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Alex Freeleagus

Christy & Ariadne Freeleagus

From an Address on the lives of




Given to the Solomos Greek Australian Cultural Society

At the Greek Community Centre

Brisbane, Queensland

Wednesday, 20th April, 1994

Photograph of Christy Freeleagus on the family farm, Kythera

The place was Smyrna in Asia Minor. The year, 1922. Kytherian born, Christy Freeleagus, who having spent 21 of his 35 years in Australia, was there to present a lecture he had given in Athens some weeks before, entitled in translation "Australia - its Settlement, Development and Culture".

If you consider this scenano somewhat remarkable then let me tell you more, let me tell you what my father himself recounted to my sister Rene. He said, that while taking in a beautiful Smyrna evening from his hotel balcony, he looked across to where he could see on another balcony, a beautiful girl. She had not seen him and soon moved indoors. He stood entranced and said to himself “that is the girl I will one day marry.

He left Smyrna without setting eyes on her again, but fate was to play its part, for less than two and a half years later he was to marry a girl to whom he had been introduced while on a business trip to Melbourne - one of the many refugees from the “Katastrophe” that had engulfed the Greeks in Asia Minor. Her name was Ariadne and so may I give my talk to you this evening the title of “Christy and Ariadne - A Love Story”, for this it was to be for all of their days.

Let us now look at their widely disparate backgrounds and how these shaped them and then let us look at their lives in Australia spanning almost the entirety of this century.

Christy carried forever the indelible influences of his birthplace - the island of Kythera - lying as it does in a deep blue sea in sight of both the Peloponnese and Crete - those of its history, its rugged beauty and especially the rigors of life there.

How little economic opportunity there was. There was not a future on the Island for one, let alone the ten boys who made up his family, but their disciplinarian father knew well the oft repeated stories that every Islander would hear from returning sailors - the Greeks have forever been seafarers. Theirs were vivid accounts of the unlimited horizons of the New World and he sensed what it could offer to his boys.

Life for Christy and his brothers could hardly have been further from the world of material comforts that we have known, but there were hidden compensations - inbuilt pride, independence and a strong sense of inheritance of timeless traditions. How well so many of you here know this story for it is part of our shared folklore.

Christy, the fifth son, was born in September 1888. He told us, his children, much about his early life and how hard it was, in the hope that he would remind us that there was another world other than the one he was giving us. In the way of all sons, I would heavily discount these stories but one which I could not, was of the bitter winters and the chilling winds that went with them. He told us that he was returning from school one day and sheltering behind one of those dividing fences, more like walls, which were made of stones piled one on top of another, when it blew over pinning him by the left arm thus giving rise to a disability which he fought against for the rest of his life.

And so as the Nineteenth Century was in its last months, Grandfather Kosmas resolved to send two of his boys, Christy and his brother Peter (12 years his senior), to seek a new life abroad and prepare the way for the other eight brothers, so away they went, arriving in Australia on the RMS “Aruba”. Why Australia? Because the gold rushes of the 1880’s and 1890’s gave rise to sailors’ tales of “gold in the streets”.

These boys were not to come totally as strangers but into the hands of other Kytherians who would guide them in their first steps in the New Land.

They arrived in Sydney on 25 September 1901. Dad thus always claimed himself as a “Foundation Member” having arrived in Australia in the year of Federation. There they remained there for a couple of years. The plan was that Uncle Peter would work and send my Father to school, for already he had shown considerable academic promise. And so Christy was sent to the Fort Street High School where he found from the very first days the hostility that sadly non-English speakers at the turn at the century suffered from the xenophobic and almost universally
Anglo-Celtic population.

In later years he told my mother of the days of terror at the school where he did not understand a word and that at lunchtime he would find himself surrounded by a circle of boys who would just sit and stare at him (a charitable version, I believe). How long Father stayed at the Fort Street school I do not know because while there are many references in his papers to that school, my search in Sydney has sadly revealed that the school’s records of that time no longer exist.

But from the beginning and right through his whole life in Australia, Christy refused to be disillusioned or embittered by rejection or discrimination for he was in no doubt that he had every right to be here, because he wanted to be.

