Story: Street life

Page 2. Street trade and people, 1840–1914

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As soon as cities were founded traders took to the streets, adding to their bustle and vitality. Among the first were enterprising Māori. In 1840s Auckland and Wellington Māori sold fresh fish, meat and produce to settlers from street stands.

Singing for their supper

With their bellowing cries (to attract customers) and colourful banter, hawkers contributed to the liveliness of streets. Not everyone appreciated their efforts – one critic suggested some hawkers ‘looked no better than their distressing voices sounded’.1 Municipalities came to agree, and eventually banned their calls as a public nuisance.


Hawking (selling goods on the street) was a quick way for new migrants and the poor to set up in business. Working from morning to night, hawkers eked out a sparse living selling fruit or small items like combs.

Because hawkers did not pay rent and rates, shopkeepers considered them unfair competition and wanted them banned. Municipalities believed hawkers provided a valuable service in keeping fruit prices down, but from the 1870s introduced annual licence fees to regulate trade.

Coffee stalls

Coffee stalls opened for trade in the mid-evening, providing night owls with hot drinks and snacks. Stalls were carts with a charcoal-fired coffee urn and storage for food, such as hot pies – hence their other name: pie carts. They were on main streets or near wharves to catch shift workers.

In 1877 a temperance advocate called for more coffee stalls as a ‘counter attraction’ to pubs.2 But police considered them a stomping ground for criminals, asserting that thieves hung around stalls to rob unsuspecting customers.

Cursing coffee drinkers

In 1879 Dunedin City Council heard from a ratepayer that the ‘fighting and vicious Billingsgate [swearing]’ of nearby coffee-stall patrons was disturbing his family’s sleep. In considering the issue some councillors argued if coffee stalls led to ‘noisy language they should be abolished’. Others thought them ‘useful to midnight wayfarers, and even to councillors going home with the milk in the morning’.3 The stalls were allowed to stay.


With more men than women living in cities until the late 19th century, business for prostitutes could be brisk. In 1888 a clergyman protested he could not walk down Queen Street, Auckland, on a Saturday night without passing at least ‘50 young girls who are living a life of vice’.4 Some newspaper and telegraph boys supplemented their low incomes by providing sexual services to men.

Morals campaigners tried to suppress prostitution. Under the Contagious Diseases Act 1869 suspected prostitutes could be forced to undergo a genital examination and have treatment if disease was found. Soliciting (offering people sex for money) was prohibited, but such measures failed to remove prostitutes from streets.

The whiffler

In 1929 the writer Louis Ward recalled ‘the whiffler’, a vagrant who traversed Wellington’s Lambton Quay in the 1880s. ‘The whiffler sometimes looked a fearsome object, garbed in the costumes of a Red Indian, carpet slippers on his feet, a string of sausages round his neck, and a sheep's pluck [heart, liver and lungs] whirling in the air, as he whooped along in vain pursuit of the youngsters.'5

Vagrants and thieves

A vagrant was a person who had no visible lawful means of support – a crime in colonial society. The popular view was that vagrants loitered in cities, living comfortably not by the sweat of their own brow, but ‘by the perspiration of other people’s foreheads’.6

Vagrants ranged from the ‘cadger’ (destitute vagrant) to the professional thief. Cadgers lived on the streets, stealing opportunistically to avoid work. Professional thieves were more organised. One of their strategies was to befriend country visitors at railway stations or ports and trail them to hotels. Disarmed by drink, the visitor would be encouraged into a back street and robbed.

Larrikins and street gangs

Larrikins were city children and adolescents who engaged in mischievous and antisocial behaviour such as smoking in groups on street corners, spitting on footpaths, insulting women, vandalism and stealing fruit. Some larrikins formed street gangs that engaged in robbery and unprovoked violence. In 1885 the ringleader of a Dunedin gang assaulted a Chinese man ‘just for the fun of the thing’.7

Begging for a leg

In 1895 Henry Thompson was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment by a New Plymouth judge for begging to get a cork leg. An artificial leg belonging to the accused was found packed in a box at Inglewood.

Beggars, bootblacks and buskers

Begging was illegal on city streets. Those caught doing so were classed as vagrants and could be imprisoned or face stiff fines.

Bootblacks, who polished shoes, were allowed to ply their trade, and were often found at important intersections.

Busking was not encouraged, but invalids and the blind were sometimes granted busking permits to make a living. Their instrument of choice was the hand organ.

Street orators

Street orators, who often stood on soap boxes, ranged from God-fearing evangelists through to bigots and socialist firebrands. Late shopping nights and Sunday afternoons were the most popular speaking times. Some orators gained large and appreciative crowds, while others barely attracted any bystanders.

  1. Evening Post, 24 May 1913, p. 3. Back
  2. Tuapeka Times, 28 February 1877, p. 2. Back
  3. West Coast Times, 24 January 1879, p. 2. Back
  4. Evening Post, 24 September 1889, p. 3. Back
  5. Louis E. Ward, Early Wellington. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1929, p 259. Back
  6. Evening Post, 20 July 1906, p. 5. Back
  7. North Otago Times, 31 July 1885, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Street life - Street trade and people, 1840–1914', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010