Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Newcastle, Niagara and the Greeks in Australia

Note to readers: A week since my last post! This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 18 November 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.
I have been re-reading William Claridge’s The Pommy Town Years: Memories of Mayfield and Other Tales of the Twenties.

I bought the book on a trip north through Newcastle to Armidale with my then young daughters. I wanted to buy a local history and it was the only Newcastle specific book I could find.

Before I go on, a few questions that someone may be able to answer.

I was trying to remember the Greek cafes in Armidale during the 1950s. I know that the Rologas’s had Nicks on the south eastern side of Beardy Street. A little way up on the other side of the road was, I think, the Niagara, although I cannot remember the name of the family that owned it.

In the next block on the southern side near the Richardson end was the Cominos’s IXL. In the following block across the road from the Capitol Theatre was another. I am not sure of the name (the Capri?), nor can I remember who owned it.

Can you help me with the details?

Now this may seem a long way from the opening paragraphs of this column, but there is a connection.

To write a history of the broader New England as I am presently trying to do, I need to understand the history of Newcastle, the North’s great industrial city. Always part of the North yet also separated from it by its own clannish working class culture, Newcastle was neither fish nor fowl.

Proudly trade union and Labor, yet Newcastle did not and does not quite fit in with the dominant Labor tradition and power structures. English, Anglican and Protestant, not Irish or Roman Catholic, Newcastle’s roots lie in the industrial culture of Northern England. This is the world my Belshaw grandparents came from.

In reading William Claridge’s memoirs, I am trying to understand a little more of the complicated threads in Newcastle’s history.

William Claridge was born in Bristol in 1909. He came to Australia in 1920 when his father emigrated as part of a group of John Lysaght Bristol workers recruited to set up a new Lysaght plant in Newcastle making galvanized iron. A second group of workers came from Lysaght’s Welsh plant at Newport.

By the time the Lysaght group arrived in Newcastle, that city had moved a long way from its original migrant roots. There was in fact considerable distrust among the generally local born and very clannish Newcastle workers for these new Pommy arrivals.

The attachment of the name Pommy Town to the new estate Lysaght built for its workers was quite derogatory at first. At school, young William was involved in constant playground fights. It took time for the new arrivals to be accepted.

William Claridge’s book is interesting not just as a story, but because it focuses on the detail of local and industrial life. This is where the Greek connection comes in.

I knew from Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon that the Greeks had really introduced fine dining to Australia. It would be hard, I suspect, for modern Australians to get their minds round the fact that the heyday of Australian café society with its huge Greek eating establishments was probably the period between 1890 and 1910, a flowering that was then largely snuffed out by war.

The Greek influence was not limited to Sydney or Melbourne.

I now know from the notes to Mr Claridge’s book that the first ever Niagara café was opened in Newcastle in 1898.

Angelo Burgess (Bourzos) came to Australia from Greece via the US. There he had been impressed by two things: American novelties such as hamburgers, milkshakes and ice-creams and the Niagara Falls. The first provided the menu, the second the name.
In 1911 the Karanges brothers, one of whom was Angelo’s godson, emigrated to Newcastle. When Angelo Burgess died, Theo Karanges took over the business, while brother Michael opened his own Niagara café a few kilometres away.

Theo and Michael were followed by many more in a chain migration from their original village.

By the 1920s, the period Mr Claridge focuses on in his book, Newcastle had no less than 25 Greek owned cafes!

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