How and why the two brothers came to Brisbane, I have not been able to ascertain, but this they did in 1903 and early established the business of Freeleagus Brothers which over the next 23 years was to take in all the rest of the eight brothers, Anthony, George, Jim, Kyriakos, John, Denis, Nicholas and finally the youngest, one some of you would remember, Frank.

The business grew and later became Fresh Food and Ice Pty Limited and continued until the 1960’s. It became a large and significant business in wholesale and retail foods and at its peak employed more than 300 people. A letterhead of the 20’s shows that in addition to the markets at 511 Stanley Street, there were five retail outlets. Its employees were largely from Greece, for in the depression days of the 20’s and 30’s the only place a Greek migrant could get work was in a Greek establishment. The 40’s and 50’s were not all that different. They also had the Paris Cafe and later the City Cafe at the corner of Adelaide and Edward Street. This later became the Astoria, which could seat 250 people and which many of you would remember as quite “upmarket”, I certainly do.

Reference to the Freeleagus Brothers in Life in Australia, 1917

Freeleagus family in front of a house in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, ca. 1925

Christy was a dreamer who foresaw a wonderful future for himself, his brothers and all of his people in this land and the strength of his vision never left him. He was determined to make this a reality by an iron will and discipline and a seemingly unlimited capacity for hard work, traits which in the case of his son showed scant evidence of being hereditary. His singlemindedness though, was matched by a caring and compassion and a giving nature which so often expressed itself in the desire he never lost, to find the good in people and to use his capacities to help others.

He did not and would not, accept the limitation of language and opportunity, for these he was prepared to overcome, but most all he was determined not to remain on the outer of the local scene and he demonstrated a continuing resolve to be very much part of it but not by shedding his inherited identity, for he was passionately proud of it.

Whenever I pass the Spring Hill Baths I really feel humbled because I cannot forget the stories of how he would swim up and down and up and down and up and down while still it was barely dawn, for he was determined to represent Australia in the Olympic Games, a revival of which had given Greeks in every place a renewed pride in their heritage. With only a few hours of sleep, because the cafes did not close until the early hours of the morning, he would press on with the result that he overtaxed his health and contracted a virus which doctors thought could be cured by removing a gland. This resulted in the permanent enlargement of his already damaged left arm and also left him prone to periodic severe attacks of a violent skin infection for the rest of his life.

His determination to become part of Australia and his feeling for it is evidenced by the application for naturalisation which he made while still 19 in November 1907, and only six years after his arrival in Australia. This was granted on 5 February 1909, some six months before his 21st birthday, - here is the Certificate. One of the many interesting things about this application was the anglicised version of the name from Frilingos to Freeleagus, Frilingos coming from the Kytherian village of Frilinganiga which still exists today, being derived from the name of the first inhabitants.

The address shown, 223 George Street, near the corner of Queen and eorge Streets, is still current today and confirms other accounts that the rothers lived for some time at the back of the Paris Cafe which was There, sleeping originally on the tables. Late in the decade, I believe, they bought a large home on the site of the present Art Gallery and which was the place where, so very many have told me, in my so many years, that they had their welcome to Brisbane and their first meal here.

Why he should describe his occupation as “farmer” is puzzling, but not really, as he still felt very close to the land and held a firm belief that Greek migrants would make excellent agriculturalists, a view that he did his utmost to put into practice, over the years, and with significant results.

Evidence of his determination to see Greek identity promoted in this city is I believe, to be found in a thick leather-bound “Minute Book”. It begins in 1905, and its first entry is a list of signatures of those honouring the Greek King’s birthday. The pages entitled 7 May 1912 contain signatures which coincide with the Brisbane Courier report next day as those who attended the Greek King’s Birthday Reception. Christy’s signature appears there and for the first time since the Book began there is a Greek name in it. The daughter of L R Spence, who was Brisbane’s only ever other Greek Consul, told me that Christy had become her father’s right hand and I surmise that father took the Book over from him on becoming Consul.

Christy became, first Acting Vice-Consul and later in 1919, Honorary Consul, embarking on an epoch making consular career lasting till his untimely death in 1957 - 38 years in all. This book was used by him right up to the date of his death and I continued to use it until it was full and it is now in the Queensland Museum, where on the occasion of the National Day Reception I held there in 1989 to mark that the presence of that historic exhibition of the wonders of the tomb of Philip of Macedon. Many of you here have signed this book.

