Showing posts with label Newcastle earthquake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Newcastle earthquake. Show all posts

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Kent

Acrobatic dogs balanced on two front legs on impossibly slim posts, somersaulted, danced and waved goodbye. Responding to the skilful hands of trainer Mr Bill Massey, the small dogs enthralled kids and adults alike. [1]

It was the early 1920s. Massey’s Dog Circus was the first recorded use for a large corner block at 59-61 Beaumont Street, now The Kent. Sometimes the dogs would parade down Beaumont Street to perform at ‘Gilbert’s Paddock’, another vacant block backing onto Murray Street, behind 99-101 Beaumont Street. There, behind the Westpac Bank of today, once the Roxy Theatre, the little troupe would join a steam driven merry-go-round, a joy ride called the Razzle Dazzle, and tightrope walkers mimicking the world’s most famous tightrope walker, Blondin. These couple of blocks could have been the beginnings of an entertainment precinct for Hamilton.

As it would have been - Razzle Dazzle ride, Cony Island, New York (c1900)
Where are the tee shirts?
(No known restrictions on reproduction)

Perhaps anticipating the becoming of Beaumont Street as Eat Street, one of Massey’s terriers was famous for his discerning palate. Local historian Mavis Ebbott tells me that this dog was said to eat meat six days a week, but on a Friday, he would consume only fish.

When The Kent was built in 1924, Massey’s Dog Circus had to find another home. The corner block had been advertised as a splendid site for a family hotel, and so it would become. Hamilton was burgeoning, with 400 businesses and a population of some 14,000 – only slightly less than the city of Newcastle.

The first licensee was Mr William Weiss, followed by Mr Charles Weiss, beginning a family involvement with the hotel that would last for several years.

Hotel Kent, Hamilton (1924)
Charles W Weiss, Proprietor
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Articles and court notices in the Newcastle Miners Advocate and Morning Herald show that The Kent accommodated both guests and longer term boarders. The Hamilton Bowling Club arranged for its competition guests to stay at The Kent – in 1929, the Millions Club from Sydney visited and was ‘entertained to lunch’ at The Kent before the match.

The personal story of Charles Weiss is a tragic one. A highly regarded, kind and very generous member of the Hamilton community, he had many friends. He was listed as one of the most generous donors to the Hamilton Distress Fund in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. In another example, during Hamilton Shoppers Week in 1924, he donated a prize. In 1929 Charles Weiss and two business partners purchased the land where Hamilton’s first theatre was built. This was the Union Theatre, later to become the Roxy.

By the time war came, Charles was no longer the licensee of The Kent, although he could have been operating it, and by then had other business interests. All this was to come to a sudden end.

Of German ancestry, Charles Weiss’s birth name was Karl.

Australia interned about 7000 residents in prisons and camps during World War II, many of them Germans and Italians classified as ‘enemy aliens’. The fear was that they might be a risk to Australia’s security by assisting their home countries. Charles Weiss was one of those rounded up and taken away, to spend the rest of the war in a prison (or prison camp), somewhere in NSW.

Adele Weiss, a descendant, writes in Lost Newcastle Facebook:

Everything was taken from him and he was devastated beyond comprehension. Not so much because of material things but he loved and adored Hamilton, and his many, many friends. Sadly, he never emotionally recovered from his ordeal here in Newcastle... and was believed to have died of a broken heart.’ [2]

The story of Charles Weiss shows the terrible consequences that would have been repeated in many, many immigrant families in Ausralia.

The outbreak of war mobilised the community. Hamilton had its own Send-off and Welcome Home Committee. In August, 1941 the Committee staged a dance in the Club Ballroom of The Kent, with 500 dancers attending. [3] The puzzle is – where was the Club Ballroom? I believe the first floor was given over to accommodation, prior to the remodelling that created today’s function room. Perhaps there was a ball room squeezed in somewhere upstairs?

Over the 12 years between 1936 and 1948, the licensee of The Kent changed six times. At that time, it was not unusual to have such turnover.

