submitted by Vikki Londy on 13.12.2006
In the first half of the 20th century, the largest group within the Greek community in Queensland were the Kytherians. They played a vital role in the formation and leadership of Greek communities in Brisbane and provincial centres throughout the state, the securing of a priest for Brisbane and the erection of the first Greek church in Brisbane. From 1919 until his death in 1957, the Greek Consul in Brisbane was the Kytherian, Christy Freeleagus. Most of the enterprising pioneers who first ventured into the outback areas of the state to lay the foundations for the Greek Café phenomenon in the state were Kytherians.
One of the most notable Kytherian figures in Queensland in the first half of the twentieth century was Peter Aroney ( Panagiotis Nicolaou Koumesopoulos). After his return to Queensland in 1920 following his discharge from the Greek army, he became deeply involved in Greek Community affairs in Brisbane.
From then on, he was in the forefront of almost every important event that occurred in the Greek Community of Brisbane until after the Second World War. He was one of the leaders of the Stratigakis/Aroney party in the political arena. In 1931, he became the editor of the first weekly journal to be produced in Queensland. In 1934, he was the principal founder of the Kytherian Association of Queensland. In the same year, he was also the principal founder of the first viable chapter of AHEPA in Australia – the Ellas chapter in Brisbane.
In 1980, Peter Aroney was interviewed by Denis Arthur Conomos (Dionysios Anargerou Megaloconomos), son of Anargeros and Elenie Megaloconomos from Kapsali, Kythera. In a series of meetings, he told his remarkable story. What follows are extracts from that story, told in this great man’s own words. (The parts in brackets are taken from Denis Conomos’ book ‘The Greeks in Queensland – A History from 1859 to 1945’ published in 2002.)
The childhood years in Kythera
I was born in Aroniadika, Kythera on 1st January, 1886. Life in Greece when we were children can never be forgotten. It is always in my heart. We were happy in our family life. My father was Nicholas Panagiotis Koumesopoulos and my mother Chrisanthi Koumesopoulos (nee Anastasopoulos). My father was a farmer.
I had a brother Anthony and two sisters, Irene and Maria. My father had a lot of property. He didn’t want to hear of my migrating. He wanted to make me a lawyer and my brother Anthony a doctor. He arranged for us to board in a house in Hora so we could go to school there. We attended the Elliniko School. Every fortnight, my father would visit us and bring plenty of provisions.
We enjoyed our childhood. My teacher in the Primary School was Panagiotis Aronis. Every Sunday, he would take us to the church at Aroniadika. He taught us the hymns of the church. Very early on Sunday mornings, we went to school and sang hymns and then went to church. There we would help the chantors. The priest at the time was father Sotiras.
When we finished our schooling, we went back home. Three men had come back from Australia and spoken well of it. One of them was from Aroniadika. I got the idea to go to Australia.
When we received our leaving certificates from school, my father said to me, ‘I will send you to your cousin in Piraeus, a business man. You can go to the gymnasio and study to become a lawyer.’ At the time he and I were repairing a stone wall. I said, ‘Father, I want to go to Australia.’ He almost fainted. I told him what our teacher had said when he was handing us our leaving certificates. ‘You will all be leaving and going into different jobs. I advise you not to go into higher studies and in particular, not to become a teacher. Look at me. My classmates who went into business are now well off. I am very poor.’ When my father heard this, he said, ‘All right, my son. I will give you the fare to go to Australia.’
Arrival in Australia in 1900
I came to Australia in 1900 at the age of fifteen. I disembarked at Sydney and went to my cousins, Aroney Brothers. They gave me a job in a fish shop in North Sydney for two shillings and six pence a week.
I worked from morning till 12-1.00am six days a week. On Sunday, we would get up early to scrub the floor and clean the tables and chairs. We’d work till 2:30-3.00pm. Then we would have lunch. After that, we would be so tired, we would go to sleep. We would get up about 7.00 to 8.00pm, have some dinner and then go to sleep again.
At the time, John Comino, known as the “Oyster King’ was selling oysters. His nephew Nicholas Comino had a shop in King Street. Another nephew, Mina Comino, had a fish shop in Oxford Street. John Comino’s brother, Zaharias, had a big shop in Pitt Street. Opposite the Railway was one Nicholas Strategos.
