The Greek cafe phenomenon in Australia

During the half a century from the 1920s through to the 1970s a traveller arriving in an Australian country town - especially in New South Wales and Queensland - could always be sure of finding a Greek cafe and getting a meal at any hour from early in the morning to late at night.

The historian Hugh Gilchrist, in Volume I of his book 'Australians and Greeks', writes about this 'shop-keeping phenomenon'. He attributes the dominance of this occupation among the Greeks - after they had given up seafaring or gold mining - to a number of factors: their inadequate knowledge of English, the antipathy to foreigners shown by trades unions up to the 1950s, a tradition of individual enterprise and strong family ties.

However other factors contributed to the shop or cafe-keeping phenomenon. One of them was the requirement that an intending immigrant from Greece be sponsored by a British Subject of Australia (the concept of an Australian citizen came later). A sponsor was required to give a written undertaking to the authorities promising that for three years the sponsored immigrant would not become a charge on State funds or any public or charitable institution through unemployment, illness or any other cause. The sponsor had to declare his income and assets in the application. The sponsor's good character and capacity to keep his promise had to be certified by a person of proper standing (usually a solicitor).

Greek cafes and chain immigration

A sponsor for an intending immigrant from Greece was likely to be a relative or friend. If the sponsor ran a cafe he could meet the means test and provide employment for the new arrival. The newcomer would work in the cafe and when he had acquired some language, confidence and capital he would start his own business and sponsor other immigrants from Greece.

Thus a kind of chain immigration operated around cafes for many years. After the Second World War, immigration and employment conditions in Australia were liberalised for non-British Europeans, contributing to the decline of the Greek cafe.

'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' describes the Greek cafe phenomenon in the these words:

'In Manilla Peter Feros learned the cafe business and the work must have agreed with him as he would run cafes for the rest of his life. This was just as well, as employment opportunities for Greek immigrants at the time were few.

Limitations in education and language put many occupations beyond their reach. As well, workplaces were guarded by labour unions unfriendly to foreigners, and Gallipoli had left a legacy of ill feeling against the Greeks among veterans who were now prominent in Australia's political and business classes. Later, British Preference Leagues would operate in some industries, further narrowing the scope for employment.

When life at sea or on the gold fields palled and they sought a more settled life, the early Greek immigrants looked for a niche and found it in the food trade. This was a poorly developed industry in Australia and especially so in the country towns where the frontier culture lingered on.

For the Greeks who took to this work, there was something to be said for the cafes of the country towns. They suited the independent temperament of those early sojourners who aspired to be their own masters. The smaller scale of the towns suited them too as they were not so far removed from the village life they knew. Visits to Greeks in neighbouring towns and occasional trips to Sydney helped them deal with the cultural isolation, while the physical isolation, with each town alone in the great sea of the bush, perhaps had some resonance for Greeks from the islands.

The cafe could make use of men from a society where specialised work was the exception and people were accustomed to performing many and varied tasks; it also drew on their experience in treating and preparing food acquired in the village, where most things on the table came from family fields and orchards and vineyards. Importantly, the cafe provided them with the opportunity to work long and hard and accumulate some capital. These Greeks, pressed by need and lack of opportunity and incessant war, left their homes and families and traveled across a third of the globe to Australia. They gave up much that was precious to them and lived for years in a strange land.

They did not do all this for nothing. Those who were single hoped to get enough money to establish themselves and marry; those already married hoped to get enough money to support their families in Greece, to educate their children, to build a home and to provide their daughters with dowries so they might marry well. The country cafes, especially in the early years, could provide that money, in some cases enough to allow the owners to extend their enterprise into other fields.'

 

Emanuel Aroney at Bingara's Regent Cafe in the 1950s © Peter Aroney

Emanuel Aroney at Bingara's Regent Cafe in the 1950s © Peter Aroney

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The Bingara Roxy was featured on ABC Radio National.

Listen to the Bush Telegraph with Peter Prineas, author of Katsehamos and the Great Idea, Sandy McNaughton, manager of Bingara's Roxy Theatre, and Bob Kirk of the Bingara Historical Society talking about Greek cafes.

During the show, Peter Prineas explains why so many cafes and cinemas across Victoria, NSW and Queensland were established by Greeks.

 

Learn more about these books by Peter Prineas

Katsehamos and the Great Idea

 

Britain's Greek Islands

 

Wild Places