In 1947/48, an influx of Italian migrants was making Hamilton the focus of their community and commercial life. In 1947, 150 families from the village of Lettopalena, in the province of Chieti, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, migrated to Newcastle. Lettopalena had been devastated by an earthquake in 1933, and suffered greatly from bombings in World War II – it has since been rebuilt nearby.

Most of these migrants settled in Islington, to be close to the BHP steelworks where the men could find work. The Exchange Hotel and The Kent became favourite gathering places. There was still a cultural divide. Desmond Watson remembers that when he first became a customer of The Kent fifty years ago in the mid 1960s, aged just 17, the Italians were at one end of the public bar; the ‘Aussies’ at the other.

Today a small group of well dressed, retired Italian men gather each morning at the eastern end of the front bar. They meet for an hour to ‘discuss the affairs of the day’. For years, Briscola, Italy’s most popular card game, and Three Seven (Tresete) were played in this alcove by their predecessors, but now only one of them, Domenico, remains. After the chat, it’s over to the Benvenuti Italian Restaurant for coffee.

The company of men (2014)
(L-R) Mario Lot, Cesare Gattazzo, Domenico di Claudio,
Giacinto di Bernardino

Local historian Doug Saxon recounts his memories of growing up in Hamilton in the 1950s, writing:

‘I used to walk past The Kent almost every day and remember the cellar doors which were set in the footpath and where wooden kegs of beer were lowered by rope into the cellar below. The lasting memory is the smell from the cellar – probably of stale beer. Hotels were essentially male establishments - I can remember men taking drinks to ladies sitting in cars outside the hotel although The Kent did have a female section – ‘The Ladies Lounge’. ...Hotels closed at 6 pm from 1916 until 1955 when 10 pm closing was introduced.’ [4]

When 6 pm closing still ruled, Des Watson remembers drinkers inside the hotel sending drinks and hot chips to pacify women and children waiting in the car. Shandies (beer diluted with lemonade) were considered ‘suitable’ drinks for women.

‘The six o’clock swill’ was a consequence of these limited trading hours. Doug Saxon quotes Bill Muir, who lived opposite  The Kent in Cleary Street:

‘Beaumont Street became a rush of bicycles as workers from the BHP and other industries rushed from knocking off work at 4 pm to get to the pubs for quick afternoon drinks. The hotels were crowded with drinkers almost spilling onto the pavement before the pub doors closed at 6 pm’. [5]

The original public bar – shown below – looked rather different from today. It was set up for access, efficiency and fast action. The barmen worked at speed to serve the shoving, pushing workers desperate to get as much beer into their systems as possible in the available time. Bottle shops only began to appear in the 1960s, and this daily binge drinking had many negative consequences for families.

Public bar in The Kent c1948
Mollie Gahagan is in front
Photograph of bar and his mother is from the personal collection 
of Peter Pearce

Court reports from the opening of The Kent in 1924 over the next three decades abound with convictions of licensees for ‘having persons on the premises at an unlawful hour’, and of patrons ‘for having carried liquor away during prohibited hours’. In one reported case in 1948, police - who happened to be at the back of the hotel - spied ‘bottles of beer being handed over the fence’. And of course, a multitude of charges for fights, causing affray, assaults and ‘offensive language’.

Kent Hotel, Hamilton, NSW (1959)
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

What was the ‘saloon bar’ is at the back of the public bar – in this more ‘refined’ setting, drinks would cost a little more. Even the public bar was a misnomer, however, as women were not allowed there, or in the saloon. A common excuse from many hotels was that there were no ‘ladies facilities’.

The Kent had some facilities for women as early as the 1950s.

Giving the boss a hand - cleaning toilets at The Kent (c1950)
(L-R) Bert Harris (Publican), Taff Jones, Ken Burns
Photograph from the personal collection of Robyn White, 
daughter of Ken Burns

Ken Burns was a regular at The Kent, every afternoon after work. He always stood in the same place, against a window that looked onto Cleary Street. On her way home from the bus and work at BHP, daughter Robyn White would tap the glass against her father’s bald head. If he was ready, he’d get up and join her for the short walk to their home in Cleary Street. Robyn tells me a name plaque was placed at his favourite spot – but was lost in the earthquake.