I regretted coming to Australia, but I didn’t say anything to my parents. I was too proud. However, they had heard about it, and my father wrote offering to send the fare for my return, but I decided to stay.
I remained in Aroneys brothers’ shop for a year. I then worked for a few months in King Street with Nicholas Comino. After that, I went to work for a fellow-villager in Chatswood in North Sydney. There wasn’t much work and the shop closed. I went to work for a cousin, George Kokineas, at Parramatta. I managed his shop till 1905 when I left to go to Greece.
Trip to Greece in 1905 and return to Australia in 1906
I went to volunteer as a guerilla fighter in Macedonia to fight against the Bulgarians. They had committed many atrocities against Greek Macedonians. I got sick on the way and didn’t end up fighting, returning to Sydney in 1906. I found work as a waiter at Aroneys Café at Circular Quay for 30 shillings a week. I then went to work for my cousins Dimitri and George Kokineas.
Peter Aroney goes to Brisbane
In 1910, I came to Brisbane and opened a fish shop in George Street. I lived above the shop. My brother Anthony, who had come to Australia in 1909, joined me in the business. At the time, there was no Greek Community in Brisbane and no church. No functions were being held by the Greeks.
Peter Aroney goes to fight in the First Balkan War in 1912 and remains in the army until 1919
When the First Balkan War started in 1912, Theo Comino, Christy Freeleagus and I telegraphed Venizelos and asked if we could help with funds and volunteers. Lockhart Spence, the Greek Consul in Brisbane, received a telegram from Coromilas, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Greece, stating: ‘We do not accept volunteers. Funds gratefully accepted.’
I decided to go to Greece and serve in the Greek Army. I left my brother, Anthony, in charge of the business. I went first to Kythera to see my family and then to Athens to enlist.
For one and a half months we trained in civilian clothes. They didn’t have army clothes to give us. Then they gave us rags to wear. I regretted my mistake in joining but it was too late.
Then the authorities wrote to me and said that because I hadn’t been in Greece to serve at the proper time, I would have to serve the usual two years of national service plus an extra fifteen months as a penalty. I could buy off three or fifteen months.
When I finished my training, they appointed me paymaster at Navplion . I learned the job working alongside the old paymaster and then took his place. The fighting was going on in Macedonia chiefly against the Bulgarians and the Turks. I asked to be sent to the front line but the officer in charge of the regiment said I was serving as well where I was.
After I had been in the army for a year, I fell ill from malaria. I spent two months in hospital and then went to Kythera. I spent two months there with my family while on leave.
I rejoined the army at Navplion. In 1916, when King Constantine was refusing to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the latter demanded that the Greek army be disbanded. We were sent home to await further orders. I spent this time working on our property.
(In June 1917 the pro-German King Constantine, in response to a demand from the Allies, abdicated and Venizelos returned to power as Premier of Greece. On 29 June 1917, Greece formally declared war on Germany, Turkey and Bulgaria.)
When Greece entered the war on the side of the Allies, we were called up again. I went back to Navplion with Dimitrios Strategos, whose son is a brilliant doctor on the staff of the University of Greece.
Life in the army was very bad. We received one pentara a day as salary. The soldiers were hungry. We would have exercises and then come back to eat a bit of cheese and a slice of bread. That would have to last us for two days. Breakfast was a cup of tea. For lunch we would have beans. We would have meat only once a fortnight. I had a bit of money and would go out to eat if I was hungry
I remained in the army till 1919. In that year, I fell ill with Spanish Influenza. Sixty to seventy were dying a day. I was living in a room outside the camp. I was nursed by the wife of a major. I had been previously living in a room full of bugs.
Discharge from the army, marriage and return to Australia
In October 1919, I was discharged from the army and went to Athens. At the time, there was staying in Athens a Kytherian girl whom I knew well because our villages were close. She was Irene Mavromatis, daughter of Mihali and Zaphiro Mavromatis from the village of Pitsinades. Her father was an architect in Athens. The family lived in Kythera and Mihali would go home twice a year. One of Irene’s sisters had gone to Athens to train as a dressmaker and had married one Malanos.
