Sydney Architecture Images- Gone but not forgotten

Woolloomooloo Fish Markets


No info currently available


on the block bounded by Forbes, Bourke and Plunkett streets in Woolloomooloo


Built-  1872  Demolished-


Victorian Italianate 


Rendered brick Stone


Sydney had no central fish market until 1872 when a grandiose building was erected by the city council on the block bounded by Forbes, Bourke and Plunkett streets in Woolloomooloo. This commodious neo-classical brick building comprised two levels, with administrative offices fronting Forbes St and a lower building surrounding an inner courtyard. A large central tower with a multi-faced clock and an ornate curved copper hood topped the structure. Over the entrance was emblazoned 'M. Chapman - Mayor' and 'A Market for the Sale of Fish’.
In his book, Sydney Harbour - A History, Ian Hoskins describes how fish were laid out in chalk circles on the building’s concrete floor with the fisherman’s name inscribed beside them. By now ice could be used to keep fish fresh for longer but it is no surprise to learn that in Regency and Victorian society fish was frequently consumed at breakfast time before it deteriorated. The short ‘shelf life’ of fish, as Hoskins also discusses in his book, led many people to eat only fish they had caught themselves. Doing so was clearly a cost saver too.
Because of the proximity to the fish markets, oyster cafes proliferated in Sydney’s eastern end and suburbs in the later 19thC. Whether the markets themselves had capacity to serve seafood for direct consumption doesn’t seem to be recorded anywhere. Presumably there was something to draw patrons though as Shirley Fitzgerald in her entry on Woolloomooloo in The Dictionary of Sydney, mentions that ‘fights at the fishmarkets and in the pubs around the wharf (became) daily occurrences’ during this period and contributed to the social decline of the area.
Early 20thC - the 'new' Fish Market cnr Engine & Thomas Streets, Haymarket
White sign with black lettering in centre of picture proclaims 'FISH' - this looks like the retail section (source City of Sydney Archive Pix).

In 1911, a new Fish Market opened on the corners of Thomas & Engine Streets in the Haymarket area. The City of Sydney Council photo archive has photographs of it under construction and by 1919 there was a retail shop attached. Again it is only supposition, but I assume that meals could be had or at least you could buy a bottle of oysters to go. My paternal grandmother enjoyed bottled oysters with vinegar, bread and butter all her life. Her purchases very likely originated from one of the many government–licensed fish agents operating out of the Haymarket premises. However in their mid 20thC incarnation there was nothing inviting about the Sydney Fish Markets which had been modernised to remove all character and from photos do not seem to feature any retail outlet or eatery.

Between the two world wars increasing focus was placed on the production of fish for domestic consumption and to reduce Australia’s reliance on food imports. After World War II attention turned to developing the industry for the export market. Lamb remained Australians’ preferred dinner time protein well into the 1970s. I don’t have stats to back this up but I’d guess that various waves of immigrants have increased Sydney’s appetite for seafood. It is after all a staple of the Mediterranean and Asian diets. The Sydney Fish Markets relocated to their current site at Blackwattle Bay in 1966. They were privatised in 1994 . The management trust comprises families and networks of Italian, Greek and Chinese Australians which reflects the central place fish consumption plays in these cultures.
What the Haymarket premises looked like by the 1960s (source: City of Sydney Archive Pix).
In a recent article on the Fish Markets bemoaning the abandonment of plans to improve them, Matt Khoury lambastes the state government and shareholders, the Catchers Trust and the Sydney Fish Market Tenants and Merchants Pty Ltd, for their lack of attention and to both the aesthetic and environmental aspects of the markets. This is how he describes the market:

Above- the current site on Pyrmont Bridge Road in Ultimo.

While it sells itself as a tourist attraction, the smelly fish market has been an exercise in self-interest for decades. As it stands, plastic seats on metal stands overlook the dirty and aptly named Blackwattle Bay. Heritage falls apart on the harbor's (sic) shore, iron rusts, and there is no foreshore access. Two huge cement factories that dominate the view around the bay pollute the water.

All that is not a disincentive to the 3.5 million annual visitors and is irrelevant to the restauranteurs and suburban fishmongers who source their product from the market. It will be interesting to watch how the venue evolves and to see if a working market and a tourist/recreational magnet can flourish side by side.