In 1973, after a sit-in by a group of feminist activists at Hotel Manly in Sydney, gender segregation in hotels gradually began to break down. Des Watson remembers the Ladies Lounge at The Kent well. He disputes it was a ‘lounge’ in any sense of the word today.

‘It was a small enclosed room with a table and chairs’, he tells me. ‘The women had to order drinks through a hole in the wall.’ He describes how they used to bring peas to shell and beans to slice, so they could have dinner ready for their husbands, as soon as they got home.

Ladies welcome (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Extended hours, followed by the introduction of bottle shops and the freer availability of take home liquor, meant that hotels became less frenzied, more leisurely places. Newcastle playwright, novelist and comedian Grahame Cooper writes this rainy day reminiscence:

When I was young and stupid (though I’ve learnt the two may not be mutually exclusive) I spent a ‘decent’ amount of time in pubs. This was back in the days when cigarettes didn’t give you cancer, pubs were not generic restaurants/gambling halls, the barman knew your name and invited you to sit at the bar, ‘characters’ gathered to lie about their lives and offer alcohol-fuelled folk wisdom to the young...On rainy days such as today, I was inevitably drawn to the hotels of Beaumont Street, Hamilton and my recollections are of a black and white, or at least sepia-toned stretch of suburb where one could escape the rain and enter a dimly lit, smoky, warm and inviting front bar. The Kent Hotel was one such place’. [6]

Kent Hotel front bar (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

This peacefulness was shattered on Thursday, 28 December, 1989.

The front of The Kent was savagely stripped away by the 5.6 Richter magnitude earthquake, as the verandah collapsed, taking the external brick wall down with it. Gaping holes that once were rooms in The Kent were exposed to view.

Devastation wreaked on The Kent (1989)

Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging in The Kent

Mr Cec Abbott died under The Kent fall.

Clearance was a slow job
Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging in The Kent

There was pressure on John and Pauline Stirling, part owners of The Kent, to demolish the entire building. Extensive renovations had just been completed, and they resisted strongly, arguing that the damage not structural. Although it looked shocking, it was the hotel façade that was mainly affected. Damage had occurred all along Beaumont Street. The solid timber stays that had supported the awning posts had been replaced by wires in a street-wide safety improvement program instituted by the Newcastle Council.

Clearly visible, wires failed to hold up awnings

Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging
 in The Kent

The Kent was closed for up to three months for repairs; long term boarders were found alternative accommodation. Bar patrons moved to other pubs.

 Following the earthquake, the front bar was updated. Local historian Mavis Ebbott tells me that when the panels were stripped back, five were found with the words STRIKE HERE. These were used for striking the ‘strike anywhere’ Swan Vestas matches popular with smokers.

One of two panels from the original bar preserved at the entrance
Photograph by Craig Smith

Renovations following the earthquake saw The Kent acquire a veranda upstairs, with a bull nosed iron roof over the Cleary Street windows.

Kent Hotel 1990s
Photograph by Craig Smith of framed photograph hanging in The Kent

 Now, veranda patrons have protection from winter winds and the western sun in summer.

New look veranda (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Successive renovations, too large a task to document in this story, have left their mark on The Kent. Hamilton resident Craig Smith had taken his last photograph for this post and was on his way out of the hotel when he noticed a hole in the floor, with the wooden hatch suspended back on its chains. He emails me about the experience:

'It took me awhile to realise that this was the cellar door, and I was thrilled to spot the layers of jutting brickwork that descended beneath the surface. And not just the surface flooring of The Kent but the street itself - it was like gazing at a cross-section of Beaumont Street on some archeological dig. It was a fitting way to leave the premises, to then walk out onto the street and carry with me that sense of something hidden and secret, a sense of unexpected delight that is to be cherished in such a historic location in Hamilton'.

Opening The Kent cellar (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Up until the late 1980s, NSW breweries owned almost half the State’s hotels. A series of corporate crashes led to breweries divesting themselves of the freehold of individual hotels, with purchasers often being former lessees. Thus, hotels became once again, family businesses.

It was not just pub culture that was changing, but also the very purpose of pubs themselves. Accommodation had long been an essential service offered by hotels. As the market changed, along with customer preferences for more spacious rooms and an ensuite bathroom, hotels such as The Kent found themselves becoming redundant.

