submitted by Vicki Gesouras on 04.02.2004
Arriving in Australia in 1911, George Vamvakaris/Bambakaris (Harris) was a pioneer Greek Australian in the butcher shop business.
George was born on the island of Kythera on 31 July, 1888.
George's parents were Panayotis Vamvakaris (1847 -1911) and Ekaterini Notaras (1857 -1937). Panayotis was a farmer and lived in the village called Vamvakarathika, Kythera. The name "Vamvakaris" means cotton grower, which originated from Asia Minor, the only region in Smyrna that produces cotton. The Vamvakaris family parish was, and still is, Agios Theodoros. Panayotis and Ekaterini are buried in the church cemetery. The "templo" was donated by George and his wife Eleni, and has their names engraved on it. They also contributed to major maintenance of the church. George's church membership in Australia was at the parish of St Sophia Cathedral, Dowling Street, Darlinghurst where he was on the committee and where he attended church every Sunday.
George had four sisters - Vretoula, Chrisso (married to Nikolaos Caredes), Kiparisoula (married to George Poulis) and Eleni (married to Kaminelis).
George attended the local primary school in the neighbouring village of Aroniathika. At the age of 11, he was sent to France for a short while to work. He then went to Egypt because his family was poor and he was responsible for providing a dowry for each of his sisters. In Egypt he learnt English, French and Arabic. He worked in the kitchens of restaurants. From this, he discovered a flair for cooking which he would later utilise in Australia.
He was invited to the USA by an uncle. However, on arrival he was not met by him. Under US Law it was illegal to stay in America without a sponsor and so George was sent back to Greece. In 1910, upon arrival in Greece, he joined the merchant navy. The key to his business success was discovered during this period when he purchased tobacco, shoelaces, razors, etc. and sold them on board the ship to his fellow-workers at a profit.
As Australia had no restrictions on immigrants arriving without a sponsor, and knowing that there were fellow Kytherians in Australia, George decided to go to Australia in 1911. Again, George worked for his fellow-Kytherians in restaurants in Sydney and then decided to open his own restaurant in Bathurst Street. To economize, he was running the business on his own with an imaginary person assisting in the kitchen called "Maria" whom he would call out to when customers placed an order to make sure they did not leave. A three course meal cost sixpence (5 cents).
Later he opened another restaurant in George Street (near the Rocks). At this time, the local butcher wanted to increase his prices. George being brought up in a world of need, went to other butchers to see what their prices were and he ultimately found a competitive butcher at Taylor Square, George Steele. So George, being the dealer that he was, became an agent selling meat to other businesses. George Steele took a liking to George and sold him his business. The business flourished under George's direction. He was the first Greek butcher in Sydney and possibly in Australia (c. 1920). Later, he bought the property.
In 1923, George returned to Greece where he had income from Australia and also a house in Athens. In Athens he met the Karonis family who were from Tripolis in the Peloponnese. They got in touch with their relative Eleni Karonis in Tripolis and suggested she come to Athens to meet a “kalo pedi/palikari”. In due time, she was introduced to George and a marriage was arranged and held on 13 May, 1924.
The married couple had the intention of remaining in their homeland. However, George lost a lot of money on the stock exchange and, as they had two children, they decided to return to Australia in 1927. They travelled from Greece to Australia by ship and they took with them George's niece Eleni Poulis (now Eleni Notaras, who lives in Canberra, ACT), his sister-in-law Ekaterini (Mrs George Koutsogiannis) and their two children Peter (1925 -1975) and Ekaterini (b. 1927). During the sea journey, Ekaterini, who was eight months old, died and was buried in Fremantle.
Arriving in Sydney in 1927, the family resided with Harry Samios who had a shop and dwelling in George Street in the city. They later moved to the butcher shop in Bourke Street, Taylor Square, and ran that business. George and Eleni had another 7 children:
1927 - twins who were stillborn
1930 - Fran (d1975)
1931 - Emmanuel
1933 - Mary
1934 - Constantine
All seven were born above the shop with the assistance of a midwife.
Later, George also sponsored from Greece his brothers-in-law, Spiro and Andrew Karonis, who also resided above the same butcher shop. George then sponsored from Greece, his sister-in-law Loula (Mrs Theo Varvaressos) and his mother-in-law Theophany. They resided in a house in Kensington that George had purchased.
George and Eleni had nicknames for each other. George was "0 Bossis" and Eleni was "I Mrs." During the 1930s, George and Eleni changed their surname by deed poll to "Harris" as it was difficult for Australians to pronounce “Vamvakaris”.
In 1938, George and Eleni purchased a house in Bellevue Hill from a fellow butcher. They were one of the few Greek families in Bellevue Hill at that time.
Eleni was the first Greek woman in Sydney to attain her driver's license. She was the family chauffeur as George did not attain his license until much later. He bought a black 1939 Buick which was used for business and pleasure.
In 1938, George travelled to the USA on the liner "The Queen Mary" to have a kidney stone removed. He also visited relatives m San Francisco and Chicago. From the USA, he travelled to Greece to see his family and was in Greece when World War II broke out. He was fortunate to travel on the last ship back to Australia. In 1944, his son Peter was sent to an is1and off New Guinea called New Britain as part of the Australian army. He returned home with malaria and spent many months in hospital recovering.
After the war, George bought four more butcher shop businesses, as well as the properties, which were all situated along Oxford Street. He also bought other real estate and advised other people to do so. He was a great believer in bricks and mortar.
George was a very social man and was well liked and respected in the Greek community. He was a member of the Kytherian Brotherhood and once served as treasurer. After attending the Sunday liturgy at church, he would take his horse to Centennial Park. He often took his family on outings on Sundays to Coogee Beach, Bondi Beach, La Perouse and Watsons Bay where he would study the Sydney Morning Herald which helped him improve his already good English.
All George’s and Eleni's six surviving children married and between them they had 22 children. Their grandchildren have collectively had children.
George departed this life on 1 August, 1960 aged 72. His father Panayotis died on the same day in 1911, which is also the feast of Agia Elessa who is a saint of the island of Kythera.
Copyright: The Harris Family
Originally printed in "The Kytherian" newsletter, December 2001, of the Kytherian Association of Australia. Reprinted in the nationwide "The Greek Australian Vema" newspaper, June 2002.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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