Today, when travelling between Melbourne’s inner suburbs is a matter of a few minutes in the car, it’s hard to appreciate the importance of local markets to the surrounding population. Although Melbourne’s first markets were established in the 1840s, they were located in the city centre. The South Melbourne Market was founded in response to demands from local residents for a more convenient facility and to ” supply the want felt by those gardeners and dairymen who were unable to obtain accommodation at the Eastern Market”.
Growing from a tent city in the early gold rush years, in 1855 South Melbourne (then known as Emerald Hill) became the first area outside the City of Melbourne and Geelong to become a separate municipality. Its citizens began agitating for a market in the early 1860s. In 1866, the council set aside some open ground bounded by Coventry, Cecil and York Streets and the St Kilda railway line and the market opened on Friday 7 December 1866.
This makes the South Melbourne Market Melbourne’s oldest continuously operating market. The market’s own website seems a little confused about the opening date, stating that it was established in 1867, but claiming the first market sheds were built in 1866. A report on the opening in The Leader stated that “it was determined to open the market free for a period of three months, when, if it is found to answer their expectations, the market will become a permanency, and a small fee will be levied upon those who avail themselves of it”.
More than 100 vendors’ carts arrived at the market and, according to the report, all returned empty. Among the produce on sale were dairy products, poultry and a wide range of fruit and vegetables. The venture was deemed successful and the South Melbourne Market (then known as the Emerald Hill Market), became a model for markets in other suburbs including Prahran and St Kilda.
Over the years, the South Melbourne Market expanded, becoming a vital part of the suburb. The Jubilee History of South Melbourne, published in 1905, reported:
The market is one of the leading business places of the city, and is worthy of such an important suburb as South Melbourne. It had a modest beginning, but is now a valuable asset to the City council, who derive a large revenue from the tolls and dues collected. … One need only visit on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, to see what a boon it is to the people of the city. A constant stream of humanity is to be seen going to and fro, carrying baskets, bags, etd., laden with household supplies, which are nearly always obtainable at moderate prices. One can obtain almost anything “from a needle to an anchor,” as the saying is, so diverse are the articles offered. There is always a very large attendance on market days, and stall0holders are kept busy supplying the wants of customers.
The market continues to operate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays but also, now, on Sundays. In addition to fresh food, it offers restaurants, coffee and a range of merchandise from clothing, homewares and second-hand books to hairdressing and pet food. The South Melbourne Market dim sims are famous throughout Melbourne as is the cheese room at the Emerald Hill deli.