These extended families journeyed the roads of Australia for 90 years.
AFTER THE TRANSPORTATION of English Gypsies as convicts during the late 18th century, a second wave of Gypsies arrived in Australia in 1898, as refugees from the first Greco-Turkish war. These ‘Greek Gypsies’ were descended from slaves of Moldavia and Wallachia: about half of Europe’s Gypsies were enslaved in these two historical regions of Romania between the 13th and 19th centuries.
After arriving in Adelaide, this initial group of 25, headed by ‘King’ Johan Sterio, was forced to resort to fortune-telling and begging to survive. They travelled to Melbourne and Sydney by foot, horse-and-cart and sometimes train, in search of work. The group included a young Mary Sterio and her husband Christo – Nick Morgan’s paternal grandparents.
A few years later, the Johan family emigrated from Greece on cattle boats and, not long after that, the Johan and Sterio families began to travel and work together, and eventually intermarried. Nick’s mother, Hannah, was a descendant of the Johan clan.
While on the road in the early 1900s, when some groups were truly broke and couldn’t feed their kids, the women would perform bujo, a form of stealing disguised as a Gypsy blessing. They would never, however, remove all the available cash – just enough to get them to the next town.
These extended families journeyed the roads of Australia for 90 years, performing as entertainers in sideshows, as boxers in Jimmy Sharman’s troop, and as fortunetellers. They only retired from permanent travelling in 1982, after the death of their then Queen Ruby Sterio. “I was at that funeral,” Nick recalls. “We all stopped travelling [after that] because of the elders. They were all getting too old and sick… They needed to be close to hospitals and specialists.”
Today, most Romani families have abandoned their traditional nomadic lifestyle and now tend to travel long distances in caravans for pleasure rather than work. However, some still drive from state to state, sleeping in tents at public caravan parks as they pick up casual work.
DURING THE EARLY 20th centur y, many of Australia’s Romani families lived on the road, but they didn’t all travel in caravans. Most drove cars and slept between feather-filled quilts in canvas tents erected in the bush.
In 1934 The Kadina and Wallaroo Times reported on scores of cars crossing the Nullarbor Plain as families
made their way from Perth to Melbourne, where they hoped to find work as show people and fortune-tellers during the city’s centennial celebrations. The newspaper’s journalist noted that the Gypsy families had shipped their vehicles from the USA, where they’d been travelling and working earlier: “There were about 37 persons, including children, packed into f ive luxurious limousines and coupes. So limited was the space, that one tiny little chap was noticed packed into a water bucket.”
The Great Depression had a deep impact on Romani Gypsy life in Australia. Suddenly, there was no money to be made from fortune-telling, carnival games or seasonal farm work. And so the Roma adapted yet again to the changing economic and political climate.
In Tasmania during the early 1930s, for example, a Romani woman nicknamed Peggy Brown carved homemade pegs from willow trees, bound at one end with a strip of metal, which she sold to rural women. She travelled all over south-eastern Tasmania in an old twowheeled cart pulled by a horse – from as far south as Cygnet to as far north as Oatlands, a distance of about 100km. According to locals I’ve met in the area, she had a hammock where her dogs slept strung between the axles of her wagon. “We were frightened that if we didn’t buy something off her, she’d turn us into a green frog,” remembers Don Norton, a lifelong local of the area. “Or a rat!” he adds, laughing.
Another family, the Fosters, left Sydney during the Depression and travelled from farm to farm across the state, putting on shows in sheds to entertain workers for small cash donations – enough to feed the family and get them to their next destination. In winter, however, when there were no sheep to shear, the Fosters joined all the other unemployed ‘showies’ who would wait out the cold weather in a camping area in western NSW between Bourke and Brewarrina.
There, on the banks of the Darling River, they constructed a tent city where they didn’t have to pay rent, rates, or utilities, or spend money on food. The men provided for their families by hunting feral pigs and rabbits and catching f ish, while the women foraged and cooked and baked bread in camp ovens.
THE THIRD WAVE of Gypsies to arrive in Australia came from all parts of Europe. Following World War II, Australia was experiencing labour market shortages and initiated a program of high-scale immigration. “The days of our isolation are over,” said then
federal minister Arthur Calwell in November 1946, when he announced the new policy. Initially, Calwell had hoped to attract 10 Britons for every continental migrant. However, Australia was so desperate to increase its population that his plans were quickly jettisoned. The distant, southern land rapidly became a desirable destination for European refugees and immigrants seeking a safer and better life.
