submitted by Hugh Gilchrist on 25.09.2005
A number of Kytherian families began to migrate to Australia, towards the end of the 19th century. Amongst the more prominent among these were the Kominos families, from the village of Perleyianika near Potamos.
The first Kominos to reach Australia, Athanasios, landed in Sydney in 1873, probably as a seaman on a sailing ship from New Zealand, when he was 29.
One of six children of a farmer, Dimitrios Kominos, and his wife Agapi, née Menega, Athanasios had lived in Smyrna for several years before his further migration. For a time he worked in a colliery in Balmain, but within five years he had saved enough to set up in business.
The serendipitous “origin” of Greek fish-shop proprietorship is now enshrined in an anecdote about him, related to Dr Charles Price by John Raftopoulos:
Joined by John Theodore of Psara, the two found work in the old Balmain colliery. Some time later Comino fell sick, and the doctors told him that he had been affected by colliery work and should find himself some light occupation.
One day, while still without work, he was walking down Oxford Street, Sydney, and saw~ a fish-shop owned by a Welshman. He remembered that the doctors said he could eat fish, so he went in for a meal. While there, he saw that the Welshman did no more than drop fish into boiling fat, fork it out after a few minutes, slap it on a plate or some paper, and hand it to the customer. After some time watching this, Comino began to think that here was an occupation requiring little experience or hard labour—just the solution for his own problem. At all events, he and Theodore decided to try it, rented some premises and opened a small fish-shop at 36 Oxford Street, some time in 1878.
At first they met certain difficulties arising from their ignorance of the language and of the finer points of frying fish. For instance, one day a man came in and asked for fried oysters, and they had not the remotest idea whether such a fish should be fried in or out of the shell; on this occasion they put the complete shell into the fat. Despite these early difficulties, however, they kept at it, began to sell coffee as well as fish, and later became interested in the actual supplies of oysters and fish.
Four years after opening his shop Athanasios acquired the lease of an oyster-bed at Onions Point at the mouth of the Lane Cove River, where he sustained oysters imported from New Zealand. The enterprise did not succeed, but in 1884 he leased 2,000 yards of foreshore for oyster-growing on the Evans River estuary on the north coast, and in that year he was joined by a younger brother, Ioannis Dimitrios Kominos, then aged 30.
John D. Comino, as he became known, was an almost illiterate labourer in the port of Peiraieus. He had nearly completed his Greek army service when he received a letter and some money from Athanasios, of whose circumstances in Australia he had for some years been unaware. Moved by this letter, he left Kythira soon afterwards and arrived at Sydney in the Potosi.
At first as a clerk, later as a partner, John Comino helped to expand his brother’s business. In 1885 he acquired oyster leases on the Bermagui River estuary on the south coast. Other brothers then came out: Dimitrios in 1888, Nikolaos in 1891, Kosmas in 1892.
Their early efforts to develop the oyster industry encountered difficulties; in 1892 John (officially described as a “mechanic”) was declared bankrupt, but was discharged from bankruptcy three years later.
Athanasios died, unmarried, in Sydney in 1897, of a hernia at the age of 53, leaving a modest estate to John and nephews and nieces.
John developed an extensive and complex business supplying oysters to restaurants, fish shops and oyster-saloons in New South Wales, inheriting from Athanasios the popular title of Oyster King.
Naturalised in 1898, he acquired several more oyster leases on the New South Wales coast, and in 1906 joined with three other oyster-merchants to found the firm of Woodward, Gibbons and Comino, which dominated oyster marketing in the state.
Ultimately he owned five shops in Sydney, and seems to have had a financial interest in others in country towns, some of them trading under the name Comino, which became almost synonymous with Greek oyster-saloon proprietorship.
More than anyone else, John Comino encouraged the emigration of Kytherians to Australia. Elected honorary life president of the Greek Orthodox Community of Sydney in recognition of his help in founding Sydney’s first Greek church, he was respected not only for his commercial success, but also for his contributions to Greek national causes and to the welfare of his compatriots in New South Wales.
Among other deeds, he sponsored the first modern Greek book published in Australia, I Zoi en Afstralia (Life in Australia).
In 1901, when he was living at Randwick, John Comino married Anna, eldest daughter of the Reverend Serafeim Phocas, in a ceremony conducted by her father in the Greek Orthodox Church in Surry Hills.
John and Anna had four sons: John Demetrius, Athanasios, Nikolaos and Constantine, of whom John Demetrius was the most notable; after graduating in engineering in London in 1922 he founded the firm of Dexion-Comino International, manufacturers of structural steel components; and as Sir John Comino he was honoured by the British and Greek governments for his contributions to science and industry.
Equally distinguished was John Comino’s nephew, Akhillefs Kominos, Governor of the National Bank of Greece, a representative of Greece on numerous international bodies and the recipient of high honours from the Greek government.
John Comino senior died at Randwick in 1919, a victim of the influenza epidemic, leaving an estate valued at £31,872. Anna returned to her birthplace, Rhodes, and later settled in London, where she died in 1970 at the age of 87.
Of John’s brothers and sisters only Emini, who married Ioanms Frylingos, remained in Australia; Antonios and Kalliopi returned to Kythira and Zakharias settled in Athens.
Of their many descendants some stayed in Sydney, others went to Greece; still others migrated to London, Canada or the United States.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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