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In the same way that they do today, middle and upper classes in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Australia had better access to a high quality of life than members of the working class. Despite their lives being regulated by tradition, their wealth afforded them greater leisure, better health and housing, the chance to obtain an education and less dangerous and uncomfortable working environments.

Work and education

At the turn of the century, the industrial awards which cover the wages and conditions of most occupations today did not exist. Entitlements such as sick leave, long service leave and overtime pay were unheard of. Although the hours were long and the working conditions were not of the standard they are today, middle-class workers were still much more fortunate than those of the working class. The reason for this is that most members of the middle class were white-collar workers, typically performing professional jobs as teachers, lawyers and as administrative or clerical employees in offices. They generally earned a higher salary and were not subjected to the physical labour and danger of factory work.

Not as many middle-class women went out to work because at the turn of the century, the prevailing opinion was that married women should stay in the home to run the household and raise the children. Those women who did work, often only did so because it was necessary for their family to have an extra income in order to survive. As the husbands of middle-class women usually earned an income sufficient to support the family, middle-class women rarely worked unless it was work of a charitable nature. See image 1

Those belonging to the upper class were often families who did not need to work at all because their wealth was inherited. Children from affluent families also did not work as they were expected to attend secondary (private) schools. Girls usually attended private 'finishing' schools which taught subjects such as literature, French and how to run a household. Academically-inclined males were encouraged to continue and complete their tertiary education to prepare them for a future in business or an equivalent profession which would enable them to become 'good providers.' See image 2

Housing and health

The affluent classes of Sydney in the early 1900s usually lived in suburbs on the North Shore and the Eastern Suburbs. Unlike the inner-city terraces of the working class, the homes and the backyards of the middle and upper classes tended to be larger. Some homes even had a room for their servants, many of whom 'lived in.' As the occupants of the homes were wealthier, proper sewerage and sanitation were also affordable.

While disease was not restricted to low-income earners, better and more sanitary housing conditions meant that the health of the middle and upper classes was much less at risk than that of the working class. Those who were wealthy could also afford medical treatment and a more nutritious diet which ensured a greater chance of good health.


The wealth of the upper and middle classes provided them with access to a more comfortable lifestyle. Financial abundance and stability allowed them the flexibility of not having to devote all of their time to work, unlike the working class. The wealthier families who could afford it, even employed domestic servants such as nannies and maids.

A number of popular leisure activities were only able to be taken advantage of by the wealthy. Sports such as tennis were considered to be only for the middle and upper classes, since the majority of courts were privately owned. Golf was also too expensive for the average Australian, with courses funded by their affluent club members. Other sports such as rowing, hunting and car racing were also restricted to those who could afford them. See image 3

It was not uncommon for the affluent classes to attend the theatre, host garden parties and see motion pictures which, at the turn of the century, were black and white and utilised subtitles and a live pianist to provide accompanying sound. They also went on picnics and outings, with the very wealthiest families being able to travel by motor car to the countryside or to the beach. Members of the upper class also went on holidays, sometimes even overseas to Britain. Since air travel for more than a couple of hundred metres at the beginning of the 1900s was unfathomable, let alone obtainable, they had to travel by passenger ocean liners which took around six weeks for them to reach Britain.

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1. Why did the wealthy travel by ocean liners when travelling overseas to Britain?

They wanted to be able to take their motor car and ships were the only transport large enough to carry them.

Ocean liners were much less likely to make passengers motion sick and therefore many opted to travel this way.

Air travel had not yet advanced enough for people to travel more than a few hundred metres.

Passengers were not interested in going to Britain, but rather to holiday on the ocean liners which were the equivalent of cruise ships.


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