‘Ice Cream Charlie’ operated a well-known ice cream cart in Cathedral Square for much of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was reknowned for his friendly nature and delicious ice cream which he sold for most of the year from his cart. This ‘snapshot’ of him striding through the Square was taken around 1930.
A Man of Mystery
Sali Mahomet’s early life is shrouded in some mystery. Born Mohammed Khan c. 1866 to Sultan and Addul Mahomet (nee Khan), Sali made up various stories about his age as well as his place of birth, which ranged from Ceylon, Arabia and Russia.
His father, Sultan Mohammed, who was born in 1836 in Bera, Northern India, was the son of Riazack Mahomet, a ‘hawker’. However his son, Sali talked of growing up in the Russian city of Ashkhabad. He said his clan were persecuted by the Cossacks and they were forced to escape their homeland, over the mountains to northern India. Unfortunately the freezing conditions they endured, were responsible for the deaths of the women in the clan from hypothermia.
It seems Sali, or Solly as he was sometimes called, and his father made their way south to Ceylon. They eventually bought passages to Australia in 1894 but did not stay long there. They then sailed to the prosperous city of Dunedin, New Zealand. Sali’s marriage certificate states that his birthplace was Ceylon but a later recording states that he was from the Punjab. Sali may have held an underlying fear of being questioned, or worse being ‘kicked out’, if he was not considered a citizen of the British Empire.
Hawking their Wares in Dunedin
The duo set themselves up as hawkers. Basing themselves in Dunedin, they would purchase household goods and ride out on horseback to the hinterlands of Otago, Canterbury and Westland to pedal their wares.
Travelling over the rough roads and tracks of Otago and enduring freezing cold weather took its toll. Sali took a fall from his mount and broke his leg badly. This accident left him with a permanent limp – which he compensated for by wearing a built-up sole on his shoe.
Soon after the accident, in 1903, Sali made the decision to move north to the bustling Edwardian city of Christchurch. Using what savings he had, he bought an ice cream recipe and had a small cart made which he painted white with red stripes and gold decorative detail. He was granted permission by the council, to set his cart up outside the Bank of New Zealand on the south-eastern corner of the Square that year. His entrepreneurial dream to own his own business soon took off.
Not the only Ice Cream Vendor in Town
Sali wasn’t the first nor was he the only ‘coloured man’ to have an ice cream stand or cart in the centre of town. Christchurch had a “vast army of peripatetic hawkers who vend ice-cream, oysters, saveloys, roast potatoes, ‘bags of mystery’, pies at the street corners from vehicles varying in size from a Roman chariot to a perambulator, and of as wide a range of cleanliness.”  The ‘Star’ reported in 1900 that an ice cream stall had been set up by an unidentified coloured man in Cathedral Square on the morning of 8 September, and by the afternoon it was doing a steady trade. 
This was possibly the business of Abdul Boreham,  who had applied for an exclusive license in March 1901, at the cost of £10, to vend ice cream in Cathedral Square. His application had been supported by the Bylaw Committee of the City Council, but was turned down by the full Council, the arguments against included that it was unjust to ratepayers, and questions over the issue of cleanliness. Ironically a recommendation for a coffee stall on the north side of Gloucester Street, which was before the Council at the same time, was granted. 
Many enjoyed the convenience of having ice cream available from his cart, including one Christchurch father. So annoyed was he that the City Council’s actions had denied his children their treat from Boreham’s cart, he wrote to the ‘Star’, claiming Boreham’s ‘character was of the highest’ as was his product. He wrote that Boreham was having built a new model ice cream cart, ‘with all the best improvements, conveniences and privacy‘. 
Boreham then applied for sole rights to sell ice cream on the east side of Cathedral Square, on payment of £10 per annum, which was subsequently agreed by the Council – with the exception of his right to exclusivity. 
Boreham was joined by other ‘Indian’ ice cream vendors by the name of Solomon Shah  and fellow ‘Assyrian’ Charles Abraham. Like Sali, Abdul Boreham and Soloman Shah had also come from Dunedin, where they had operated in business together as hawkers. [endnote At around the same time that Boreham had applied for his license, Shah and Abraham had also applied to the City Council to sell ice cream, which they was also granted on payment of £10 each. On 16 September, 1901 Shah took up his stand on Brice’s corner, Hereford Street, near the Bank of NZ on one of the busiest intersections in town. In January of the following year, all three were charged with obstructing the road and operating without a license, to which only Boreham pleased guilty. Whilst Boreham’s case was swiftly dealt with, receiving a fine of 1s and costs, and the charge of hawking without a license or permit were withdrawn on application by the police, the case for Shah and Abraham progressed into a claim by Shah against the Council to recover the £10 he had paid for his annual license. He won his case, the Magistrate saying the Council’s by-law made no provision for issuing a license and the permission to have a stand was a invalid contract – in short, he was entitled to a license without a fee. 
