George Batrouney





Roger Batrouney and Trevor Batrouney

Chapter 1: The Life and Times of George Batrouney
Chapter 2: Discovering the Grave of George Batrouney


In The Legacy of the Hawker (1), which was written in 1989 to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of George Batrouney in Australia, the authors of that book set out the information that was then known about George, the first member of the family to arrive in Australia. This was based on official records and family interviews conducted over the years from 1960s to the time of publication. Since then we have uncovered some further information which is included in chapter one: the life and times of George Batrouney. In chapter two Roger gives an account of his discovery of the grave of George Batrouney in the Melbourne Cemetery. We acknowledge that these accounts still contain much surmise and leave many questions unanswered.


Putting George in the Picture

John, James and Farah Batrouney, Exhibition Street, Melbourne 1907

In our attempt to understand the life of George Batrouney we start with a photograph of the original family taken around 1910. There are two versions of this original photograph. The first shows a prosperous and solid family group consisting of the mother, Annie, and the only daughter, Marianna, both of whom are seated. Standing at the rear are the twins, Spiridon and James, with the two younger brothers, Farah and John on either side. Although Marianna, James and Spiridon were married at the time of the photograph, only the original Batrouney family members are depicted. Their prosperity was no doubt built upon the hairdresser and grocery shops, which the family had opened not long after their arrival in Melbourne from Ballarat. However, George, the father of the family, and the first member to arrive in Australia is missing from the photograph as it was taken some six years after his death in 1904.

The second version of this photograph includes an inserted photograph of George, standing between his two elder sons (2). The fact that the family chose to later include their father in the photograph is testimony to the love and respect that they held for him. It is as if the family wanted a record of the complete family whose members had come from Lebanon at different times: George in 1889, James and Spiridon in 1896 and the rest of the family in 1898. Although George was the pioneer settler and founder of the Batrouney family in Australia, he remains something of an elusive and shadowy figure, who died after only 15 years in Australia. By contrast, George’s wife, Annie, was the much loved and central figure in the family until her death in 1933. In this, the only extant photograph of George, he presents as a slight man with a moustache, a bald head, and a somewhat earnest and serious expression on his face.

Migration from Lebanon

George Batrouney was just one of the estimated 350,000 Lebanese who left Lebanon during the ‘first wave’ emigration period from about 1880 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This mass emigration was made possible by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and development of Marseilles and Port Said as major ports from which steamships would travel to various countries of the New World with their cargo of aspiring emigrants from Europe and the Near East. In this way many thousands of Lebanese immigrants chanced their luck in the countries of the New World. The entrepreneurial spirit of these Lebanese immigrants encouraged them to take chances, work hard and succeed in lands and cultures very different from their own. Some two thirds of these made their way to the United States and most of the rest to various countries in Latin America. Much smaller numbers were to be found in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The first wave of emigrants were predominantly young, single males from a Christian background. Wherever these pioneer Lebanese went, they started as pedlars or hawkers as a first step along the pathway of economic and social mobility, which brought with it eventual assimilation to the host society. These first wave settlers ensured that links with their homeland were maintained. In most cases, family, property and possessions were left behind while one or more male family members sought employment abroad. This is clearly evident in the early life of George Batrouney.

Born to Michael and Mary in 1837, George received a rudimentary education before working as a carpenter in winter and a fisherman in summer. At one stage in his early life he entered a seminary as a candidate for the priesthood. However, family tradition has it that he was asked to consider other areas of endeavour, apparently due to his high spirits or ‘worldliness’. Evidence of George’s religious background lies in a book of handwritten ‘treasures’ or teachings from the writings of St. John Chrystostom. The book carries George Batrouney’s personal seal and was apparently written for him and bound in raw sheep hide (3).

