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South Australian pie carts

891 ABC Afternoon Delights at the State Library : 20 March 2007

Carole Whitelock talks with Michael Talbot

Fast foods 

We tend to think of fast food as a fairly recent phenomenon, but this overlooks a long history of street food sellers. First published in 1851, Henry Mayhew's London labour and the London poor, devoted 54 pages to 'street-sellers of eatables and drinkables' including tea, coffee, cocoa, hot-eels, pickled whelks, oysters, sheep's-trotters, pea-soup, fried fish, ham-sandwiches, hot green peas, kidney puddings, boiled meat puddings, beef, mutton, kidney, and eel pies, and baked potatoes.

Inner London's population of well over 2.8 million in 1861 offered a greater scope than Adelaide's 18,300 but a small number of street sellers were licensed by the Corporation.







London pie, coffee and potato sellers. Mayhew (1851) vol.1 pp.196, facing 184 and 167


Adelaide street stalls

In 1861 George Baker received permission to keep a coffee stall at the corner of King William and Hindley streets from 8-12 p.m. and 5-7 a.m.  Councillor Kitely's remark that it 'would be of great benefit, especially to cabmen' suggests something new, as does the Corporation referring it to their Legislative Committee rather than the Public Works Committee that processed most later applications.


Australasian sketcher May 7, 1883


The spread of gas lighting in the city is offered as a reason for an increase in applications in the 1870s. In October 1870 F.W. Lawrence was refused permission to keep an oyster stall at the corner of Rundle-street and King William-street.  In February 1871 W. Miller was refused permission to keep a ginger-beer and fruit stall on the corner of King William and Hindley streets.  There was already a coffee-stall run by Mrs Harris at Muirhead's corner - the south-western corner of this intersection.  Vendors in the 1870s included coffee, ginger-beer, fruit and pie stalls.

Complaints were not infrequent. In January 1871, the council withdrew permission for Mrs Harris to run her stall 'in order to keep the streets free from the assemblage of bad or doubtful characters'.  Later in the year F.W. Lawrence's permit was renewed on a monthly basis subject to there being no complaints against him.  J.W. Townsend was granted a renewal of his permit in August 1874, but was warned that if any further complaints were received his permit would be withdrawn.

On the other hand some descriptions imply a similarity between coffee and pie stalls. Marcus Clarke's description of bohemian eating in the Melbourne of 1869, described similar coffee stalls to Mayhew. As well as coffee they traded in 'sandwiches, greasy cakes, and a sort of plumduff of very satisfying character'.  Ten years later the scene seems to have changed: 'For sixpence one can eat at a coffee stall the weight of a cup-winner's jockey. Hot baked potatoes, hot muffins, hot saveloys, hot rolls and butter! Hot coffee-boiling hot coffee! hot pies - scalding hot pies!'

In February 1874, F.J. Malone applied 'to keep a Coffee and Pie Stand' outside the Imperial hotel on the corner of Grenfell and King William streets.

When the City Council altered evening opening hours in 1890, protest letters to the editor referred to coffee stalls as a place to get a 'a pasty or something warm'. An 1896 article in the Express and Telegraph used the terms coffee stalls and pie stalls interchangeably. When the Adelaide City Council decided to phase out stalls in 1938 it referred to them as Coffee Stall Stands but proprietors like Beale, Gibbs and Cowley were clearly pie sellers.

Adelaide's first pie cart

With this degree of uncertainty it is not surprising that there are different views as to the date of the first Adelaide piecart.

  • 1861 - George Baker's coffee stall at the corner of Hindley and King William streets
  • 1871 - William Miller's pie stall in King William Street, near Hindley Street
  • 1871 - A pie cart 'licensed in 1871 and drawn by a horse to Victoria Square'
  • 1876 - Ray Purvis, owner of Cowley's Pie Cart for 30 years, believed the first cart appeared outside Bowman's Building in King William St about 1876

Adelaide certainly had pie stalls by the early 1870s.

The pie-stall man - 1907

For about a year from July 1907, the Register newspaper ran a series about 'People at work'. The pie-stall man's brilliantly lit 'palace' was introduced at a busy time just after 'the theatres had disgorged hundreds of people into King William street'. 