The Council appealed in the Supreme Court, and the decision was overturned. 
Whilst all this was going on, Shah was still plying his trade, and no doubt burdened by legal fees. One day in May, Shah was making his way in his horse drawn cart along Cashel Street when he was accosted by Henry Jenkins, a St Alban’s storekeeper, demanding for payment of an account. When Shah said he could not pay, Jenkins jumped on the cart, grabbed Shah by the throat and pulled him out, the two of them falling to the ground. The case was proved, and Jenkins was fined 40s and costs. 
Ice Cream Sali
Sali was a good ice cream maker and natural salesman. His ice cream became extremely popular and his cart became a permanent fixture in the square for forty years.
At the end of 1905, 27 year old Sali became engaged to a nineteen year old domestic maid, Florence Henrietta Johnston from Omakau, Otago. She was the daughter of a railway employee, John William Johnston and his wife, Frances (nee Otto, the daughter of European immigrants). They set the date to be married for January 5th, 1906.
Sali’s sixty five year old father travelled to Christchurch in December for his son’s wedding. He arrived at his son’s rented home on Brightlings Lane which was a working class area of the Avon Loop.
On December 15th, just a few days after his arrival, Sultan became unwell and died a few hours later. An inquest was held and Sali explained to the coroner that his father had only just arrived in Christchurch for a visit.
“He had arrived on Monday night and seemed all right until yesterday morning and he went away to catch the morning tram. He went out about 7.15 am. He got back later. I reached home a little after 2pm. I found the deceased very sick and retching. He told me that he had not been feeling well that morning. I rang Doctor Russell who came at once. Deceased died about 2.50pm.”
Charles James Russell, being sworn, saith that,
“I am a duly qualified medical practitioner but not now registered. I was called to the deceased at about 2.20 p.m. yesterday. I found him in pain, convulsed, breathing very heavily, foaming at the mouth and head and features very much congested. His extremities were cold, both upper and lower. He spoke a few words when I first went in. His eyes became fixed and features rigid and in that way he expired. The cause of death was apoplexy.”
A Sad Time for Sali
The busy Christmas and New Year season must have been a sad time for Sali. He and his father had been very close and had lived through many hard times together.
Sali and Florence were married at the registry office by the officiating registrar, L. C. Williams. Their witnesses were Marie Foster of Brightlings Lane and John Hazlitt Upham, a solicitor and the father of Charles Upham, the Victoria Cross recipient.
Sali’s business was growing and he was able to purchase a piece of land at 69 Caledonian Road, St. Albans, where they built a very stylish home made of kauri, and featuring bay windows, decorative woodwork in the hall, ornate roses around light fittings and patterns on the ceilings.
Electricity was only supplied as far as Bealey Avenue, so Sali had a lead extended to his home and out to his wooden ice cream house called the “dairy”. Sali was very fastidious with his preparation of ice cream and kept his shed exceptionally clean.
A horse and cart would deliver one hundred weight blocks of ice from the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company each morning. Sali would then pack the slabs of ice around the ice cream as well as make bags of small chips of ice for packing around the ice cream for transporting and keeping it frozen during the day in the square.
The Business of Making and Selling Ice Cream
Each morning on his departure from home, his youthful neighbour would catch his horse and harness it to the ice cream cart. Sali would drive the horse and cart the short distance into the city centre. In later years, a truck would bring the slabs of ice to his home and a Blue Star Taxi would pull the ice cream cart to and from town.
The wholesale druggist H. F. Stevens, whose premises were in Cashel Street, made Sali’s pineapple, strawberry, raspberry and orange flavoured syrups as well as a vanilla essence. Imported vanilla pods were roasted at home in his coal range by Sali. His main ingredients of milk and cream were supplied by Tai Tapu Dairy Company.
Sali would make his ice cream each day at dawn using a hand operated churn. As time went on, he imported an American Westinghouse ice cream maker which could produce four times the amount as the churn.
Sali sold ice cream from August through to April. He would say that “you could keep cool without ice cream” during the months in between. His cart became such a fixture in the square that most people thought he was there all year round.
He sold his ice cream in tub-shaped cones while essence flavoured ice creams, more of a favourite with the ladies, were served in elegant dishes with a silver spoon. He also offered a ‘take-away’ service of large and small tubs of ice cream and welcomed customers to bring preserving jars or billy cans as well. For every child who came to town, a visit to his cart at the end of the day was the norm. His prices were any where between one penny and a shilling.
A journalist wrote about the hive of activity around Ice Cream Charlie’s cart in the square:
“Ice-cream Charlie’s stall… is a rendezvous for children and for boys, youths and young men, mainly on bicycles, who, while hurrying through the town on errands, can only spend a few minutes for refreshment. Parents passing the stall find it difficult to resist the persuasions of their children and often join them in having an ice-cream.”
