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Peter Tsicalas

Settlement in Australia

The following overview of Kytherian settlement is plagiarized from the research of Charles Price, Hugh Gilchrist, Effie Alexakis, Leonard Janiszewski, Denis Conomos and Peter Vanges

The first Kytherians to raise the flag in Australia are reckoned to be Ioannis Melitas, Emmanouil Kritharis and Haralambos Menegas who allegedly came in the 1850s. No doubt there were other gold seekers, but the bloke credited with playing a major role in turning Kytherians in this new migration direction is Athanasios Dimitrios Kominos from Perleyianika. He landed in Sydney in 1873 and within 5yrs had established a small fish shop at 36 Oxford Street, from where he laid the foundations for an integrated seafood trafficking business, the success of which saw his compatriots eventually addict most of the population of NSW and QLD.

By the mid 1890s there were about 15 Greek catering outlets in Metropolitan Sydney, the majority Kytherian, creating a demand for labour and an acceleration of the immigration rate. New arrivals would immediately start work as shuckers (okay, oyster openers), cooks, kitchen hands, waiters and general dogsbodies in these existing cafes, with most persisting with the long hours of such employment for a number of years, learning all aspects of the trade and gaining some business acumen, before purchasing their own business, which usually was accomplished with a stake from an established proprietor, notably the Cominos.

In purchasing their own businesses they started the trickle into the suburbs and countryside, such that by the turn of the century there were about 6 towns in rural NSW that could boast of the presence of a Greek café. The town they chose was largely influenced by their perception of market growth, which often led them to places where no other Greek had set foot, and in doing so established a strong regional bias in that town through the subsequent chain migration of relatives, friends and fellow villagers.

By 1908 the number of Kytherians in Sydney had grown to 150 and by 1911 there were about 400 throughout NSW, representing 50% of the Greek-born population of the State. Moreover, half of them were in the rural hamlets and towns, easily accounting for 75% of the Greeks who chose provincial settlement, a legacy still evident today.

The obvious financial success of some of those who returned pre war aroused further interest in Australia. One of the more prominent was Vrettos Dimitrios Panaretos who returned to his Potamos birthplace in 1911 and built a substantial Georgian mansion, providing a potent symbol of what could be achieved in Australia that contributed to the large wave of migration just before the war.

By the start of WW1 Kytherian businesses were crowding the city and penetrating into all areas of rural NSW and southern Queensland. After the pioneer had established his cafe in a country town the relatives he sponsored would often branch out on their own into nearby towns, thus accelerating the process and reinforcing the regional/family bias. Sydney nevertheless, still remained the major labour market distribution centre, where a finely tuned network centred around the coffee houses provided the latest rumours on the work and business opportunities throughout the state.

The spread into country towns was slowed in 1916 when the Australian Government placed a special prohibition on the entry of Greeks and curtailed the movement of those already settled. Enterprising arrivals through to about 1920 mostly landed with American and Egyptian passports. Post war immigration was stimulated in part by the book I Zoi en Afstralia - Life in Australia, published in Sydney in 1916 and sponsored by the ‘Oyster King’, John D. Comino.

The expansion continued and became more competitive when immigration restrictions were lifted in 1921. Smaller and smaller country towns found themselves with a Kytherian cafe which, necessarily, didn't give the owners the same returns as those pre WW1 immigrants who had earlier cornered the established markets in the bigger towns, whose rapid growth rate had levelled off by the start of the war. And the period of desperation during the Depression, which inexplicably saw an accelerated opening of new cafes alongside existing ones, was a major setback for many. Nevertheless, the desire to own a place of one’s own rather than survive as a wage-slave remained a driving ambition. Generally, Money continued to be created by capital gains when the business was sold, while cash flow usually went more into repaying loans than savings.

By the mid 1930s, following the Depression shakeout, almost every rural town in regional NSW and QLD had at least one well-entrenched Greek café, with the Kytherians still predominating. By this time too, the majority were becoming relatively settled as the Depression receded and ship-loads of cheap labour again began to appear on the horizon. Paradoxically, the growth of most rural towns had stagnated, and some remained on the slide, but small hamlets continued to be colonized and even smaller ones sought out and occupied. The movement pattern of the earlier settlers, characterised by a high turnover rate in the country towns as they moved around seeking business opportunities, or acting as a type of 'locum' in supplementing or replacing staff or management for short durations after a proprietor in need put out a call through the 'job network', began to stabilize.

By the start of WW2 over 10,000 Greeks had settled in Australia and the Kytherians, who by then constituted about 22% of the total, remained by far the dominant regional group – and still made up 75% of the Greek born residents of northern NSW, where they continued to predominate in the post war years despite the overall dilution due to the mass migration policy.

