Meet Port Vila Market House's first tea seller

Evelyn Mathias

Having a cup of tea, Milo or coffee at the Port Vila Market House is something many Port Vila residents have experienced, whether rushing to work and having no time for breakfast at home or whether you are having afternoon tea or keeping warm in the evenings.

However, when did the sale of tea start and who started the sale of tea back then?

As we celebrate 40 years of Independence and open the upgrade of the Port Vila Market House, we take a look back in time at how it all started.

Meet Evelyn Mathias who now resides at Snake Hill.

This elderly lady was the first market vendor to sell tea at the Port Vila Market and this is her story of how it all began.

She was a market vendor from 1951 right up to independence in 1980 and many years post-independence until she retired of old age.

Mrs Mathias originally from Nguna Island off the northern coast of Efate attended Eles Primary School at Tikilasoa village on the island. Later on, in life she met Anis Mathias from Ambae at her sister's wedding and they later got married.

The couple bought a property at Snake Hill where they farmed ever since. Mr Mathias worked for the British Works which later became Public Works after independence and Mrs Mathias planted the common garden crops such as pawpaw, taro and banana which she would sell at the market to generate income. Mr Mathias also planted potato on their property.

The idea of selling tea came about as a lot of the market vendors especially the ladies from Mele village would usually say they wished there was a place they could drink tea.

Somewhere down the line, Mrs Mathias was chosen to represent the Anglican church of Vanuatu along with a lady from Pentecost called Ruth Dovo. The two ladies travelled to New Zealand to take part in the Pacific Mothers’ union assembly. This was her first trip out of the country. Mrs Mathias says they joined the church choir during the mother's union where she sang as a tenor.

It was there in New Zealand that she saw a water heater on sale and decided she was going to start a new venture upon returning home. Mrs Mathias says she felt confident in starting something no one had started and strongly believed in her new business venture which her late husband supported.

The couple and their six children would heat up the water at their Tebakor home each morning, then Mr Mathias would drive his wife to the market in a Peugeot car. Mrs Mathias says back then each vendor had their own private transport or used taxis as there were no service buses or Hilux transports back then. She says each vendor had to also travel with their own tables and chairs.

Mrs Mathias recalls back then how her main customers were the market vendors from Mele village, she says government workers of the two colonial governments as well as police officers made up her regular clientele.

She continues that her selling price would be 50 francs for a cup of tea and 100 francs for a cup of tea including bread with peanut butter. The prices later changed to VT50 and VT100 respectively after independence.

Mrs Mathias says back then the population of Port Vila was quite small compared to today everyone basically knew everyone else. She says on a daily average, her income would be VT15,000.

She says things were not as expensive in the shops as they are today and that VT15,000 on a daily average was sufficient to keep six children afloat and supplement her husband’s salary to pay for the children's school fees.

Mrs Mathias recalls things such as canned tuna for VT20, basket of kumala for only VT300. She banked most of her income at the Westpac Bank.

Mrs Mathias says there was only one toilet which was located next to the old Customs wharf which is where the present day Au Bon Marche Downtown branch stands as there was no sea wall and the sea came all the way up near the main road. She says the toilet was regularly tended to and always in a clean state.

Mrs Mathias says back then the market area which consisted of a tiny house though most vendors sat in the open under the sea oaks, she also says the area was always clean as people took pride in the place and everyone used the bins which were big drums.

Looking back on the past and comparing her times under the sea oak trees to the new market building today, Mrs Mathias says she is happy to see how far we have come and that she is glad a lot of other women have walked in her footsteps so now there are many vendors who sell tea and coffee, though she jokes and laughs as she says everyone these days is lazy with technology.

These days Mrs Mathias stays home at their Snake Hill property while her son Andrew carries on the potato farming activity which his late father started.

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