In 1865, a purpose-built Melbourne fish market was opened on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets – the site where Flinders Street Station now stands. An open-air market had previously operated on the site. The new building was claimed to be the first of its kind in Australia. A fish market in Hobart had been built in 1854 as part of the “New Market” but was never used. The first Sydney fish market, in Woolloomooloo, did not open until 1878.
In Melbourne’s early days fish was sold in the vicinity of Princes Bridge and an unofficial open air market sprang up on vacant land nearby. Here hawkers purchased fish from fishermen and middle-men and sold them in the streets, a practice widely condemned as insanitary. Letters to the Melbourne papers frequently decried the situation, for the inconvenience caused to pedestrians, the smell and the language of the vendors (widely referred to as “Billingsgate” – a reference to the coarse speech at the London fish markets). One such letter read:
By prescription, a sort of peripatetic fish-market was for years established in the neighbourhood of St Paul’s Church. Thither came those who had fish to sell, as also the hawkers and dealers to buy. Their rude bargaining disturbed the street while yet the morning hours were small, their refuse stock was left to stink and rot, and the public comfort was invaded.
The city council eventually acknowledged the need for a permanent structure and held a design competition. The first building had separate sections for retail and wholesale buyers, “ample cellarage” for storing fish and ice and a large central chamber to allow for fish to be brought into the market on carts. The trays on which the fish were displayed for sale were of sawn slate, with water laid on to each table and drains provided.
The initial response from the public was disappointing, although the wholesale market was successful. A little over a month after opening, the market was handling around 12 tonnes of fish, plus a bag of crayfish, each week.
There had been some conflict with the railway company – then the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company – over the choice of site for the market, but public interest had prevailed. By 1884, the government-owned Railways Corporation wanted the land in order to expand the railway station and in 1891 the Melbourne fish market was moved to a grand new building on the south side of Flinders Street, as far as Spencer Street.