Barry York - ACT, Australia



Members of the Maltese communities around Australia like elsewhere no doubt, arc always keen to establish what I call "Maltese firsts". There has been discussion, for example, about the first Maltese in Australia. Who was the first to step foot on Australian soil? Rumours and wishful thinking abound in such debates.


The search for the first Maltese Mayor of an Australian city, however, was not so controversial. It happened to be my father, Loreto John York.

He was the first Maltese-born person in Australia to become the Mayor of a municipality. He was Mayor of the industrial suburb of Brunswick, Melbourne, from 1972 to 1973, and again in 1976/77.

Brunswick was, and is, one of the most multicultural Australian cities. It has a rich history, mainly based on the experiences of Irish -Australian working-class residents who had worked in the quarries and manufacturing industries located in the suburb since the 1920s. Today, the quarries have shut down, as have most of the factories, and there is a high unemployment rate.

Brunswick had a reputation as a rather tough working-class city but having grown up there, I came to love my suburb and appreciated the solidarity of its residents. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, every new wave of immigration was apparent in Brunswick and I grew up with friends and neighbours whose parents were Italian, Latvian, Greek, Dutch and Lebanese, to name a few.

It is ironic, I suppose, that the Australian city with the first Maltese mayor was a city with very few Maltese residents. The Maltese tended to live in the western suburbs of Melbourne, such as Sunshine, Altona and St. Albans. These places have, in more recent times, elected Maltese councillors and mayors but the first was in the inner northern suburb of Brunswick.

There were a few hundred Maltese in Brunswick but thousands had settled in the western suburbs. Brunswick was known, at various times, as a Greek city, or a Sicilian city, or a Turkish city. I feel privileged to have grown in such an environment and learnt from life experiences that bigotry and mono-culturalism do more to create disunity than multiculturalism. The latter actually promotes unity through the recognition of diversity.

Born Loreto Meilak, at Sliema in 1918, my father's parents - Salvu Meilak and Loretta Meilak (nee Mercieca) were from Ghajnsielem, Gozo. All his brothers and sisters were born in Gozo too. However the family moved to Sliema during the First World War, so that Salvu could work on the minesweepers with the Royal Navy.

.Loreto - or 'Larry' as he is known left Malta in July 1940, wearing the uniform of the Royal Air Force. Having volunteered in Malta at the earliest opportunity, he was posted to Egypt. During the four-day journey, Italian bombers continually - day and night - attacked the convoy, including the "Royal Sovereign" on which my father sailed.

Loreto remembers well the hardship of his early life in Malta. Even when his father was working he recalls there were "too many mouths to feed". These were days before the advent of compulsory education in Malta, and Loreto left school after four years. He worked at a number of places in Tower Road, Sliema, that will be remembered fondly by readers of Building Virtual Bridges who are of his generation.

On leaving school, he became a general hand at the Sliema Wanderers Club, working with his brother Carmelo. Later, he worked for a Mr. Cini, who ran a flower kiosk. Later again, he took up an apprenticeship as a ladies' hairdresser with Merola.

During the 1920s, another of his brothers - Joe - had emigrated to Australia. However, Loreto was not interested in emigration. He persisted with his work at Merola's well into the late 1930s. And then came the Second World War which disrupted his - and innumerable other - lives.

Little did my father know that the War would sever his connection with Malta; to this day he has never returned.

Stationed in the Middle East, he was eventually sent to the United Kingdom after the War. With the Royal Air Force in London, his main link with Malta was through one of his sisters, Nina, who had married an English serviceman and settled in England.

An interesting incident in his life in England was his appearance in the chorus that backed Vera Lynn's recording of "We'll Meet Again". The recording company required an authentic -sounding chorus of servicemen, and my father was a member of the group chosen.

Undoubtedly the highlight of his London experiences, however, was meeting my mother, a London-born photographic assistant, Olive Turner. They married in London in 1947 - by which time my father had changed his name from Meilak to York. I was born four years later in 1951.

loretoIn 1952, London was struck by terrible smog, a toxic mix of industrial pollution and coal-fired domestic heaters that killed thousands, especially elderly people and babies. My father was particularly horrified by this smog and no doubt contrasted it to the fresh air and sunny esplanade of his youth in Sliema. He made the decision then and there to emigrate to Australia. I have often wondered how many other "environmental refugees" made their way to -Australia from England in those days.

My father and mother emigrated with me (aged three) to Melbourne in 1954. We had been nominated by my father's brother Joe who was well and truly settled in Melbourne, married to an Australian woman, Daisy, and working on the wharves.

We arrived in Melbourne on June 30, 1954 -Census day! The Census recorded 19,988 Malta-born persons in Australia. 1954 was a record year for Maltese emigration, with 8,470 disembarking at Australian ports that year. By 1966, the number of Malta-born persons in Australia had reached 55,104.

As a firm believer in trade unionism, Loreto lost no time at all in joining the Storeman and Packers Union, once he obtained a job at a South Melbourne cosmetics factory. Around 1960, he became a shop steward at another factory in North Melbourne. This was a non-un .. n factory, but slowly and surely my father transformed it into a 100% union shop. By 1968, he had become a member of the Storeman and Packers Union Branch Committee of Management.

During this time, he had also joined the Australian Labor Party. In 1970, he became the first non-Anglo Saxon to be elected to the Brunswick City Council. It was here, two years later, that he became the first Maltese Mayor of an Australian City, representing a municipality of more than 50,000 people.

As Mayor of Brunswick my father was ably supported by my mother. Indeed, without her support, his term of office would not have been successful. Together they attended a record number of Mayoral and civic functions, sometimes as many as five per day!

Among my father's greatest achievements for Brunswick was his establishment of a Family Planning Clinic. In its first three months, even though it only operated for two hours a week, the Clinic attracted 173 people.

Loreto also pushed for improved street lighting in Brunswick and he voted for rate rebates for pensioners. He co-founded the Brunswick Poetry Workshop and also became Chairman of the District Scout Association; a position he held until 1986.

In 1974, he was re-elected to the Council, again becoming Mayor in 1976. During this period, my parents attended 209 official functions in 9 months. It should be noted that he was still a factory worker throughout his service in local government. The transformation he undertook from factory overalls by day to Mayoral robes by night is one I'll never forget!

In 1977, Loreto received the Queen's Jubilee Medal, but the following year he retired from Council politics. In J982 he retired from his job at a Preston cosmetics factory. The Storemen and Packers Union recognized him for his union work especially his personal role in instigating equal pay for women in the, manufacturing chemist division' of the industry in Victoria.

By the time of his retirement in 1982, my father had been a Brunswick resident for 26 years. Nor surprisingly then, he retained an interest in community affairs and was Chairman of the City of Brunswick's committee for Victoria's 150th Anniversary Celebration from 1984 to 1985.

Today, my father and mother live in Australia 's capital city, Canberra, hundreds of kilometres from Brunswick but near to my wife and I and our son, Joseph.