In 1875 at the age of 38 years, George married the 15 year old Annie, the daughter of Waheeb and Mary Nini, in El Mina, Tripoli. By the 1880s, with five surviving children (Marianna, Spiridon, James, Farah and John) and having buried Katie and Joakim, George was becoming concerned about his family’s future. Accordingly, he decided, in the late 1880s, to venture abroad with his cousin Elias Batrouney to investigate the prospects of making a living in the newest country of the western world: Australia. At this time, Elias was a young man of 22 years while George was by then 52 years old, an unusually advanced age at which to seek to begin a new life in another country.

The Arrival of George Batrouney in Australia

There may be a number of reasons why George and his cousin, Elias chose Australia as their country of settlement. Possibly tales of the wealth to be gained from Victoria’s gold discoveries had reached Lebanon in the late nineteenth century. This may explain why George chose Ballarat as the centre for his hawking activities and the first home for his family in Australia after they arrived in 1896 and 1898.

A more likely explanation may lie in the fact that other emigrants from Lebanon had already made their way to Australia and news of the opportunities in this land were spread through the coastal towns of Lebanon. By the time of George’s arrival there was already a small colony of Lebanese in Victoria. While most lived in Melbourne a number were also living in country towns, which they used as a base for their hawking journeys.

More importantly, George and Elias were not the first Batrouneys to settle in Victoria. They had been preceded by a Michael Batroney (sic) who arrived in 1887. All we know about Michael is that he died at the District Hospital in the City of Ballarat on 29 April, 1895 at the age of 70 years, after only eight years in Victoria. His occupations were listed as hawker and hairdresser. It appears that Michael had arrived in Australia as early as 1887 at the advanced age of 60 years. It is likely that Michael was related to George and Elias, most likely an older cousin as he bore the name of George’s father. It is almost certain that the three of them would have engaged in hawking as a team and that Michael would have taught George all that he needed to know about his new occupation. It may be no coincidence that in 1895, the year that Michael died, George returned to Lebanon to bring out his elder sons, Spiridon and James, to join him in his hawking endeavours.

To date we have not been able to find evidence of the arrival of George and Elias Batrouney in 1888 or 1889. What is likely is that they travelled with friends under the leadership of someone familiar and experienced with the travelling or emigration process. In the passenger lists of the ship arrivals in steerage class of these years we see entries such as “Mr. Abouzaid and friends”. Possibly George and Elias Batrouney would have been two anonymous people arriving in such a way. Thus, George Batrouney arrived at Port Melbourne in 1889 to begin his search for a stable and fruitful life in Australia that would enable him to support his wife and five children who had remained home in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Early Hawking Days 1889 – 1895

Little is known of the lives of George Batrouney and his cousin on their arrival in Melbourne in 1889. However, they doubtless came in contact with the few other Lebanese already living in Melbourne. Possibly they were met at the wharf by contacts they may have known from Lebanon or perhaps they sought them out later. The role of those Lebanese already settled in Melbourne was important in helping establish a pathway for subsequent Lebanese settlers and providing patterns for their work and life. George came into contact with the Jaboor and Latoof families and possibly some others. On their advice, and probably with their assistance, George began hawking clothing. Thus, began the first step in the long process of settlement.

George began hawking c1othing and white goods around the country areas c1ose to Melbourne. The process of hawking was a difficult one for new arrivals. George had little knowledge of English and little experience at such trading. However, he was willing to learn and, through his previous experiences as fisherman and carpenter, was able to turn his hand to skills that would bring a living. Hawking was a good choice as it required little or no English, a degree of entrepreneurial skill and produced quite good rewards. For these reasons many of the pioneer Lebanese settlers adopted this work as their first means of income. George was able to rely on other established Lebanese settlers in clothing factories or warehouses to provide him with goods.

At the turn of the century, hawking was a socially dubious occupation for a number of reasons. Those conducting it were usually foreign, which meant they were regarded suspiciously. Syrian or Lebanese settlers were c1assified as ‘Asiatics’ by census gatherers and government. This cast them in a negative light considering the racist attitudes towards Indians, Chinese and, to an extent, Japanese as a result of the gold rush days. Parliamentary debates of 1901 and 1903 are critical of hawking as being neither ‘honest nor productive’ labour. Syrian hawkers were accused of being menacing and threatening to women and were accused of forcing them to buy their goods. Nonetheless, hawking was an important occupation for many of the early Syrian settlers. It involved carrying items which were small and light and constituted a portable shop that was taken to farms and out of the way towns for sale to farm workers and farmer’s families. At the advanced age of 52, on his arrival in 1889, George found the rigors of hawking quite taxing. This may explain why George returned to Lebanon in late 1895 and returned in 1896 with his two eldest sons, the twins, Spiridon and James.

