George Saleeba was born in Rashaya, Lebanon in 1882 and came to Australia with his father Essa at the age of 10 years in 1892. George did not attend school in Melbourne but was thrust into earning a living at an early age to enable the rest of his family in Lebanon to join them. In common with all other first wave immigrants, Essa and George became hawkers of clothing and softgoods in country areas outside of Melbourne. Until his marriage at the age of 29 years, George travelled by horse and cart selling his goods in the country areas of Whittlesea, Epping and surrounding parts. Every few weeks he would return to Melbourne to stock up at one of the Lebanese or Jewish owned warehouses. It was on these journeys through the main roads of High Street and St Georges Road that George must have noticed large blocks of land in Harold Street, Thornbury.
In the early years of the twentieth century the Lebanese were a small and alien community within an Australia whose population, customs, religions were all strongly British. Indeed, during the First World War George and others born in Lebanon, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, were branded as enemy aliens and had to report regularly at police stations for surveillance. Although George originally applied for citizenship as early as 1916, in common with other Lebanese, he had to wait until 1925 to become an Australian citizen. It is little wonder that in this environment almost all Lebanese men chose wives from within their own community. Again, George breaks the mould, marrying in 1911 the beautiful Elsie Hansen, who was born in Australia of Danish and German descent. Interestingly, although George and Elsie were married at St Peter’s Church, Melbourne, they were married by an Anglican priest according to the rites of the Orthodox Church. They were to have seven children: three girls and then four boys.
For most first wave Lebanese immigrants hawking was a stepping stone to a more settled business such as shop keeping or a clothing factory. In 1916 George described his occupation as a draper. The Saleebas established a small business at 324 Smith Street, Collingwood, consisting of a small factory, a shop front where the goods were sold and rooms upstairs where the family lived. In this respect, too, George differed from many other Lebanese families whose businesses were in and around Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets in the city and later in Carlton. However, after the birth of their third child, the Collingwood premises had become too small for George and Elsie’s growing family.
Their next move was to 59 Harold Street, Thornbury which, at that time, consisted mainly of vacant blocks and only four or five houses. George and Elsie purchased one of these in 1919. Now there was the space, not only for the growing Saleeba family, but also for George to employ his ingenuity in small-scale farming, including growing all sorts of vegetables and fruit trees as well as keeping chooks. The Harold Street house consisted of three bedrooms, lounge and dining rooms, a large kitchen, a bungalow and an alcove containing bunks for some of the children. Beyond the bungalow, next to the washout at the rear was the ‘onion shed’, a small food store reminiscent of those in the old country. Behind that again was the toilet, serviced by a ‘pan man’ in the days before sewerage. At the rear of the property was the garage, originally a stable, and the back fence was lined with chook sheds.
George’s backyard was a hive of productivity and George was a strict disciplinarian. The Saleeba children, often unwillingly, were made to plant vegetables, weed, clean out the chook sheds and top up the water in the homemade irrigation system. A special task was the grinding of the boiled and dried wheat into finely ground wheat or ‘burghul’ used by Lebanese families in their national dishes such as ‘tabooli’ and ‘kibbee.’ During the 1940s and 1950s Lebanese families from all over Melbourne would bring the wheat that they had boiled in their coppers and dried in their backyards or on pavements to George so that he could grind it to just the consistency needed for Lebanese dishes. People would be given a tour of the backyard at Harold Street and would marvel at the ingenious use of space and machinery that George had employed. Not only were they given some produce from the ‘farm’ but for a while they felt that they were back in their own farms in the Lebanese villages that they left over a generation ago.
Both George and Elsie died in 1967 and, in the following year, the Saleeba family home was sold.
Although the George Saleeba family was the first to settle in the area now known as Darebin, other Lebanese families were to follow from the 1920s to the 1940s. These included the Rawady, Mansour, Batrouney, Carey, Malouley, Beshara, Facoory, Bosaid and Antees families, among others. Second wave Lebanese immigrants after the Second World War also favoured the same area, partly because of its proximity to good transport, and to the post-war industries that grew up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
The life of George Saleeba,Thornbury was, in many ways, unique among the Lebanese of his time not least because he led the way for other Lebanese to live in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
© Dr Trevor Batrouney
5 July 2004
1. Much of the above is taken from ‘The Business of Life: Bubs and Victor Batrouney and the Merlvic Story’ by Kay Ansell, 2001.
2. I acknowledge with thanks the information on the Saleeba family made available to me by Gwen Saleeba.
3. Thanks also go to Bubs Batrouney (nee Saleeba) for filling in some gaps.