My father was born Stavros Panayiotis Zorbas. He arrived in Australia in 1912; first settling in Perth and then heading for North Queensland.
When Stavros arrived in Perth he worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The pay was very poor and eventually he made his way to North Queensland, and he begun working in ‘Sugar Gangs’ where the money was better; cutting the sugar cane that grew in this wet country. He predominantly worked in Innisfail and the surrounding districts. He made good money from this, saving most of it and sending some of it back to his family who still lived in Castellorizo.
In 1921, at the age of twenty seven, my father returned to Castellorizo with one thousand pounds which in those days was a small fortune. He was tall, dark and handsome and naturally would be looking for a wife but his first priority was to make sure that he married off his sisters. Stavros was one of eight children; four sisters and four brothers.
After his sisters were married, Stavros found himself a wife in Keresea Zanalis, the eldest daughter in her family (this name no longer exists with no surviving family members). They were married on 23rd of April 1922. On the bridal outfit, a traditional Dodecanese island dress, my father pinned to Keresea between 29 and 31 gold coins. These coins included some 5 pound sterling Queen Victoria coins, United States 20 dollar coins as well as some Turkish coins. For a dowry he received 100 pounds in sterling and a house in Castellorizo.
[Keresea was one of five children: Keresea, Anna, Evangelia, Costa and Anastasi]
Stavros and Keresea Zorbas returned to Australia 5 months later; carrying no passports for in those days it was relatively easy to bring home relatives. My mother’s job was to cook for everyone. At one port my mother found some French perfume. She went to my father and asked if he would buy it for her; he would not and responded: “There’s no money for that!” My mother would always remember this; not to mention the sea-sickness she would have in the long journey which passed through Perth, then Melbourne, finally arriving in Sydney.
The boat arrived sometime in early January 1923. Not long after, I, Mary Atgemis nee Zorbas, was born on the 27th January. My parents received a birth certificate from the hospital but my birth would not be registered in Castellorizo; as they priest would only register the births via christenings when the names were written on the back of the icons.
When Mum arrived in Sydney she started wearing modern clothes. Upon returning to Innisfail, my father opened the New York Cafe, which was nothing fancy but a good cash business. They began to have more children and I now had two new brothers in Steven and Peter. Dad built a house at 29 Gladys Street and soon after we were in the new house Peggy was born on 22nd June, 1926. Peggy was born with the help of a midwife. After that Dimitry was born in a maternity ward and then came Michaelene (Micha), who was born at the Innisfail District Hospital on the 28th March, 1932.
Dad then built 5 shops on Edith Street opposite Lee Toys. At this time the town was very prosperous because of the labour that was pouring into Innisfail for the ‘Sugar Gangs’. However, later, when the harvester came, the amount of labour needed died down. The harvester would cut the cane and then load it onto trucks where it was taken directly to the mills.
Downstairs dad leased the apartments to relatives. There was also a bread shop nearby and this filled the air with a sweet aroma. It was a very wet place – it never stopped raining between November and March. The fields of cane were in all shapes according to the land and in the distance there were mountains. You could even see Mount Bartle Frere in the distance which is Queensland’s highest peak.
My brother Peter was endless trouble growing up and often he would run away. One time Peter ran away and we had no idea where he was until Aunt Anna rang to say that he was in Tully with her. She’d said “If you’re looking for your son, he’s here with me”. He’d also done a similar expedition to Millaa Millaa.
My father Stavros also sold fish off the back of his 1929 model Ford Utility. He used to take Micha with him for company and head out to the farms to sell it the local rural areas. All us kids went to Innisfail State School. There was also a Greek School in the area run by the local Greek priest. He used to get hell from the kids, a terrible time, they were very disobedient.
The Greek Church in Innisfail was very important because it was the only Greek Church in Australia which was outside the capital cities. Therefore, most of North Queensland’s Greek Community would make the journey to Innisfail all around the time of the Holy Days. At Easter there was a big celebration and it would often be during this time that Christenings would be conducted though not weddings as they could not take place during the period of Lent. Only after Lent could the weddings take place.
Quite often these celebrations would take place at the Blue Bird Cafe which was very elegant and catered for all sorts of functions. There would be weddings, christenings and balls there.
Sadly, none of us children would ever meet our grandparents who stayed behind in Castellorizo.
In 1942, with the war coming to our doorstep with the bombing of Darwin (they bombed it 64 times) Innisfail officially became a ‘war zone’. I can still remember the policeman walking up the steps. They said to Dad “You can either go right now with what you’re wearing or you can head inland to Mt. Isa”. They were worried that the Japs were going to come further down the coast.
