The Fish Markets of Melbourne

With thanks to Bruce Bennett for permission to publish excerpts from his book "The Fish Markets of Melbourne" (May 2002, ISBN 0957732341).

 Sketch of Melbourne 1848 by Robert Russell (Mitchell Library). The central building is the Market Square. 

Sketch of Melbourne 1848 by Robert Russell (Mitchell Library). The central building is the Market Square. 

mid 1800s

THE ORIGINAL POP-UP MARKET: PRINCES BRIDGE, MELBOURNE

In the mid 1800s there was always a ready sale for fresh fish in Melbourne. The first settlers understood and appreciated the rich resource that Victoria's bays and inlets offered as a food source into Melbourne. The Melbourne Billingsgate was held at Princes Bridge, where dealers from around the country sold their fish to the street hawkers. The common sea-fish here were schnapper, flathead, sea pike, salmon, salmon-trout, mullet, herring and garfish.  By 1860, the wholesale trade had spontaneously fixed itself at the junction of Flinders and Swanston Streets. The greater part of the fish sold in Melbourne were brought in from Western Port over Princes Bridge.  In March of 1860,  an official fish market was proposed for the site.


 Left: The New Fish Market, wood engraving by Walter Hart, The Australian News, March 1865. Right: View to the Fish Market from the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, Weekly Times, 1895.

Left: The New Fish Market, wood engraving by Walter Hart, The Australian News, March 1865. Right: View to the Fish Market from the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, Weekly Times, 1895.

1865 - 1892

THE MID-VICTORIAN PURPOSE-BUILT MARKET: FLINDERS & SWANSTON STREETS, MELBOURNE

The new Fish Market opened on 23 December 1865, in a purpose-built building that was the first of its type in Australia. Built of white brick and stucco with a large central chamber rising to 52 feet (15.8 metres), it was surrounded by four slate-slabbed stalls for retailing fish, and an arcade for public buyers, with a second entrance that housed stalls for twelve fish wholesalers.  Carts could comes into the central chamber where the auctions took place and where fountains provided water for washing the fish. The first parcel of six baskets of fish sold for 30/- the lot, and by February 1866 they were handling 400 baskets of fish (around 12 tonnes), plus a bag of crayfish, each week.

Fish were brought to the market via horse-drawn coach, with the daily catch from Frankston, Hastings, Queenscliff and sometimes further afield. Fishermen in Port Albert (Apollo Bay) were challenged by the distance, but managed to carefully pack their fish in wicker baskets and send them by ship steamers to Melbourne - fish were still alive on arrival.

In 1884, the Railways Corporation announced they required the fish market site for their own expansions, and so a new site and building were sought. 

By 1888, the train line from Caulfield to Baxter was complete, and fish from Frankston were then transported to Melbourne via train, arriving within three hours of capture. Train transportation opened up the market to ports further afield, such as Portland. The greater and faster access to the market led to a large increase in the quantity of fish. This growth added further pressure on the market facilities, now inadequate to meet trade - arrangements for handling of fish from the fisherman were unsatisfactory and there was insufficient cool storage during the summer months.


 Left: The Flinders Street facade of the new market buildings, 1891; Right: Market day, 10 March, 1906.

Left: The Flinders Street facade of the new market buildings, 1891; Right: Market day, 10 March, 1906.

1891 - 1930

THE FEDERATION FISH MARKET: FLINDERS & SPENCER STREETS, MELBOURNE

The new fish market, warehouses and viaduct stores were built in 1891, covering five acres along the south side of Flinders Street as far as Spencer Street - the western block was set apart for the fish wholesale markets, which were occupied from 1892. Along the railway siding to the rear of the market, fish could be received from railways trucks onto a platform and taken in by trolley. By 1907, up to 190,000 packages of fish came through the market annually.

By 1915 fish were mainly from the local bays, such as salmon-trout, flathead, whiting and mullet, and 20% was imported. By the 1930s barracouta began to dominate and the by the late 30s made up 40% of the catch. The sale of rabbits and game birds were also associated with the fish market from its earliest days.

At the end of the market was a market restaurant, cooking mainly shark and couta. The fishmongers and the buyers would bring in their fish, which was cooked on the spot for their breakfast. 


 Left: Spencer Street end of the fish market, 1950s; Right: the first airfreight licence aircraft, 1946.

Left: Spencer Street end of the fish market, 1950s; Right: the first airfreight licence aircraft, 1946.

1930 - 1958

WAR, POST WAR BOOM & EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION

In the 1930s fish auctions were held at 6.30am before 100-200 buyers. Another auction at 10am was mainly for the restaurateurs and retailers. This followed the regular 9am arrival at Spencer Street of the train from Adelaide with a guard van full of fish, mainly whiting and crays, from many South Australian ports. New products were gradually appearing in small quantities - prawns from New South Wales, fish from King Island, tuna from Bermagui, and nearly all of the whiting at the market was from South Australia.

