1976 Darwin’s oldest market opens

Photo: Eddie Nguyen

In Australia’s southern cities, our markets have long histories. The Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne opened in 1878 while the inner-suburban Prahran Market traces its history back to 1864 (albeit not on the current site).  The Adelaide Central Market dates from 1870 and Sydney’s Paddy’s Market claims a founding date of 1834.  By contrast, Darwin’s oldest market is a Johnny-come-lately. Rapid Creek Markets began in 1976, more than 100 years after the city, then known as Palmerston, was founded.

Of course, there was a major hiccup in 1974 when Darwin was flattened by Cyclone Tracy so, for much of the city, history began in the ’70s. Even before that, though, locals did without a fruit and vegetable market for more than 80 years.  They were dependent on produce imported from the southern states to supplement what was grown locally by (mainly Chinese) market gardeners.

The first Chinese labourers arrived in the Northern Territory in 1874 to work on the gold fields and, later, on the construction of the railway line between Palmerston and Pine Creek to the south. Many soon established vegetable gardens, the produce of which, according to one writer, “reduced sickness and vastly improved living”. In 1912, the Administrator of the Northern Territory, Dr J. A. Gilruth, reported that “Vegetable and fruit culture for Darwin is entirely in the hands of Chinese market gardeners…”

Despite suggestions, as early as the 1920s and continuing until the 1940s, that a local market would be of benefit to the community, the local council and the Territory administrators took no action. Finally, in July 1952, a Saturday morning market was opened by the Northern Territory Co-Operative Society. The market was located in Cavenagh Street opposite the Don Hotel, in the centre of town.  The Northern Standard wrote that:

Opening at 8 a.m. more than £50 worth of locally-produced vegetables and fruit had been disposed of when the market closed at 11.30. The market will open again this Saturday at 8 a.m.

The market was a success, soon opening twice weekly then, by May 1953, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. By February 1954, it was open daily.  It’s not clear how long the Cavanagh Street market operated, but its location in the city centre no doubt meant its days were numbered. And, according to at least one resident, in the 1960s Woolworths was the only reliable source of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Oddly, given the importance of Chinese vegetable growers to Darwin, there were no Chinese names among the committee members of that first market. The Rapid Creek Markets, could not be more different. The Rapid Creek area had been home to Chinese market gardens in Darwin’s early years and the weekly markets in the suburb’s Business  Centre reflect that Asian heritage. Not just Chinese, but Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, East Timorese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan and Papua New Guinean, with the addition of African, Aboriginal and Tiwi Islander influences. Darwin is a multi-cultural place.

The market’s stalls specialise in Asian fruits and vegetables such as durian, betel leaves, galangal and lots of chillies. There’s fresh sugar cane juice, fresh seafood, and dried or preserved goods from Asia and parts of Africa. The Street Food Park also has food trucks serving curry laksa, roti wraps and a host of other Asian dishes.

Photo: Eddie Jamisola

The Rapid Creek Markets aren’t the only ones in Darwin. The Mindil Beach Market operates during the dry season and is a leading tourist attraction. Catering more to locals, the Parap Village Markets, every Saturday morning, are also known for the variety of food on offer while the Nightcliff Markets open year-round on Sundays.

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