The Hume family biography is a case-study of middle-class life and social mobility in colonial Queensland between 1863 and 1901. The Humes' upward social mobility is attributable to their personal traits, cultural background and conformity to the dominant British Victorian middle-class culture while operating within the parameters of the political, economic and social conditions of the colony.
The principal male of the family, Walter Hume, was the eldest son of Scottish poet, Alexander Hume, who died in 1851. Hume migrated to Queensland in January 1863 to train as a surveyor and within two years was joined by his mother and four of his five siblings; then, in 1866, by his fiancée, Katie. Each member of his family had differing experiences of social mobility in Queensland. Their successes and failures are used comparatively to show how external environmental factors, personal attributes and appropriate middle-class behaviour were relevant to success.
The economy, political climate, social structure, demography of the workforce, the rate at which particular jobs were contracting or expanding and the pace of migration affected social mobility in colonial Australia. The separation of Queensland from New South Wales and subsequent developmental decisions created opportunities for aspiring men. The Hume family's residence in Queensland coincided with substantial economic development resulting from the government's policy of promoting economic expansion with a rapidly rising population and making substantial capital investment in railway construction to utilise the colony's major resource - its land. Economic growth, however, was erratic due to cyclical boom and bust in overseas markets and Queensland's lack of industrial diversity beyond primary production.
Consequently opportunities for financial and occupational advancement remained linked to land development. Walter Hume was able to capitalise on this firstly because of his profession. Secondly, his employment in the Darling Downs region positioned him to benefit from opposing forces - the sustained push for land for agricultural development and the power of the Darting Downs squattocracy to retain land and to obtain regional infrastructure such as rail and roads.
Hume took advantage of the opportunities in Queensland because he possessed the necessary personal characteristics for success. Contemporaries and historians have found these personal traits for upward mobility and monetary success to be hard work, perseverance, prudence, ability, energy, courage, strong ambition and honest purpose.
However, rising within the middle classes required more than just the personal abilities to overcome circumstances and exploit opportunities. The idea that Australian society is egalitarian has existed since the nineteenth century although there is overwhelming evidence to show this to be untrue. Money alone was not enough to bring social acceptance within the middle classes. An appropriate background with a suitable upbringing, especially a good education, combined with gentility were important ingredients in social mobility. Family means and a network of family, friends and acquaintances who could assist, were extremely advantageous. Patronage, nepotism and association with influential people within the colonial hierarchy were vital for obtaining preferments and accessing opportunities.
In addition to a suitable social background, adherence to the dominant British bourgeois culture was necessary for full membership of the colonial elite. Middle-class culture arose from its ideology - a set of values, ideals, beliefs, expectations, aspirations, roles and behaviour which set the middle classes apart from those above and below them on the social scale.
The ideals of gentility and family dictated their relationships with each other and the wider world. Gentility was denoted by conformity with the concepts of gentleman and lady. It was the key to acceptance within this society. At the same time, the responsibility for perpetuating gentility belonged primarily to another Victorian middle-class ideal, the family.
Middle-class ethics and beliefs included Christianity, a code of morality based on integrity and respectability, a strong work ethic and an acceptance of the rightness of separate spheres of activity for men and women.
The expectations, aspirations, roles and behaviour of the middle classes were the outcome of their values and ideals. They valued unremitting work as part of their ideology because of the perceived monetary and social results. Not surprisingly these classes expected the rewards for their labours to be upward social mobility or maintenance of their position within society, accompanied by the means to support wife and family.
Hume's middle-class background and adherence to its culture deemed him socially acceptable to the elite of Queensland. Furthermore his choice of marriage partner, a genteel woman assured of entree into elite society, aided his pretensions and also brought him an extended family with its social network and a source of capital for prudent financial speculation.
For women in general, social mobility was achieved by marrying well, namely to men of high status and wealth, but the easiest way for women to marry well was to be born well. Even with their genteel background, Hume's sisters and mother attained varying success in improving their status through marriage.
Style of family life was also important in advancing social standing. The middle-class home and family which Walter and Katie Hume created were not only indicators of their successful rise but important in maintaining and enhancing their status within Queensland colonial society.