During World War II maximum prices were fixed, so some fishermen sold at higher prices outside the market (and beyond the Market Inspector's control). By 1944, 55% of fish at the market was from outside of Victoria - and estimates are that one third of all fish was sold outside of the market. This, combined with poor fishing and fewer fishermen due to war service, meant there was less fish passing through to retailers, and into households.

In 1946, crayfish became the the first seafood to be airfreighted from Tasmania and Flinders Island.

In 1955 refrigerated trucks commenced operation, with shark from South Australia delivered in this way; local fish was carried in open trucks. The movement of the ever larger trucks into the rapidly expanding post-war city had become a major problem by the 1950s and traffic congestion on Spencer Street Bridge was causing problems for access and unloading. The building was fast deteriorating and deemed by many to be a health hazard, with cracking walls, rodent-infested freezers, and insufficient space to operate efficiently. Some people did not like the smell in the city and wanted the fish market moved out. In 1954 a site in Footscray Road was proposed for a wholesale fruit, vegetable and fish market. The buildings were demolished in 1959.


 Left: the fish market auction, 1950s; Right: filleting shark, 2001.

Left: the fish market auction, 1950s; Right: filleting shark, 2001.

1959 - 2011

CASTING THE NET WIDER & IMMIGRATION

Unlike the earlier markets of Melbourne, there was no design competition held for the new building in Footscray. Made of post-war construction glass, steel and concrete of modular design based upon the rectangular block, it was composed to permit cost-effective building on a large scale, and simply built to solve a problem.  When the new market opened in 1958 there were 14 agent stalls. By the early 1970s there were only three agents remaining, two of which - McLaughlins and Jack Miriklis Pty Ltd - still remain as wholesalers in the market today. 

In the mid 1960s the first fibre-glass covered refrigerated trucks would work around country areas, and by mid the 1980s were fully covered and utilising insulating materials. Trucks replaced the railways, which we no longer cost effective. In the early 2000s, fish from interstate were flown into Melbourne as cargo on domestic flights and collected around 2am in the purchaser's truck; fish from Tasmania still arrived via ferry. 

In 1966 shark and flathead were the biggest sellers, followed by barracouta. Lakes Entrance was the biggest fishing port, supplying 30% of the fish at the market, followed by San Remo with 12%; fish from interstate made up 15%. The market was doing poorly as the catch was entirely dependant on weather. Huge changes in the mid 1960s came with an influx of deep-sea fish (other than barracouta) taken by trawler.

Many new species were now entering the market. Trevally first came from Lake Entrance in the 1960s, and Eden was with gemfish in the early 1970s. Blue grenadier was coming in small quantities from Portland and Tasmania but sold poorly and was often thrown back overboard. By 1982 grenadier grew next to shark in importance. Orange roughy was discovered and exploited in the 1980s, which led to restricted licence catching and quotas. The increase in variety was led by the influx of Vietnamese in the 1970s, who began to open fish shops and restaurants and demanded different fish to that traditionally on offer. The Japanese too sought different fish for their sushi, this improving diversity. Southern European immigration saw the demand for smaller fish increased and diversity was valued. Tommy Roughs, Australian herring, garfish, calamari, and octopus became increasingly popular - all species that were not traditionally seen in fish shops.

In 2003,  the government commenced discussions to move the markets on Footscray Road to make room for port and rail expansion. The markets were also fast outgrowing the dated, cramped premises. The government saw the relocation as a good chance to review ownership arrangements, resulting in a change from Melbourne City Council ownership to a privatised body - the Melbourne Seafood Centre Pty Ltd.


HISTORY 6.jpg

2012 - today

NEW OWNERSHIP, A STATE-OF-THE-ART MARKET & LOCAL FISHERIES IN PERIL

In 2012 a $25 million development was completed for the new state-of-art wholesale fish market in West Melbourne. Whilst the fresh produce market moved to its new location from the Footscray site to Epping, on the outer east side of Melbourne, the fish wholesalers were eager to remain in a central location, with easy access to ports and freeways. While not everyone was happy to shift location, the change has been successful. The site has evolved into a thriftier, 'fast sale' market, in keeping with the change in pace of the industry and its customers. Today, the market is governed by a Board comprising representatives of the market's tenants.

Under new legislation which has passed the Victorian State Parliament, all commercial net fishing in Port Phillip Bay will be shut down by April 2022. Other fisheries across Australia are facing the same threat. If this legislation remains, the ability to access a variety of local seafood will be non-existent. The Melbourne Seafood Centre is continually advocating for these local bay and inlet fisheries by encouraging consumers to choose locally caught Victorian fish, and write to your local member of Parliament to urge the overturn of the legislation.