For the next 17 years, the government would pay, or partly pay, the fares of a million post-war refugees of Greek, Dutch, German, Italian, Yugoslav and Polish extraction. This, of course, included Gypsies, although most would never have dared pronounce their ethnicity.
Upon arrival in Australia, one Romani Gypsy family – the Abduramanoskis, from Macedonia – refused to hide their Romani heritage and, from the late 1960s went on to create the largest and most established Gypsy community in the country. Over the decades, through both immigration and procreation, the family has grown from its original four members to well over 400.
The early years were tough ones for the displaced family, as matriarch Zera recently conf irmed to me. At her family home in Perth, she explained the sense of deep loss and confusion she felt when she and her husband, Estref, arrived in Australia. “I kept asking myself, ‘Where am I going?’” she said. “No sleeping. No eating. I cried all the time.”
She was 18 years old and already had a two-year-old daughter. Still, she and her relatives went on to organise Romani soccer teams, dance troupes, a weekly radio program and language lessons for their members in both their own language (Romanes) and English.
THE MOST RECENT intake of Gypsy immigrants to Australia, in the late 1980s, has been a result of the Roma f leeing post-communist European countries, such as East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary. These were countries where many had been forced to settle in highrise slums and to work in dead-end jobs. Again, most did not claim their ethnic identity upon entering Australia and still only reveal it to fellow Roma.
One example of this fourth wave of immigrants is Hungarian Gypsy Maria Illés, 73, who lives in a state housing department f lat in Port Melbourne. She and her family spent three years in three different European refugee camps before they were approved to enter Australia in the early 1990s.
Sitting in her tidy kitchen, I asked Maria if she’d noticed much racism in Australia. She smiled and shook her head. “I don’t think so. Here everyone a different race,” she said. “I like Australia very much. I always thank God we come to Australia.”
Just about every Romani Gypsy I’ve met has conf irmed that Australia is a haven for their people. After all, unlike in Europe, Australia has never passed laws that discriminate against them specifically. In general, Gypsies here have largely been left to live in peace and obscurity for more than two centuries.
WHEN WE FINISH our lunch, Nick Morgan and I leave the pub together. After a f ive-minute drive we pull up in front of a neat, single-storey brick home. A vintage silver-and-yellow caravan sits beneath a carport. I ask Nick if he still travels. He grins. “One year we had my daughter, her husband, her five kids and me, all sleeping in that tiny caravan,” he says. “We had a ball.”
He leads me through the front door of the house, into the living room, and through to the kitchen. Like all the Romani homes I have visited, it is immaculately clean and neat. We place our drinks in the fridge and retire to the large backyard with a tinnie each, where a tall, majestic gum tree rises into the sky.
A cute black-haired toddler appears in the doorway, grinning. “That’s my grandson KD,” Nick says.
I wave to KD and he waves back. Suddenly, Nick has a guitar in his arms and breaks into a song. As I gaze up through the branches of the gum tree at the fading light, I realise I’m getting pleasantly drunk. Pale stars appear above me like luminous footprints across the sky.
The grinning toddler starts swaying back and forth to the music. I stand and swing him up into my arms. As Nick continues strumming and singing, I dance around the yard with KD, a sixth-generation Australian Gypsy, who throws his head back and begins to laugh.
Nick Nikolic (at left) is a Rom from former Yugoslavia, while his friend Hank is a Rom born in the Netherlands. Both immigrated to Australia in the 1970s.
Catherine Johns, seen here on her rural property in SA in 2006, is also descended from the Romanichal Gypsies of England and Wales.
In 1902 Australia’s Gypsies from Greece camped for several months on Bondi Beach, selling handmade goods and telling fortunes.
Romani Gypsy Peggy Brown travelled alone during the 1930s and ’40s around Tasmania in a horsedrawn cart, selling wooden pegs to rural women.
ROMANTICISED GYPSY STEREOTYPES PERVADED the 19th-century European cultural imagination. Exemplifying a kind of free-spirited defiance, beautiful gypsy heroines appear in the novels of Dickens, Victor Hugo and Walter Scott and, notably, as the tragic lead in Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Zera and Estref Abduramanoski, who immigrated to Australia from Macedonia in the late 1960s, now live in Perth.
Proud Romani Gypsy Maria Illés came to Australia in the early 1990s after spending three years in European refugee camps following political upheaval in Hungary.
Much folklore surrounds Gypsy caravans, and the knowledge and practice of this is still cultivated by Australia’s Romani people. This showman’s caravan, built by Basil Smith, is in Margate, TAS.
‘Queen’ Mary Sterio’s only surviving grandson, Nick Morgan, this year visited the home in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, where his Gypsy ancestors lived during WWII.