1869 Marcus Clarke on the coffee stall

Image: Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 1880

The Melbourne writer, Marcus Clarke, wrote regular newspaper columns on city life. In one of these, he described the typical coffee stall to be found on the city’s street corners.

It consists of a barrow upon which is placed a large board, sometimes covered with oil cloth, and protected with an awning. On this board are set… a huge can of polished tin, with brass nozzle and spout. This tin holds about four or five gallons of coffee, which is kept hot by means of a pan of charcoal placed underneath it. By the side of the tin are ranged cups – very thick and heavy, sandwiches, greasy cakes, and a sort of plumduffs of very satisfying character…

By Clarke’s time, coffee stalls were not a novel phenomenon. They had certainly been around in Melbourne from the 1850s and perhaps earlier. The stalls typically operated during the night, when other shops and eating houses were closed. They were sometimes frequented by men and women of dubious reputation as well as catering for cab men, police on duty, late-night carousers making their way home and early-morning market-goers.

In the 1880s, as the temperance crusade gained momentum, some of the grand coffee palaces operated coffee stalls – a kind of outreach program intended to tempt the common people away from the demon drink. Along with tea and coffee, a coffee stall would dispense simple food. As well as the sandwiches Marcus Clark mentioned, the menu was likely to include pies, saveloys, boiled potatoes and, sometimes, curried tongue accompanied by bread and butter, a muffin, scone or roll.

There were unsavoury rumours about the contents of the pies. It seems even the stall-holders recognised people’s doubts, as is clear in one account of a coffee stall operator, in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1881.

He is not devoid of humour either, as I found on seeking enlightenment with regard to the mysteries of one of his meat pies. “Yer see, sir, it’s like this, we’ve got to vary ’em a bit; when tabbies run short we fall back on black-and-tans.”

Marcus Clarke had been reassured about the contents of a street vendor’s meat pies. “Mutton’s cheaper than cats” he was told by a fellow customer.

A search for “coffee stall” on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website seems to confirm the idea that the carts were often a focus for bad behaviour. The words feature in many a report of court proceedings regarding theft, vandalism and assault. In 1886, the Mayor of Melbourne was moved to restrict the hours within which the coffee vendors could operate. Saying that:

“…he had complaints against them of being the means of congregating a lot of low street people at street corners for the whole night long, and the police…had to report frequent robberies and disturbances taking place in their immediate vicinity“.

His Worship then fixed the hours for coffee stalls as 1 am to 7 am “not earlier and no later under any circumstances whatever”. Over time, other city burghers attempted to clean up their streets and in the early decades of the 20th century coffee stalls began to disappear. The closure of the last one in Perth’s central business district, in 1929, prompted one of its customers to compose a lament in verse:

The things we loved grow less and lesser still,
The things our youth-hood yearned for disappear;
Luxuries newer-fashioned fill the bill,
Our boons and blessings vanish year by year.
Old mem’ry’s milestones crumble one by one,
The hand of time obliterates these signs:
Between the rise and setting of the sun
Some star we treasured less resplendent shines.
And now, like Neb. of old (it’s hard to spell),
We see the warning writing on the wall,
Soon with the dust of down-and-out will dwell –
The Coffee Stall!

The coffee boiling away in the five-gallon urns was a far cry from the espresso-based coffee Aussies enjoy today. Things began to change in the 1920s and ’30s when immigrants, desperate to find a “decent” cup of coffee began opening “coffee inns“. The arrival of American servicemen during World War II saw the consumption of coffee increase – at the time, Australians were consuming around half a pound (.23kg) of coffee per head per year compared to the Americans’ 13 pounds (5.9kg).  But it wasn’t until the late 1940s that the first lever-style espresso machines arrived on our shores. We’ve never looked back.

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