Christy, in the meantime, continued to earn his way in the Australian Community. In 1912 he was initiated into the Kangaroo Point Lodge and developed a great love for Freemasonry. He told me the story that very early on he wheeled a barrow along Stanley Street with a large order of prawns to be delivered to the Masonic Temple. It was a hot day and when he got there he was invited to come in and sit down and was offered a cool drink, a courtesy which he had yet to experience from strangers in Australia. He worked his way to becoming the Master of that Lodge after quite a short period and ultimately rose to high office in the Grant Lodge. He told me that at an early age it was there that he found and overcame the very true challenge of learning to express himself in English before an audience.

He had a fine tenor voice and had he worked hard at developing it, the Daily Mail of 4 April 1917 makes mention of the fact that he sang the four tenor roles in the Operetta “John Bull” and “receiving much applause”. The Brisbane Courier of 29 April 1917 reports that he was elected a member of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia. The Protestant Sentinel of 26 July 1918 contains an article on him with a photo, says that, among other complimentary things, the he was a member of the Masonic, YMCA and Helienic Associations and of motoring, boating and swimming clubs - all this by the age of 31 and after only 18 years in Australia.

He did not intend to be a bystander in the Great War but experienced the deep disappointment of being rejected on his several attempts to enlist, because of his deformed left arm.

He was President of the Hellenic Association, the forerunner of our Greek Community, when in 1918 the Memorial to Hector Vassily was erected on the approaches to Victoria Bridge. I am sure you are familiar with this wonderful story of how a little Greek boy was killed while welcoming home wounded Australian soldiers. The Anzac Day ceremony there was to be a lifetime involvement for him for it was very close to his heart.

I have dealt with this formative era of his life because it foreshadows three of the greatest milestones of his life - his crusade in Europe to sell his vision of Australia and its Greek migrants, his marriage to Ariadne, and his passionate and lifelong championing of his fellow migrants against prejudice and discrimination - so clearly evidenced in passionate defence of the Greeks in Australia on every occasion when their good name was attacked.

There were many other peaks - the honours bestowed on him by the Greek Government (he was twice decorated), his decade of Deanship of the Consular Corps of Queensland, and the many tangible expressions of trust and affection from the Australian community - these I have dealt with in detail in Dr Max Brandle’s publication “Queensland’s Remarkable Migrants” - a study of the contribution of non-English speakers to this State. Incidentally, he is the only Greek to be included in the Australian Dictionary of Biography - 1891 to 1939.

Let me now focus on his years abroad. He was to spend most of 1921 and all of 1922 in Greece and Europe and the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 January 1921 carries an article headed “Trade with Greece - Consul Going Home - His Mission Explained”. The article also mentions a meeting in Melbourne with William Morris (“Billy”) Hughes, the then Prime Minister of Australia to explain his mission and what a mission it
was to be!

First he spent some two months in Egypt with his cousins, the Vlandis family developing the market for the export of Australian Fish Roe. This was of vital importance to the survival of his company - and in other hands continues today.

While he was there the Greek Turkish War broke out and he was willingly caught up in it and even though he was 35 he spent much of 1921 in the Greek Army as a private soldier.

This delayed, but could not deter, him from what he had plainly long been preparing.

It was a lecture given in the Hall of the Literary Society of Athens and at the invitation of the Greek Geographical Society on 2 May 1922, before an audience of 1700 and entitled in Greek “Australia - its Settlement, Development and Culture”.

It was published in pamphlet form by the Geographical Society of Athens and I first became aware of it when, paying my respects to the then Australian Ambassador in Athens, Hugh Gilchrist, in 1964, I was rather taken when he produced a copy of it which he had found in the National Library of Athens.

