THE HOBART SLAUGHTERYARDS
A brief look into a little known part of Hobart’s colonial history.
I would like to acknowledge the original inhabitants of the Macquarie Point area, the muwinina peoples, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I acknowledge they were driven from the area by gunfire and bloodshed committed by the colonialist invaders. Always was, always will be, muwinina land.
As the masses of wealthy tourists disembark from the looming cruise ships docked at Mac 1 on the Hobart waterfront, little do they realise that they walk where so many non-human animals walked before them to be corralled into pens and await slaughter over a century ago.
Now an area that precariously balances the demands of industry, education and luxury lifestyles, from the 1850s until the early 1900s Macquarie Point was dominated by the sprawling Hobart Slaughteryards, which generated pollution and created public health risks that affected all who worked or lived nearby.
Up until the 1850s a public slaughter facility occupied the site, wherein it was stated under law all cattle must be slaughtered (The Cornwall Chronicle, 18/10/1843). In 1858 a land reclamation project provided for the establishment of a larger slaughter facility with expanded saleyards and corrals, as well as an improved jetty for the offloading of livestock. The new facility occupied the area from the mouth of the Hobart Rivulet to Macquarie Point, and extended back towards the Gas Works (The Daily Telegraph, 7/11/1903). It was around this time that it became mandatory to kill all other animals for commercial purposes (excepting poultry and wildlife) at the slaughteryards; at one stage styes were erected for pigs to inhabit as a means to dispose of the raw offal, until it came time for them to be killed in turn (The Mercury, 18/3/1893). Amongst the yards was a “small wooden building numbered 21 on the plan” where dogs rounded up by police were sent to be slaughtered (The Mercury, 18/8/1893). Before the establishment of the new slaughteryards the killing of these dogs had been undertaken in a building located behind the old Custom House on Davey Street (The Hobart Town Courier & Gazette, 20/5/1848).
Contemporary descriptions of the slaughteryards reveal a literal living Hell for those poor souls condemned to die there, as well as those who worked or lived in the surrounding Wapping area.
Animals frequently died on the ships during transportation due to disease or injury; in 1858 reports surfaced that the carcasses of deceased sheep thrown overboard from ships were being retrieved from the water, butchered and salted, then sold for human consumption, whilst others were brought ashore and rendered down for fat (The Hobart Town Courier & Gazette, 16/2/1858).
Those animals who survived transportation disembarked into the saleyards, which were described by the Engineering Inspector of the Control Board, Mr. A. Mault, thus;
The floor of the slaughterhouse is asphalted, but the sides are of rough pervious metal. The blood runs into little cesspits... The walls between compartments are formed of wood, which cannot be properly cleaned... The by-law relative to the “clearing up” of the slaughter pens appears to be carried out only as far as the floors are concerned... garbage and offal etc., not immediately thrown to the pigs in the stye, are carted to middle pits where the dung and refuse from the rest of the establishment are also thrown... The rough slabs permit the filth to soak into the soil, and at the same time effectively prevent any proper cleansing. They stand in close proximity to the pens in which the slaughtered meat is kept for periods varying from 12-48 hours... Speaking generally the establishment is neither properly constructed not properly arranged for a public slaughterhouse.
(The Mercury, 18/8/1893)
A letter written to The Mercury in the same year indicates that animals were often kept confined to the pens awaiting slaughter for up to a week, having already endured long journeys overland or at sea; the author also described how the Hobart Rivulet would become clogged with the assorted refuse and offal discarded from the slaughteryards (The Mercury, 18/3/1893).
Slaughter methods during the 19th to early 20th centuries involved hand-killing, which included the live-sticking of pigs and the use of pole-axes to fell cattle. Such methods were rendered all the more horrific depending upon the efficacy or inclination of those who worked butchering the animals;
Mr. S. Bendall, one of the oldest butchers, remembers employing [Arthur] Orton in the slaughteryards, and describes him as a big lusty fellow but an unskilled butcher.
