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How Ashburton has changed in the 21st century

One of the challenges of researching local history is how to back up my theories with actual evidence. People say Ashburton has changed a lot but how? In what way?

I’m working on quantifying a lot of non-digital data (well, I am when I need some way to put myself to sleep at night) for my book but I thought I would share with you some of the results I have acquired the easy way: from digitised records online.

Just a disclaimer: although online Federal Election and Census results are easily customisable, they can’t tell us everything. With Censuses particularly, the same questions are not asked in every Census. But some of them are, so here are the more interesting observations to be made about how Ashburton changed – and did not change - in the past 20 years.

It seems like there are more people. Is this true?

Yes. The total population in Ashburton in 2001 was 6,790. By 2021, Ashburton’s population grew by 1,162 people to 7,952 people. Of these, 654 were male and 508 were female. Overall, the split between male and female follows the standard trajectory and is pretty close: 3,940 males and 4,012 females.

But if the total numbers between genders are relatively even, then how come it seems like there are boys everywhere?

That’s because there really are more boys in Ashburton than girls. In fact, there was in 2001 too. As this graph shows, in the under nine cohort from the 2021 Census (who would all be under 11 now) there are significantly more boys than girls. The girls make up for it in the 10-14 age group (now 12 to 16).

What about age and relationship status?

Ashburton’s population is certainly aging. It is also living longer than it did in 2001. As is the way across the world, women are living longer than the men here too. In the 70+ cohort, there are 133 more women than men.

Not only that, but there are only 7 men aged over 95 compared to 23 women. AND of the handful of people aged over 100 in 2021, all of them are (were?) women.

Ashburton residents are not keen on de facto relationships: at least half of Ashburton’s residents are married to each other. Around two-thirds still have children living at home. There are not a huge number of single parents: 259, with three-quarters of them being female.

One of the more interesting observations is how in the 85 years and over cohort, 20 people never married. The Census does not ask sexual orientation, nor for reasons. This number were mostly women and in an area with a strong marriage and conservative tradition, we can only speculate on the decisions these rebels made to swim against the flow of the neighbourhood.

How have residents’ religious beliefs changed?

St Michael's Parish, Ashburton

The growth in the population caused a handful of religions to grow marginally too. However, the 2021 Census revealed the biggest change was in the people who do not practice a religion at all. In 2001, these were 1,313, or 19.34 per cent of the population. By 2021, this had jumped to 3,619, or 45.51 per cent of the population. Also interesting was the significant drop in people refusing to state their religion. In 2001, 697 did this but in 2021, it was 429.

In the early 20th century, Ashburton was a stronghold of Christianity, with the Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Uniting Church, and Presbyterians all with sufficient congregations to acquire land and build churches locally. Today, only the Catholics have managed to maintain steady numbers in Ashburton (1,689 in 2001; 1,724 in 2021). The Anglicans, once nearly 17 per cent of the population, are now less than 8 per cent. Uniting Church numbers have dropped by half in the past 20 years too. The Baptists have suffered significantly, with only 101 left in Ashburton.

Other religions have grown but from a low base. For example, there were 126 Buddhists in 2001 and now there are 232. Hinduism too has grown from 27 to 152.

How has Ashburton residents’ ethnicity changed?

It will not surprise you to learn that a significant number of Ashburton’s residents in the 20th century had Australian-born or English-born parents. Together, they comprised around half the local population. The Irish also turned out a good showing. In 2001, the number of residents with Chinese-born parents was 279.

In 2021, the Australian and English-born heritage remained relatively steady. The big jump came with 977 residents claiming Chinese heritage. There were also a lot more people claiming Scottish heritage and Indian heritage too.

Interestingly, the Census result showed 646 residents claimed ‘other’ as their heritage, a jump from 379 in 2001. Perhaps the ABS needs to start adjusting the options for its heritage criteria?

What about people’s voting preferences?

Until 2022, the whole of Ashburton fell under the Higgins federal electorate. Although Higgins was until recently a safe Liberal seat, the voting preferences of Ashburton’s residents show it is not nearly as homogenous as you may think.

There are always two polling booths in Ashburton; one at Ashburton Primary School and the other on the south side of High Street. Until 2013, this was located at the Craig Family Centre for Alamein residents. After 2013, it moved to Solway Primary School until 2019, when it moved again to the Glen Iris side.

You can see from this graph of polling booth results that over 20 years of Federal Elections, the two voting locations returned different majorities. Ashburton Primary School (at the bottom) always returned a Liberal majority. Even in 2022, when the whole of Higgins fell to Labor, it only just went that way.

But on the other side of Ashburton, the voting preferences are quite different. Alamein consistently returned a Labor majority. I found a statistical book from 1990 that in that year’s election, Alamein was the only polling booth in the entire Higgins electorate to return a majority to Labor. That year saw the re-election of Bob Hawke (Labor) for a fourth term and future treasurer Peter Costello (Liberal) win the Higgins seat comprehensively for the first time.

When the booth moved to Solway, the preferences shifted again. This time, it seems the votes previously going to Labor over that way went to the Greens instead.