At the time I was discharged from the army, Irene was staying with her sister in Athens. A friend of mine, Dimitri Comino, said to me, ‘I want to crown you (in marriage)’. I replied,’ Now is the time.’ We went to Irene’s father’s home. On the way we met another friend who joined us.
When we got there, there was a lot of conversation. I couldn’t get to speak to Irene’s father. I said to Dimitri, ‘I have to go.’ So the three of us left. As we were walking back, I said to the other two that I had forgotten to say something to Irene’s father.
I returned to his house. I said to him, ‘I have come to ask for your daughter’s hand.’ He said, ‘For whom?’ I said, ‘Me.’ He almost fell down. He decided that we should go to see Irene and ask her what she thought. Irene agreed to marry me and we were married shortly afterwards. I was in a hurry to get back to Australia as they had written to me saying that my brother Anthony was very sick from consumption. We returned in 1920 and my brother died four months after our arrival.
(On 16 December 1931, there appeared the first issue of the Queensland Messenger, the first locally produced newspaper to be published in Queensland. It was an eight page weekly journal containing religious, social and literary material. The founders of the paper were John Stratigakis, Stratis Christofidis and Peter Aroney working in conjunction with the Brisbane priest, Father Elias Kotiadis.
The paper was started at the height of a factional war going on in Brisbane in the 1920s and 1930s between two parties – the Freeleagus party and the Stratigakis/Aroney party. There were already two widely circulating Greek-Australian newspapers available to the Greeks of Queensland – Hellenic Herald and National Tribune. The former was allied to the Stratigakis/Aroney party and the latter to the Freeleagus party. Queensland Messenger was printed by Hellenic Herald in Sydney and generally favoured the Stratigakis/Aroney party. Apart from a small number of correspondents, the paper had an effective editorial staff of one – Peter Aroney.)
My party wanted us to bring out a paper to fight our cause. George Marcellos (manager of Hellenic Herald) came up and we held a meeting at Stratigakis’ place. They wanted me to edit the new paper. I didn’t want to but eventually gave in.
I agonised over the paper. I had to write out not only my own material but also that submitted by others. I used to work late at night. My eyes were sore from working on it. Marcellos was printing the paper. I would send down all the copy to him in Sydney. The paper lasted only four months.
(The Kytherian Association was formed in Brisbane on 4 November 1934.)
In about October 1934, Manolis Vlandis and John Freeleagus came and saw me at Cabaret Café in Queen Street. ‘We want you to form a Kytherian Association,’ they said. I called a meeting and invited Milton Samios, Manuel Vlandis, John Freeleagus, George Venery, George Faros and a number of others. We met above Con Adonaras’ shop in Albert Street. We voted to form the Association.
We called a general meeting in St. Luke’s Hall in Charlotte Street on 4 November 1934. Most of the Kytherians in Brisbane and surrounding district attended the meeting. It was agreed to form a Kytherian Association. Peter Freeleagus nominated me as President but I declined, instead nominating Theo Comino, wanting to involve him more in the Community. He was elected President and I was elected Treasurer. (John Freeleagus was elected Vice-President and George Faros Secretary).
(The first meeting of the committee was held on 7 November 1934 and was attended by the above office-bearers as well as Th. Freeleagus, E. Vlandis, E. Andronicos, M. Tsikleas, G. Vlahogianis, K. Fardoulis, A. Samios and A. Sourry. The meeting appointed a sub-committee to draw up a draft constitution. Shortly afterwards, P. Karapatis (Patty) and M. Samios were also added to the Executive Committee. One of the early matters considered by the Association was the giving of financial help for the construction of a pier at the Kytherian coastal village of Agia Pelagia.
At a General Meeting of the Association held on 4 May 1935, a draft constitution was discussed but not adopted. There followed a period of inactivity with no meetings being held until 11 October 1936.)
Months passed without anything being done. The Association was dead. One day I was passing the Club. I saw Vasili Cassimatis and Christos Gavrilis. They said, ‘The Kytherian Association is gone.’ I said, ‘It is dead. Let us have another election. I elect George Veneris President, you, Christo, Vice-President, you, Vasili, Treasurer. On a nearby table was George Kalligeros, an educated boy. I said to him, ‘We’ve just elected you Secretary. Write to Venery and tell him what’s happened.’ And from that day on the Association came back to life.