‘Charley’s a good bloke’
Ice cream lovers of all ages may have enjoyed Sali’s presence, but carriers in Cathedral Square were not so pleased and complained that he was a source of continual annoyance. Some became abusive, and by early 1908 Sali had had enough and took one of them to court for using insulting language. Sali told the court “sometime gotta ‘shicker and come annoy me. Every day he passa cart an’ say, ‘Dirty ice-cream’, an’ sling off till I stand it no longer and come to Court.”
A cabman gave evidence, saying that he had called Earle away when he was annoying ‘the Syrian’, and calling Sali a “black Irishman”. A red-headed schoolboy, grinning joyfully, also gave evidence and explained in great detail, hardly pausing for breath, the delinquencies of the carrier, saying that Sali’s ice cream was ‘…jolly good stuff, and Charley’s a good bloke.” The Bench fined Earle £1 and ordered him to pay solicitors’ fees. 
Prejudice Meet with Generosity
A cartoon of Sali drawn by Press cartoonist, Sid Scales, was published in the Press in 1939, suggesting the mystery behind Sali’s past, he is drawn saying, “You know Sid, I told you I was not an Indian”.
Being in a parocchial, European Christian city, Sali endured some racial discrimination. Youths would call out “Ching Chong Indian” for their own fun and during World War One he was accused of being a ‘Turk’. One particular incident in 1910, was caused by a seventeen year old, Robert Meacham. Described as a deliquent and ‘the worst larrakin in Sydenham’ by the sub-inspector of police, the youth had claimed that Sali had called him a ‘lazy mongrel’. Sali’s witnesses supported him and explained that Meacham had made several racial slurs about Sali’s race and skin colour. Meacham was convicted and fined one pound. Later Meacham was jailed for using chloroform to asphyxiate a couple staying at the upmarket Clarendon Hotel in 1917. 
Sali was not one to dwell on racial prejudice. He was forward thinking and a positive person who had many friends including politicians, trade unionists and the wealthy fur trading Singh family from Auckland. He once made friends with a visiting Muslim hockey team which he brought home for dinner, unannounced.
Sali was known for his great generosity to the community. Every Christmas, Sali supplied orphanages, lunatic asylums and neighbours with his vast amounts of his ice cream. Ten gallons of ice cream were given to the St. Albans Red Cross for their February Fete. He and Florence ran stalls on the day selling Vanilla Ices, and bringing in over £32 – alongside stalls selling art, sweets, cakes and cigarettes! 
During the 1930s, Sali employed an young lad who had grown up in an orphanage, as his assistant. Sali became very fond of him and looked upon him like his own son. When World War II broke out, the young lad volunteered as a soldier. It was a sad day when Sali, who acted as the lad’s next of kin, received a telegram saying he had been killed in battle. Even sadder when the boy’s personal possessions were returned to him.
It was around this time, that Sali was asked to move his cart to a site around the corner on Hereford Street.
Sali’s Golden Girls
Sali and Florence had four daughters – Rhahanie, Rupee, Tulah and Florence.  Sali pronouned Tulah’s name as “Tilla” and would tell her that she was named after a place he once knew in Samarkland and the mosque there called Tilla which meant “golden”. 
Sali’s family was his priority in life and he was a very loving father who indulged them in anything they wanted. Each one of his daughters were as beautiful as the other and their Eurasian olive skin and exotic looks made them quite famous beauties in Christchurch during the 1930s and 40s. They equally loved their father and remembered him with great affection.
Secreting His Savings
All Sali’s business transactions were in cash. He did not have a bank account, a chest in his dairy sufficed for secreting away his savings. He was known to make generous loans but never left a paper trail of where the money went. His daughters’ friends were always welcome at the Mahomet home, but his dairy was strictly off limits. Sali’s reason was the secrecy of his recipe, but more than likely it was his fear of his cash being discovered or stolen.
In 1832, Sali put the business on the market, advertising in Wellington and Auckland for a buyer for his up-to-date electric ice cream plant and house at 69 Caledonian Rd, St Alban’s Christchurch, as he was intending to leave the country. No sale eventuated and the Mahomets remained purveyors of locally made ice cream from their home and business in St Albans for a further decade.
Illness and the Old Men’s Home
In 1942, when Sali was about 66 years old, Sali suffered a debilitating stroke. He was unable to care for himself, and had to go and live at ‘Tuarangi’, the Old Men’s Home in Ashburton. After his stroke, Florence employed a solicitor to take care of their affairs but the family appears to have been defrauded by the legal firm. This is most probably why Sali had to be put into a charitable hospital far away from his home rather than somewhere closer to his family, which they could no longer afford. Florence was forced to sell their St. Albans home and move to a more modest house at 55 Ward Street in Addington.
