Sydney Markets: their critical role in transition to ‘place’, the first 100 years

Heather Hunwick

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

In a letter to his brother on June 4th 1788, the surgeon George Worgan used these words to describe the elaborate dinner hosted by Governor Arthur Phillip to celebrate the birthday of King George III:

About 2 O’Clock we sat down to a very good Entertainment, considering how far we are from Leaden-Hall Market it consisted of Mutton, Pork, Ducks, Fowls, Fish, Kanguroo, Sallads Pies & preserved fruits. The Potables consisted of Port, Lisbon, Madeira, Tenerife and good old English Porter.[1]

Considered in isolation his description is one of unremarkable ordinariness, yet all the more extraordinary for its total detachment from the surrounding context. The settlement of Sydney had been founded a mere four months previously. The familiar rituals and accompanying foods of the occasion undoubtedly comforted Worgan and his fellow diners; in this case it prompted a nostalgic recall of London’s ancient, bustling Leadenhall Market. Clearly the dinner had enough familiar elements to satisfy the officers and gentlemen of the first fleet, they were after all a transplanted fragment of Georgian England, a nation that had recently contrived the steam engine. Their Georgian dispositions “not cognitively understood but rather internalized and embodied” framed their responses to the challenges of surviving in this alien environment, beginning with the imposition of order.[2] They knew best, their attitudes driven by their deeply held belief in their country’s centrality to the world.

Even though the educated amongst the members of the First Fleet were products of the Enlightenment so may be expected to have responded rationally, human nature being what it is, such expectations were arguably misplaced. The French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu well describes how people generally respond to challenges they confront in entirely alien environments. He argues that they will attempt to apply all manner of potential improvisations and solutions, but only within the limits imposed by their mental and physical improvisations—by their habitus, which he defines as “a system of long-lasting (rather than permanent) schemes or schemata or structures of perception, conception and action.”[3] Many of their responses may well border on the irrational, not to say folly, as when confronted with evidence their solutions are entirely inappropriate to their new environment they are likely to apply more of the same: it is all they know. Bourdieu viewed such actions as creating tension, a “dialectical confrontation between habitus and the place that one inhabits in geographic space”.[4] Eventually, this dialectical confrontation will force them to modify their responses in light of their new realities, but as he emphasized, change is inevitably slow and painful to all involved.

Beginning with Sydney’s first settlers and what was a familiar component of their previous everyday Georgian lives: the market, whether London’s grand covered Leadenhall or its many humbler open-air rural counterparts, this paper examines how this particular form of ‘space’ evolved in colonial Sydney as its people, in seeking to impose a familiar sense of ‘place’, adapted to their new world and circumstances, using the terms ‘space’ and ‘place’ as broadly defined by Cloke and Johnston. [5]

The market was a dominant feature of the Georgian British townscape, as it had been since medieval times. “Food shaped London as it did every pre-industrial city, and as a way of engendering life and urban order, few things work half as well.”[6] While London did have covered markets, “in most British towns the buying and selling of consumer goods took place in the open air, centered in particular streets or often in a designated ‘marketplace’ on certain days of the week.”[7] These marketplaces were generally privately held, typically the monopoly of a local manorial Lord, and not surprisingly this fostered activities often detrimental to free and open trade. Two particularly objectionable practices were forestalling: the much-hated practice of selling goods before they reached the marketplace; and, restrictions against third parties selling particular goods. From 1700, charters to operate markets were increasingly dispensed by Parliament rather than the Crown, reflecting an increasing demand for public ownership and accountability, framed by enlightened regulation. But genuine reform was slow.

This widespread shift in attitudes to market ownership flowed through to early Sydney—at least once it had survived its first hungry years. Until 1791 the colonists faced starvation, and Governor Phillip of necessity commandeered the limited food supplies, which amounted to what was held within the Government Stores. These were heavily guarded since the imbalance of officers and marines to convicts inevitably led to fears of mutiny or rebellion, “Only guns and weekly rations would keep this mob of half-starved prisoners at bay.”[8] While tight control was essential, the Government Stores, no more than a basic wooden, thatched-roof structure, functioned as a rudimentary precursor to a market. As such it fulfilled a purpose as old as markets themselves, connecting all, whether marines, sailors or convicts to an ancient fixture of public life. It provided opportunities for social exchanges as rations were dispensed, a safety valve in the face of oppression, and to let off steam. Given the numbers of rough, wild and desperate characters, it was equally an opportunity for age-old unsavory practices such as black-market bartering, and selling of sexual favors for scraps of food and tots of rum.