(At a meeting of Greeks from North West NSW towns held at Werris Creek near Tamworth on 15 August 1934, the decision was made to form AHEPA in Australia modelled on the American AHEPA. The lodge was officially founded in Armidale on 10 October 1934.)
A Kytherian, Nicholas Haralambou Andronicos, who had been in America, had a small business in Scone, NSW. In America, he had been an Ahepan. When the Greeks of North-West NSW learnt this, they approached him and asked him if they could form AHEPA in Australia. As a result, an Australian AHEPA was formed with the first chapter based at Scone.
Greeks from Tamworth, Armidale, Glen Innes, Tenterfield, Moree, Inverell and Narrabri became members of AHEPA. Nicholas Andronicos was elected President and Chris Sourris Secretary.
However, as they couldn’t get together every month over such long distances, they couldn’t keep going. Chris Sourris came and found me in Brisbane and explained the situation. He said to me, ’Is it possible for you to take action to found an AHEPA chapter here in Brisbane? We can’t keep going in Scone. We will hand over to you whatever we have, including our funds – everything: regalia, rituals, ledgers, and minutes, so that AHEPA won’t be lost.’ I promised to do what I could.
After about a month, I informed Chris Sourris that I had found a number of people who were agreeable to our forming a chapter of AHEPA in Brisbane. He came with a few others from the Scone chapter to Brisbane and handed over all the material belonging to the lodge. We founded Ellas chapter and they closed their chapter. We wrote to the Supreme Lodge of AHEPA in America and they sent us many papers.
After two or three years, we decided to try to procure our own AHEPA building. We were at that time meeting in a school. We conducted an appeal and raised one thousand pounds amongst the Ahepans in Brisbane. We proceeded to buy two wooden shops in West End. We waited a few years and then, borrowing from the bank, bit by bit we built AHEPA Hall,
One day I met Vince Hellen whom I had known for many years. He had come to Brisbane to buy stock for his shop at Goomeri. I said, ‘Valery, how many Greeks are there in your district? Are there enough to form an AHEPA chapter there?’ He said, ‘We have quite a few.’ I said, ‘I will help you to become an Ahepan here in Ellas. Then you can find people who are interested in the Kingaroy area. When you are ready, let us know and we will come and found a chapter of AHEPA there.’
He came to Brisbane and we made him an Ahepan. Then he asked me if I could go to Kingaroy and explain the objects of AHEPA to as many as he could get together. I went up and on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke to the people who had been brought together by Vince. There were about twenty all told. I explained AHEPA to them. They agreed to form a chapter in Kingaroy. I said to them, ‘You need to elect a President, Vice-President and all the office-bearers. Then let us know when you are ready for us to come here to found the lodge.’
They contacted us shortly afterwards and early one Sunday morning in 1944, many Ahepans from Brisbane with their families travelled by car to Kingaroy. It was as if we were going to a panegyri. At Kingaroy, they had booked the Masonic Hall for the meeting. We held the meeting in the afternoon We swore them in and founded the lodge. At night, Jim Prineas closed his shop and we had an Ahepan dinner. We stayed till midnight before returning to Brisbane, arriving at daybreak, very tired. Thus was founded the second chapter of the lodge.
(Peter Aroney died in 1986 at the age of 102. His wife Irene died in 2004 at the age of 107.)
(The above has been edited by Denis A. Conomos BA, LLB, BD., author of The Greeks in Queensland – A History from 1859 to 1945. Published in Brisbane in 2002 by Copyright Publishing. The book may be purchased either from the author or the publisher for the cost of $49.50 (postage free). The following are contact details:
1. Author: Denis. A. Conomos, 28 Sherley St, Moorooka, Brisbane, Q’ld 4105. Ph 07 3392 9009.
2. Publisher (credit facilities available):
Copyright Publishing Company Pty Ltd,
GPO Box 2927,
Ph 07 3229 6366.
Fax: 07 3229 8782.
Web site: http://www.copyright.net.au
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
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