As well as pies the stall sold pasties, and hot peas - with salt, pepper and vinegar for the customer to add to taste. 'We get through gallons 'n gallons of 'ot peas.' 'There's tea, corfee, and cocoa to drink, unless yer feel like stone ginger. I've 'ad cake too. There's trotters and tongues and sav'loys. That ought to be about all. No; there's spuds. They're pop'lar. Slice 'em once and slap on the butter'.

The article describes the sale of pies and peas - but not as a pie floater. A customer, asked if he would take tea, coffee, or cocoa with his peas asked for a pie. 'In one physical effort our friend on the other side of the counter asked if the man didn't want two, if he would have them on a plate, and would he have sauce with them? My fellow-customer meant to munch the pies 'goin' along,' and would have plenty of sauce, thanks. The attendant slit the pies deftly, jerked into their interiors liberal injections of sauce, slid them into a bag, which he screwed up, pulled the cash drawer open with his foot, passed over the change, [and] bade his customer a carelessly intimate "G'night".'

Ernestine Hill - 1934

Ernestine Hill's article 'Pies and pioneers. Adelaide's caravan cafes',  shows Adelaide's piecarts just a few years before the Adelaide City Council decided to abolish them gradually as current occupiers ceased trading.

Hill contrasts modernity - 'the hooting of the ubiquitous taxi and the winking sky-signs of nightclub and cafeteria' with the horse-drawn pie stalls that 'come in with the dusk, threading the traffic at its peak hour, a homely kettle bubbling on the hob, and curls of smoke from tin chimneys, to take up the stands that some of them have held for the past half-century'. At least three of the stallkeepers had set up in in the same spot for more than 30 years. At 79, Charlie Harris was Adelaide's oldest pieman with 45 years' continuous service.

There were eight stalls about a hundred yards apart in King William Street with others elsewhere in the city. Hill described them as 'little white palanquins of romance'. 'Sheiks tents of mystery, where you slip behind the curtains to read the fortunes of humanity in the faces ranged round the board'. They were a mixed clientele: 'A dead-beat and a debating society one side, a king of the underworld dodging a bobby and a crowd in evening dress on the other. You get a bit of a mix-up late at night.' 

Pie cart stories


Tom Price Premier of SA 1905-1909
Pie cart patron PRG 280/1/43/382


In 1934, Charlie Harris at 79 Adelaide's oldest pieman remembered the city 'dimly lit, with "pushes" of larrikins at every corner'. Their revelry 'usually concluded in the small hours with the hitching of the pie-stall to the wheels of a hansom, and a clatter round the block to a crash of crockery and a flood of gravy, with a team of merry-makers in the shafts and another band aboard'. 'They thought it funny in those days,' said Charlie Harris. 'They had no picture shows or wireless sets to pass the time away, and no pillion seats or cars to take them anywhere, and they congregated at the street corners. The pieman and his horse and stall came in for a good deal of practical joking. Still, they always paid for it well, with real sovereigns, so we didn't mind.'

Harnessing the piecart to a cab and taking it for a joyride probably happened more than once. In one story it is attributed specifically to Robert Strangways Wigley 'who having studied Law and Architecture, proved to be an embarrassment to his Adelaide establishment family. Pranks such as taking a pie cart for a joy-ride down King William Street and riding horseback through the Adelaide Town Hall were a foretaste of his later behavior'.

Tom Price, Premier of South Australia from 1905 to 1909,  was said to patronise the pie stall near the railway station. 'Mr. [W.H.] Gibbs has a vivid recollection of a cabload of politicians, among whom was Tom Price, pulling up in front of his stall late one night, and calling for refreshments. While attending to their wants Mr. Gibbs pointed out that the horse they were driving had in some way managed to remove the bit from its mouth. "That's nothing", the first Labour Premier replied. "We've been electioneering. Nothing matters when you've been electioneering" he concluded cheerily, "except votes."'

Adelaide had a stockyard in the parklands at the eastern end of North Terrace. Late one night a bull, being driven to market by a man on horseback, broke away and charged at the pie cart. A young policeman eating at the piecart called a warning before falling down the railway station stairs 'in his eagerness to get out of the way'. The bull then charged 'two convivial citizens staggering across North Terrace to catch their last train' before doubling back to face an Irish cab driver who 'promptly forsook his cab and emulated the feat of the pie-eating policeman by falling down the station stairs'. 'One night an elephant from a circus broke away from its keeper and wandered down King William street, People scattered in all directions, but Jumbo saw the friendly light of a piestall and lumbering up accepted rolls from the hands of Mr. Gibbs until its keeper arrived and took charge.'

