May 6, 2021 | Whence Brunswick Came

The History of Sydney Road – Part 3

Author: Ben Donaldson

Illustrator: Little Thoughts Studio

Alasya - Brunswick Daily

This is part 3 of the series ‘Whence Brunswick Came – The History of Sydney Road.’ Check out the first part here and the second one here.

Whence /wɛns/  conjugation, (old fashioned): the place, source, or origin of something.

Take a stroll down Sydney Road today and you’ll walk past every inhabited continent on the planet. If there was such a thing as Antarctic cuisine, you can be sure that someone would’ve set up a little eatery dedicated to it, as well. Happy feet kebab, anyone?

The 2016 Australian Census showed that approximately 38% of Brunswick residents were born outside of Australia. Those with one or more parents born overseas, meanwhile, made up more than 55% of the population of the suburb.

Brunswick in 1901 was a very different story, however. At that time, the number of residents born outside of Australia, the United Kingdom or New Zealand was only a little over 3%.

The story of what happened in Brunswick over the intervening century represents – as so much about our suburb does – the story of Melbourne, and of the nation at large. That is the story of immigration.

Until 1958, immigration into Australia was tightly restricted by the White Australia Policy. This policy of state-directed racial discrimination was founded on a white supremacist intention to protect the colonial British culture and preserve an Anglo-ethnic population.

Through the 1920’s and 30’s, however, Australia did accept increasing numbers of immigrants from across Europe. Political upheaval and economic turmoil forced people to flee in search of peace and prosperity. They came from Poland, Russia, Germany, and, especially, from Greece and Italy.

Sebastiano Donnelli - Brunswick Daily

Sebastiano Donelli standing outside his home on Sydney Road, 1871

There were a few Italian migrants in Brunswick as far back as 1869, though, when Sebastiano Donelli came from Milan and established a spaghetti factory on Sydney Road. It operated until 1930, when it was donated and transformed into the Don Bosco Youth Centre. 

Don Bosco Youth Hostel - Brunswick Daily

Don Bosco Youth Hostel, which was once Donnelli’s factory on Sydney Road

Antonio Santamaria, meanwhile, arrived from Sicily in 1883 to establish the first fruit shop on Sydney Road. His son, Bob Santamaria, would go on to become one of the most influential politicians in Australia. 

Significant Greek and Italian migration, though, began in the 20’s and accelerated through the 50’s and 60’s, as the Australian Government realised it needed massive population increase to sustain the country’s economy. The White Australia policy was relaxed and the Government entered into migration agreements with a succession of different countries. By 1971, Brunswick’s Italian community made up 19% of the suburb

Another 10% were Greek. Just like the Italians before them, the Greeks refashioned the landscape of Sydney Road to meet their needs. Delicatessens, Milk Bars and Fish ‘n’ Chip shops were all operated by migrants, while Greek restaurants, clubs and espresso bars helped them socialize in the foreign environment. In 1988, Talbot Place was renamed Sparta Place, in recognition of the large number of Greeks of that region that had migrated. Today, after Athens and Thessaloniki, Melbourne is the third largest Greek city in the world.

Leonidas Sparta Place - Brunswick Daily

Statue in Sparta Place, Sydney Road

The next group to impact the landscape of Sydney Road were the Turks. With a migration pact signed in 1967, Turkish soon became the fourth most spoken language in Brunswick. And just as before, with the immigrants came Turkish shops and, of course, restaurants, with a dozen or so Turkish eateries operating between Bell and Blythe Streets alone.

The Turkish-Cypriot family that runs Alasya, on the corner of Hope Street and Sydney Road, are usually too busy to chat with an inquisitive gazeteci. The restaurant, whose name is the old Ottoman Turkish word for Cyprus, has been serving all the delicious staples of Turkish cuisine since 1978.

They bake their own flatbread and make sweets like baklava and turkish delight. And – of course – they roast kebabs, on a couple of big spits near the front window – the most authentic I’ve found since returning to Melbourne after 2 years living in Turkey.

It’s not surprising. As much as some immigrants are proud to preserve their native cultures, others are just as keen (or else, pressured) to adopt new ways of doing things. With the changing of hands change recipes, as well, and we arrive at something we did not have before.

Just ask Abu. He’s recently launched Bite 2 Eat, successor to the well-loved Town Hall Kebabs.  Originally a food truck, Town Hall Kebabs was run by Egyptian Ahmed Abou Ahmed for twelve years in a Sydney Road carpark. A dispute with the landowners forced him to vacate and instead open up a store on the strip. That site didn’t last long, though, and has only recently been replaced with Bite 2 Eat.

Abu is Pakistani, and infuses his offerings with more of a subcontinental twist. Technically, the chicken offering is more of a tandoori wrap than a kebab, though that’s not likely to bother the famished Saturday night reveller on his way home. 

He will not realize that the humble snack in his hands is, in truth, an artifact. Food taken from another homeland, out of its history, far from the soil that grew its original ingredients, to a land where immigrants of all cultures come side-by-side, like so many slices of different meat skewered on the same spit and, slowly roasting over the years, their juices mingling, coming to create the taste of their new world amidst the flavours of the old. 

This is not the whole story of immigration on Sydney Road. Whole chapters have been dedicated to the subject. After the Turks, came the Lebanese, and so too Tiba’s Restaurant and A1 Lebanese Bakery, to name a few. The later arrival of their brethren from across Arabic-speaking world saw Moreland become in 1991 the home of the most speakers of that language of any region in Victoria.

In 2016, residents of 81 different ethnic backgrounds were recorded as living in Brunswick, many of whom are only just starting to add their flavours to the kitchen of Sydney Road.

Multi lingual pharmacy - Brunswick Daily

A pharmacy on Sydney Road with signage in Turkish, Greek and Italian.

And this 3-part series (Part 1 and Part 2) is not the whole story of Brunswick, either. It’s just a taste, just a sample platter to whet the appetite and, hopefully, make you hungry to learn a little more about our suburb, and the people who inhabit it, every time you take a stroll down Sydney Road. 


If you feel like geeking out on the details of the History of Sydney Road, these are the sources where we collected many of the information described in this article:

 ‘Almost Pretty – A History of Sydney Road’ – Laura Donati

‘For A Better Life We Came…’ Collected and Edited by the Brunswick Oral History Project

The City of Moreland – A Thematic History’ prepared by Michele Summerton

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