Control of the rations brought by the First and Second Fleets was a top priority, as was establishing local food supplies as quickly as possible. Governor Phillip, with his own rural Hampshire estate, knew he “had to be a farmer before he could be a governor.” [9]  Britain in the 18th century was still largely an agrarian society, and the early colonists brought a mindset based on fixed property and domesticated agriculture—as practiced in Britain. As well, neglecting to ensure that any in the First Fleet, convicts and others, had a working knowledge of agriculture was a serious bureaucratic failure.

Clearly, agricultural activity needed to be encouraged, and despite the lack of collective experience there were successes, to the point where by 1792 there was enough surplus produce from land worked by pardoned convicts around Prospect Hill, Kissing Point and Toongabbie for these often initially reluctant farmers to seek buyers for it. To that end they were allowed to gather informally around two Government wharves (Figure 1), and these ad-hoc market areas would soon come to resemble familiar counterparts in rural Ireland and England, as did much of the produce: cabbages, corn, potatoes, peaches, and assorted livestock. With administrative priorities directed elsewhere, little attention was given to the regulation of these gatherings, and penal colony that it was, opportunities arose for tyranny and abuses in the guise of military protection—at the hands of the NSW (Rum) Corps. When, finally, their abuses, forestalling and other monopolistic not to say illegal practices were brought under control, market activity increased to the point where congestion and noise from the haphazard movements of carts and boats as they loaded and unloaded became chaotic.

Figure 1. An early view of the hospital or public wharf, and above it
the clearing that was the site of Sydney’s first official market place

Markets had long been domains of the lower classes, refuges for rough and dangerous characters of both sexes, and the embryonic Sydney market was no exception, “its very openness encouraged lower-class lawlessness, particularly with regard to food.”[10] There was in the early colony, as ever in pre-industrial cities, a starving and often desperate underclass, and an unpredictable food supply to the market was a real threat. The great Hawkesbury floods in 1806 and subsequent food shortages prompted Governor Bligh, a man familiar with mutiny and insurrection, to move the market area and its associated chaos further up High Street (George Street), but by 1809 another move became necessary, this time to the Old Parade Grounds on the corner of George and Grosvenor Streets. Although still open-air, to regulate activity, this new marketplace included assigned areas for traders. The then-young Sydney Gazette reported at some length on the grand opening, held on Sunday March 5th, including an item on an incident that yet again emphasised how the market, a physical space, was at the same time a venue for the learned everyday world of social practice, the force of the ordinary order of things as Bourdieu would say. The areas assigned on the day to each vendor were ill-defined, and fights erupted including one which, their reporter explained in rather droll terms, “produced a storm of words between two of the market women, which had an athletic termination.”

There was an inherent contradiction in markets at this time. In spite of all their noise, mess and danger they brought something vital to a place; they were (and remain) about food—and nothing embodies life like food. While the more cosmopolitan, educated professionals, doctors, military officers and gentry in the new colony could remain somewhat detached, conscious of participating in a new age of modernity, this was not an option for the less fortunate and otherwise alienated. Their exile from their distant homelands was forced, creating in them an overwhelming sense of rootlessness, of being denied life in a place at all familiar to them. Even a rudimentary marketplace afforded them a semblance of ‘belonging to a place’, of ontological security so desperately needed.

When Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810, Sydney was a bustling colony albeit only 22 years old and still at the mercy of food shortages due mainly to recurrent flooding. By then “The market was both the economic and the social hub of the colony”. Consistent with Bourdieu’s theories its character was slowly evolving in light of local circumstances. While its primary function was the sale of local produce, imported goods were also being sold, making it into something unique, “a cross between the rural markets of Ireland and England and the flea markets of cockney London.”[11]