On the first floor, perhaps 15 rooms remain of the 20 or so that were once used for guest accommodation. Mostly single, there was one double for the occasional travelling couple. Bathrooms were shared. Long term office staffer Wendy Berlin says that with high ceilings, neat curtains and bedspreads, the rooms would have been well presented for the time.

Each hotel room had a hand basin for guests (2014)

Decorative detail of picture rail in guest room (2014)

The Kent stopped providing accommodation around 1998. Today the rooms are used for office space and storage, although present owner/manager Stephen Hunt recalls that soon after he took over in 2002, an elderly patron was provided with a room until his end days.

While 1998 saw the close of the accommodation era, it also marked a boost in hotel income with the NSW government approval for hotels to purchase up to 15 poker machine/licences. This enabled hotels to compete more directly with the club industry, which had long held a monopoly on these gaming machines. The Kent responded with another renovation to make space for the new machines.

The Hunt family bought The Kent in 2002, having been involved in owning and managing pubs since the 1940s. Part owner Stephen Hunt moved to Newcastle from Sydney with his family to manage the business. The Kent appealed because it is in a thriving area with many reasons for people to visit – a good mix of retail, food and entertainment - with the railway station, the Hunter Stadium and the Newcastle Entertainment Centre close by. Stephen loves the heritage style of the building, its history, and the unique touches that have managed to survive renovations and disaster.

Original fireplace in first floor lounge at The Kent (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Throughout The Kent, pressed metal ceilings are still evident.

Pressed metal ceiling, first floor, The Kent (2014) [22]
Photograph by Craig Smith

The hotel dining room was originally at the front, facing Beaumont Street. When the gaming area was enlarged, the dining area was moved to the back.

Remodelling meant these elegant external doors have been permanently closed (2014)

Photograph by Craig Smith

Since 2002 the dining room has been run as part of the hotel - prior, it had been the privately operated Beaumont Restaurant. In 2014, new renovations are under way that will see the dining area restored to the front hotel, hopefully with pavement dining.

Diners will once again enjoy this heritage leadlight

Photograph by Craig Smith, 2014

A large function room on the first floor continues to be important for private celebrations and events.

Stairway to function room, veranda and offices
Photograph by Craig Smith, 2014 

First floor function room has a warm ambience
(Photographs by Craig Smith, 2014)

A piece of history has been retained on the first floor. A club lounge area, billiard room and bathroom was once the private quarters of Newcastle businessman and Kent licensee, Terry Teagle.

Club lounge which opens to verandah
Photograph by Craig Smith (2014)

Patrons can move from the function room to the veranda for a bird’s eye view of what is happening on Beaumont Street.

The veranda is now firmly secured (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

The Kent has changed over time. Like the whole industry, this hotel has had to respond to broader changes in society, and adapt to survive. Craig Smith emails again after taking his last photos for this blog:

'I've been thinking about The Kent often since I visited last week. It has undergone such a change in its culture and in public perception in the past ten years - from a guaranteed place to witness a close-up fight on a Friday night as I've done - to a rather charming place to enjoy a family meal. It's been so good to watch its new colours flourish'.

The Kent (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

So much of this positive change at The Kent is due to the influence of Stephen Hunt and his family. In April, 2014 they celebrated 12 years of ownership, and are now a firm part of its 90 year history.

They have always liked the linkage between The Kent and the country of Kent, in England.

The motto of the county is the Latin word, Invicta. It means undefeated, unconquered.
That too, is The Kent.

Thank you to Stephen Hunt, Wendy Berlin, bar staff and patrons of The Kent for their help and contributions. Also to Adele Weiss, Robyn White, Peter Pearce, Lorraine Castle and Desmond Watson.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.

