Queen Victoria Market – vibrant, colourful, a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds

By Dr Cheryl Griffin

You see here early morning Queen St as it looked 120 years ago, in the section that runs through QVM to Victoria St. 

There are few signs of the modern era here. It is around this time (in 1901) that Australia became a nation, an event that took place in Melbourne, at the Exhibition Buildings, not too far away. But this scene remains firmly in the 19th century and apart from the light pole that dominates the foreground just left of centre, there is little hint that the market has grown and changed since it was officially opened in 1878. Before that the colony’s first cemetery spread across much of the site, but there is no hint of that by the time this scene is captured, although the cemetery did not officially close until 1922, some two decades after the photo was taken. 

Off in the distance (to the south) you see glimpses of trees and you will notice that there are no multi-storey buildings in any part of this scene. The days of high-rise development are many years away and it is not until ICI House is constructed in another part of town in the late 1950s that the “skyscrapers” of today become a feature of the cityscape.

The street is edged on both sides by the market’s iconic sheds. There have been many changes over the years, but the sheds remain, representing continuity but also something of the essence of this bustling, vibrant space. Without them, QVM would not be the same.

There’s a stillness to this scene that belies the buzz of activity that will take place in those sheds once traders and customers arrive. 

It’s a market day and the street is packed with horse-drawn delivery vehicles. They dominate the scene, horses waiting patiently as their loads are unpacked ready for the morning crowds. They appear to be organised with almost military precision, apparently in allocated spaces. Nothing higgledy-piggledy here. I wonder, though, whether it was quite so orderly at departure time.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath and you can almost smell the aroma of horse manure. It must have been very smelly by the end of the day, especially during summer. Even so, the gardener in me laments the fact that I can’t dash down with some hessian bags and collect that treasure to use in my garden.

In the 1970s the Doncaster-Templestowe Historical Society recorded the memories of local orchardist Clive Petty, who recalled taking fruit to market, driving through the night to be ready for a 4am start. There were winter nights, he said, when it was so cold that he walked up the hills to keep warm, then put his feet in the horse’s feed bag so that the chaff would keep him warm. 

In those times, QVM was a wholesale market and growers rented stalls in the market sheds where growers and fruiterers and greengrocers did business. The horses knew the way, so drivers could sleep until they reached the market. The horses were so well trained they even knew which shed and stall to go to.

Later, business over, it was time for the growers to turn around and head home, with the sun (or the rain) beating down on them, often with a load of horse manure as their cargo. 

I asked a number of people to sum up QVM in three words. Here are some of their responses: Ancient, human, vibrant. Panpipes, bratwurst, kilo. Cemetery, vibrant, fascinating. Welcome to Melbourne. Urban, piquant, boneyard. Luscious, kaleidoscopic, boisterous. Cheap, colourful, buzzing. Heart of Melbourne. Exotic, noisy, donuts. Historic, important, fascinating. Noisy, exciting, busy.

And a little poetic licence for these responses: Purple cauliflower, Moreton Bay Bugs, yelling butchers. Cacophony (of people, flavours, sounds), aromatic, exciting. A vibrant community welcoming all. Colourful (the people, the cloth, the fruit and veg and the characters), aromatic (smells get me every time; oranges, pineapples, dead cabbage leaves, coffee, fresh meat, cheese, jam donuts …), vibrant (spruiking, movement, busyness). 

None of this can be conveyed in a stills image such as the one you see here, but the sheer number of delivery carts crammed into that small space hint at the energy and activity taking place just a short distance away. Step inside the sheds and the vitality of the market takes over. 

Trading is as old as human civilisation and markets like QVM are timeless. They take us back to ancient times and move us forward to today and into the future. They are noisy, smelly, bustling and full of life. And, as a friend reminded me recently, “they’re great places for being anonymous and watching the world go by in all its glory”.

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