When surveyor Robert Hoddle laid out the grid for the new settlement of Melbourne in 1837, he set aside a reserve for a market. It was located in William Street, between Collins Street and Flinders Lane (then known as Little Flinders Street), adjacent to the Custom House and conveniently close to the river port. While it seems some market activities were taking place there as early as 1838, Melbourne’s first official market opened on the site in December 1841. It came to be known as the Western Market. A fourth street frontage, named Market Street, was created as the eastern access to the market.
By 1840, the citizens of Melbourne were calling for the establishment of a market as a way of regulating the sale of goods in the settlement. There were complaints about the extortionate prices charged by traders, particularly butchers, for the necessities of life. An article in John Pasco Fawkner’s Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser expressed the view that healthy competition in a market environment would keep traders honest.
The Legislative Council of New South Wales responded to the demand. It passed an Act dividing Melbourne into four wards for the election of Commissioners to undertake the establishment and regulation of the new market. The new authority first met in November 1842, selecting sites for a corn and hay market and a livestock market and confirming Market Square as the location for the general market.
Subsequently, rules and regulations were established for the operation of the general market. It was to operate on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 7 am or 8 am (depending on the season) until sunset. It was divided into four segments: one for clothing, household goods and general groceries; one for meat and poultry; and one for fruit and vegetables (other than potatoes). The fourth section was just for potatoes. A market clerk was appointed and used a standard set of weights and measures to check those of traders, ensuring customers received fair treatment.
Initially, the Western Market was simply a piece of open ground, fenced and with controlled access points, where traders were invited to set up their own booths or park their wagons. However, there was soon a call for permanent buildings on the site to protect traders and their goods from the vagaries of the Melbourne weather. In 1848, the Town Council approved a sum of £800 for buildings at the Western Market and by 1847 had erected two rows of brick buildings connected by an arcade. A two-storey building was begun in 1856 and new buildings, including office suites, were added in 1868-70.
Meanwhile, a second general market had been erected at the eastern end of the town. The Eastern Market, on the corner of Bourke Street and Exhibition Street (then known as Stephen Street), was opened in 1847 and gradually drew trade away from the Western Market. Queen Victoria Market, which opened in 1878, eventually superseded both.
The Western Market became a wholesale fruit and vegetable market but was abandoned in the early 1930s and in 1934 was leased as a car park. For more than two decades, the redevelopment of the market site remained contentious. The Melbourne City Council continued to lease out offices in the market buildings and, during World War II, one section was converted into a hostel for RAAF troops and re-named Air Force House.
In the early 1950s, the Council ran a design competition for the Western Market site, which was envisioned as a combination of underground car parking, an office building and a public plaza. The prize-winning design was announced in 1953 – but nothing happened. In 1956, the Council abandoned plans to redevelop the site itself, deciding to call for tenders from commercial enterprises to take up the lease.
In 1960 the Council approved plans for a 28-storey “skyscraper” on the site. The Western Market buildings were demolished in 1961.