During George’s first stay in Australia his family was growing up in El-Mina, Tripoli. By 1896, the twins, James and Spiridon, had been educated at an Italian school in Tripoli where they had learnt basic French and Italian as well as some Mathematics. They had left school at the age of twelve in order to be trained in various skills to bring money into the family. James from twelve to fifteen, worked as a carpenter, while Spiridon worked as a barber, in the shop of Nicholas Nini, his mother Annie’s brother. Little is known of the activities of the other members of the family when George returned to his family in Tripoli in 1895.

Arrival and Settlement of the Family in Ballarat

While together in Lebanon in 1895-1896 George and Annie must have decided that their family’s future lay in Australia. Thus George, accompanied by the twins, Spiridon and James, left Tripoli and their family in June, 1896 to journey to Australia. After a short voyage from Tripoli, they boarded a German steamship “Orient” at Port Said for their journey to Australia. They paid a fare of some 11 or 13 sovereigns. They arrived at Princess Pier on the 21 July, 1896. One of the twins, James, recalled that, on his arrival at Melbourne, he had one suitcase and two shillings in his pocket.

George Batrouney’s familiarity with the small and growing Lebanese community in Melbourne was of help to him and his sons. In the same way that George was introduced to hawking upon his arrival, at the age of 59 he showed his sons the skills of hawking. He put them on the same path between Melbourne and Ballarat, took them to the Lebanese factories and warehouses for supplies and acquainted them with the key terms to use in trading. Members of other nationalities hawked around Ballarat in the cosmopolitan atmosphere there. The most notable of these at this time was a young Simcha Baevski. Better known as Sidney Myer, he went on to establish the chain of Myer retail emporiums and to found a commercial dynasty.

Life for the three Batrouney hawkers was isolated and no doubt quite arduous. Their main objective was to save money to be able to bring out the rest of the family. Accordingly, sacrifices were made. New clothing would have been gone without, better accommodation forsaken for cheaper quarters or camping and food would have been prepared by themselves instead of buying meals. Their frugal efforts were rewarded when, in 1898, George, Spiridon and James were able to pay for the passage to Australia of the rest of the family. So by 1898 the family of George and Annie Batrouney, comprising Marianna, Spiridon and James, Farah and John, were united in Australia, nearly ten years after George’s first journey to Melbourne. This was to be their future home.

The newly reunited family of George and Annie Batrouney chose to settle in Ballarat.

The reasons for this choice of location may only be guessed at. They ranged from the fact that by 1898 Ballarat had a small Lebanese community where, as a hawker, George may have felt welcome. Other Lebanese families who settled in Ballarat at about this time were the Dobley and Davis families. As a result of the gold rushes of the 1880s the population of Ballarat was quite large and cosmopolitan, even some 40 years after the main goldrushes. Many races and nationalities had made their homes in and around East and West Ballarat. Possibly, this may have had the effect of reducing the intensity of racist attitudes by the visibility of different nationalities. There could also have simply been better business opportunities there for the hawking that George, Spiridon and James conducted around Ballarat after the rest of the family had joined them.

In the brief stay of George Batrouney in Ballarat, he established himself as a key member of the small Lebanese community there. With his religious training it was George who held Orthodox prayer meetings in his family’s home at Ballarat. This was indicative of the strength of his religious beliefs and those of the small Lebanese community that also attended these meetings.