The lecture delivered in “Katharevousa” - the purest form of Greek -elaborate and complex. He begins, and I translate, “when the English Explorer Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770 he could never have imagined that it was of boundless expanse, rich in so many ways, and that before long it would constitute one of the most brilliant jewels in the Crown of Imperial Great Britain”. He goes on to describe it as “a vast land - a healthy climate - with severe cold so feared in other countries unknown”. He describes the settlement as a “convict colony of long term political prisoners whose purpose was to clear the bush and prepare the roads for settlement”. He reflects the all pervading racist views in Australia when he says “it seems that Divine Providence preordained Australia for settlement by the white race - for today it has a white population of almost 5 million people, surrounded by 200 million black and yellow races ~ He praises the Australian Government for recognising this and sending the black Kanaks back to their neighbouring islands. Though plainly he was not uninfluenced by the phobias of his time, the respect for his fellowman that he demonstrated lifelong was not constrained by considerations of colour or creed.

He speaks in glowing detail of the economic development of Australia and also with much pride of the influence of Lady Diamantina Roma. He praises the initiatives of Workers Compensation, an Industrial Court which fixes wages, free public hospitals, housing loans and generous pensions. He describes the Australian people as being so hard working that the law allows prosecution of those idle who cannot show any means of support - “vagrants” they are called, he says. He describes Australians as lovers of sport, extols the cultural life and devotes an admiring section to Australian prowess and success in War through “an all volunteer army.

Most telling of all is his “Epilogue”, saying that he had come not so much eulogise Australia and thus undermine the Greeks’ confidence in their own country, or to encourage a torrent of immigration. His purpose, he declares, was not only to encourage an increase of trade with Australia but to hold up that country as a model of which Greece could and should do with its newly reclaimed territories of which Asia Minor was at the time, the latest along with Epirus, Thrace, Crete and Macadonia of the preceding decades.

A week before this lecture he was notified by the Minister of Foreign Affairs that he had been promoted from Honorary Consul “Class B” to Honorary Consul-General for Greece in Brisbane. The official history of the Consular Corps of Queensland records this as having been the first ever appointment at this rank made by any country to Queensland.

He went on to Smyrna some two weeks later where, at the invitation of the Ionian Society he gave it again. A cutting from the Smyrna newspaper “Amalthea” speaks of the outstanding success of the 1 1/2 hour lecture - it was not to fall on deaf ears.

My father’s passport shows that he returned to Smyrna some three months later, journeying from Pireaus and staying for about a week. One can only wonder his quest.

Christy, having returned to Athens after his second sojourn in Smyrna, then moved on and spent most the next year in various parts of Europe revelling in visits to museums, art galleries, opera houses and meeting many of Europe’s notable Greeks as well as making many lasting business contacts.

I remember the President of the Greek Academy and Dean of the Greek World of Letters, Gregorios Cassimatis, telling me in 1964 in Athens how impressed he was with the young man who came to see him some 40 years before when he was Greece’s Ambassador in Paris. But his was not just a personal grand tour because the plight of the refugees from Asia Minor deeply disturbed and occupied him. In company with Mr George Millos, the Greek Ambassador in London, he called on Sir Joseph Cook, the Australian High Commissioner, to ask if assistance could be given to refugees to enable them to settle in Australia. Sir Joseph made it plain that although the Government’s policy was to restrict immigration, he would be pleased to recommence to help future Greek immigrants into Australian in a scheme whereby their relatives there could deposit half fare. This meeting was reported in the Melbourne Age.

On Christy’s return to Australia the Melbourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Brisbane Courier printed extensive accounts of his journeying and impression.

In particular, the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 February 1923 reported that he spoke of the suitability of Greeks as agriculturists when he said “The settlers were skilled in the growing of tobacco, figs, sultanas and raisins” and to find how apt these words already were, one has only to look at the words of Ernestine Hill in her work “Water in Gold”.

On page 239 she says, “In 1922 a rare stroke of luck befell Australia and in a strange manner”. She is referring to the survival of the Australian dried fruits industry because of the introduction by six refugees from Smyrna of what was in Australia a revolutionary process of treatment -the “cold dip” - a far cry from an existing practice of boiling them in caustic and which had rendered Australian dried fruits uncompetitive on the world market. She tells the story in considerable detail.

