Something fishy at Spencer Dock

Something fishy at Spencer Dock

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

By the early 20th century, several odours defined the dock areas.

One was the unfortunate stench of the Yarra from decades of sewage and waste disposal, and another was the smell of fish which wafted from the fishing boats and from the marketplace that once stood at the west end of Flinders St.

This was likely a common smell to any sailor who sailed their ketch into the dock featured in this photo, taken some time in the 1900s. Located on the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets (where the Crowne Plaza and World Trade Centre currently sit), Spencer Dock (or Little Dock) was a haven for many small ships between 1854 and 1930. Many were involved in the timber trade, collecting cargo from places where the railways had not yet reached or braving the Bass Strait ferrying freight to and from Tasmania.

The photo shows a busy day at the dock with multiple sailing vessels berthed, as a manual crane hovers ready to haul goods to their next location. The surroundings, however, have their own story to tell. On the far left corner is a small building owned by the ship chandler and ironmonger business, Inglis, Smith and Co. While the business had already existed for some decades, the store at Spencer Dock is first mentioned in Sands and McDougall in 1903, and was still there by the 1970s. Behind that, on the far left corner is the Head Office of Victorian Railways, opened in 1893, and the steel bridge floating above Flinders St is the railway viaduct, built in 1891. Curiously, behind the viaduct is the Sir Charles Hotham Hotel, which has existed on the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets since 1852.

Eagle-eyed observers may notice that it’s unusually shorter than the building on its left, as this was the original hotel before it was re-built with an art-nouveau design by William Pitt (the architect behind the Princess Theatre) and re-opened in 1913. This brings us to the easily distinguished cone-shaped turrets that spear through the skyline on the right side of the photograph, along with the brick buildings on the dock’s right side. These belonged to the Melbourne Fish Market (also known as the Corporation Markets). From 1865 until the 1890s, the Fish Market had been selling the catch of the day in a building where the current Flinders Street Station entrance now stands. However, while it was a success, it did prompt complaints. A would-be retailer known as “H. D.” complained to The Age in 1883 (June 8), noting that the limited space meant few shops operated and that “no one has a chance of commencing business, however much he may wish to do so.”

In the 1880s, with new railway lines such as the Baxter to Caulfield line bringing more fish to Melbourne, there was a growing need for a new larger building. Construction began at the viaduct site in January 1891, and the building was opened on October 25, 1892. It cost more than £200,000, took up nearly six acres between Spencer and King streets, and was built using a contest-winning design by R. G. Gordon, an architect for the Tramways Trust. The market featured two buildings divided by the viaduct. The first was the narrow three-storey frontage facing Flinders that included tall Victorian gothic towers, and a 110-foot (33-metre) tall clock tower, which was used for warehousing and retail.

Behind the viaduct, on the Queen’s Wharf side was the main market (seen far right in the photo). It featured stall space for around 24 fishmongers to sell their wares, as well as troughs to wash their seafood in. A special platform in the market allowed trains from Spencer and Flinders streets to directly unload fresh fish and game onto trolleys which were hauled along tracks to the stalls for speedy delivery. Some of the stock would come fresh off the boats that berthed at Spencer Dock. Fish, meat, eggs and butter would be stored in the cool storage rooms, including nine freezing chambers with boiler and engine house accommodation.

While primitive by today’s standards, refrigeration was revolutionary to marketplaces, allowing food to remain fresh for sale longer (and reducing wastage), when many households either relied on iceboxes or had to cook their perishables immediately. Inspectors, who would examine the quality of fish, had their own living quarters within the premises. By the 1900s it was a common sight to see eager buyers crowd around the markets at the fashionably late hour of 4.30am to grab their fish. The Williamstown Chronicle in 1903 (January 24) describes the hectic mornings as the trains from Flinders and Spencer streets hauled in stock and the wharf side and front of the markets were so crowded with fish carts that “in a quarter of an hour the roadway was blocked.” Inside, hawkers of all nationalities would pick out the best produce, which also included game, crayfish, oysters, rabbits and farm produce, and sellers would spruik their goods causing a “deafening” squabble. As soon as the buyers found what they needed, they would haul their carts to the city streets, hoping to gain a profit from civilians who were not in the mood for a lamb roast.

In 1902 alone, 191,966 packages of fish and 471,934 pairs of rabbits were sold at the market. After frantic bidding, hungry buyers could grab a bite at the restaurant at Wharf Rd. The market continued business until the 1950s, but the market’s deteriorating hygiene standards and the foul fish smell drew many complaints from the public. Eventually the markets were moved to Footscray Rd, and the old building was demolished in 1959 to make way for the Flinders St overpass, a highway bridge that took up the west portion of Flinders St. Ironically, the overpass lasted less time than the market, being torn down in 2005.

Today the once proud market site is home to a large apartment complex that obscures the skyline for any train-bound sightseers. In the meantime, while eating them is not possible, exotic fresh fish have made a comeback to the Yarra banks thanks to the Melbourne Aquarium where many denizens of the deep swim with the extra benefit of being odour-free •

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