As a man steeped in the ‘enlightened’ sensibilities of the growing ‘rational’ middle classes, Macquarie sought to bring order, not least to the Sydney market. One of his first planned initiatives upon taking up his Governorship was to move the market to the site now occupied by the Queen Victoria Building (QVB). His commitment to a well-designed, centrally located market hall headed his grand plan to transform Sydney’s haphazard collection of existing structures into a planned colonial town of enduring substance. Rehabilitating ‘Emancipists’: those who had served out their sentences or who had otherwise obtained a Ticket of Leave, was for the liberal-minded Macquarie a priority, an important step towards easing tensions. Selling produce in an orderly marketplace offered them at least a living and even a chance for prosperity. The market house finally realized in 1820 was far less grand than Macquarie originally planned; common sheds deemed sufficient to their task were retained, embellished by a poor facsimile of a domed centrepiece (Figure 2). Even so, as a market it thrived. In 1827 the surgeon Peter Cunningham described the increasing bustle associated with the market and market day. In his early book on the colony and in such a manner as to indicate a very familiar scene to English readers, who were at this time hungry for accounts of life in the antipodes. [12]

It is held on Thursdays and attended by individuals from the distance of 40 miles or more, with the produce of their agricultural industry.  During the preceding day, as you journey towards the interior, you will encounter file after file of carts, loaded with wheat, maize, potatoes, pease, carrots, turnips, cabbages, fruit, pigs, calves. Poultry, and indeed all sorts of commodities for culinary use, pouring along the road to Sydney. [13]

A sketch of George Street Markets, circa 1820. Greenway’s domed market house had been turned into the Police Courts by the 1830s. Source: Mitchell Library

All structures apart from the dome were demolished in 1831 and replaced by four sheds arranged in an elongated U, each containing 36 stalls (Figure 3). These sheds faced inwards to an open space ‘between the markets’ while outside, blank walls faced onto George, Market and York Streets with entries confined to the gaps between the sheds.

Source: Mitchell Library

In the British Isles during these times public spaces such as the street were deemed to be places suited to anonymity, respectability and safety, and the public marketplace had to be reshaped to comply. “In addition to open-air market spaces it became increasingly common for market towns to provide some form of covered space.”[14] The driving force was the increasing need to bring order to the public streets and control traditional abuses and activities including street hawking and peddling, long the preserve of low-class vendors.

The late 1830s was a period marked by riots, strikes and worker upheavals inspired by the Chartists, so prevalent throughout England that authorities resorted to architecture as an agent for municipal reform, literally building ‘social bridges’ to lower class barriers. The “market hall in England was the manifestation of a popular new aesthetic theory” known as ‘social functionalism’, linking social ideals to architecture and seen as ‘modern’.[15] As the 19th century progressed, “the public market had joined the church and the town hall as an idealized institution.”[16] In that sense it was increasingly viewed as one of the key features of a town, “a way of promoting a new sort of connectedness to place and society among city dwellers.”

Architecture, defined broadly as the art of shaping space, is inherently political, as Macquarie and others after him understood implicitly if not explicitly, particularly when building in essence a new world; it shapes the narratives of ‘place’ and creates a structure, a neutral frame so to speak, wherein social action can be constrained as well as enabled. It creates space for habit such as similar stalls in similar places, for colourful characters and familiar calls and conversations, for the countless ‘ephemeral’ interactions no less real than the structure itself. “They remind us that it is the way in which spaces are inhabited that matters most not just the physical boundaries that appear to define them.”[17]

By early Victorian times order was restored, including by way of specific architectural initiatives: the enclosure of public markets and regulation of the streets, representing victories for middle-class control “in the struggle for urban spatial hegemony.”[18] The authorities succeeded to the point where the street became a space suitable for all social orders, transforming it into a place where civic order was observed. In this sense the built environment, the habitat, was increasingly able to exert symbolic domination, to “sustain the authority of those who already possessed it.”[19] And by the end of the 19th century the market hall had become the most important building in the townscapes of the old world and new world, beneficially framing everyday life. They were improving dietary habits through regular supplies and greater food choices, including better standards of convenience food offered in a range of ‘food stalls’, with many markets even offering an upmarket ‘gallery’ space with separate tea rooms, dairy bars and refreshment rooms.

Sydney echoed these trends. The newly formed Corporation of Sydney took control of the markets in 1842, by which time the markets were in poor order, erratic supplies and fraudulent practices, and frequent complaints of drunken and abusive stall holders and other public nuisances. One of the biggest problems was the prevalence of hawkers, a constant disruption to fair trade both in the market and on the street for shopkeepers, necessitating an Inspector of Hawkers.