View a complete set of Craig Smith’s photographs of The Kent on:

[1] Watch a silent film of performing dogs from the 1920s at
[2] Adele Weiss, Lost Newcastle Facebook.
[3] Trove. Newcastle and Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. 6/8/1941. 6.
[4] Doug Saxon: Hamilton. Memories of Life and School in the 1950s. 6.
[5] Doug Saxon: Hamilton. Memories of Life and School in the 1950s. 6.
[6]  Grahame Cooper, Lost Newcastle Facebook.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Nina's IGA - Family Kiriakidis

If you walk into Nina’s IGA expecting a one-size-fits-all suburban grocery, be ready to be surprised. Nina’s is anything but average.

When I came to live in Hamilton, and visited IGA, I was fascinated by the products I found. Lentils and other pulses were clearly visible at eye level, not hidden away on a bottom shelf. Fetta cheese came in the biggest buckets I had ever seen, but it had also been decanted into smaller tubs just the right size for me. I spotted luscious home made fig jam, European style biscuits and breads, ‘square’ noodles, filo pastry, and puzzled over long stems of dried Mountain Tea. As well, all the standard Australian staples are stocked.

An eclectic mix of products from many countries at Nina’s IGA products
Photograph by Craig Smith

Over 27 years, George and Nina Kiriakidis have shaped this little store to reflect their customers’ wishes. They cater to the evolving tastes of locals, as well as to the desire of Hamilton’s migrant families to continue to enjoy the foods of their homelands. They have seen off their only real Hamilton competition, Clancy’s. By continually adapting and providing exceptional customer service, Nina’s IGA offers a friendly alternative to the giant supermarket chains.

Nina’s IGA, with a reminder of the devastation of the 2007 floods 
Photograph by Craig Smith (2014)

George is first generation Greek Australian. His parents Constantine and Sofia Kiriakidis were from the town of Katerini, near Thessalonika, in Central Macedonia, Greece. When they decided to flee the instability of civil war, they were already married with a small son, Leo. The year was 1954.

They knew nothing about Australia,’ explains George. ‘They thought it was the name of a village’.

What a surprise they must have had, landing in Sydney, travelling north  and finding themselves at the Greta Migrant Centre. Greta is a coalmining town on the New England Highway, between Maitland and Singleton. The Migrant Centre was positioned to provide a ready source of migrant labourers to the mines and related industries of the Hunter.

The small family moved from the Migrant Centre to Newcastle, where they lived with a Polish family in Maryville for a few months. Constantine’s father had given him a parting gift of the equivalent of 500 pounds. While some of it had been ‘loaned’ to a ship board friend in need, Constantine still had enough to buy a house in Tighes Hill. Once settled, they rented rooms out to other migrant families.

Constantine and Sofia intended to return home when the unrest had settled. That never happened. Instead, Constantine worked at BHP and they raised a family of four sons – Leo, George, Jordan and Chris.

(L-R) Leo, Jordan, George, with Chris between parents
Constantine and Sofia Kiriakidis
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Sofia’s father had been a teacher. George feels her education enabled her to adjust more readily to speaking English. Sociable and outgoing, mixing easily with his peers, George seems not to have been aware of any discrimination at school or growing up.

Like so many young Newcastle men of his time, George followed his father into BHP. He gained technical qualifications as a mechanical engineer.

George had encountered tragedy in his twenties, losing his fiancé, and then his best friend to cancer, and his godfather, all in a short space of time. He’d known Nina from when she was 16, and on their first meeting, felt an instant attraction to her.

Towards the end of a dozen years at BHP, George was finding the large organisation impersonal and became interested in giving business a try. With Nina, his first venture was a snow ski shop at Marketown in Newcastle West. So began their journey into the world of small business.

Already Nina had a maturity beyond her years. Her father Spiro Zambelis had died when she was just one year old, leaving her mother Eleni to bring up Nina and her older brother Dennis alone. Nina’s parents had migrated to Australia in 1960 from the island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece. They settled in Hamilton.

Spiro Zambelis
 Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Eleni Zambelis
 Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Nina’s mother did unskilled work to support her family, and spoke Greek with her children at home. Consequently Nina began school knowing very little English. This affected the confidence of a shy and sensitive little girl who already was taking on responsibilities beyond her years.
George remembers exactly when they bought the ‘Cut Price’ grocery store from the Watsons at 73 Beaumont Street, Hamilton – later to become Nina’s IGA.