The sojourn of George and Annie and their family in Ballarat was marked by both sadness and happiness. Annie gave birth to their last child, Jaleely, in Ballarat. Little is remembered of her apart from the fact that she was born blind and only lived for six months. She was buried by a visiting Greek Orthodox priest. Jaleely was the third child of George and Annie not to reach adulthood. The happiness of this time came with the marriage of Marianna to Shakir Mansour. Shakir was a Lebanese settler who emigrated from Merjayoun in Lebanon, possibly as early as 1886. Shakir Mansour called in at Ballarat frequently on his hawking rounds in the late 1890s. In doing so he came into contact with Marianna whom he married about 1900. Marianna was 22, Shakir was then 40 years of age.

In the same way that the family had gathered in Ballarat, it began to move towards Melbourne in 1900. The reasons for this are full of conjecture. They may have wanted a fresh start after the death of Jaleely. George, who by 1900 was 63 years of age, was finding it difficult to engage actively in hawking after working for twelve years in such a strenuous occupation. There also seems to have been a lack of interest in hawking by the twins and younger boys. They seemed to have held other ambitions and interests. Possibly this was due to the negative attitude towards hawking held by Australians which would have strongly influenced the Batrouney youths engaged in it. James, for example, was more inclined to academic pursuits rather than the labour of hawking. Spiridon was a hairdresser and was also more interested in the manufacture of potions and patent medicines.

The move to Melbourne commenced in 1900 when James hawked his way there from Ballarat, as if to pioneer the way. He was followed by George and Annie, Spiridon and John and the newly married Shakir and Marianna Mansour. Farah, then fifteen, lived and worked in the Geelong area for a period before following his family to Melbourne. So on the brink of Australian Federation the family of George and Annie were on the verge of settling in Melbourne.

Shopkeeping in Melbourne

After the family arrived in Melbourne in 1900 they settled in the ‘khara’ or Lebanese locality in the north-eastern corner of the city. Through their connections in the Lebanese community in Melbourne, James, and possibly John, began work with Latoof and Callil as clerks. George was too old to work at the age of 63. There was little work he could do as he did not develop the same facility as did his sons with the English language. At this stage the whole family lived together with the exception of Marianna and Shakir. The Mansours took up residence in Latrobe Street, between Spring and Exhibition Streets, close to the Batrouneys. Shakir was still hawking and away from Melbourne so it was important to have family members close by. The Batrouney family lived above the barbershop run by Spiridon, then about 20 years old, at 258 Exhibition Street between Little Lonsdale and Lonsdale Streets. This was the first business established at a fixed address by a Batrouney in Australia. Spiridon employed the skills as a barber he had learned as a youth in Tripoli. He also enjoyed mixing potions and patent medicines which he sold at his barber shop.

This first phase of settlement in Melbourne saw the family consolidating their lives at rented addresses in the north- eastern quadrant of the city. Like the work of hawking, which was seen as disreputable, living in this section of the city was also dubious. As immigrants would, they sought out low rental accommodation. The north-eastern corner of the city around the Princess and Her Majesty’s theatres was renowned as a brothel area and was colloquially known as the “saddling paddock”. Nonetheless, living in this area allowed the Batrouneys and Mansours to come into contact with the small Lebanese community of Melbourne. Through contact with the Lebanese community they could gain employment, and, later as shopkeepers, a ready supply of customers.

While living above Spiridon’s shop in Exhibition Street, the Batrouney family lost an important link with its Lebanese origin. At the age of 67 years, George died of pneumonia as a result of influenza on 23 July,1904. He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery on 25 July,1904 (4).

© Roger and Trevor Batrouney
Melbourne, 23 July 2004

The material for this chapter is based on the family history: Legacy of a Hawker: the Family of George and Annie Batrouney in Australia 1889-1989 by Trevor Batrouney, David Mansour and Andrew Batrouney, 1989.

2.This version of the original family photograph is currently in the possession of Alice Mansour.

3.George Batrouney’s Book of Devotions is currently in the possession of Trevor Batrouney.

4.After the Centenary Reunion in 1989 the family included George Batrouney’s name and date of arrival in the Tribute Garden of the Immigration Museum, Melbourne.