Back in 1954, the passenger vessel known as the SS Himalaya arrived at Station Pier in Melbourne. Its passengers had traveled for nearly five weeks coming from London to Australia. The vessel’s route went through the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean to reach the port of Freemantle, kept navigating through the Great Australian Bight, went past Adelaide to finally arrive in Melbourne.
For many, being in Australia meant starting a new adventure, meeting new people, and it was nothing less than a complete reshaping of their entire lives. For three passengers in particular, Australia was a whole new beginning. Loreto, the head of the York family was about to start living on yet another island. He had spent part of his life on two other islands already but none of them compared in size and adventure proportions to the land he was stepping in with his wife, Olive, and their three year old son, Barry.
Joseph Meilak probably welcomed them at the Pier with a smile. Uncle Joe, as Barry currently refers to him, had already been in Australia for nearly thirty years and was able to sponsor the newly arrived family as assisted migrants. He lived in West Melbourne with his wife Daisy, where he would accommodate the Yorks for a couple of weeks.
Why did you change your last name to York, brother? I imagine Uncle Joe asking this question to Loreto while having a meal. Well, you know how we pronounce Meilak in Malta and no one in London could imagine how to spell it, so I just made my life easier! But ‘Loreto’ stays with me brother, after all, that was our mother’s and our Madonna Ta’ Loretu’s name – I can picture Loreto responding to his brother.
During those first two weeks in Melbourne, the conversations may have revolved around the second world war, the episodes that shaped the family’s decision to come to Australia, and the vast opportunities that a fresh start brings to hard working people. Loreto joined the airforce at the outbreak of the war. He never flew but he was required to travel to many places including the Middle East, Sudan and England. He ended up in London where he met Olive and they married in 1947. Olive was born in the East End of London and since the age of fourteen, she worked in photography printing and developing photos in the darkroom.
Where did you say Michael lives, Joe? Michael had migrated to Australia back in 1949 from Malta following his brother Joe’s steps. Our brother chose to live in a suburb called Coburg. It’s a nice place, there’s a creek nearby and lots of new migrants live in the area. I’ve heard that in Brunswick, the neighbouring suburb, you can find a job fairly easily in the factories or at the many new small businesses. Job opportunities must have appealed to Loreto and Olive. Brunswick, you said? I’ll see if Michael can welcome us for a while.
The Yorks did stay with Michael in Coburg for a couple of weeks and searching for stability, they found Brunswick friendly enough to look for a home. The first couple of years were rough. Loreto, Olive, and Barry had to live in five different boarding houses where they shared space with several other families. Barry particularly recalls one of these houses in Rose Street in West Brunswick. He was four or five but he can still vividly remember an eviction episode with a divvy van out the front of the house and a man being dragged out by the police while the landlady screamed out “God help you, God help you!”
Fortunately, in 1956 the Yorks were able to put a deposit on a house located at 87 Shamrock Street. Olive and Loreto worked hard to be able to save for the deposit. While Loreto worked in the factories, Olive’s darkroom photography skills allowed her to land a job in a small photographic studio on Sydney Road called Astra. “We lived quite frugally” Barry recalls, “we never had a family holiday, we never had a car, everything went into paying off the house but it was joyous to be in your own home”.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, Brunswick was a different place from what it is today. Lots of migrants, low income and factory workers made the suburb tough to navigate at times. Under his parents’ instructions, Barry had to learn boxing at a gym run by Harry Ivory located in a bluestone alley very close to Brunswick Road. But not everything was tough times, the family enjoyed occasional picnics at the Coburg Lake catching tadpoles and walking around the area with other migrant families. On Sunday Mornings, Barry and his friends would go to Channel 9 Studios at Richmond to see the wrestling being filmed to then rush back home to see it on TV.
In 1960, Loreto joined the Brunswick branch of the Labor Party. Before the amalgamation into the Moreland City Council, there was a Brunswick Council and by 1972, Loreto got his party’s support to become the first ever Maltese Mayor of an Australian city. “Actually the first wog to be Mayor of Brunswick” Barry proudly mentions after quoting a racist comment of one of the Councillors who said, “…if we let Larry be the Mayor, the wogs will take over Brunswick”.
Being a Mayor didn’t come with a salary but this didn’t stop Loreto and Olive from being very diligent and taking their roles very seriously. His diligence allowed him to become Mayor for a second occasion in 1976. Barry’s parents were both very community-driven and focused on seeing people’s lives improved. During both of his tenures, Loreto was able to implement policies he was particularly proud of. Since he was able to speak Maltese, Italian, English, and Arabic, as well as a smattering of French, German and Greek, he could closely listen to the community. He implemented forward-thinking policies and actions like starting a poetry group, establishing family planning services, and welcoming Dough Nicholls, an aboriginal leader, to the Mayoral Ball.
Today, the Yorks’ legacy lives on in Brunswick. On top of contributing to building a culture that welcomes progress in Brunswick, our suburb holds two places that remind us of their story. The Loreto John York Park on Holmes Street and Olive York Way in West Brunswick honour their contribution to our community and materialise the story of two of our legends.
Barry York shared his parents’ story with us and we’re very thankful to him. He lived in Brunswick up until the early 80’s. He currently lives in Canberra with his wife, Joan and they have one son and one daughter. He comes to visit every now and then to explore what he calls his sacred sites in Brunswick and you can find some of them on his popular Facebook page, Memories of living in Brunswick. We will publish his own story soon.