Marketplaces are traditionally the centre and lifeblood of a community. In the case of early Sydney, they were the civic and commercial heart of the town, and later the city. The markets were of central importance for this is where produce – fruit, vegetables, butchered meat, poultry, dairy products and other goods – were brought and sold, both retail and wholesale.
Because of this retail activity, the market place was where people gathered, not only to trade or to make a business deal, but to socialise and to be entertained.
Sydney’s first markets were at Circular Quay, but in 1810, Governor Macquarie oversaw their relocation to a more central location further west along George Street, on the present site of the Queen Victoria Building.
This site had the principal advantage of location. It was close to the wharves at Darling Harbour, especially the Market Wharf, where good transported by boat were unloaded. The markets location on George Street also meant that it had direct road access to farming districts further west via Parramatta Road.
The creation of centralised markets in the nineteenth century was a way of regulating retail activity in the city – this was a time when there were no shops, arcades or department stores. To this end, Sydney’s George Street markets provided undercover stalls that traders could lease in order that they could sell their produce, as distinct from hawking their wares on the streets.
The regulation of these markets, as well as the hay and corn markets on the town’s outskirts (which gave the Haymarket distinct its name) was one of the chief concerns of the City Council when it formed in 1842. Because corrupt practices had been permitted to flourish before they took control, the Council saw the regulation of the markets as a way of stamping out monopolies by stall holders, and ensuring fair trading practices so that consumers got what they paid for.
But as the nineteenth century progressed, people’s retail habits began to change. The George Street markets were occupying prime retail land, and were derided by many for the ramshackle buildings, the rowdy crowds and the smells and sounds. The pressure was on the move the markets out of town.
In the late 1890s, the markets were torn down and replaced with the grandiose Queen Victoria Building. New markets were established in the Haymarket area, but by the 1970s, these too were taking up prime land. By the 1980s, Paddy’s Markets moved to Flemmington.