The father of Greek press in Australia
Recognition that his daughter was still living was mind-blowing. It just felt too close to the history maker, to the epicentre of the 100 years-long history of Greek press in Australia – Efstratios Venlis – to find out that Maria Venlis, better known as Maria Bell, was still alive.
Efstratios Stratis Venlis was the founder, editor, publisher and printer of the first Greek newspaper released in Australia. Named Afstralia, the four-page tabloid paper was first printed on Friday 6 June, 1913, in Melbourne.
As we talked to Maria’s daughter, Gretchen Bell Oswald, trying to possibly schedule an interview with her mother, or at least listen to any, even trivial information from the life of the family Venlis, 94-year old Maria Venlis lost her battle with age.
In very frail health, she was finding it difficult to speak. She offered though, as her contribution to this article, that Efstratios Venlis was “a very loving father”.
She died on 13 February, 2013, only a few years younger than the Greek press in Australia, that her father started.
Maria Bell found her father a gentle and good man, says Maria’s daughter, Gretchen, today. As a descendant of a man who started writing the history of the Greek community press in Australia, Gretchen feels proud to have “a person like that” in her family tree.
“I am very proud of him because of what he achieved. Certainly, he came from quite a privileged background, his parents were quite well-off and they were a scholarly family back in Greece, from what I know. Descendants from a renowned Vernardakis family,” Gretchen tells Neos Kosmos.
In Venlis’ Naturalisation Certificate, provided to us by another granddaughter, June Roblom, ‘Languages Professor’ is stated as his occupation. He was fluent in five languages.
“He loved the arts, and helped Greek people hang on to their culture. He would raise money for pageants and all sorts of things in the Greek community, and he championed the poets and the writers for his magazine. I am so proud to have come from someone like that. It’s interesting that most of the family members today are fairly artistic, intelligent and creative people; I think he would be quite proud of his progeny,” Gretchen says proudly.
Efstratios Venlis’ wife, Margaret nee Barnett, was not of Greek origin. She was Australian born, of Scottish Presbyterian parents, and the two lived in a marvellous union, as their descendants today tell Neos Kosmos.
“It was a great love marriage. They had six children, and my grandmother really supported my grandfather. I had great connections with her. Papa died when I was only three, but grandmother died at the age of 100. I remember her as I was in my 40s then,” says Gretchen.
Efstratios and Margaret had 6 children, 13 grandchildren (two of them being June Roblom, and Gretchen Bell Oswald whom I spoke to), 26 great grandchildren and many great, great grandchildren, in the latest generation of the Venlis family.
Despite the century long history of the family Venlis in Australia, the Greek thread is not much present anymore. In June’s understanding, it was due to the fact that a diverse cultural background was not to be advertised in those days.
Additionally, being married to a non-Greek wife, Venlis’ children were brought up in a mostly English speaking family. With it came the anglicised surname – Bell.
However, the whole family seemed to be excited about being a part of Greek Australian history that their grandfather sealed with Afstralia, the newspaper that – according to author and academic George Kanarakis – joined the Greek Australian community to the ranks of diaspora presses, despite its much smaller Greek population (The Press of the Greeks in Australia: With Reference to Other Presses of the Hellenic Diaspora, The Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora).
“A century from the publishing of the Greek newspaper in Australia. Isn’t that marvellous?,” Gretchen pointed out several times, excited by the fact that Neos Kosmos contacted her.
During our conversation, she would repeatedly apologise for not providing more information about her grandfather. However, both she and her cousin June still treasure a couple of old family photos, some papers and chapters from the two books by George Kanarakis (In the Wake of Odysseys: Portraits of Greek Settlers in Australia and Greek voices in Australia: a tradition of prose, poetry and drama) that have recorded the beginnings and development of the Greek Australian press and its main figures.
From Zagazig to Greenbushes
Efstratios Panajotou Benlis, as his Naturalisation Certificate states, with origin from the Aegean island of Lesvos, was born on 15 July 1882 at Zagazig, Egypt. At the age of 22, he migrated to Australia. He arrived from Naples on 22 September 1904 by S.S. Eldenburg, disembarking at Fremantle.
After some time, he would settle in Greenbushes, a then active mining settlement in Western Australia, where he opened a small café. This is where, June explains, he would meet his new waitress, and soon after his wife, Margaret Barnett. They got married on 16 September 1908.
“That’s where my mother Irene and the oldest daughter Helen were born. It wasn’t long till they moved to Melbourne, where the newspaper was founded.”
In his marriage certificate, the name Stross Peter Bell appears for the first time. As understood within the family – Stross was a shortening of Efstratios. It is not known when he anglicised the rest of his name.
“People were more anxious at that time, they wouldn’t advertise their background. As time went on, he seemed to use the name Bell more often,” June explains.
Talking to the two granddaughters of Efstratios Venlis, the difference is obvious. Gretchen, Maria’s daughter, is more attached to her grandfather’s figure; while June, daughter of the second oldest Irene, seems more distant from her Greek heritage.
“I think my aunty Maria had stronger connections than my mother. Maria might have mixed for longer with Greek people, because she worked more with them – in milk bars and cafes,” June tells.
