The birth of an Australian/Lithuanian community
The Skierys family, circa 1918.
Ksaveras (Alexander) Skierys was one of the founding committee members of the Australian Lithuanian Society in 1929.
Lithuanians have been settling in Australia – individually and in family groups – since the early nineteenth century. The numbers in the early years were very small and it was only by the 1900s that sufficient people had arrived to allow the formation of Lithuanian communities or organisations.
Newspaper reports of Sydney’s Lithuanians around the time of the First World War provide an example of an early community:
- they knew of 21 people in their circle: 9 men, 6 women and 6 children [we now know that there were in fact more Lithuanian-born people living in or near Sydney at the time];
- they considered their standard of living to be good; six of their number had acquired property (four owned their own homes and two had parcels of land);
- at least six of these community members worked in the tailoring trade where wages ranged from three to six pounds per week; although the wage rates were good, the cost of living was a little higher than in the UK, in particular accommodation rentals, and this was an incentive to acquire property as quickly as possible;
- the first Lithuanians they knew about had arrived back in 1887; these were Jonas Mickevičius (John McCowage) and his family who had arrived from England. Another early immigrant, Stanislovas Urnėžius (Stanley Urniarz) had arrived in 1904 from Manchuria. All the other Lithuanians in this group had arrived more recently from England or Scotland;
- the authors of the newspaper article contended that opportunities for new immigrants were improving as there was a shortage of labour and the standard of living in Australia was better than in other countries; they looked forward to welcoming more Lithuanian immigrants and growing the size of their community.
More migrants arrived after WW1, with small communities also developing in Brisbane and Perth. By the end of the 1920s there was a large enough population in and around Sydney to progress more ambitious plans.
The start of an Australian Lithuanian Society
(Australijos Lietuvių Draugija)
Ninety years ago, in October 1929, the Sydney community established the first Lithuanian community organisation in Australia. The first general meeting of the Australian Lithuanian Society was held together with a celebration of Lithuania’s Independence Day on 20 February 1930. Participants accepted the draft objectives and regulations prepared by the committee, with the principal aim of:
Uniting all those who consider themselves to be Lithuanians in one society with the object of maintaining closer ties, promoting a national spirit and education.
Much of the Society’s activity revolved around the annual celebration of Lithuanian national holidays (e.g. Independence Day in February) and other social events. Christmas picnics by Sydney beaches were popular and seem to have been held most years from 1929. The Society’s coordination function seemed successful, at least in Sydney where practically all Lithuanians became members. There was less success outside of Sydney; although the Society included members living in Dapto and other NSW centres, no other branches were established. It was a small localised organisation, with perhaps 100 members, and its leaders and supportive membership base gave it continuity.
The main constraints appeared to be financial (the Society was established just as the Great Depression was starting) and a lack of community resources. Nevertheless a library was soon established, followed by a choir. The Second World War forced a temporary halt to the social activities of the Society, but members continued its work in a more subdued fashion, for example by raising 30 pounds in 1945 to help displaced Lithuanians in Europe and by lobbying the Australian government in 1946 to allow displaced Lithuanians to migrate to Australia.
By the time the Society recommenced its broader activities in 1947, its operating environment had changed dramatically. The first post-war Lithuanian migrants (displaced persons) had arrived in 1947 and were keen to join. Over the next few years their numbers continued to grow; a branch of the Society was established in Melbourne in 1948, followed by Adelaide, Bathurst, Beechworth, Bonegilla, Brisbane, Canberra, Geelong, Greta, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Woomera. By 1950 the Society had been reorganised, reoriented and transformed into the Australian Lithuanian Community, which continues to this day.
One of the enduring legacies of the Society in its later years was the establishment, in 1949, of an Australian Lithuanian community weekly newspaper, Mūsų Pastogė (Our Haven) which continues to this day.
For further information about these and other early Lithuanians in Australia visit my blog: https://earlylithuaniansinaustralia.blogspot.com/
An early settler in Sydney from Lithuania.
Jonas Vedrinaitis was the foundation president of the Australian Lithuanian Society in 1929.