Dandenong Market has been the cornerstone of bustling community life for almost 150 years. It was at this weekly meeting place that livestock was bought and sold, fresh produce was traded, and life-long friendships were born and sealed.
Prior to the European settlement of Australia, the area of Dandenong was densely forested with red gum and was inhabited by the Woiwurrung tribe and the Bunurong tribe of the Kulin nation.
The area was taken up for grazing by European settlers in the 1830s and, by the 1950s, a road was made from Melbourne, making Dandenong an important staging post for travellers into Gippsland. In November 1863 ratepayers petitioned for the establishment of a market and, on 10 October 1866, the Market was officially open for business.
The Market operated once a week, with Tuesday being ‘market day’. On the very first market day, auctioneers sold “dairy cows, with calves; heifers springing, 50 head store cattle, a quantity of useful horses, fat and store pigs, well-bread rams, poultry, potatoes, and other produce; drays, spring-cart and farming implements”. It wasn’t long before an informal market sprung up on the pavements around the stockyards selling fruit, vegetables and other goods sold out of the backs of wagons, carts and barrows backed up to the pavement.
Throughout the early years, market traders travelled long distances: one Gippsland farmer recalled “carting our butter, eggs and bacon to the Dandenong Market… the journey always took three strenuous days”. Much like today, the Market was also a venue for concerts in the early years. In the late 1800s, a makeshift stage, tarpaulins and cloths were strung to create a concert area, with lights and lamps borrowed for atmosphere.
By 1870 the market started operating weekly with up to 300 vendors and buyers in attendance - popular items at the time included native animal hides, straw honey and lard.
One of the most popular sights on market day was the driving of cattle through the streets of Dandenong, to the market: "Almost all of the cattle at the Dandenong Market were escorted through Dandenong by whip-cracking horsemen. Every Tuesday, drovers and cattle dealers would drive a fairly large mob through the railway gates. A horseman would gallop up each footpath, closing the gates while residents and children watched the scene through the fences or windows."
By the 1900s, stall holders from the city, Prahran and other southern suburbs travelled out to Dandenong to sell city goods to “the country folk”. A local resident described how the market brought a small country town to life every Tuesday: “‘Dandenong was just a country town, quiet and sleepy, except on Market Days. Droves of bellowing cattle poured in for every Market Day to the sound of cracking whips, shouts and barking dogs—for all the world like a Banjo Patterson poem’ and the spruikings of the auctioneer could be heard out in the main street, clear above all the rest of the noise”.
By the 1920s, the town’s population had grown to 4040 and the market had long outgrown its site. In 1926, the Market was relocated to its existing site on the corner of Clow and Cleeland Streets. Once again part of the attraction of the market was the combination of livestock, produce and general merchandise. A local journalist describes a unique and colourful place "wherein fruit, fish and hosiery, and all of the habiliments of fashion, fur coats and crockery-ware, cabbages and gramophones, pork and other meats, gum boots and garden tools may be had for the asking accompanied by cash payment".
During World War II, Dandenong Market was taken over by the military as an AIF training camp and became “No. 6 A.I.F. Recruit Training Depot”.
From early June 1940, the produce sections had been converted into sleeping quarters for 1000 recruits. The ad hoc camp site was festooned with huts of galvanised iron and makeshift walls of hessian and timber. The camp was ‘deemed to be one of the most comfortable in the State’, according to The Age.
In the post-war boom, Dandenong’s population grew quickly with a wave of immigrants. And with it, Dandenong Market thrived: "from here there and everywhere along the roads converging on the market square, milch cows and fat cattle on the hoof, porkers, suckers and backfatters, baconers and vealers come in covered carts and motor vans,… costermongers and hucksters bring in their wares, … townspeople and visitors line the streets, now rapidly crowding with pedestrians and parked cars; and the raucous cries and chaffering from the market stalls… Within the precincts many dialects may be listened to all mingled in the jargon, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” – where anything from a needle and up to and only stopping short of an anchor, is thrust under one’s notice. Dandenong Market is assuredly unique, in spite of its suggestion of a Paddy’s Market, wherein fruit, fish and hosiery, and all of the habiliments of fashion, fur coats and crockery-ware, cabbages and gramophones, pork and other meats, gum boots and garden tools may be had for the asking accompanied by cash payment."
In 1958, the stock market was removed from Dandenong Market due to concerns about crowding and sanitation. The stockyards were relocated to purpose-built facilities on Cheltenham Road behind the Dandenong rail yards. However, the general market remained at Clow Street and continued to operate from the “rambling old market shed” built in the 1920s. The market’s innumerable stalls and “two-bob” sections continued to sell a colourful range of different commodities, food and produce, pets, clothing, all the way through to second hand goods and plain old junk.
The 1970s heralded a new wave of migration into Dandenong. Many came from countries which maintained a tradition of market, with shopping and stall-holders reflecting Dandenong’s diverse population. The great range and variety of fresh produce, goods and merchandise, as well as the wide range of faces, accents, languages provided part of the theatre, entertainment and the experience of visiting the market. In 1975, Dandenong Market commenced trading on Fridays as well as Tuesdays. A third market day was added in 1982, with the launch of Saturday trading.
In the 1980s, the market was one of Victoria’s busiest and biggest with 700 stalls selling ‘all conceivable produce from fresh vegetables to poultry, second hand goods and paintings’. Throughout the 90s and 00s, there were continued renovations made to the market, including a $26 million redevelopment between 2005 and 2010.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Dandenong Market commenced trading on Sundays., reflecting the slow, easy pace of market life. Sunday is now one of the market’s most popular trading days.
Today Dandenong Market continues to be a vibrant community asset that is loved by both the local and regional community. Like the city itself, Dandenong Market has changed and evolved to suit the needs and expectations of its visitors, growing from a livestock and produce market to the one of the premier shopping destination of the southeast and Greater Gippsland area.
For more Dandenong Market history, you can purchase Dandenong Market: Celebrating 150 Years hard cover book or ibook:
Order Dandenong Market: Celebrating 150 Years hard cover coffee table book ($30) from Slattery Media. Copies can also be purchased from Dandenong Market's Market management Office located at 40 Cleeland Street.