And now like him, let us focus on the world of Ariadne.
I do believe that Christy, whilst in Smyrna, had come in contact with a world which neither he, nor I believe, any of us, have quite known. It was an extraordinary society in the sense that the commercial life of the whole region and its elegantly cosmopolitan social life was in the hands of foreign communities. I use that in the legal sense because everything not Turkish was foreign, but in historical and real sense it would be ludicrous to include the Greeks in that term because they had been there for many thousands of years. I clearly remember the first time I had gone ashore in Asia Minor was from a cruise ship at Kusedesi and we were taking the bus to Ephesus. The Turkish guide said, with quite surprising frankness, “I must tell you that we are now approaching what was a Greek city”. That is what it was all about because the Greeks of Asia Minor had maintained an unbroken continuity with the great world of the Ephesians and the Greeks of that region over the centuries. This showed in so many attitudes and particularly in the purity of the language which they used.

What a terrible shock it must have been to Christy to learn a short time later while back in Greece of the terrible retribution that Kemal Attaturk extracted on the Greeks and so Ariadne saw her idyllic world go up in flames, and what a world it was. A world where the incredible richness of the soil and ideal climate were matched only by the very great beauty of the seascape and countryside. Those of you who have been there will know what I mean. It was soil that would grow anything, especially the fruits that Mother used to speak of often and which gave rise to the finest dried fruits industry in the world.

In addition to her normal Greek school, Ariadne was taught much by a governess, not the least was the French language and culture. French, which was the international language, “The Lingua Franka”, of the foreign communities was more than her second language and as you will see it was to influence her life in Australia.

In escaping barely with their lives - thanks to an old Turkish employee, and with only the possessions they could carry - we still have one of the rugs - Ariadne, an only child, found herself with her father, John, and mother, Evridiki Cocones, on the island of Mitilini. A prudent banker had encouraged Grandfather in his trading activities to have money in the bank in Mitilini and this gave them an advantage which very few of the refugees had, that was a modest amount of capital to create a new life elsewhere. An uncle from Salonica who had in fact been to Australia to look at the tobacco industry, soon came down to help them and despite very close family ties with the well established Cocones family in Athens, they elected to come to Australia as a result of what he told them.

To Melbourne, with all its bleakness, they came, knowing no-one and finding only isolation and loneliness. But soon they were befriended by a Kytherian family - Comino - who were to have a doubly decisive influence in Ariadne’s future. The first was that the elder daughter of that family, Clare, who was here in Brisbane just a few months ago, in fact she had planned to see mother with whom she had remained very close but sadly she was a few weeks too late, had been to a convent school for girls at Dalesford in northern Victoria where the nuns were from a French speaking order. She encouraged my Grandparents to send Mother to this convent, though she was now 23, to learn English. She was accepted on the basis that she would teach conversational French. In the early 60’s I met the Mother Superior who was then in her 90’s and who remembered my mother’s story very well.

Ariadne had so despaired of the world, having seen her untroubled existence so brutally disappear that she told us that it wasn’t long before she was thinking that she might well spend the rest of her life in the convent. But when she returned to Melbourne during a vacation the Comino family, through the Kytherian grapevine, knew that Father would be visiting Melbourne and it was no accident he was invited to their home where he met Mother, and that was that.

She often said that from that time the despair that was consuming her, left and Christy brought a security and a love to her for which she idolised him, as he did her because he said she brought a poise and a culture and an elegant world which he could never have dreamt would be his, but this she truly made it. And so in early January 1925 they were married in Melbourne and came to Brisbane to a home on Highgate Hill, “Likavitos”, which Father had purchased in anticipation of his marriage and she was to make that home one of grace and dignity.

But the thing I think which most appealed to Father was that she did not, as well she might have done, seek an “uppercrust” existence - she was far too real a person for that. Those who have known Ariadne over the years have known that she did not recognise distinctions based on anything other than the intrinsic worth of a person and she had a gift for evoking this, a real gift of communication. Only last week our plumber was talking about how he was made welcome even when coming to do the most menial of jobs.

The limelight she sought to avoid always, but once there, was more than at home in it, whatever the circumstances.