A year earlier in 1941 I had met a man called Nick Pengly. He was handsome and kind and I liked him very much. We became engaged. When we were forced to pack up we sent a telegram to Nick to tell him that we would be at the Railway Station in Mackay. There was flooding all over the country surrounding Mackay and the Fitzroy River Bridge was under water, prohibiting any trains from coming or going. The journey took us 3 days in total to reach Brisbane. Then of course we had to change trains as the tracks in NSW were a different width to the Queensland trains. It was another day to Sydney, then another to Melbourne. Years later we found out that Nick never got the telegram. He married another lady.
We relocated to Melbourne where we stayed with relatives. It was just Mum, Micha and I. The others remained in Innisfail. We didn’t stay there long before moving to Sydney. We rented a house in Surry Hills for 13 shillings a rent. It’s not worth mentioning, it wasn’t very nice.
In that same year, whilst my father was in Queensland, my mother arranged a meeting with a ‘gambro’ via the help of Mr Yiannoukas, a friend of the family. His name was Con. We met at the house, my mother said “this is the gambro” and that was that. I spent no time alone with him. I pleaded with my parents and told them that I didn’t want to get married. We were engaged within 6 months.
We were married on the 25th October, 1942. I wore a modern wedding dress.
It broke my heart when I was forced to work in the fish shop given the life I had been brought up in. My father had educated us and I had been trained as a secretary and to keep the books. However, a year later on the 22nd October, 1942 I gave birth to Tass (Anastasi), the greatest joy in my life. He was delivered at Crown Street Hospital. At this stage we lived above the fish shop.
On the 4th February in 1946 I gave birth to my second child, Despina, who was born in private hospital. I was so happy that I wanted another girl.
Business at the shop was good and we eventually got a new shop. On the 4th October 1946 I had another girl named Cherie.
My brother Jimmy at this stage was working at Valentine’s where he befriended a man by the name of Peter Pandelis. My sister Peggy was a bridesmaid at Anne Kailis’ wedding and this is where Peter met Peggy. They were married and had three children: Sandra, Kerry and Michael. Unfortunately Peggy didn’t get on well with her in-laws and they moved to Umina, Woy Woy where they ran a style of cafe. It wasn’t a diner and it wasn’t a cafe as such. It was like a big barn and they served ice-cream, hamburgers and general meals. They also had a jukebox.
My father eventually bought a house at 163 Eastern Avenue, Kingsford in 1946. Sadly, he would die in Innisfail on the 28th October 1949. He’d caught a cold and was being looked after by a cousin, George Zorbas, who’d taken him to Innisfail District Hospital. He died of meningitis.
My brother’s took care of selling off the property in Innisfail, selling the shops and house. With the proceeds they bought 8 flats in Houston Road in Kensington and paid off the house at 163 Eastern Avenue.
Con was a difficult husband. He had a gambling problem and also diabetes; constantly needing mouth injections.
When they were old enough they all the kids got jobs. Despina worked at the Motor Transport in Roseberry, Cherie worked at the Commonwealth Bank and Tass did a number of jobs to make ends meet. Tass did well at school and eventually got a scholarship to Sydney University. I have wanted him to become a doctor but he chose pharmacy. He eventually bought his own pharmacy in Newtown after working with Mr Rose for some time.
Despina met Costa at a 21st birthday party for Phynea Paspalis. We loved him the moment he came into our home. They married on the 15th January, 1966 at St. Spyridon Church. After, they had their reception at the Wentworth Hotel. Eighteen months later they had Eugenie. After that came Maria and then Emil. They bought a wonderful home over-looking Botany Bay, adding a swimming pool, tennis court and an entertaining area downstairs. Since then they moved to a beautiful mansion in Edgecliff with the best of everything.
Cherie and Brian met at John Comandis’ party. They had three children: Christopher, Stephanie and Mariana. They eventually moved to Clifton Gardens where they had a beautiful house.
Tass met Chrisanthy at the Round House, NSW University, for the Kytherean Ball. They had their wedding in Canberra and their reception at the Rex Hotel. They moved first into Lenthall Street where they had Dean and Nicholas, and later to Ocean Street Woollahra. Later they moved to Lavender Bay where Michael was born. A few years later they bought a mansion in Bellevue Hill and they filled it with the best of everything, beautiful tiles, plush carpets and lovely taps.
One of the saddest days in my family was when Peggy’s son Michael died. He got sick with leukaemia. During his remission he managed to complete his Bachelors of Law and his Bachelors of Commerce. We opened up our backyard for him and Michael held a function to raise money for cancer research. He raised over $10,000 from the function. He died on the 28th May, 1984. Since then his sister’s Sandra and Kerry established the Michael Foundation and have risen over $60,000.
I can honestly say that I have been blessed and thank God that I have three beautiful children who have been very good to me and I am thankful to their spouses who have all been welcomed into the family and whom I love dearly.