In 1827 there were only a few options for Sydneysiders who wanted seafood. They could either try catching it, or visit J. Boyle, Sydney's best known fishmonger at the old racecourse on what is now Hyde Park. Here you could buy whatever seafood had been brought in that day, but with no ice to keep the fish fresh it is no surprise there were numerous complaints about the quality of the offerings.
Forty years later people were still complaining about the quality of the fish. The sellers had moved from Hyde Park to Circular Quay and most of the fish was sold by the wives and daughters of fishermen from Botany Bay. Each day they carried their produce from the fishing grounds in baskets. and these, along with their owners, sat in the open all day; whether it was the height of summer or the depths of winter.
Ongoing health concerns and lack of regulation led to Sydney's first real fish market which was built in Forbes St, Woolloomooloo, in 1871. This enabled government to control the quality and the sale of fish for the first time. The new markets were open six days a week and the fish were auctioned off the floor by licensed government staff.. The crowd of fish hawkers usually gathered around 4.30 am and the ‘traffic in fish’, which started at five am sharp, usually went on for two or three hours.
The auction was conducted under the watchful eye of Mr. Seymour. Any fish not fit for human consumption were seized by the inspector and often these made up a fair percentage of the catch of the day. As the auction began Seymour would begin calling out the nicknames of the regulars. “Ice Cream”, “Longbags”, “Dundreary”, “Blueskin”, and “Chips” were some of the colourful names visitors could hear barked out from the podium as they moved through the warehouse.
By this time almost all the fish on sale was caught at Port Stephens, Lake Macquarie, Broken Bay, Port Hacking, Botany, or Sydney Harbour. The fish was sent by fishermen to the five approved agents each of which had a portion of the market floor enclosed by a red line (see the photo above). Within this were white chalk lines which divided the catch of each fisherman into heaps.
The auctioneer and his staff had their hands full making sure buyers kept outside the red lines throughout the proceeding. Even so many tried to cross boundary lines requiring constant rebukes from the auctioneer. They also needed to keep an eye on the outlying heaps as,
behind the grand army of hawkers, and acting as sort of camp followers to them, were a number of ragged sharp-looking boys. … it was their habit to stoop behind the bidders at the auction and deftly rake away certain fish from between their legs.
The Woolloomooloo market closed in 1891 when a new market was opened next to Redfern railway station. Here the fish made their way off the floor and onto tables for the first time. As one of the main complaints about the old site had been that the produce was laid out on the floor where people trod on the fish, and even worse, spat on them.
Geoff Barker, Curatorial, Research and Discovery, State Library of New South Wales, 2017
History of the Fisheries of New South Wales, Lindsay G. Thompson, Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1898