Sali died a year later after a second stroke, on October 7th, 1943. On his death certificate, it states that Sali was born in the Punjaub, India rather than Ceylon. It also states his age was 77 years and not 66. It can be assumed that Sali had been 40 years old and not 30 when he married his 19 year old bride. It was not uncommon for men to ‘reduce’ their age at the time of marriage, if there was a large age gap.
Over the years, Florence and her daughters were able to retrieve some of Sali’s fortune. Florence died in 1969 at the age of 83 years.
Major Source: Richard Greenaway, Linwood Cemetery, “S. Mahomet”, Christchurch City Libraries History. Additional Sources and notes listed below.
Feature image: Private collection. Source Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 18, IMG0041.
- “The Troubles of Solomon Shah” Star , Issue 7373, 10 April 1902, Page 2]
- Star, Issue 6895, 8 September 1900, Page 5.
- Abdul Boreham was operating his ice cream stand near the BNZ in Hereford Street in 1904, and had assigned it to one of his fellow vendors and countrymen, to return to Calcutta to visit his ailing father. Like Sali, Boreham had also married a European wife, and had children, who remained in Christchurch during his pilgrimage home. However when he wished to return, he found he could only go via Sydney, but Commonwealth laws prevented him landing there, even though he was a British Subject. The Commissioner of Customs had to be approached by city officials to obtain his return. Source: Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume XLVIII, Issue 7995, 23 May 1904, Page 3.
- ‘City Council’. Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 10923, 26 March 1901, Page 6.
- Star , Issue 7068, 9 April 1901, Page 2.
- ‘City Council’ Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 10952, 30 April 1901, Page 6.
- Shah was in Christchurch in 1898 but was hauled back to Dunedin by the Police to answer a charge laid by Isabella McGuire for failing to support his two illegitimate children, Solomon McGuire (born 1896) and Robert Gordon McGuire (born 1897). The well known Dunedin barrister, Hanlon represented Shah, and said McGuire was prepared to withdraw the information if Shah would “as soon as he was liberated, marry her”. And he did. In 1898 their marriage was registered, and baby Olive Evelyn Shah soon followed. Solomon died in 1909, at 270 St Asaph Street. Sources: Otago Daily Times, Issue 11181, 2 August 1898, Page 8 and Christchurch City Council Cemeteries Database.
- “Resident Magistrate’s Court” Otago Daily Times , Issue 9887, 4 November 1893, Page 3.
- Charles Abraham had carried out business on the corner of Lichfield and High streets, another busy intersection, and had been charged in September 1902 with impeding traffic. It was only a little over two months before he was up before the Magistrate again on the same offense. Sources: “Magistrate’s Court” Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11371, 6 September 1902, Page 5; “Magistrates’ Court” Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11443, 29 November 1902, Page 4.
- “Ice Cream Vendors. Trouble about Licenses” Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11186, 29 January 1902, Page 4; “Magistrates’ Courts” Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11192, 5 February 1902, Page 5; “The Ice Cream Vendor” Star, Issue 7370, 7 April 1902, Page 3; “Ice Cream Vending. Action against the City Council” Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11243, 8 April 1902, Page 3; “Ice Cream Case” Manawatu Standard, Volume XL, Issue 7278, 24 April 1902, Page 3.
- “Supreme Court” Star , Issue 7408, 21 May 1902, Page 3; “Sittings in Banco” Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11280, 22 May 1902, Page 2; “Supreme Court” Star , Issue 7413, 27 May 1902, Page 3.
- Star, Issue 7405, 17 May 1902, Page 5.
- Brightlings Lane is a blind side street now long built over but was somewhere between Willow and Hurley Streets.
- Taken at Ferrymead Heritage Park. Image: Wendy Riley, Lost Christchurch.
- Image courtesy of Sarndra Lees. Random Meanderings.
- Source: Private Collection. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CD 18, IMG0047.
- Star, Issue 9160, 14 February 1908, Page 3.
- Source: Christchurch City Libraries.
- New Zealand Truth, Issue 247, March 19th, 1910, Papers Past.
- Press, Volume LII, Issue 15500, 29 January 1916, Page 7.
- Source: One Photograph, Black & White, 11 x 15 cm, 1191 PhotoCD 18, IMG0045 Private collection.
- Florence Mahomet (later Wylie) was born in 1916. She died in 1998 and is buried with her father and grandfather in Linwood Cemetery.
- This backs the story that Sali was not from India but from the upper northern reaches of Asia.
- Auckland Star, Volume LXIII, Issue 293, 10 December 1932, Page 12; Evening Post, Volume CXIV, Issue 140, 10 December 1932, Page 3.