The freedom from capital costs, rents and rates made hawking an attractive avocation for the newcomer, the immigrant, the unskilled or the seasonally unemployed. At the very least, hawkers required ambulatory ability and something to sell. At best, they might have had a licence, a cart or barrow, abundant and fresh stock, and a large and accessible clientele. In economic terms the hawker served as a useful way for producers to distribute seasonal surplus, particularly perishable products such as fruit and fish, augmenting the regular outlets of markets, greengrocers and fishmongers. In the days before state welfare provision, hawking provided subsistence for the old and the disabled.
The physical sense of seasons passing could be measured by the seasonal produce vended around the town, and the hawkers' cries were an age-old measure of the year's turning. The noise of the hawker, like the cry of migratory birds, brought seasonal immediacy to the rhythm of city life. Summer months meant the appearance of ice-cream vendors, who in the winter would hawk fruit or sell newspapers. The fruit hawker once confined sales to boxes of one type of seasonal fruit and vegetables - grapes, pears, nectarines or peaches in February, quinces in April, peas in May, mandarins in July and August, asparagus and strawberries in October, cherries and apricots in December.
In the early 1850s less than a hundred hawkers were licensed in the County of Bourke (the majority of licences being for hawking on foot rather than with horse and cart) and by the end of the century the figure was around 500. Unlike in London, Melbourne's hawkers were almost exclusively male. The 1871 Victorian census put the number of hawkers and pedlars at 836 (809 male, 27 female). Anecdotal evidence put the number of hawkers in the total Melbourne metropolitan area at about 1000 in 1906. By 1916 it was illegal under By-Law No. 136 for women to be involved in street selling.
There were four main types of hawkers: hawkers of miscellaneous goods, fish hawkers, flower sellers, and fruit and vegetable hawkers. Miscellaneous street sellers ranged from local Koories selling besoms in the early 1840s, to the pigeon fanciers and 'cheap johns' haranguing the crowd outside the Eastern Market in 1888. Travelling meat vendors made occasional incursions into the inner city in the 1890s, and by the turn of the century a miscellany of hawkers spread a variety of wares through the streets, many working on commission for importing firms. A catalogue of street wares from the first days of settlement included brooms, trinkets, toys, oysters, drapery, Turkish delight, stationery, cigars, patent medicines, leather cement and razor paste.
In 1841 when vegetables were in short supply, hawkers sold rockmelons (cantaloupes), watermelons, turnips, cabbages and other vegetables at double Sydney prices. A few years later, market gardens burgeoning along Merri Creek to the north and in the sandy soils of the south-east, and gardens in suburbs such as Brighton, Caulfield, Dandenong, and Doncaster, supplied the city with produce. Although the markets, fruiterers and greengrocers provided retail outlets for vegetables, the hawker always maintained an important distributive role, particularly in glut seasons. By the 1880s the costermonger was acknowledged as a useful though disagreeable character. A significant number of fruit and vegetable hawkers (and also fish hawkers) were of Chinese origin, forming, according to an 1870 observer, 'one of the singular sights of Melbourne'. By the turn of the century Greek and Italian immigrants were beginning to predominate. While the fruit trade was not as lucrative as the fish, regular seasonal supply assured sellers a constant income, and Mildura dried figs and apricots could act as alternative items of sale.
As in London, many flower sellers were the children of other hawkers, working mostly on Sundays. The perfumes of the flower sellers' bouquets, of the garden brought into the city, were acceptably remedial to the city's stench. The small girls offering bunches of flowers for sale outside the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street in 1870 were a welcome sight to the homesick Londoner but a cause of anxiety for child rescuers concerned about children exposed to the dangers of the street.
Just as primroses, hyacinths and daffodils imbued the flower girl with sweet virtues, so cliff flathead, barracouta and schnapper from the fishing grounds off Queenscliff, Port Welshpool and Port Albert lent a rank air to the character of the fish hawker. When they were not hawking fish they supplemented their trade with rabbits or game. Of a slightly higher caste was the oyster vendor, whose evening cry of 'Sydney rock oysters' could be heard in Melbourne streets (except on Sundays). Melbourne's fish hawkers peddled their stock in close proximity to the fish market supply, and often cleaned their produce in the city's horse troughs.
A litany of complaint, mostly from city shopkeepers, included the noise and cries of the hawkers, the obstruction caused to street and footpath, class and racial stereotypes, and litter and swindling. Melbourne City Council regulations had by World War I excluded hawkers from many central city streets, and similar conflict between itinerant traders and local ratepayers occurred in many inner-city suburbs.
From the first days of white settlement, hawkers had been as much a part of the urban life as they had in any Old World city, and the figures of the coffee-stall keeper or the coster-monger were as familiar to Melburnians as they were to Londoners. Street selling, a viable occupation for the infirm and the immigrant from the turmoil of the gold-rush days to the 1890s, was slowly usurped by developing industries and changing technologies. As Central Melbourne began to lose its function as a residential zone, it also lost traditional aspects of street life, and itinerant sellers sought suburban markets further afield. The commercial role of street sellers in an immature and seasonal frontier economy was also made redundant by the centralisation and commercialisation of the provisioning and entertainment industries.