‘7 February, 1987’, he says.

George was 31, Nina still a teenager at 19.

George and Nina quickly realised that if their business was to succeed, they would have to do something different. Trading hours were being gradually deregulated in NSW, especially for smaller retailers. To stand out from the competition, George and Nina decided to open the shop from 8 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week. This was an enormous commitment. George’s brothers Chris and Jordan became involved, and staff were employed to help cover the long shifts. George took responsibility for the business side, including purchasing, and Nina managed the floor.

Brothers Kiriakidis (L-R) Jordan, Leo, George, Chris in front (1972)
Personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

With no prior experience in the grocery business, they learned by trial and error. ‘Cut Price’ had purchasing systems in place, and at first, George and Nina followed past practice.

In the 1990s, their confidence grew as they responded to customer needs, and developed a wider range of suppliers. Customers wrote down their specific requests in a book Nina kept on the counter.

The range of foods and flavours expanded from those of Greece to include Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt. There are jars of Ajvar, a hot roasted pepper spread favoured by Greeks; Cortas hummus from Lebanon; Minos giant beans from Greece; Franck Jubilana coffee from Croatia; Strianese tomato sauces from Italy; and long slender sprigs of dried oregano.

Food to fascinate in Nina’s IGA (2014)
 Photograph by Craig Smith

On Thursday, 28 December 1989 George and Nina were awaiting the arrival of the first child. Like many a firstborn, the babe was overdue. George was already in the office at the shop, and Nina was on her way. George remembers a man coming in and asking to use the toilet. The next thing he knew was the building shaking...Absolute chaos ensued as shelves broke and products tumbled in all directions onto the floor.

Is chaos the word?

Photograph from the personal collection of
George and Nina Kiriakidis

Ceiling collapsed onto the dairy cabinet
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

George still wonders what happened to the man in their toilet.

Nina's Cut Price in Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

George and Nina’s daughter Sofia – named for George’s mother and known as Sofie - was born in the Waratah Hospital. Nina was sent home promptly as a safety precaution. That afternoon, she was serving coffee at home to 30 well wishers.

Some Beaumont Street businesses remained closed for up to 3 months after the earthquake. George and Nina were one of the few business operators insured for loss of profits. Nina enjoyed an unexpected maternity leave with her new baby. Soon though, she was back at work, with Sofie never far from her side.

Once back on their feet after the earthquake, in 1991 George and Nina purchased the building in which Nina’s operated.

The following year, interest rates soared. This was a time of financial pressures for many, and the Kiriakidis family was no exception.

George speaks of the great respect he has for their business.

'The business is our boss’, he explains.

We all work hard for it. We try to be complete within ourselves – efficient, clean, providing a great service’.

In 1992 their second daughter, Eleni, was born. Eleni was named for Nina’s mother.

Nina gradually stopped going into the shop, as she struggled with her health and sense of well being. Certainly, the years of long hours at the shop took their toll. Nina’s strong work ethic, her personal style and responsiveness to customers meant that, in George’s words, ‘Nina was three people’.

‘I knew everyone, what they wanted’, says Nina. ‘If they smoked a particular brand of cigarettes, the pack would be on the counter waiting for them when they came through’.

Nina’s warm, friendly style draws people to her. Perhaps it was inevitable that this sensitive young woman who loves quiet, creative pursuits would need time out from the constant exposure to people demanded by long hours of retail business. For George, interacting with others energises him; it is his lifeblood and he thrives on it.
In her 8th year, Eleni developed a cold that quickly became something much more sinister – meningococcal disease.
‘Eleni was a bit of a tomboy’, says Nina. ‘She wasn’t one to complain. I’d taken her to the doctor, and was sent home with a diagnosis of flu’.

Nina goes on to tell how she’d later taken Eleni to hospital, but no one seemed to be taking the case seriously. She’d begged staff to ‘at least monitor Eleni’s headaches’. When Eleni began screaming, they all watched in terror as lesions started appearing on her arms.

A lumbar puncture followed, and the doctor warned George and Nina that if Eleni survived, she would suffer brain damage. Their daughter slipped into a coma. She was administered massive doses of antibiotics. Two weeks passed before she came out of the coma.