The story of the abandoned violin case takes several forms. In one telling, two of Charlie Harris' nightly patrons used his pie stall as a parking place for their violin case. One night they didn't collect it and after some days it was opened.  Ernestine Hill portrayed a gentle man with well cared hands. The pie cart proprietor 'wrote him down as a poor musician, and frequently issued an extra sausage on to the plate and brimmed the coffee cup'. He abandoned his violin case one evening when a policeman unexpectedly put his head round the curtain. The conclusion to both stories is that, when opened, the violin case was found to contain a set of burglar's tools.

Port Adelaide

James Gibb, one of a family of bakers and piecart owners, is said to have sold pie floaters from a stall at Port Adelaide's Black Diamond corner. 

Charles Franklin was the original owner of a piecart that had been in various locations at Port Adelaide since before 1908. Some locals knew it as 'The Duke of York's Own', because it was at the wharf to cater for the crowd when the Duke and Duchess of York arrived in 1901.

In 1937 this piecart survived a petition from shopkeepers asking the Port Adelaide Council to have it removed. They were protesting because patrons 'every night litter the path with pie crusts, foul shop windows with sauce, grease, meat and pastry, and scrawl obscenities on the windows with greasy pie crusts'. Council members suggested alternative sites, but when the Mayor pointed out the piecart owner paid £60 a year for the stand they decided to hear his views. 

Charles Franklin's sons, Arthur and Cecil, ran the piecart for many years and 'Pearl' Johns also 'presided' there for 12 years'. The Franklin brothers still owned the piecart - then located at the corner of Hart and St. Vincent streets and run by lessees 'Blue' Challinder and T. Allen - in 1958 when it converted to electricity: 'instead of stoking up the fire, Mr. Challinder began plugging in daily to a nearby electric power point'. 

This piecart was still operating in 1967 when Mrs Challinder was photographed stepping into it with a tray of pies.  It would be interesting to know when it ceased trading.


When the Norwood pie cart closed in 2001 it had been trading in the same place on the corner of George St and the Parade for 80 years. In 1988 an 'old resident' recalled that in the early 1930s a floater cost threepence - 'a penny for a plate of peas and tuppence for a pie, if separate.' 

In 1999 David Roberts, of Kingswood, remembered the swimmer Dawn Fraser's connection with the Norwood area during her time in Adelaide from the late 1950s. He thought the local council should name the intersection of George St and the Parade 'Dawn Corner' to recognise her fondness for the Norwood pie cart.

As with other pie carts there were occasional troubles with local traders. In 1962 a used car dealer complained that piecart patrons sometimes 'plastered' his cars with unwanted pies and pasties.

The $12 million Hoyts Cinema complex on Norwood Parade opened in December 1998 just behind the pie cart's traditional site.  The piecart's annual lease also expired in December and there was pressure from the cinema developers to move it. Suggestions to move it to the front of the Norwood Oval were resisted by the owner, Peter Webb, and the lease was renewed for the George Street corner. 

Pressure continued in the form of requirements to clean the footpath with either a steam cleaner or high-pressure hose.  After a move to outside Norwood Oval the piecart closed in 2001.

Port Pirie


Duke of York piecart



Ern 'Shorty' Bradley was born at Hindmarsh in 1874. Family tradition says he did an apprenticeship in Adelaide with Jim Gibb, of Gibbs Pies, and then set up a bakery to service the smelters in Port Pirie.  An obituary in 1929 said Shorty 'and his popular pie-stall "Duke of York," have for years been a familiar and homely site near the Institute in Ellen street'.



The current pie carts (2007)

In December 1938 the Adelaide City Council allowed H. Backman, E.G. Beale, W.W. Beale, W.J. Cowley, James Gibbs, Gordon Gibbs, and J.D. McDonough to renew their stall licences but decided transfer of licences would not be permitted, 'for as stands become vacant it is the Council's intention to abolish them'. 

By 1958 there were only two piecarts left in Adelaide - those on North Terrace outside the railway station and in Franklin Street outside the post office.

