Visiting the southern New South Wales town of Albury, I was intrigued by a number of Lebanese names above shop awnings. Some locals I spoke to said that there was a time when Lebanese-owned businesses were a common sight in the City’s main street. I visited Albury’s City Library and its Regional History Museum to discover why the Albury/Wodonga area became a centre of rural Lebanese settlement.
Albury is the commercial hub of a rich agricultural region and because of its location on the Murray River has been an important transhipment centre for goods and passengers since it was established in 1839. The development of the railway gave Albury a great economic boost and attracted people, including a number of Lebanese small business people, who were in search of business opportunity. A number of Lebanese small business people, particularly from Melbourne in the drapery, manchester and clothing fields established businesses in the city.
When the New South Wales’ International gauged railway (4′ 8 ½”) met Victoria’s 5′ 3″ wide gauge at Albury in 1883, it meant goods travelling by rail between the two States needed to be moved between trains. Albury was therefore a convenient site as regional wholesaling centre. Many of the small Lebanese businesses, having first obtained their stock from the major Lebanese owned wholesalers such as Latoof & Callil of Melbourne, also acted as smaller wholesalers supplying cloth products to other small businesses in the Border and Riverina areas. They also supplied goods to the numerous Lebanese, Indian and Chinese small and fancy goods hawkers who also operated in those areas.
As the twin city of Wodonga (a few kilometres south in Victoria) grew, Lebanese business people took up their opportunities in that City as well, sometimes setting a second business from their first in Albury, sometimes moving directly from Melbourne.
The earliest Lebanese visitors to Albury were probably hawkers passing through on journeys through rural Victoria and New South Wales selling their wares to country folk. One reason Albury was attractive, as noted in Tom Hayson’s biography (Perkins, p. 24)was that many Lebanese hawkers operated with a horse and cart and the severe drought years of the 1890’s meant that watering spots for their horses were hard to find. Hawking in the Albury area had the attraction of the Murray River’s certain supply of fresh water.
Local Albury historian, Eddie Batrouney, noted in a 1987 article in the Albury and District Historical Society Bulletin that the earliest Lebanese to settle in Albury were “messrs Sarroff, B. Abicare and S. M. Abicare”. (There are variations in the spelling of Abicare/Abikhair). The Saroffs arrived in 1891, followed by the Said Milham Abikhair family about 1896 and the Betro Abicare family. (Batrouney, 1987).
Nassim (Charles) Sarroff, aged 17, and his father Carl left Kousba in Lebanon in 1891 on a world tour. Seasickness made them stay to recuperate in New South Wales, which included a visit to Albury. They liked the town so much they opened a drapery business in Townsend Street and were naturalized in 1897. Charles married Julia Nasser in 1903. Carl died in Albury in 1926 aged 102 and by the 1950s, his grandsons were operating the dry cleaning businesses in the town.
Said Abikhair and his wife Shefia were born at Choueir in Lebanon and initially set out from Melbourne as hawkers before settling on Albury where their business grew into one of the largest and best know in the district. A building in the main thoroughfare of Dean Street still bears the family’s name. In the 1920’s the family opened a large store with a magnificent art deco style shop front on the corner of Olive and Swift Streets. This building still stands today and the Abikhair name is clearly visible over the entrance ways. The business, which only closed in 1996, was operated for many years by Wal Abikhair (Said Abikhair’s son) who died aged 93 in 1997. (Jones, 1998).
Abikhair’s store acted as a regional wholesaler. The Australian Archives records show alien returns during World War One for a “Nicholas Abikhair, born at Mount Lebanon, a hawker who arrived in Australia in 1898”. The remarks note hat he “has been in the vicinity of Downfalls for about six months. States he has three brothers in the Commonwealth. One has had a drapery business at Albury for about eighteen years from which place Abikhair received his supplies”. (Burn, 2002).
Albury’s regional history museum acquired many items of interests from the Abikhair’s business when it closed in 1997. One of the most interesting items (now on display in the Museum) was a fully packed suitcase, somehow left behind in the upstairs wholesaling section of the business, belonging to a Chinese hawker. It had been decorated in gold Chinese characters and contained all the bits and pieces and range of stock needed by a hawker on his travels through rural areas.
