Kythera is a flinty, windswept island little more than 18km wide, a place of rock fences and abandoned rock houses. In the middle of Kythera lies the tiny village of Friligianika and here, in 1889, Christos Frilingos was born. The family farm offered twelve children little hope of a prosperous future, and so, like many Kytherian boys, Christos set sail for Australia. He arrived in Melbourne in 1901, a month after Federation, and was deposited in the basement of a café. Surrounded by sacks of oysters, he was to wait until he could join his older brother Peter in Sydney.
But Melbourne was a place of bright lights and wide streets, where shop windows brimmed with unimaginable delights, and the boy who would be known in Australia as Christy Freeleagus ventured forth. Dazzled by a pair of shiny black shoes in a shop window, he fingering the gold sovereign in his pocket—a gift from his father with which to start his new life—and within minutes the twelve-year-old was striding through Melbourne’s streets feeling like the most important man in the city. Many years later Christy’s son, Alex Freeleagus, described his father’s memory of what happened as rain began to fall in sheets: “The shoes for all their shininess were made largely of cardboard and soon came apart and his dream melted away and a great feeling of calamity overcame him, and amongst the bags of oysters he spent his first night in Australia . . . weeping.” If Christy’s venturing forth characterises the vigour with which he attacked opportunity in his new homeland, his response to disappointment displays the courage and tenacity that would ultimately forge a man of influence and success: “When he awoke he remembered the wonderful things he had seen and got stuck into his job of opening oysters for he knew then that if he opened enough of them he would earn his way into that wonderful world out there.”
Peter and Christy arrived in Brisbane in 1903. They took over a fish shop at 217 George Street and a café at 223 George Street. Six years later, they bought the building on the corner of Adelaide and Edward Streets that housed the Central Café and Oyster Palace. Presenting themselves as Comino’s—from Sydney, they traded on Arthur Comino’s success in Oxford Street and replicated what they had learned as young migrants. In 1911 Freeleagus Bros established one of Queensland’s largest wholesale and retail food chains—Fresh Food & Ice Co. Ltd in Stanley Street, where fish and poultry were cleaned, packed and stored for delivery to Freeleagus cafés and other retailers in Brisbane and country areas, and to ships that docked in Brisbane. By 1914 the family had added four more shops. The brothers now operated two high-profile cafés—the Paris Café at 223 George Street and the City Café, formerly the Central—a light refreshments shop with milk bar two doors down from the City Café and a fish shop next to that, a major food wholesale business, a café at 192 Brunswick Street, a steam laundry in Stanley Street, and a café in Boonah. They also owned freehold a house in Stanley Street where employees were housed, a spacious home called Phaleron on the Brisbane River, and the large property on the Adelaide/Edward Street corner where, in 1929, they would build the six-storey Astoria Café building. By his mid-twenties, Christy had emerged as leader of a business empire that would eventually see all ten brothers migrate to Brisbane, and he was managing director of Fresh Food & Ice until he died.
Freeleagus Bros provided first Queensland employment for hundreds of Greek migrants. Like the Comino brothers in Sydney, the Freeleaguses sponsored migrant passages, provided accommodation, loaned money, and helped newcomers get established. Christy fathered Brisbane’s Greek community by playing prominent roles in religious and political life, and actively promoted Greek migration, taking the issue to Australia’s High Commissioner in London and leading a deputation to the Minister for Immigration. Alex recalled his father saying, “Even to this day I can look into the face of a newcomer to the country and feel with him something of his hopes, his fears, and know the setbacks, and see there the face once again of that lonely migrant boy.”
An enthusiastic Australian and a passionate Greek, Christy Freeleagus was Consul for Greece from 1919 until his death in 1957. He strengthened ties when Greek neutrality caused unrest during WWI, and he defended Greek shopkeepers in the wake of the Ferry Report (1925). Also an eloquent orator, he promoted trade relations in Greece (1921-22) and gave a lantern-slide lecture to a crowd of 1,700 in Athens, proclaiming Australia “the finest country in the world” (Ross Johnston, The Greek Odyssey page 4). He was also a high-ranking Freemason, leader of the Chamber of Commerce, and a founding member of the RACQ.
Looking out over Brisbane just before his death, Christy said, “When I came here, there was so little, but I knew it would grow and I would grow with it. Everything a migrant boy could dream of doing this wonderful country has given me the opportunity to do, it has been like a dream that has come true.”
Alex Freeleagus’s speech on the 25th anniversary of his appointment as Consul (Johnston, W. Ross SLQ OM Box 17731: Folder 2)
The Greek Odyssey, Chapter 6 “Going into Business” (Johnston, W. Ross SLQ OM Box 17732)