“The economic boom of the 1800s and the increasing grandeur of new buildings nearby highlighted the shabbiness of the old George Street market.”[20] In 1859 perimeter shops were added to the outside of George and York Streets along with new interior shops. The civic-minded burghers of Sydney, always with an eye to trends back in Britain, finally agreed to demolish the George Street markets, to clear the entire block bounded by George, York, Druitt and Market Streets and create in their place a space far grander. Reflecting the times it was to be an “outstanding example of nineteenth century municipal social policy and urban planning.” Endless debates about the enclosing structure itself were eventually resolved: the Government Architect George McRae designed an extravagant ‘American Romanesque’ building sporting two levels of upmarket shops, relegating the required market stalls to the basement. The construction of the Queen Victoria Building began in 1893, by which time Sydney was in recession. An early image of the original interior (Figure 4) immediately invites comparison with that of the aforementioned Leadenhall Market in 1883 (Figure 5).

Interior view from the upper (retail) level of the Queen Victoria Building immediately prior to its opening, 1893. Source: City of Sydney Archives

Once realized in its full glory, it became in economic terms a dismal failure. In seeking to encourage more refined economic activity and down-play the more common market-style activity, the City Council paid dearly, and for subsequent decades the building was under constant threat of demolition.

Interior view of Leadenhall Market from the lower floor. 1883 Source: Collage, London Metropolitan Archives

Ironically, a century later, after a beautiful restoration the QVB did much to revitalise Sydney’s Central Business District, transfixing locals and visitors alike, an elegant reminder of past grand visions. Its centrality to urban planning remains; as reported in The Australian of October 3rd 2018, the QVB is to be revitalized yet again. As its chief executive explained “Landmark centres with an emphasis on food, leisure and entertainment worked because human beings loved to congregate.” One can hope that the same overreach does not occur, and that it is “the way in which spaces are inhabited that matters most not just the physical boundaries.” Today’s more cosmopolitan generations of Sydneysiders will continue to create markets: ‘places’ that are diverse and successful, in spaces appropriate to local environments, not least the restored QVB.

The supply of food to a great city is among the most remarkable of social phenomena, full of instruction on all sides. (George Dodd, The Food of London, 1856)


[1] George Bouchier Worgan, “Letter written to his brother Richard Worgan, 12-18 June 1788. Includes journal fragment kept by George on a voyage to New South Wales with the First Fleet on board HMS Sirius, 20 January 1788-July 1788.” ML, Safe 1/114, 36 (NOTE: Leadenhall Market, which dates from the fourteenth century, was originally a meat, game and poultry market in what was the centre of Roman London.)

[2] Kim Dovey, “The Silent Complicity of Architecture,” in Habitus: a Sense of Place, ed. Jean Hillier and Emma Rooksby (Sydney: Ashgate, 2002), 259.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Habitus, in Habitus: A Sense of Place, ed. Jean Hillier and Emma Rooksby (Sydney: Ashgate, 2002), 27.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, Habitus: A Sense of Place, 31.

[5] Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston, Spaces of geographic thought: deconstructing human geography’s binaries (London: Sage Publications, 2005), 83. The concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ used in this paper are taken from this source: “space refers to location somewhere, and place to the occupation of that location. Space is about having an address, and place, living there.” The authors refer to a contemporary, recently used view which argues “place often associated with the world of the past, and space with the world of the future.” Place is therefore nostalgic (in terms of this paper), space is progressive and radical.

[6] Carolyn Steele, The Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives (London: Random House, 2009), 119.

[7] James Schmiechen and Kenneth Carls, The British Market Hall: A Social and Architectural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[8] Michael Christie, The Sydney Markets 1788-1988 (Sydney, The Sydney Market Authority, 1988), 15.

[9] Michael Christie, The Sydney Markets, 16.

[10] Carolyn Steele, The Hungry City, 11.

[11] Michael Christie, The Sydney Markets, 39

[12] Heather Hunwick. The Food and Drink of Sydney: A History (Lantham: Roman and Littlefield, 2018),90.

[13] Peter Cunningham. Two Years in New South Wales, ed. David S. Macmillan (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1966), 37.

[14] James Schmiechen, The British Market Hall, 10.

[15] James Schmiechen, The British Market Hall, 53.

[16] James Schmiechen, The British Market Hall, 48.

[17] Carolyn Steele, The Hungry City, 123

[18] James Schmeichen. The British Market Hall, 56.

[19] Dovey 267.

[20] Heather Hunwick, The Food and Drink of Sydney, 92.

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