Sweeting’s

Built: 1907-1908
Address: 49-51 Stuart Street
Architects: Walden & Barton
Builder: Joseph Eli White (1853-1917)

This building is a wee gem – I love its honest, ungentrified Edwardian appearance and the quirky arrangement of the different window sizes on the first floor. The strong lines of the cement facings look very effective against the brickwork, and the tilework and old bullnose verandah add to its charm. It is an example of the style referred to (quite misleadingly) as ‘Queen Anne’.

Originally a fishmongery, poultry dealers, and dining rooms, it was built for a syndicate led by Francis Joseph Sullivan (c.1858-1914). Sullivan was a big name in the local fishing industry.  Since the early 1890s he had been a fish retailer, the local agent of the Bluff Oyster Company, and an active supporter of the fish hatchery at Portobello. He owned Dunedin’s first fishing trawlers and squeezed out some of the traditional line fishers, which didn’t make him popular with everyone. He was also one of New Zealand’s largest rabbit exporters, owning large processing works in both Otago and Southland.

Architects Walden & Barton called for tenders in July 1907. I don’t know which of the partners, Edward Walter Walden or Joseph Barton, was mainly responsible for the design. Walden (1870-1944) had previously been in partnership with James Hislop. His later designs include the Mayfair Theatre, Andersons Bay Presbyterian Church, Hallenstein’s building in the Octagon, and St Margaret’s College. The elder man, Barton (1853-1917), had previously worked in Dunedin as a building contractor, making the same transition as builder/architects such as Hardy, Winchester, and Forrest before him.

The building was completed around January 1908. According to a description in the Otago Daily Times: ‘The shop downstairs is a room 23ft by 24ft: the floors are Minton encaustic tiles; the walls from floor to ceiling are glazed tiles; a dark cream tile is used for a dado, with embossed tile necking and white glazed tiles above; the ceilings are all of ornamental metal, tastefully picked out in different colours; the counters and window fittings are all of picked marble, sand finish, the woodwork being white enamel finish […] Immediately at the rear of the shop is a large dining room, 32ft by 28ft. This room is finished with red pine dadoes, mantels, and tiled hearths, the floors being dressed off very smoothly and left a natural wood finish. The ceilings are divided up into bays of embossed metal, with electric lights round the walls and hanging from the centre of each bay. From the shop a goods lift runs to the ladies’ dining room on the first floor. This room has a separate entrance from Stuart Street; it is 28ft by 20ft. Immediately adjoining it is a special set of lavatories and basins and hat and cloak rooms specially fitted up for the patrons. In addition to the two large dining rooms there are three smaller suites of rooms splendidly lit and neatly finished.’

Joseph Eli White was the builder. The subcontractors were Andrew Lees (painting and decorating), W.H. Newman (plastering and tile work), Briscoe & Co. (pressed metal ceilings) and A. & T. Burt (plumbing and electric work).

The restaurant was named ‘Sweeting’s Dining Rooms’,  presumably after the famous Sweeting’s Fish Restaurant of Queen Victoria Street, London (opened 1889). The Dunedin restaurant was taken over by Findlay Bros (1920-1925) and then Charles Tabor (c.1928-1939) before closing. There were a few colourful incidents in the early years. In 1910 there was a bit of a punch-up on the street (with a follow up in the supper room) between a drunk staff member and a patron. Among other things, the staff member didn’t take kindly to criticism of the way the geese had been plucked.  The following year there was some violence between members of rugby teams from Port Chalmers and Dunedin.  The Dunedin boys were heard referring to Port Chalmers as ‘Dogtown’, and according to Truth (New Zealand’s most sensationalist newspaper): ‘the quickest way to cause a riot and to raise an insurrection is to call an inhabitant of Port Chalmers a dweller in Dogtown’. Truth also had fun reporting an incident that involved Maggie Moore, an employee of Sweeting’s. In 1915 she was ‘charged with using obscene language in a telephone box at the Octagon at the unearthly hour of midnight’.

The fishmongery remained under the Sweeting’s name until the end of 1921. It became the Salisbury Butchery in 1922, and continued under that name until it became the MMM Butchery in 1957. MMM had many branches in Dunedin and was part of a chain which originated in Christchurch in the early 1940s. Why it was called MMM I don’t know, but a local nickname was the ‘Maggoty Meat Market’! MMM became Hellaby meats around 1985. The butchery became King Dick’s Emporium of Fine Meats from about 1988 and finally closed around 1993.

A separate building in Gaol (now Dunbar) Street had originally been set aside for the curing of fish and the sale of rabbits and poultry, and another was used for fish cleaning. It looks as though these were later rebuilt into the more substantial adjoining structure that survives today. Smallgoods were processed here, with Salisbury Smallgoods occupying the space until they moved around 1969.

Galaxy Books and Records (run by Bill Brosnan) opened in the building in 1977 and remained there until about 1998 when it moved to Great King Street. There was also a takeaway bar for a time. Fight Times, a martial arts supplies shop, has operated from the site since about 2004. The business is part of the Todd Group, who are the building owners.

Newspaper references: Otago Daily Times, 7 February 1890 p.3 (notice for F.J. Sullivan), 13 July 1907 p.11 (call for tenders), 31 January 1908 p.3 (description); Otago Witness, 2 February 1899 p.4 (Sullivan and rabbits), 9 September 1903 p.55 (complaints re trawlers), 18 April 1906 p.11 (Sullivan’s comments on the fishing industry); New Zealand Truth, 9 July 1910 p.7 (fight in the street), 8 July 1911 p.7 (‘Dogtown’ incident), 9 October 1915 p.5. (Maggie Moore).

Other references: Stones Otago & Southland Directory, Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directory, telephone directories.

8 thoughts on “Sweeting’s

  1. ronnieeastell

    I am absolutely loving your blog, Keep it up! Dunedin is a wonderful place, I often wonder about the buildings as I walk the streets. Just finished a study on the development of Dunedin’s city-scape since settlement, very interesting! The buildings tell such wonderful stories!

    Reply
    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks – much appreciated! There are more great building stories in Dunedin than I can ever cover but I’ll try to keep up two per month. I like the sound of your study topic.

  2. Douglas Annan

    Excellent article. My father was a long term MMM manager in Christchurch & claimed that MMM did not stand for anything particular. However as a kid I came across old letterhead in his shop which read “Miraculous Meat Marketeers” so I think this was the original name of the company.

    Reply
  3. Brendon

    Interesting read here, just been going through some junk at home and found an egg cup with Sweetings Resturant Dunedin on it.

    Reply

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