It is time for the hawkers to go. The neighbourhood is being made handsome by new station buildings, and the public anticipates that with their erection the nuisance will be made to disappear.
The Argus, 16 April 1908
Piercing cries of “Fine Oy-sters! Fine oy-sters!”, “Parramatta oran-gees” penetrate the rumble of the traffic. Dozens of men and youths, including Greeks and Italians, intercept the passing crowds, and importunately draw attention to sodden heaps of dust-swept shrimps or to tomatoes and grapes exposed to the city’s germs…
The hawkers were removed from Swanston Street, where they were a nuisance and a menace to the traffic, and still, in defiance of the by-laws, they are now permitted to congregate upon Princes-Bridge.
The Age, 20 April 1908
At last there would appear to be a probability that the terrible nuisance which for a long time has been caused by the hawkers in the heart of Melbourne will be removed. Under the Amended Local Government Act, passed by the State Parliament last session, increased powers are given to municipal bodies, and the city corporation has prepared a by-law which, when adopted, will control the movements of the hawkers in an effective manner. The general public will rejoice at this.
For a considerable time the hawkers of fruit and fish have defied the authorities. They have made the principal streets of the city a pandemonium by their loud shouting and hawking, and have not only obstructed the thoroughfares by their erratic movements with their barrows, but have endangered life and limb. Hawking will now be prohibited altogether within the area bounded by Flinders, Bourke, Swanston, and Elizabeth streets, and as regards other parts of the city the street vendors will have to get permits from the Council to hawk their goods, and if they do not obey the regulations which are to be framed their permits will be cancelled and they will be liable to a fine not exceeding £10. It has become absolutely necessary to adopt this drastic measure, and the hawkers have to thank themselves for it.
The Richmond Guardian, 1904
By the late-nineteenth century the street ‘hawker’, regardless of age, was considered a public nuisance. Complaints were made about their ‘discordant cries’, ‘nauseating odours’, ‘harassing inconvenience to pedestrians’ and ‘danger to traffic.’ The attack was mostly led by rent and rate-paying shopkeepers, resenting the unfair competition and shop access denied by vendors’ barrows. Numerous complaints were made to the Melbourne and municipal councils. More than 80 Swanston Street shopkeepers petitioned the Council in 1901, stating their ‘emphatic protest against the unfair competition… caused by the Hawkers & Barrowmen’. In 1905, a petition was signed by more than 200 shopkeepers in Prahran, asking for the ‘exclusion of hawkers from Chapel Street’. The Prahran Telegraph reported:
… hawkers from every district compete with Prahran shopkeepers and ratepayers... If hawkers want to sell their wares they should be restricted to the back streets…
The rubbish the hawkers left behind was a constant irritation, and certainly, many streets were left in a mess after a day’s trading. The Argus newspaper described the state of Princes Bridge at the end of the day:
It is the habit of these untidy people when they have finished vending their wares to sweep the refuse from their barrows on to the roadway to add to the filth that has been accumulating all day, as rejected bananas, rotten apples, decayed fish and other garbage finds its way into the smellful stream that trickles all day long from the fish barrows. Towards midnight the odour that ascends from the putrid mass is vile beyond all description.
Even the very appearance, the ‘unseemliness of itinerant traders’, was called into question. As historian Andrew May puts it, the street stall and hawker ‘was a visual affront to urbane respectability, and though local residents and business people often found street stalls themselves a great convenience, the street-stall proprietor was subject to middle-class sensibilities and standards.’ May elaborates:
The street stall was not only incompatible with unhindered circulation, but its keeper, the cripple or the blind man, the war veteran or the immigrant, was visually and socially incompatible with a definition of respectable public space.
This rising tide of antipathy was reflected in Council records. According to May, bootblack, Tobias King, was described in 1885 by police as ‘dirty and certainly no ornament on the streets of a City’. The application of Robert Lowry was granted ‘subject to applicant keeping himself clean’. In 1902 a newspaper vendor with three fingers missing on one hand was ‘directed to cover the injured hand with a glove or something to hide its appearance, which is anything but pleasant, and may be injurious to women, especially those in a certain condition.’
Street traders were met with an increasing barrage of restrictions and prosecutions were frequent. Applications for bootblacks were refused on the grounds of being ‘obstructive’ and ‘visually objectionable’. Flower sellers in Swanston Street were fined for obstructing the footpaths. By the 1920s the City Council had excluded itinerant hawkers from the city entirely, though some fixed stands were still in operation. The jostling crowds and raucous cries of the hawkers became just a memory.