The Saroffs and Abikhairs were followed in turn by the Elias Family, A. M. Abikhair, Salamy Family, Mary Haddad, Galleti, David and Nadear families. Later arrivals in the Albury Wondonga area included the Bounaders, George Malouf, the Nesires, the Corbans, Farrah, Buckley, Assad, Joe Malouf, Azzi, Nash, Dihood, Wessan, Beca, Batouney, Bacash, Nasser, Dobley, Sedawie, Mellick, McConnell, Mannering, Jabour, Jabara, David, and Metry.
Tom Hayson recalls in his biography, that two of his forebears, John and Kanin Nader decided in late 1890’s that Albury offered better prospects for business than their tiny Melbourne businesses were providing and so settled in the only part of town they could afford, the often flooded river flats by the Murray. The Nader brothers spent the rest of their working lives in Albury as hawkers, first using hand drawn carts and later upgrading to motorized hawkers vans. Eventually the families’ position improved and they moved to a house in Hume Street close to the centre of town. (Perkins, p. 24-25)
When Joseph Elias immigrated to Australia he left his wife and two young children behind in Beirut. Eventually he saved enough for their fares as well and they joined him in Melbourne around 1894. Alas, Joseph died shortly after on a hawking trip to Nambucca Heads in NSW leaving Rose alone in a strange land with two young sons and a third newly born infant son. To earn a living she moved to Albury where she opened a hawking drapery business in the area, pushing a pram loaded with goods for sale around the area for ten years to support her family, until her health failed. Her sons went on to open the town’s ice works. (Perkins, p. 26).
Some of the earlier Lebanese settlers in the Albury district were the children of Lebanese immigrants who had first settled in Melbourne, while others were immigrants themselves who were seeking opportunities in rural areas. By 1921, there were 27 people who gave their birthplace as being “Syria”. Some members of the small communities by then had branched out into other fields including fruit and vegetables, dry cleaning, and real estate. (Verrocchio, 1988).
It was unusual for Lebanese business people to concentrate within the one rural area and they certainly tried not to open similar businesses (such as in drapery and Manchester) to each other within the same town in order to avoid competing with each other. (Bramble, p. 62). However, in a locality like Albury (and other more populated areas like the Manning district) bigger populations lessened the need to worry overly about competing with other Lebanese.
By and large the Lebanese settlers in the district were very poor and had to put up with life in the poorest parts of town, often having to live at first in tents and humpies. Often the target of racist jibes or even just searching curiosity, it took some decades before they were fully accepted. However, they were generally able to overcome these hardships through hard work and good business practice to become an integral part of the community.
Over time the Lebanese community in Albury has contributed greatly to the commercial and civic advancement of that community. Paul Convy
- Batrouney, Eddie ‘Lebanese in Australia – particularly at Albury’, Albury and District Historical Society Bulletin Nos. 247 & 248 (Feb. to March 1987), p. 2.
- Bramble, Nola. ‘Country Links – Syrian/Lebanese settlement in New South Wales up to 1920’, pp. 59 – 72 in Records Made Real: Lebanese Settlement 1865 to 1945 – papers from a seminar on historical sources. (held Sydney Records Centre, The Rocks 200, 14 September 2001), p 63.
- Burn, Fiona. ‘Records relating to the Lebanese/Syrian Community in the National Archives of Australia’ in Records Made Real: Lebanese Settlement 1865 to 1945 – papers from a seminar on historical sources. (held Sydney Records Centre, The Rocks 200, 14 September 2001), pp.41-42.
- Chamberlain, Cliff, ‘Walter Abikhair: draper’, Border Mail, 25 Nov. 1995, pp. 35-36.
- Craig, Jill, ‘Old fashioned service that never changes’ Border Mail, 1st Aug. 1987, p. 31.
- Jones, Howard, ‘It’s the end for Abikhairs’, Border Mail, 4th Aug. 1998, p. 9.
- Jones, Howard, Albury’s Heritage, Albury City Council, Albury 1991.
- Verrocchio, Jacqueline & Bruce Pennay, ‘Interesting Street Heritage: Abikhair’s Haberdashery, Albury’, Locality, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1998.