Photo John Oxley Library: John Mavromatis, unknown, John Stratigakis, Theo Mihanis, unknown and Peter Locos (front)
These Brisbane Greeks with their waistcoats, watch chains and tightly knotted ties are hardly dressed for wading in the shallows, but bare feet and rolled trousers suggest they’ve been after a feed of oysters. John Stratigakis rests his foot on an old kerosene tin that is brimming with succulent bivalves and three of the others hold oysters and oyster shuckers. The photograph was taken while the group was touring New South Wales in 1927. At that time Brisbane was already home to a large Greek community, and this delegation of Brisbane shopkeepers, which also included Stratis Christofis and Peter Aroney, was charged with raising money to build a church. All the way to Sydney and back, they called in at Greek cafés, shared their dream over cups of thick Greek coffee, and drove on—another contribution in the bag.
Greeks had been in business in Brisbane City before the turn of the century, and many operated oyster saloons. When Athanasios Comino opened a successful fish shop in Oxford Street Sydney in 1878, the door to chain migration was flung wide open, and many migrants, after gaining experience in Sydney, headed north to try their luck in Brisbane. An enterprise called Patras & Co. was trading in George Street from 1898, and in the first years of the new century the inner city streets were alive with Greek activity:
- Comino, 223 George St
- Comino, 56 Queen St
- Giannis Mavrokefalo (John ‘Gero’ Black), 121 Queen St and 50 Queen St
- Lemnos & Co., 139 Edward St
- Freeleagus, 217 George St and 223 George St
- Emmanuel Mermarakis, 163 Albert St
- Angelo Seyros, 470 George St
- Spiro Zatha, 334 Brunswick St
- Scopelus, 412 George St
- Aroney, 444 George St
- Mrs Andrulakis, 177 Queen St
- Minas Manolaras, 386 George St
- John Strangloos, 470 George St
Some relocated, some bought a second shop, and some went out of business. But by 1910 several were well established, and oysters played a big part in this.
Oysters are a wholesome food that requires little preparation and they were, at that time, plentiful and cheap. The Oyster Acts of 1863 and 1874 saw the Moreton Bay oyster industry recover from indiscriminate dredging in the 1860s. The industry peaked in the 1890s: in one year alone—1891—21,000 bags, each containing around 1,400 oysters, were shipped interstate. Valued at 29,000 pounds, this accounted for around two thirds of the harvest in Moreton Bay. The other third was consumed locally in oyster bars, oyster saloons and oyster kiosks, which were the main retail outlets. And here the Greeks excelled.
Greek proprietors bought oysters direct from oystermen. They kept them in damp sacks to be opened as needed—the oyster that was native to Moreton Bay could remain alive for up to 21 days if stored carefully, and this was important in the days before refrigeration. Lobsters, fresh and fried fish, prawns and crabs were also on the menu. As the rudimentary, men-only bars of the nineteenth century gave way to comfortable establishments with stylish furnishings and upstairs dining rooms, oyster saloons and fish cafés became popular meeting places.
The days of eating oysters at every meal are long gone. A flood wiped out oyster beds in 1893, mud worm disease wreaked havoc for a decade from 1895, burgeoning agriculture began to silt waterways that flowed into the Bay, and by the 1910s the industry was in decline. Added to this, shortages brought about by World War One saw the humble oyster become a luxury few could afford. Thus was the classic Greek café born: as proprietors diversified the menu, employed local girls as waitresses, and introduced the latest American food-catering technologies, their shops evolved into the iconic Greek café that we remember today.
To return to the fundraising delegation of 1927: many of these men ran Greek cafés in Brisbane and had been shucking oysters by the bagful at the age of twelve; they certainly knew what to do with any bivalves they encountered on their expedition.
Denis Conomos, The Greeks in Queensland: A History from 1859-1945