Railway station

The North Terrace pie cart site outside the railway station was popular with Premier Tom Price in the early 1900s. It was a site occupied by one of the Beale family's carts in 1938 but became vacant when they ceased trading there in 1942. C.W. Oram's Oven Door Bakery piecart on the Rundle Street/King William Street corner was transferred to the railway station in October 1970. 

The City Council reduced Oram's operating hours in 1981 and he was only allowed to operate from the railway station between 6 and 11.30 p.m. The controversy was taken up by state parliament where it was mentioned in Hansard over a period of several years. 'It took legal representation to Council and a Parliamentary Committee report to extend opening hours until 1 am.'  Then in May 1986 Oram won approval for all-night trading from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Charles Oram sold the piecart to Balfour Wauchope Pty Ltd in January 1987. Maintenance and staffing difficulties lead to a decision by Balfours to close it down in 2005; however Skycity Casino bought it in May 2005.  Proposals for a permanent pie cart outside the Casino were rejected by the City Council because of the volume of day time pedestrian traffic on the North Terrace footpath.

Victoria Square

Bill Cowley was born at Port Wakefield in June 1911.  His pie cart was first located near the Town Hall in King William St and then moved to Franklin St, outside the GPO in 1937. Pat and Ray Purvis bought Cowley's Pie Cart in 1964 and ran it until 1994. In 1987, Cowley's Bakery and Cowley's Pie Cart became separate companies, with a 'loyalty agreement' for the bakery to supply the cart.  After running Cowley's Pie cart for 30 years Pat and Ray Purvis sold it to Leon Chapman who ran it for eight years before putting it on the market in 2002. 

Cowley's Bakery was bought by Prices Bakery, also known as Bakeries of Australia, which went into receivership in January 2003 and late that year Cowley's products were no longer on the menu. Morton's Bakery at Edwardstown took on the job of supplying pies, and then bought the cart from Leon Chapman in 2004.



 The Mortons Bakery pie cart, Franklin Street outside the Adelaide Post Office in 2006. From B 70050


Pie floaters

Various contenders as South Australian inventors of the floater are:

  • Ern 'Shorty' Bradley in Port Pirie in the 1890s
  • The Gibbs brothers in the early 1900s
  • Charles Franklin who had a pie cart at Port Adelaide

Other than family tradition there seems to be no hard evidence to name an inventor, although there does seem to be been an intersection between Port Adelaide, the Gibbs, and Ern Bradley.

There are related dishes: mushy peas sold in English pie shops and fish and chips shops, and Yorkshire 'pie and peas' suppers. Cockney slang around 1864 used the term floater for a suet dumpling in soup. Pie stalls sold pea soup as well as pies.

Barbara Santich concludes the exact origins of the pie floater in South Australia 'are blurred in a swirl of faded memories and vague hearsay' but believes 'it could have been simply the result of fortuitous proximity [of pie stalls selling both pies and peas]. It's not necessarily obvious, but one can understand the progression to a pie in thick pea soup'.

The pie floater does seem to be an early twentieth century South Australian invention. The earliest recorded uses of the word in the sense of a pie floating in peas are South Australian from the 1920s and 30s. In 1934 Ernestine Hill described a floater as 'nothing but a mince-pie floating in a soup-plate of thick, dark-green pease gravy, an appetising dish to those who like that sort of thing, and a good "filler" when one is down to the last sixpence late on a Saturday night'.



One glance at the boot-heels ... will tell you a lot about the people who patronise the piestalls.
Ernestine Hill, 'Pies and pioneers. Adelaide's caravan cafes', Advertiser 23 June 1934, full article on Trove


