The following story of my great grandmother has been almost wholly written as a result of the stories I have grown up hearing from family members, especially my mother, Monica (née Isaac). Like many other Lebanese women immigrants to Australia in the late 1800’s, despite finding herself in an alien environment, she made a determined and persistent effort to ensure the livelihood of her family.
In 1892, when she was approximately 34 years old, Clara Lahood Joseph (née Moses) left her village of Kfarsghab and, with her husband and children, made the long journey to Sydney, Australia. After only six months in Australia, the family went to New Zealand where Lahood Joseph became a British subject in 1896. Five years later they were back in Australia, living in Bundaberg, Queensland. It is possible the family went to Bundaberg because there were others from Kfarsghab already living there. When her husband, Lahood Joseph, died in Bundaberg in 1906, Clara decided to return to Lebanon. Despite packing her suitcase and going to Sydney, the trip home did not eventuate and for the next forty-seven years Clara remained in Australia, living with family and friends until her death in 1953.
As with other early Lebanese immigrants, there are parts of Clara’s story that will remain unknown. Did Clara, for example, want to leave Lebanon? Did she participate in the decision to migrate? Why did the family come to Australia? Such questions can no longer be answered. However, from anecdotal evidence and from whatever official documents can be located, it is possible to show that, whether Clara had or had not chosen to relocate her family so far away from home and despite personal hardships, such as the death of her husband and also that of her only son, Toofeh, Clara did whatever she could to ensure the survival of her family.
Clara worked as a hawker both independently and in partnership with her husband. Police records show that in 1901, Clara’s husband, Lahood Joseph, was charged with hawking without a licence in Gin Gin, a town close to Bundaberg. Lahood was consequently fined five pounds. In a letter protesting the fine, it was claimed Lahood had merely been employed as the driver for his wife who was a registered hawker. It was further claimed this was necessary because the Pacific Islanders in the area made it unsafe for a woman to travel alone. According to the police however, Clara Joseph frequently travelled to Gin Gin and went ‘hawking among kanakas by herself without the protection of her husband’. This police report leaves no doubt that hawking was Clara’s regular occupation and that she often worked independently.
Anecdotal evidence shows that even as a young woman, Clara worked to help support her family. The earliest of these stories comes from Lebanon and underlines the life that Clara was to lead when she arrived in Australia. Laurice Coorey, Clara’s eldest great-grandson’s wife, was astounded when Clara was able to give her an accurate description of her mother’s family home in Tripoli. Clara was able to do this because she had gone there regularly to sell vegetables and bourghul. This probably occurred in the 1880’s. Many years later, she described the large house with its courtyard graced by a fountain. Thus, even as a young, perhaps already married, woman, Clara was earning money for her family. This story also shows that even before migration, Clara was accustomed to hawking or direct selling as an occupation.
In Australia (and probably New Zealand) Clara worked as a hawker for many years. Several incidents are known of and spoken about by various older members of the family. One, which must have been terrifying, may have occurred while her husband was still alive and before the family moved to Bundaberg or in the period after his death. In any case, it happened before 1910. Carrying a suitcase, Clara would walk over 200 kilometres from Sydney to Bathurst selling haberdashery to people in the towns and farms along the way. During one of these treks, and while she was in the mountains past Penrith, a man who was travelling the same road on horseback, stopped and attempted to rape her. She fought back, kicking him in a tender spot and somehow managed to escape. This story is a testament to her strength of will, strength of character and her physical strength. Although these stories are rarely told, this sort of danger must have been ever present for female hawkers.
After the death of her husband in Bundaberg Clara probably continued to go hawking. It is hard to believe that a woman who had still been hawking at the time of her husband’s death would not have continued this work in order to support herself and to help support her daughter, Mary, her son-in-law, John Isaac, and their young family. By 1909, Clara had moved with John, Mary and their young family from Bundaberg to Cairns, over 1500 kilometres north. This move is probably explained by a similar movement from Bundaberg to the north by others from Kfarsghab. According to family members, in Cairns, Clara continued to contribute to the family’s livelihood by helping her daughter, Mary, make clothes to sell.
The next phase of Clara’s life (from about 1926) saw her living with her granddaughter, Ivy Coorey, Ivy’s husband, Simon, and their children in the suburb of Redfern in Sydney. Although she was no longer hawking, she continued to do ‘hard’ work to support Ivy’s family. Ivy’s second eldest son, Vince, remembers ‘Sitty Clora’ pounding the meat in the jirran to make kibbeh. Ivy’s youngest daughter, Monica, has happy memories of walking along Elizabeth Street hand in hand with Clara to the yard of the Abood house where Clara and other women would winnow wheat for bourghul and put tomatoes on racks to dry. In her granddaughter’s yard, there was a brick fireplace with the ‘hat’ over it where Clara made traditional bread (Khoubiz Sorj). An incident which occurred during these years shows the continued strength and courage of this remarkable woman. When Ivy’s fourth child, Kevin, was a toddler he wandered out of the yard into the narrow laneway behind the house just as the horses pulling the brewery cart were passing. Clara threw herself at Kevin wrapping him in her arms and rolling from under the horses’ hooves. This would have been when she was about sixty-nine years of age.
As the following story illustrates, Clara was known to have a strong temper. When her daughter, Mary, eloped with John Isaac who had migrated alone from Kfarsghab to Australia as a seventeen year old teenager, she did so when her mother was away hawking. After the ceremony, both John and Mary returned to their own homes. In an act of revenge against John who had been unable to lend him money, a Lebanese man told Mary’s father, Lahood. Although he was happy with the match, he knew that Clara would be angry, particularly because she had already chosen another Lebanese man for Mary to marry. To ensure that Clara would not react violently, Lahood broke some plates and the leg of a chair and told her on her return how angry he had been when he had heard. His scheme worked and it seems that Mary and John were then able to start their married life together.
No one can write about Clara without mentioning her wicked sense of humour. Clara is remembered by those family members who knew her in her later years as the singer of naughty songs and a user of colourful language both in Arabic and broken English. Ivy’s youngest son, Patrick, remembers that she would have her rosary beads in her hands all day, praying, but sometimes she would suddenly shake with laughter or sing one of her songs. My mother, Monica, Mary’s youngest daughter, taught me one of these songs although I have only a vague idea of its meaning. Many of us, her great grandchildren, can tell stories that have been told to us over and over about some of ‘Sit’s’ pithy comments about a situation she obviously found entirely unsatisfactory.
Clara’s was a difficult life but it seems she endured it with a mixture of hard work, an ability to express her feelings openly and a rich sense of humour. That, with limited English skills, she undertook long journeys alone during which she had to find places to sleep and endure physical danger, speaks of a heroine worthy of her place in Australian history.
Antonia Simpson—Brisbane – August 2008
If anyone reading this story can add or correct any points made, the writer would be very grateful. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
- J. Lahood, J. Isaac & S. Abdullah, to Mr Ogden, in-letter 18487, 16 December 1901, A/44790, Queensland State Archives (QSA).
- bid.; The Pacific Islanders were brought to Australia to work on the sugar cane farms