Miraculously, Eleni made a full recovery. Today, she’s the competent, businesslike  manager of Nina’s IGA and is planning her upcoming wedding.

Fate hadn’t finished with Eleni.

George left home in the winter darkness at 5 am on Thursday 18 August, 2005. Securing the house, he left Nina and their two daughters sleeping peacefully.

He was driving to Sydney to pick up supplies for the business. Normally his brother Jordan did this run every three weeks; it was an unusually early start for George. After picking up a staff member, the two men were on their way.

Just before 7 am, near Strathfield, George’s mobile phone rang. He didn’t get to it in time, but saw that it was Eleni, now 13 and a high school student. He called her back.

‘What are you doing up?’ he asked.

‘There’s a man here and he wants some money’.

George couldn’t work this out. Did Eleni need money for a school excursion?

A man came on the phone, speaking calmly and in a typical Australian accent.

‘I’ve got your daughter. I want money’.

George sprang into action. He ended the call, phoned his brother Chris and sent him to check on Nina and the girls. Chris found Eleni gone.

The police were called, and a cordon quickly thrown up around all of Newcastle’s exit points. Within three hours, Eleni was found, and safe.

It had been a shocking ordeal. Yet Eleni remained calm and acted with courage and common sense throughout. She’d been woken about 5.30 am by a young man who threatened her with a blood-filled syringe unless she gave him money. Taking two laptop computers, a handbag and car keys, he bundled Eleni out the window and into the family car. She’d had to show him how to operate the controls before the man drove them to various ATMs to try to withdraw cash using stolen credit cards.

The end came at a Bolton Point address, where the man had gone to either buy drugs or dispose of stolen goods. A woman saw the young girl sitting in the car, became suspicious and got her out on the pretext of a cup of tea. She then took Eleni to Argenton’s Club Macquarie, where they contacted police.

In an interview with The Herald [1] George says:

‘I knew she was a strong girl. I knew her personality and the way she deals with things. I am very proud of her’.

At the time, Eleni could not be named by the media for legal reasons. She told the same interviewer:

‘I wasn’t stressing or anything; I was helping him so he didn’t get upset’.

When the perpetrator was finally brought to court, he was charged with aggravated break, enter and steal; kidnapping; and aggravated indecent assault. He was sentenced to over 11 years imprisonment.

These headlines shocked Novocastrians buying
their morning papers

The Kiriakidis family is Greek Orthodox. George and Nina make no secret of the pivotal part their personal spiritual practice plays in their lives. Whatever challenges life brings them, their faith is their anchor.

Altar in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton
Palm Sunday (2014)

What lies ahead for Nina’s IGA?

Nina is back at the shop on a part time basis. Sofie has completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in film and cultural studies, and helps out. Eleni is making her mark as the next generation of food retailers, reflecting changing customer preferences for fresh, healthy food. She sees value in differentiating further by stocking more organic, vegan and locally produced products. She points to Over the Moon milk – ‘real milk, non homogenised from Jersey cows, with visible cream on top’ – just how it used to be.

Back to the future and Over the Moon

Stall holders from the Olive Tree and Farmers markets are beginning to seek more mainstream outlets like Nina’s IGA for their boutique products. Soon, we can expect to find goat’s milk, macaroons and luscious Sugar Jones handmade desserts - a work of art in themselves - on Nina’s shelves.

Sugar Jones Desserts
Photograph by Eleni Kiriakidis

For George, who is working on replacing the extensive picket fence around his home, keeping an eye on the business and thinking about his next travel adventure, family is everything. He is fiercely protective. The picket fence might be an outward symbol of this. But the bastion that will keep this family safe whatever life throws at it in the future is not an external one. It is this family’s faith, and their deep, visible commitment to one another.

(L-R) Sofie, Eleni, Nina and George Kiriakidis (2014)


My thanks to George, Nina, Sofie and Eleni Kiriakidis for sharing their story, and to Father Nicholas Skordilis for allowing photographs inside the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton.

Palm Sunday in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton (2014)

[1] The Herald, 19/8/2005, ‘Girl in kidnap drama’, 1.