Further reading

Books:  John Couper-Smartt, Port Adelaide: tales from a 'commodious harbour', Port Adelaide, Friends of the South Australian Maritime Museum, 2003, p.210. 
Henry Mayhew, London labour and the London poor: a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work, London, Cass, 1967. Vol. 1 and parts of vols 2 and 3 were first published in 1851. The edition is a reprint of the four volume enlarged edition first published 1861-62. 
Barbara Santich, ed., In the land of the magic pudding: a gastronomic miscellany, Kent Town, S. Aust., Wakefield Press, 2000 preface pp xiii-xiv. 
Periodicals:  Margaret Phillips, 'Pie carts - Café des kerbs', History matters 13 (1) February 2003, pp.4-6. 
Archives:  D.J. Williams, Civic Affairs Manager Corporation of the City of Adelaide to Ray Purvis, 4 March 1986, Photocopy of letter summarising information from ACC Archives (Reference File: L48 part 4 folio 18 held in SLSA: D 7269(Misc) Notes and photographs relating to pie-carts in Adelaide, 1920-1986
Links:  'Robert Strangways Wigley - a Mclaren Vale personality' at accessed 21 March 2007. (No longer online) 
Barbara Santich 'Pie Floater' in Chris Gregory, Encyclopaedia of South Australian Culture, now at c.1999 accessed 21 March 2007. (No longer online) 
Newspapers:    Advertiser [Adelaide] 
'Obituary'[James Gibbs], 29 December 1927. 
'Obituary' [Mr. E.W. Bradley], 20 August 1929 p.17. 
Ernestine Hill, 'Pies and pioneers. Adelaide's caravan cafes', 23 June 1934. 
'Pie cart causes trouble at Port', 5 November 1937 [reproduced in Portonian [Port Adelaide Historical Society] 6 (1) March 1978 p.9.] 
Vox, 'Port piecart', in 'Out among the people', 1 August 1958 p.4k. 
Advertiser 7 August 1962 p.8c. Advertiser index. 
'The pie floater really is an SA delight' in 'Backchat with Samela Harris', 21 April 1988, p.28. 
'Pie cart pioneer [Bill Cowley] dies at 84', Advertiser 22 Mar 1996, p.11. 
'Another spectrum' in '140 years of The Advertiser', 17 July 1998. 
'Parade pie cart' 3 August 1998. 
Sam Weir. 'The end of a pie fight; Slice of history off the menu', 9 September 1998. 
Sam Weir, 'Cinema complex fight pushes pie cart down the Parade', 16 September 1998. 
Sam Weir, 'Pie cart battle ends on return to Parade', 30 September 1998. 
Peter Hackett, 'What's the beef, asks the pieman', 3 October 1998. 
'Curtain up for cinemas', 17 December 1998. 
Jeff Turner, 'Dynamo who swam against the tide'; 30 January 1999. 
'Clean up, owner ordered', 9 December 1999. 
'Parade pie cart fails to stay afloat', 7 November 2001. 
Jemma Chapman, 'Fight over a Norwood tradition. Parade pie war leaves nasty taste', 6 March 2002. 
'Cloud over cart's history', 16 September 2002. 
Elizabeth Rowe, 'Slice of dining tradition wheeled on the market', 16 September 2002. 
Tony Love, 'Why we're all pie-eyed', 28 May 2003. 
Sam Riches, 'Different pies, but they still float', 3 November 2003. 
Andrea Stylianou, 'Change of owners for city pie cart', 4 August 2004. 
Bryan Littlely, 'Casino pie cart to close', 30 April 2005. 
Andrew Hough, 'Pie cart to stay on North Tce for late-night diners. Changing face of an Adelaide icon', 1 June 2005. 
'Station pie cart returns', 20 August 2005. 
'Cart refused', 12 December 2006. 
Age [Melbourne] 
Marcus Clarke, 'Melbourne restaurants', 18 July 1879 reproduced in Barbara Santich, ed., In the land of the magic pudding: a gastronomic miscellany, Kent Town, S. Aust., Wakefield Press, 2000, pp.41-49. 
Australasian [Melbourne] 
Marcus Clarke, 'Bohemian eating', 17 July 1869 reproduced in Barbara Santich, ed., In the land of the magic pudding: a gastronomic miscellany, Kent Town, S. Aust., Wakefield Press, 2000, pp.55-57. 
Express & Telegraph [Adelaide] 
'The pie stall', 5 May 1896 p.2d. 
Mail [Adelaide]'
Cafes des kerbs. Romance of Adelaide coffee stalls. Sidelights of city night life', 6 August 1927, p.1. 
Recorder [Port Pirie]
'A good sportsman. Death of Mr E W Bradley', 16 August 1929. 
Register [Adelaide]
People at work. The pie-stall man', 2 October 1907, page 5g. 
Sunday Mail [Adelaide]
Barbara Page, 'On trail of Shorty, the pie floater king' 6 February 1994, p.175. 


More Afternoon Delights

ABC Afternoon Delights at the State Library was a series in which Carole Whitelock talked with Michael Talbot from the State Library about South Australian topics, illustrated by items from the library's collections. There is an associated web page for each topic.



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