Indian hawkers

25 October, 2009

Indian hawker and farmer on a farm at Carapook, Victoria, 1924.
Indian hawker and farmer on a farm at Carapook, Victoria, 1924.
Image: Arthur Pearce
Source: Museum Victoria Collection

Question: I visited Immigration Museum a couple of months ago. I saw you had some information about the hawkers who travelled around Victoria. I have an old photo of the Indian hawker who used to come by my grandmother's house in his horse-drawn covered wagon in the early 1920s. Can you tell me a little bit more about these hawkers and the story of how they came to Australia?

Answer: The Indian community has a long and rich history in Australia, with immigration beginning quite early in our colonial history. The earliest Indians came as convicts or as servants of British subjects who had been living in India. At first the numbers of Indian-born immigrants were small but, in the late 19th century, many more arrived searching for work. The 1881 census records 998 people who were born in India but this had grown to over 1700 by 1891.

Many Indian immigrants to Victoria in the late 19th to early 20th centuries sought employment in rural areas as labourers or itinerant hawkers. These hawkers, who came from a variety of countries including India, traversed rural Victoria and other parts of Australia, moving from town to town in their covered wagons. The hawkers sold a diverse range of products, including food, books, pots and pans and jewellery, as well as products from India, such as silks and spices.

Many sources indicate that these hawkers provided a lifeline to the rural towns and more isolated farms by providing a large range of products, as well as a diversion from the everyday. There must have been a great sense of excitement when the hawker came to town bearing new merchandise, both everyday and exotic, which might otherwise not be seen outside the big cities.

One woman, now in her nineties, recalled the visits of an Indian hawker to her parents’ farm near Terang in Western Victoria in the 1920s:

I remember him quite well although I was very young when he used to call at our place in his covered in wagon driving two horses … He would always stay a few days and would make one of hot curries. He would have to kill the lamb himself, or he could not eat it. The older boys always thought it was great but it was a bit hot for me … We younger ones thought he was great as he always brought us sweets or some little gift.

We have a number of images at Museum Victoria, including some in our Biggest Family Album collection that show these hawkers, some with their distinctive wagons. Several other institutions, such as the National Library of Australia also hold images of Indian hawkers and have done research into the lives of specific individuals. The National Archives of Australia and the Public Record Office Victoria also hold official documents, such as immigration papers, shipping lists, hawkers’ licences, and letters, which provide information about the arrival to and experience of these Indian hawkers in Australia. Some of the links to the right provide resources where you can do further research into the lives of these pioneer Australians and their fascinating stories.

Further Reading

Brown-May, Andrew & Swain, Shirlee, The Encyclopedia of Melbourne, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 364 – 365.

Jupp, James (ed.), The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Comments (15)

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sajid parvez 4 March, 2010 19:18
Glory of the past time, contribution in development of Australia, all appreciation goes to the hard working peoples of the past, to be remembered.
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Neil Thompson 19 March, 2010 10:38
My father use to tell me about hawkers in the coleraine balmoral area, who would cook traditional indian food at camps. There are still I believe a very prominent family "sondhu" who grew from Hawkers to being the districts biggest landholders near Harrow in Western Victoria
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Rosemary West 15 April, 2010 10:12
Thanks for respoding to my question re 'Indian Hawkers'. My mother often spoke of one of them who visited Millicent in the SE of SA in the early 1900's. It was an exciting day when 'Mickey Singh' appeared with his wagon of goodies. Many years later my mother's sister named a trotter (her son ran a stable of trotters) Mickey Singh who won some races. Thanks again
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Helen Ballentine 16 August, 2010 18:51
In searching for block numbers in the Parish of Dering ( near Tempy Victoria) I discovered my grandfathers neighbour was Kishin Singh. I dont know much more but there were Indian Hawkers in the region in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. Just thought it might be useful for someone if they are tracing the Singh family.
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keith johnson 2 November, 2010 19:55
I am seeking information on Charlie Mohamad hawker of Warrnambool and district. He served in the local militia and was a most respected man.
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Discovery Centre 5 November, 2010 11:32
Hi Keith. The licences of Indian hawkers are held by the NAA. Follow the link at right to their infosheet about cameleers and hawkers for further information. You can do a search yourself on their record search or if the information is not there, contact them to see if they have a record of him either as a hawker or in the militia.
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Amy Chan 1 January, 2011 20:50
Hello, My name is Amy and I would like to know if there is a book that I can buy about this history. Thankyou in Anticipation.
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Discovery Centre 4 January, 2011 12:54
Hi Amy, the references in the text above, as well as the links at right do have articles that give a good deal of information about the subject. The NAA article 'Uncommon lives' has a very good bibliography at the bottom for information about both hawkers and cameleers.
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Crystal Jordan 9 January, 2011 22:43
The SBS Booklet is information from Historian Len Kenna. Len has been researching Indian Hawkers for over 20 years and has published books on the subject of Indian Hawkers and a play about an Indian Hawker in Heywood.
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Ngarra Murray 28 April, 2011 10:47
I'm looking for information on my great great grandfather. Meera Nabi (Naby) Baksh (Baksch, Baksh, Bux) came to Victoria, Australia in 1871 as a 15 year old boy. He was born in 1855 and came from Ludhiana, India. He was a Punjab Sikh Indian Merchant Hawker. Meera established and owned the Barmah general store from the early 1900’s. He died and was buried at sea in 1938. Mehra and our Aboriginal grandmother Alice Campbell had six children. Do you know where I can find out further information? We have never seen a photo of him.
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Discovery Centre 28 April, 2011 11:56
Hi Ngarra, what an interesting story. General information can be found in the article, references and links above. For documentation you should read our answer to Keith on 5 November about obtaining hawker licences. These may have included an image. You may also find that the National Archives has further information about him, perhaps an exemption from the Dictation Test or other documents. Good luck with your research!
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Gary Murray 4 June, 2011 18:42
My Great Grandfather Meera Bux went home to his village Ludhiana in Punjab India in February 1938 saying he would return in three months (May 1938). Oral family history says that Meera Bux died on the steamer or ship and was buried at sea. Can we obtain the steamer or ship log which would confirm his death?
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Discovery Centre 9 June, 2011 15:35
Hi Gary, we would suggest that you start by finding out on what ship Meera Bux left the country. The National Archives of Australia have outgoing passenger lists on which you might find him. They are not online but you could contact them to gain the documents you seek. They may have a suggestion regarding how you track down a record of his death also. Otherwise, once you've found out the name of the ship, you may need to do some further investigation as to where the log might be located if it still exists.
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Arslanbashir 20 September, 2013 04:13
My great great great dad was a hawker was like that he lived in austrlia from 1889 to 1939 we still got his passport
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Emily 24 June, 2014 21:43
Hi everyone. My name is emily Singh ad my great grandfather was a Indian hawker in nsw called jundah Singh. He lived in tumut, rydal and kandos. He was a storekeeper and was a very respected man. I am unsure how he died as there was another jundah from Broken hill who's records are mixed with my great grandfather. Anybody who can help I would be greatful
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