There were repeated calls in the 19th and early 20th centuries for markets to be set up in New Zealand cities and towns. Some places did put aside land for markets, or even built market halls, but the English model of regularly held markets in a central place did not take hold.
Christchurch’s Market Square
Christchurch built Market Hall in Market Square (now Victoria Square) in the 1850s. Farmers sold produce – and initially livestock – there. It was never exclusively a market. It was known as ‘the coffee-palace’, and the post office operated from it during the 1870s. The city council built a concrete strip on Victoria Street (then named Whately Road) for a market in the 1870s, but this was no longer in use by the mid-1890s.
Auckland’s City Market
In Auckland, the Crown gave the city about 2.5 hectares off Queen Street (in the area later occupied by Aotea Square) for public markets in 1855. The council built the City Markets there in 1872. It rented stall sites to vendors, including fancy-goods retailers, second-hand dealers, and a variety of entertainers, as well as sellers of food and poultry.
English visitors found it surprising that New Zealanders did not buy their food in markets. On a 1915 visit to Wellington, Mr Austwick from Yorkshire told the Evening Post that he had ‘much praise’ for the city but one complaint: ‘I think you are behindhand … in not having a market. In England, almost every town of any size has its market’.1
The council put the market buildings up for lease in about 1902. Edward Turner – who had started with a small fruit and vegetable shop in Karangahape Road in the mid-1880s, and then ran a produce auction business – won the tender along with several other auctioneers. In 1918 the produce markets abandoned the by then dilapidated building, and relocated to two acres of reclaimed land in Customs Street East.
In 1895 a man wrote to Wellington’s Evening Post about the ‘exorbitant’ price of fish when there was a ‘plethora of fish to be had’ in the Marlborough Sounds. ‘Oh you long-suffering Wellington fossils! Where is your City Council and their fish market?’’2 Wellington set up a fish market in 1912, but it was a failure.
Public pressure for markets
There was pressure on city councils to set up markets to keep food prices down, by giving customers direct access to growers and their produce without having to go through middlemen – shopkeepers and hawkers. In the early 20th century newspaper columns often carried correspondence about the need for markets.
In 1906 in Wellington a public meeting was held to lobby for a municipal market. The Evening Post endorsed the idea. ‘Auctioneers and Chinamen have practically a monopoly of the fruit trade of this city … The producer and the consumer rarely indeed come face to face; and the middleman who comes between them exacts a profit proportionate to the exorbitant rents which he has to pay.’ The paper noted that vegetables and fish were ‘hawked door to door – stuff in many cases not fit for consumption’.3
Municipal fish markets
Wellington and Auckland city councils did set up fish markets. Wellington’s began in 1912 and even extended to a fishing trawler. But both closed in 1915. The councils had found it difficult to pay fishermen a fair wage while keeping prices low. Few people went to the markets as they could buy fish at competitive prices in their local fish shop.
Urban New Zealanders mainly bought their food from small shops. Before the suburban sprawl after the Second World War, most lived within walking distance of a suite of shops, which often contained a grocer, a fruiterer, a butcher and a fishmonger. Most shops offered home deliveries. One of the objections to setting up markets was that people might not patronise them because they would not want to have to carry their purchases home.