Story: Food shops

Page 2. Butchers and fishmongers

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Early butchers

Early settlements needed meat, and from the mid-1800s butchers opened shops in towns and abattoirs were established on the edges of towns. Abattoirs supplied butcheries, although some butchers also did their own slaughtering – especially in rural areas.

Only freezing works could afford refrigeration in the late 1890s, so butchers had to rely on quick stock turnover. Carcasses arrived from the freezing works and were often hung under the shop’s verandah, where they gained the benefit of the breeze and also served to advertise the produce.

Visiting the butcher’s shop

The floor of butchers’ shops were spread with sawdust – thicker behind the counter – which soaked up blood and caught bits of fat. The sawdust was raked out at the end of each day and was changed once a week.

Butchers typically wore a white and blue horizontal-striped apron from the waist down. They made their own smallgoods – sausages, saveloys and luncheon or German sausage (which was called Belgium sausage after the First World War).

Before home refrigerators and freezers became common, shoppers had to buy meat daily or every couple of days. Many houses had meat safes or even ice chests – but the latter required the regular delivery of ice to keep them cool. Meat was wrapped corner-to-corner in ‘butchers’ wrap’ (brown paper) and tied with string.

Butchers also offered regular delivery, and many customers had standing orders, which were delivered on appointed days.

Shops and chains

Most butchers were family businesses, typically owner-operated, although some freezing works also had shop outlets. In 1896 the New Zealand Refrigeration Company bought its first shop in Christchurch – it would eventually own eight, but the venture was not especially successful, and the last shop was sold in 1913. Hellaby’s, a company with its own freezing works, owned 32 butchers’ shops in Auckland in the late 1950s.

Mad man

Starting in the 1960s, Peter Leitch established a successful chain of Mad Butcher shops:

‘People ask me if I had a vision when I got my first butcher’s shop … No, I didn’t have a vision. I could get up now and say I did – pretend I was Martin Luther King, and say, “I have a dream!” But that’s bullshit. I went into a butcher’s shop, and all I wanted to do was pay the rent and survive. That was it. I didn’t set out to build a huge brand, but that was what happened.’1

A more recent chain of stores are those of Peter Leitch – a butcher whose one original 1960s store grew into a chain of Mad Butcher stores around the country.

In 1971 there were 5,173 butchers in New Zealand. The arrival of supermarkets in the 1960s, combined with greater ownership of home freezers, saw the demise of many urban and suburban butchers’ shops.

In the 2000s butchers’ shops tended to offer some unique product (such as halal or free-range meat) or service, or to cater for a specific market – such as a wealthy suburb.


In the 1800s, as towns grew, small-scale fishermen sold their catch from boats or to fish hawkers who sold it door to door.

Oyster saloons

In the 1860s rock oysters were very popular and, although there were no fish shops yet, there were fishmongers who sold oysters wholesale to pubs or to fish hawkers. From the 1880s oyster saloons – which served oysters in the shell, oyster stews, and fish and oysters cooked in different ways – had opened in many cities and were a feature of many New Zealand towns until the 1930s. Some fishmongers operated oyster saloons as well as wholesaling them.

First fish shops

In the late 1880s specialist fish shops became more common due to the advent of refrigeration and a more regular fish supply. These complemented rather than replaced fish hawkers.

Refrigeration allowed fish retailers to buy large blocks of ice from the freezing works and chip these to form a bed on which to display fish in shop windows. Fish retailers also often sold poultry and rabbits.

Fish markets

Retailers and fish hawkers bought from fish dealers, who bought catches off the boats at auctions. Wellington City Council established a municipal fish market in 1880.

In the 1870s fishermen in Auckland, who were selling their catches directly to the public and to hawkers, went a step further and opened up small stalls on the wharves. In 1889 the harbour board decided to build and run the Auckland fish market. For retailers irregular supplies kept fish prices high. Albert Sanford opened his own fish market in Auckland, in 1894. He also had retail outlets.

Fish retailing

In Auckland the majority of fish shops were owned by Dalmatians. Some bought their own boats to try to ensure a more regular supply. Others bought directly from independent boats at the dawn market or from wholesalers.

In other centres cooperative fish shops had opened by the early 1900s. In Christchurch there was one run by Kaikōura fishermen and one by Lyttelton fishermen. Fishmongers continued to be a feature of urban areas over the 20th century, especially in downtown areas. Many also sold fish and chips.

Supermarkets began to erode fishmongers’ customer base when many opened seafood sections from the 1980s.

  1. Peter Leitch. What a ride, mate!: the life and times of the Mad Butcher. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2008. p. 111. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Food shops - Butchers and fishmongers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 1 Sep 2016