(The Sydney Morning Herald, 21/5/1893)
Appalling conditions, barbaric slaughter methods, unskilled slaughtermen; it would be easy to reflect upon the days of the Hobart Slaughteryards and consider the current saleyards and slaughterhouses a mercy by comparison.
In 1903 it was proposed that the slaughteryards be relocated to a site out of the city, at Prince of Wales Bay (The Mercury, 12/12/1903). The relocation was not for any animal welfare concerns but for the benefit of the growing Hobart population who were desirous of acces to the area now known as the Regatta Grounds unencumbered by the stench and pollution the slaughteryards generated (The Daily Post, 10/6/1909). It would take a further six years for the relocation project to be completed.
During this time an article was published in The Mercury newspaper discussing the slaughteryards and the proposed move. The author wrote;
Like many other things the slaughtering of animals for public use has passed through several stages of development, as has undergone considerable improvement of late years. The primitive method of letting every butcher slaughter his own cattle in his own yards in any way he thought fit has long gone out of use in most civilised communities. (The Mercury, 5/4/1906)
It was less the methods of killing and more the location in which animal slaughter occurred, in the yards behind privately owned butcher shops which were often publicly visible, or openly accessible slaughteryards that were considered the problem. The author wrote further;
The modern system of providing our daily food differs from the old in almost every particular, but more especially in its greater cleanliness, humanitarianism, and beauty. (The Mercury, 5/4/1906)
This was written before the creation of modern styles of stunning, viewed as a necessity by today’s “humane” standards of slaughter; these were not introduced in the UK until the 1920s and took many more years to become widespread. Pole-axing and live-sticking were still considered part of “civilised and humane” slaughter at the time, even if the conditions of the Hobart Slaughteryards themselves were resoundingly criticised.
Since the introduction of pre-slaughter stunning as routine procedure, and the adaptation of slaughterhouses to the expectations of the modern era, these “improvements” have been lauded as proof that the slaughter of animals today is more humane and more civilized than in the days of the Hobart Slaughteryards. Certainly codes have been introduced to govern the construction and operations of slaughterhouses to protect public health and ostensibly the interests of animal welfare. However these codes consistently fail, and slaughterhouses continue to present a threat to the health of those who work there or live nearby, as evidenced by the Smithfield case of December 2019, or the outbreak of COVID-19 hotspots at slaughterhouses throughout the USA that so far have affected over 5000 workers, or indeed the outbreak at Cedar Meats in Melbourne that has caused infections amongst members of the community outside of the slaughterhouse.
And the act of stunning itself has been revealed time and again through multiple investigations to be dependent upon the individual worker in its efficacy, just as at the Hobart Slaughteryards of yesteryear, a well as being prone to failure or be in itself a torturous process, as in the case of Controlled Atmospheric Stunning with Co2 widely utilised in the slaughter process for pigs and chickens in Australia.
Whilst we may read the descriptions of the Hobart Slaughteryards with unease and disgust, we must take care to avoid viewing modern practices as a significant advancement upon older practices; the industrialised raising and slaughtering of non-human animals has itself brought the same problems witnessed in 19th century Macquarie Point except on a much larger scale.
The Hobart Slaughteryards today have been replaced by cargo and cruise ship docks, luxury apartments, cafes and restaurants. The slaughter of other animals continues however, on the fishing boats and punts that are viewed as idyllic tourist attractions despite their blood-stained decks. The flesh and skins of other animals are sold from boutique stores and eateries. And in a somewhat grim irony, the sheds where the slaughteryards once stood were used in 2018 as as the venue for Hermann Nitsch’s 150.Action hosted by Dark MOFO, a performance piece involving participants rolling in the corpse of a slain bull, doused in the blood of a dozen slaughtered steers.
It seems the bloody past of Mac 1 and the surrounding area is not so distant after all.