“What he did for the Greek community was naturally enough conducted by himself, and the children didn’t come into that frame often. The exception, in my understanding, was the youngest son, Alexander. I believe he was the only one that attended Greek school on Saturday mornings. I know that my grandmother made costumes for Greek pageants,” she reveals.
From Gretchen’s accounts of her papa, the stronger bonds her mother Maria had with the Greek community appear. Excited, she describes to me a scene from the every day life of Venlis family, as if she was a first-eye witness. She would envisage these images as her mother Maria told the stories from her childhood, and with her powerful storytelling she allows me to do the same.
“My mother remembers when she was a girl and they lived in Brisbane; every Sunday the Greek families would get together. And it was always at somebody else’s house. She remembered very clearly the children playing, the women cooking, the men talking and smoking. And they used to have these wonderful Sundays that you can just imagine, can’t you? She said that happened every Sunday. There is a lovely photo I have of my grandfather – there is papa outside the Greek Orthodox Church, with a lot of other people,” Gretchen says excitedly.
“I am proud of him. I can tell you that I wish our Greek heritage had been more emphasised. When I was a child, my mother worked for her godfather who was also Greek, Jim Talis, and I understood Greek. I didn’t speak it, but I can remember sitting down at milk tables, and really knowing what people were talking about. Then when mum left that employment, the Greek thread was not upkept. And I really wish that it had been, I wish that I had gone to a Greek school. I think it’s so important to hang on to those things. You can be proud of where you come from and your heritage, but if you don’t know anything about it – it’s a bit strange.”
“Mum was always telling us stories about it. She was so proud of him, and would always say ‘respect your beginnings, you know where you come from, behave yourselves’. And of course, being brought up in a Greek household, as a child, I was always very loved and spoiled, as Greek children are.”
Efstratios Venlis died on 20 May 1942. Five decades after his death, it was June who, in a strange and accidental way, initiated the whole research about her grandfather to begin with.
“My mother had told me that he published a Greek newspaper, but I had no idea that it was that important.
“My mother had no memory of him earning a living apart from the printing enterprise. He moved around the Greek community doing things for people – writing, translating documents for Australian legal purposes. Printing the paper and running the milk bar and cafes was what was bringing the money in, but he would do these other works within the community.”
One day, at a book sale, just by accident she picked up the book Greek Voices in Australia, by George Kanarakis. When she showed it to her mum, Irene, she said laughingly “perhaps my father is in it”.
June looked up the index and, sure enough, there he was – Efstratios Venlis, his name listed in the index.
According to George Kanarakis, when Afstralia was first published, on 6 June 1913, the number of Greeks living in Melbourne and the rest of the country was rather small. Taking this into consideration, the first issue of this political, social and business weekly sold a large number of copies – 80 of them.
“This endeavour can be appreciated even more if we consider that at that time the Greek population in Melbourne was meagre, and therefore could not easily sustain big ventures. According to the 1911 census there were only 297 Greeks in Melbourne and the rest of Victoria, while in the whole of Australia there were a mere 1,798 Greek-born settlers,” Kanarakis wrote in his book In the Wake of Odysseys (p.69).
By 1920 the newspaper had been transferred to Sydney, where the Greek population was bigger. In December 1922 it was sold to the Marinakis brothers, who published it under the new title To Ethniko Vima. It changed a number of owners and is now under the name Vima Tis Ekklisias. According to Kanarakis, this newspaper is the second-oldest foreign-language newspaper in Australia still in circulation, after the French Le Courrier Australien.
Apart from the newspaper founder, Efstratios Venlis was also the first Greek typesetter and printer in Australia, enlarging even more his social contribution to the Greek community of the Fifth Continent.
Around 1900, in Little Latrobe Street – a laneway in Melbourne’s CBD, then filled with a wide variety of businesses and manufacturers’ agents – the names of European immigrants started to appear. Amongst them was, as Fiona Poulton writes, “Greek newspaper proprietor Efstratios Venlis, who occupied 54-56 Little Latrobe Street in 1915”.
“The street directory reveals that by 1915 there were seventeen properties clearly occupied by immigrants, twelve of them Chinese and the remaining Greek and Italian.”
This is where, in 1916, the setting and printing of a hardcover encyclopedic book for Greek Australians, I Zoi en Afstralia, was done by the Australian Printing and Publishing Company Limited.
Directed by Efstratios Venlis, it was the same company that was printing Australia’s first Greek Newspaper, Afstralia.
Academic George Kanarakis estimates that over 110 Greek newspapers have been published in Australia over the past 98 years of Greek Press history.
*The information about the newspaper Afstralia was taken from the following sources: G. Kanarakis, The Literary Presence of the Greeks in Australia; G. Kanarakis, In the Wake of Odysseus: Portraits of Greek Settlers in Australia; G. Kanarakis, The Greek voices in Australia; Fiona Poulton, Little Latrobe Street and the Historical Significance of Melbourne’s Laneways (Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, 2011) and Hugh Gilchrist, Guides for the Greeks (Australians and Greeks, Volume II, p.253-257)