Hawkers and Hawking

Paul Convy draws on a number of sources donated to our Society to create this interesting piece  on Lebanese Hawkers that many  are sure to recognize because it reflects their own experiences.

One of the Society’s members sent a copy of an article from The Illustrated Sydney News of November 19, 1892. The article titled Syrians in the South: a colony at Redfern is interesting reading.

The author of the article uses the term Syrians which was common in those days to describe those who came from what is now Lebanon. before current National boundaries existed. We know from the family history of members that most of those Syrians were of Lebanese descent.

The article begins by describing the appearance of Syrian women hawkers in Australian cities who were causing concern in some quarters. Were they imported to especially to hawk goods on the street? Were they pushed onto the street to hawk by lazy and indolent husbands? Were they using their coquettish charms to push their wares?

The author, however, was so impressed by what he had seen of a colony of Syrians he had studied in Redfern, and their hospitality and industry that he doubted whether they really were Syrians or if they were being confused with other races.

Woman hawker 1892x x

Many persons are, perhaps, unaware that there exists in one of the suburbs of Sydney a rather large colony of Syrian men, women and children, which has become so numerous of late that, within the last couple of weeks, it has become necessary to open a church for their special benefits, and, a few days ago, to found a school for the education of their children. The colony covers the greater portion of the eastern side of Redfern Park, the Syrian houses lying between the numbers 37 and 141. Within these limits, the Syrians are located in 23 shops, which comprise a number of businesses: watchmaker, useful cordwainer, the self-sacrificing drapers, the dealer in fancy goods, the hospitable boarding-house keeper, and the general merchant. This list of pursuits will, at once, suggest that the Syrian is not an undesirable colonist.

The author noted that the colony was founded in 1887 when about 20 people settled in Surrey Hills, at the time he says, there were about 100 Syrians in the colony.

The women who sell goods in the city and suburbs are as apart from the Syrian colonists as any old English woman who sells fresh eggs at one’s door the wives of the shopkeepers at Redfern devote themselves entirely to ordinary domestic duties.

Hawking, in fact, in the 19th century and early last century did not always carry the dishonourable associations portrayed by the correspondent of The Illustrated Sydney News. Country roads and lanes of Australia saw many hawkers of different ethnic backgrounds. It was a honourable way in which those with few assets could build enough capital to start a regular sort of business. Many, we know, found a town where they could settle and raise a business and a family.

For some, however, hawking remained a way of life. We came across this article from the Braidwood Despatch of Tuesday, February 15, 1938, ‘OLD IDENTITY PASSES’:

The death occurred in St. John of God Hospital, last week of a picturesque old Goulburn resident, Mrs. Rosie Josephs, at the age of 97, who was a familiar figure in the Braidwood district many years ago. She was a native of Syria, and was born at Mount Lebanon. On the death of her husband she came out to Australia in the days of the old sailing vessel, making the trip on a French boat. The trip was very difficult, and took about three months to complete. On arriving in Sydney she remained there for a time, but soon went to Goulburn, where she commenced a hawking business. In her young days she covered the Braidwood, Moruya, Bungendore and Goulburn districts, carrying a large bundle under each arm. She showed wonderful strength, as she made all her journeys on foot. At times she had gone down the south coast as far as Melbourne, and was known in all her districts as a splendid woman, and very fair in her dealings. During her travels “Rosa,” as she was known to many people, must have covered thousands of miles on foot. Of late years, owing to failing health, she confined her activities to Goulburn, where she was a familiar and picturesque sight, pushing a pram along the streets.

However, these hawking concerns sometimes became substantial businesses in their own right. The National Motor Museum in Adelaide in South Australia, for instance, has among its collections a restored hawker’s motor van operated by Harry Mansoor between 1928 and 1954. The van became the lifeline for food and supplies to the people of far northern South Australia.

Members have also bought to our attention a very interesting book entitled Hawking to Haberdashery: immigrants in the Bush by Janis Wilton which was published in 1987 in Armidale as one of a series of case studies on rural migrant life in N.S.W. since the turn of the 19th century. This particular volume related to the Syrians or Lebanese hawkers in northern and northwestern rural New South Wales with particular reference to the descendents of Sarquis and Dora Solomon and Ida and Joe Joseph.

The Solomons, for instance arrived in Sydney in 1897 and first settled in Redfern – then took up hawking in the northwest before they could raise enough capital to set up business in Glen Innes. They went on to prosper with their descendants spread throughout N.S.W.

Many rural folk living on isolated farms rarely saw anyone from the outside world and usually welcomed the Lebanese hawker not only as a provider of essential goods such as work clothes, but also as a supplier of pretty and exotic goods such as coloured ribbons. The hawker was their link to the outside world.

Patrick White recounts in his novel The Aunt’s Story the popular excitement caused by the arrival in a rural village a Lebanese hawker and his wagon:

Down the road from the direction of the hills the Syrian came from time to time. He came into sight at the bend in the road, where his wheels thrashed, splashing through the brown water of the ford. From a good distance you see the dirty canvas swaying and toppling about the cart, and there was time to shout a warning, to call The Syrian! here comes the Syr-i-urn!

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