Not long after his return to Brisbane with his new bride, Christy was met with the greatest challenge of his consular life, namely a wave of anti­migrant feeling throughout Australia culminating in Queensland into the publication of the Ferry Report on 21 June 1925 - “Report of the Royal Commission into Social and Economic Effect of increase in Number of Aliens in North Queensland”. The reports contains such illuminating passages as “the Greek residents of North Queensland are generally of an undesirable type and do not make good settlers - they are not agriculturalists and add nothing to the wealth or security of the country -they engage in no useful work” - and so its distorted, and racially slanted views go on and on. Such passages as the following abound - ~~in the modern economic struggle the displacement of one race by another takes place at the bottom and the effective weapon of displacement is a lower standard of living - the Greeks have given a further illustration of this theory by displacing Chinamen”.

And did Christy ever “see red”! In a long letter to the then Premier of Queensland the Hon. W N Fillies dated 5 June 1925, which he also copied to the Press who reported it in full, he began thus “I have read with pain and surprise the unwarranted general criticism of Greeks in North Queensland” and then he attacked the “findings” one by one in a careful and reasoned way. He was, not surprisingly, particularly upset by the suggestion that “the Greeks in North Queensland were not Agriculturalists”. He wrote “he could have ascertained - if he had troubled to inquire from the Agricultural Council - that personally, I have sent more than 70 Greeks to farming work in various parts of Queensland within the last four months”. He concluded “it seems a thousand pities that the good feeling that has existed up to the present should not be fostered instead of being destroyed”.

The mid-20’s brought prosperity, but towards their end came another calamity in the shape of the great Depression where financial survival was an achievement. Survive Christy did, but it was a long fight, just as it was for everyone else. Ariadne’s support and confidence building for him did not waiver even though for her, she told us, it was like a repetition of the events of 1922 - another “Katastrophe”.

The arrival of the third child Evie, in the mid-30’s brought the most wonderful joy into our home with Christy absolutely doting on her.

World War II brought new challenges and Christy, with the tireless help of Ariadne, spent a great deal of time organising the Greek Relief Fund in which over the war years more money was collected here in Queensland than in any other part of the Commonwealth. Additionally, Mother was totally involved in the formation and operation of the Greek Red Cross as well as actively participating in the Country Womens’ Association and the other Australian bodies to which she belonged.

Christy was absolutely thrilled to find that the first American detachment to arrive in Brisbane was commanded by a most impressive Greek-born American, Colonel Alexander Johnson - Ioannides and from then on we saw a myriad of Greek Americans in our home and from all walks of life. It was Christy’s window into a real multi-cultural society which he dreamt Australia would one day become.

The greatest compliment to him as a citizen was to be granted early in World War II one of the very few civilian “Priority One” status bearing testimony to his importance to the Community and his assistance to the war effort.

Christy and Ariadne’s involvement in the life of the Greek community and Church were daily. His love for music found a real expression in the Greek Orthodox Church Hymn Book which he produced. Creating harmony in the human sense was his constant endeavour, particularly in community affairs. This was not an easy task and that fine Pioneer and ever contributing citizen, Nick Panagiotis, has recorded much of this story.

With the crushing effects of the depression now behind them, Christy and Ariadne, they were able to live their public and family lives to the full, but in 1957, sadly, with the totally unexpected death of Christy at the age of only 69, Ariadne’s world again went “up in flames” together with the emotional security that was so much part of it. But instead of dropping her bundle, she turned her whole self into making her family the total focus of her life and she could see that there was much to do but additionally she had a young son barely past his mid 20’s, ill prepared to assume his famous father’s mantle. Yet with all the tremendous strength that was in her, she provided understanding, support and encouragement to her children without in any sense, seeking to control or dominate - her powerful personality notwithstanding.

On the day on which we finally laid her to rest last May, (1993) in her 93rd year, His Grace, Archbishop Stylianos highlighted the fact that quite uniquely never once did he hear her speak of life in Australia with any tinge of regretful nostalgia, rather did she speak of it with a warmth and enthusiasm which made a lasting impression on him, for he could see that like Christy before her, she had fully come to terms with it and its people and made it totally, home.

This has been the story of the lives of two people so individually significant, yet who, together, made their ideals a living and daily and wonderful reality, not only for those of us privileged to be close to them but for many, many beyond.

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