Jim Harding sitting in the Indian hawker's cart belonging to Adalat Khan.
Image: F. Harding
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.
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.