In 2022, a chunk of the north side of Ashburton moved to the Kooyong electorate. The Ashburton polling booth results for Kooyong showed residents voted a Liberal majority. The seat was won by independent candidate Monique Ryan.

I can’t say much about state election polling results because the only ones online are from the 2022 election and Ashburton was rezoned that year so there’s no real comparison.

But I can show you this graph courtesy of The Age that indicates that voting preferences were pretty similar for the last state election too.

One of these dots is not like the others!

Wikipedia says that Ashburton is now an ‘affluent’ suburb. Is that true?

Flyer from the 1930s advertising 'attractive brick residences'

Measuring ‘affluence’ accurately is beyond my level of expertise. But there are clear indicators that the population is more educated and higher-earning than it was in 2001.

In 2021, 60 per cent of the population had more than a Year 12 education. Back in 2001, this was only 14 per cent. On the other end, only 46 residents had a Year 8 or equivalent education in 2001. That number dropped by 6 to 40 in 2021. Since Ashburton residents live a long time, this is probably the same people.

Unfortunately, the way ABS organised data on professions is not wholly comparable but certainly the number of people identifying themselves as ‘professional’ (and therefore inclined to be in a higher earning bracket) jumped considerably from 341 to 1,535. Women working in professional careers jumped from just 99 to 805 in the twenty year period. However, the results do not show how they define ‘professional’. Conversely, the number of people working in a trade did not shift much at all. This may well also be the same people aging in the area.

We can compare by income but of course its value is quite different in 2021 than it was in 2001. The results do show that there are far less teenagers earning income in 2021 than there was in 2001. In 2021, only seven people aged under 19 earned more than $200 per week.

At the other end of the scale, more 2001 men were earning more than $1,000 per week by age 35 than in 2021. But then in 2021, far more men aged 45 plus were earning well over that amount than in 2001. Women’s earnings, on the other hand, are spread across all salary levels and conclusions can’t really be drawn.

What about the housing prices?

Recently sold 'red brick clinker'

The Census doesn’t talk about this at all. Not only that but residents go a long time without selling. However, thanks to the magic of Proquest, historic newspaper records reveal the following prices and descriptions of Ashburton’s housing over time:

  • 1975: “Solid Brick Home in Tree-lined Street”: $51,950

  • 1982: “Family home with 3 bedrooms, large allotment”: $75,950

  • 1983: “Charming 3 bedroom clinker style home”: $77,950

  • 1997: “Old Council House”: $242,500; “Ex-housing commission house”: $157,000

  • 2000: “Top End: Nairn Street, $525,000; Middle Ground: Eleanor Street, $325,000; Bottom End: Sunderland Avenue, $229,500”

  • 2002: “Fakenham Road, Ashburton”: $505,000

  • 2012: “A classic art deco home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms sold for $1.17 million in September”

  • 2014: “Strong growth of 24.4 per cent, significantly higher than Melbourne overall, with a median above $1 million”.

Not only that but it seems recently, quite a few houses around Ashburton have sold. Thanks to the magic of Real we can see publicly listed sale results from the last year (numbers removed to protect the sellers):

  • Poulter Street: $2.28 million (September 2023)

  • Liberator Street (townhouse): $1.342 million (September 2023)

  • Ward Street: $2.85 million (September 2023)

  • Alamein Avenue: $1.737 million (September 2023)

  • Gloucester Road: $2.580 million (August 2023)

  • Oliver Street: $2.01 million (August 2023)

  • Orford Road (townhouse): $1.7 million (August 2023)

  • Fakenham Road (townhouse): $1.905 million (July 2023)

  • Ashburn Grove (1,390m2 block): $3.825 million (June 2023)

  • Marquis Street (sub-division): $1.94 million (May 2023)

  • Warner Avenue: $2.65 million (March 2023)

  • Sunderland Avenue (original house): $1.45 million (February 2023)

  • Vears Road (original house): $1.6 million (February 2023)

  • Crete Avenue (original house but sub-divided): $985,000 (January 2023)

An unrenovated Housing Commission house on a full block (around 660m2) now sells for between $1.4 and $1.5 million dollars. Unrenovated houses not in the old Alamein estate are increasingly rare now. They occupy a slightly larger block than the old commission homes and will sell for an additional $200-$400,000.

There are so many more cars on the road. I thought everyone worked from home now?

A lonely Alamein station

This one is interesting. In 2001, by far the most popular way to get to work was driving your own car yourself (1,702). The train was a distant second at only 356 people regularly taking it. Of course, back then, barely anyone worked at home: only 165 people.

By 2021, car driving was down to 1,311 people; and train-taking down to only 104. Working from home saw a Lockdown-induced massive spike to 1,785. Motorbike/motor scooter riding dropped to only three people (one of them lives in my house!).

So this means – more people have cars but they don’t drive them to work perhaps?!

Or perhaps its also because…

Do kids really live at home longer?

Yep. Ashburton’s children now skew towards older teenagers/young adults still studying rather than pre-schoolers. There are now nearly twice as many dependent students living at home with their parents than there was in 2001. That said, only 80 extra non-dependent children are still living at home.

Let’s hope for their parents’ sake, they are not the same ones as in 2001!

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