedented, that it is hard today to remember that there was a viable Victoria existing before the gold rush.
As a final footnote, during the drafting of the Colonies Act, Port Phillip interests made representations to the Colonial Office to restore the Riverina to its natural economic home. Section 30 of the Act left the question of the border of NSW and Victoria (no other colonial boundary was mentioned) the subject of future determination on appeal to the Privy Council, in affect admitting that the issue of the Murray border was not then settled.