Throughout the war many cafes were forced to close or drastically curtail business due to rationing, quotas and loss of staff into the services. [Conversely, those with cafes lying in the path of free-spending Americans looking for R & R outlets had to buy an extra wheelbarrow to cart the cash to the bank each day. (And don’t mention the black market.)] Post war the businesses again flourished, but from the mid 1950s a range of social and economic changes began to make the country cafes unviable, eventually forcing many early Greek settlers back to Sydney to seek alternative employment. The enterprising however, saw the signs and either changed the orientation of their businesses or moved out of the catering trades into other ventures, such that today their many descendants are well-established members of their local communities. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Kytherians now live in the capital cities where they form a collective group in contrast to the earlier regional bias of the country towns.

Kytherian settlement in Queensland was just as pervasive as that in NSW. The State had barely 100 Greeks by the turn of the 19th century, but within a few years there was a preponderance of Kytherians, the most significant of whom were the Comino, Coronis and Freeleagus families. After WW1 most of those settling in the Queensland bypassed Sydney and landed directly in Brisbane, which, like Sydney in NSW, is now the home of most Kytherians in the state.

While the State of Victoria was largely an Ithacan province, the Kytherians of southern NSW were beginning to penetrate the northern border by the start of WW1.

Over in Western Australia the Castellorizans dominated, but the Malano families of Milopotamos and Coroneos families of Potamos were amongst the earliest pre WW1 Kytherians; not to forget the interconnected, Samios, Notaras, Castrisos (Manea) families of Fremantle and Albany and the Phacheas of Perth.

In Tasmania the Casimaty brothers made an impressive entrance when they opened the first Greek restaurant in 1913 and went on to pioneer the state’s crayfish industry.

In the Australian Capital Territory the early Kytherian community, which included the Casimaty (Cassidy) brothers from Potamos and the Potiris brothers from Mylopotamos, constituted the largest group of non-British inhabitants. Today Canberra is home to Australia's third Kytherian Association.

These early immigrants carved out a niche in Australian history by giving rise to what is loosely referred to as the ‘Greek Café phenomenon’. The café package, of which food was only a part, evolved over many years and offered amenities which made them the social hub of many country towns, with most proprietors having a flair as ‘mine host’, their personalities, grasp of the local mores, feel for the wider zeitgeist, quick response to new products, technical innovations and architectural trends, all helping to put a stamp on the lifestyle of each passing era, if not leading their community’s social evolution. By the end of the 60s jukebox era their glory days were over, but they retain a formative place in Australian history.

Nevertheless, while their high profile behind the café counter entrenched a stereotypical Greek image, a significant number of Kytherians didn’t fit the mould, which is now being reshaped to accommodate the many farmers, fishermen, theatre owners, ice makers, hoteliers, drapers, newsagents, carriers, importers, manufactures, pugilists, … deserving a place in the story.

Australia’s gain was Kythera’s loss. The wave of post WW2 migrants, said to be the largest in Greece’s history, devastated the island and left whole villages as ghost towns. Kythera’s population, boosted to about 15,000 by refugees during the war, rapidly declined until stabilizing at its present 3000.

Allegedly there are now about 50,000 Australians of Kytherian descent in Sydney alone, but the days of the cafe and milk bar are long gone and nowadays these descendants, in some cases 5th generation mainstream ockers, can be found in all levels of society and in all professions, a lot supporting restrictive immigration and refugee policies and unable to point to Kythera on a map.
While many Kytherians were absorbed into the Australian mainstream there were enough marrying within the group to sustain the island connections, such that today their descendants are as obsessive over Kythera as those British-Australian generations who continued to call England 'home' into 1930s. Most of these Australian-born descendants continue the regular pilgrimage to their spiritual retreat and have either purchased property on the island or maintain that which was bequeathed.
However, while Australia still remains the largest enclave of the island’s expatriates, the game is almost over. Emigration to ‘Big Kythera’ dried up sometime ago and nowadays Europe is the favoured destination. It’ll be interesting to see whether Australia goes the same way as Smyrna and Alexandria and becomes a distant memory in the Kytherian psyche. Taking bets.

What follows is a provisional list of the first Kytherians into various northern NSW country towns. Most of these people arrived at a time when the town was still in embryo stage and they became part of its early history and development. In a lot of cases they settled permanently, becoming part of the fabric of the town, with their descendants now prominent amongst the leading citizens and businessmen.

Some of it’s a bit iffy, so if you spot mistakes wield the red pen with gay abandon. You can make your corrections, additions or comments below the appropriate entry, or, indeed, create your own 'Settlement in Australia - X' for a particular town or region

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1 Comment

Stratis Notaras
on 15.12.2011

Hello there Peter, the Notaras family of Western Australia actually settled in Perth not Fremantle, my father who is George Notaras from Friligianika took over a cafe owned by the Samios family (Frank, Geoarge and Spiro) called Limelight Cafe in Fremantle in 1967. My father came to Perth from the East Coast around 1965-66. I hope this can be of some use to you.